Sunday, April 26, 2015

Confessions of a Cock-Eyed Optimist

My parents loved musicals and our home was filled with the scores of The Music Man, Oklahoma!, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, piped through the stereo speakers Dad had hooked up above the fireplace. In the world of the musical, problems were solved in three acts with a liberal amount of lyrics. One of my favorite songs was from South Pacific, the upbeat Nellie Forbush’s rendition of “Cock-eyed Optimist.” Despite a war raging around her in the Pacific theater of WWII, Nellie needed only a “canary yellow sky” to make the world of war go away.

I confess. Whether because of too many endorphins coursing through my system or the results of those lyrics burning into my brain, I am a cock-eyed optimist. I may get down about depressing situations—like owing the IRS $3,000 last year—but it doesn’t take a heck of a lot to make me put a positive spin on it and find my way out of a funk. The years spent coping with Ron’s illnesses have taught me that there’s just no sense being a gloomy Gus; worrying about the end of the world won’t keep it from happening. And in all likelihood, when the world does end someone will let me know.

Being a cock-eyed optimist means that I approach the problems in my life—and I’ve got a couple—with an upbeat attitude, the same upbeat attitude that used to annoy my grade partner Debbie no end when I taught high school. She had, in fact, been known to incite the seniors to riot against me. They even hid my coffee cup—although I only drink tea—on the premise that my system couldn’t handle any more caffeine.

Studies from Psychology Today indicate that more people fell into the pessimistic camp, imagining the boogey-man around every corner and taking the necessary steps to protect themselves. To each their own. Both attitudes are a way of coping with Shakespeare’ s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” While studies also conclude that optimists make better leaders, there’s nothing wrong with preparing for the worst unless you, say, sold all your possessions and fled to the hills before Y2K.

I’m pretty sure that I’ve always been a optimist, whether because of the incessant lyrics of dear Nurse Nellie or a hereditary propensity towards the positive. My father himself is of such a cheerful nature that colleagues at Westinghouse Electric nicknamed him “Harvey Smilingsdorf.” There’s just something in my genes that helped me survive Ron’s accident and aftermath, that still lets me look ahead to a brighter future despite being dog-tired. But it’s not just pie-in-the-sky, rose-colored glasses, and out-of-touch-with-reality optimism. Hey, I KNOW the worst can happen. I also know it can be survived.

I’ll admit I got pretty tired of well-meaning friends quoting Romans 8:28 when my husband was knocking at death’s door. It took me a while—okay, years—to realize that bad things didn’t happen to teach us a lesson, but that God could—if we let him—use those bad things to move us along on our journey. More importantly, Joshua 1:9 promises that God will be with us when we are on a battlefield or in the hospital. Anywhere.

So, yeah, I see the glass as half-full. Sometimes, I see it as positively brimming over. The canary-yellow sky or a new skein of beautiful yarn or an idea for a story is enough to get my endorphins moving. I know it can be annoying to those of you looking at a half-empty glass. When my world almost ended in 2000, I spent some time in the half-empty camp. Can’t say I cared for it much. It needed more Nellie Forbushes.

So, whatever’s in your glass and how you view it is up to you. Me, I’m sticking with my gal Nellie. Before she breaks into the song that might have made me cock-eyed, she points out the beautiful yellow sky to the charming Frenchman, Emil. He—obviously of the glass half-empty camp—says that the little white clouds she so admires could well be gun-fire. “I can’t let myself get that low,” says our brave girl in khaki.

I’m with you, Nellie. Sing it.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Soul Deep

Some times it takes a while for things to sink in. Last Sunday, a student at college, after hearing about Ron's recent illnesses and continuing hospitalization, says this to me: "You must really love him." I am busy at the moment--I am always busy--so I tuck the comment away for later mulling. Like many tiny seeds, it settles in and begins to grow.

When I, at the knowledgeable age of 20, married Ron almost 40 years ago, I suspected that his love for me was greater than my love for him. It worried me, what I saw as an imbalance, so I did everything I could to be the best wife possible. I saw love, lo those many years ago, as a finite quality. You had only so much to give and you weren't getting anymore. The births of my three children showed me that love could be all-encompassing. So much was my love for my children, I feared I would have none left for my husband.

I need not have worried. What I did not know at the beginning of our marriage, I began to discover after the first twenty years.

Love grows. It grows deep.

It is not, I hasten to say, the love advertised in sappy Hallmark cards or in Harlequin romance novels. Real love, deep love, love meant to last a lifetime, grows through trials and triumphs, joys and sorrows, gains and losses. The birth of our first son, Dennis, was a gain. The loss of our second child was not. And so it went on, tallies being put into a ledger sheet of negatives and positives, more or less evening out. If not the stuff of fairy tale endings, it was still a good life. I was content.

Chronic depression first came to live with us in 1995, putting our marriage vows to the test. Ron's personality changed as mood swings took over. I struggled, at times, to recognize in him the man I had married. I thought about leaving him--more than once--but I still hoped and prayed we would find our way out of the maze. During his calm periods, there was enough left of Ron to convince me that he still dwelled  inside. I stayed. We managed. But as more and more of my husband's self was given over to his fight against unseen forces, I found myself growing in strength, and courage, and faith.

More positives to the ledger.

People--well-meaning, I am sure--asked me why I stayed. My answer was, I thought, a reasonable one. I stayed because my marriage vows had meant something to me. I stayed out of duty and commitment. I assumed, without really examining it, that it was also out of love.

We were already pretty heavy on the negative side of the balance sheet when the infamous red pickup truck struck and all but killed Ron. We'd survived--by the skin of our teeth, I might add--a lengthy hospitalization at Friends' the summer before and I was hoping for a little calm in my way too hectic life. Fast forward over the last 15 years to many hospitalizations and surgeries and we arrive at last Sunday and my student's words, still working their way into my brain.

"You must really love him."

My 20 year old self, wearing the white veil and saying "I do" couldn't  possibly have known this, but life and love are not a balance sheet. Love, when allowed, takes root and grows. It starts with that tiny seed--the quickened pulse, the slightly dizzy feeling when near the loved one--and it takes root in our soul. It is watered by both tears and joys. It becomes a part of you. It became a part of me.

Acquaintances, both old and new, always express astonishment at what our family has been through and particularly at how I have managed to hold so many things together and still maintain a positive attitude. Yesterday, on  the way home from visiting Ron in his current hospital, I asked my daughter why this is. Do people think I've lost my own marbles because I continue to do this? Have I , indeed, gone around the bend myself?

She smiled at me. "They think, Mom," she said, "that you are the most amazing woman they have ever met. They think that they couldn't do what you have done." She hugged me. "And you don't even know how amazing you are."

I cannot claim to always be amazing, because it is hard to have a husband who has been so ill and continues to require much care. But Ron has become so much a part of my life and my spirit, that the word "love" does not come close to expressing what I feel. It is, I hope, what God intended love to be when He saw that lonely Adam needed a help-mate in the Garden of Eden. My choice to continue with Ron also means I make the choice to continue growing and allowing the love of both my husband and God to take root in me. I recognize that others might not be able to do what I have done. I do not judge. I do what I need to do and, in same ways, I do it for me as much as for Ron. Love has been planted in my soul.

A while back, an acquaintance of mine said that she would like to "be me when she grew up." I reminded her that my life was far from easy. "I know," she said wistfully. "It's not your life I admire. It's the grace with which you live it."

I quit keeping track of the balance sheet long ago.  A life cannot be measured by positives and negatives. While years ago, I considered myself to be content with life, I now know that I have come to a better state. Despite being mostly tired and sometimes discouraged and often upbeat, I have joy that does not depend upon outward trappings.

Soul deep joy. Soul deep love.

So, does anyone else want to be me when they grow up?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Dancing Girl: For Wendy

She was gliding across the dance floor the first time I saw her, holding her arms out at shoulder height, moving into her partner’s spins. Her smile said it all: she enjoyed life. I watched her turn and dip, her eyes alight with the pleasure of her measured movements. I did not know her, then. I did not know that this young woman would slowly move into my life and claim a piece of my heart. Throughout the reception, whenever I saw her, Wendy was dancing.

Wendy is still dancing. In the years since I first admired her skills on the dance floor, my daughter Bonnie and Wendy have become fast friends. When both of their marriages fell apart, almost simultaneously, other friends did not understand, but Bonnie and Wendy had each other. When Wendy’s mother passed away in 2009, Bonnie offered me as a substitute. So Wendy was thrown into the family traditions of birthday phone calls and off-key renditions of song; she kept dancing.

Bonnie and I were in Baltimore on a mother-daughter weekend when Wendy called to say she had gotten engaged and wanted Bonnie to be in her wedding. It wasn't long after that when Bonnie and Jared made their own wedding plans and, of course, Wendy needed to be in the wedding. Both “my girls” wanted me to share in shopping for gowns and decorations and flowers and I, with a houseful of boys, was happy to oblige. Wendy and Ernie honored me by asking me to read one of the seven blessings at their wedding. Despite job losses and financial upheavals, whenever I saw Wendy, she was upbeat. She danced.

On March 17, 2015, the Dancing Girl received devastating news: breast cancer, stage 3. Wendy is only one of eight women nationwide who will develop some sort of cancer in their lifetimes. The relative risk of invasive cancer goes up as the woman gets older. At 35, Wendy had a 1 in 228 chance of developing some form of cancer, but that risk was heightened since her own mother had died from the disease.  In Wendy’s—and my daughter’s—age group, 7% have cancer.  And at 35, Wendy and Ernie had hoped to start a family soon, but chemotherapy may affect their chances of that hope becoming a reality.

Wendy is still dancing. She may not be spinning the circles she did years ago at Allison’s wedding, but she is still doing her level best to be positive about it all. Her oncologist has told her that she will not die of this cancer and that she will survive the treatments. But her chances of having children with her beloved Ernie will improve greatly if she has fertility treatments. Although Wendy does have health insurance, her co-pays, as she says “are ridiculous” and many treatments will not be covered. She is hoping to raise $20,000 through her “Super Wendy Saves the Ta Tas Campaign”. As of this writing, she has raised $2,105.

The cost of cancer treatments has increased in the last few years, although some new drugs are less expensive. But out of pocket costs can range from several hundred to $100,000, depending on the type of cancer and the treatments. It seems astounding, but as someone whose husband has needed much medical help not covered by health insurance--$12,000 this year alone—I know it to be true. I pray that Wendy’s campaign will net her the funds she needs.

But even more than money, Wendy and her husband Ernie need our support. So far, her girlfriends—who she calls “more like sisters” and her co-workers “the best in the world” are showering her with support in the way of cards, notes, teddy bears, tee shirts, and inspirational messages. It is wonderful to see, but not at all surprising for the girl who danced into many lives besides mine. 
Wendy is also blessed by her husband, Ernie. The statistics show that 25% (!) of men will leave a wife who has had a serious health diagnosis. Conversely, only 3% of women leave. Men are not raised, I suppose to be caregivers. Ernie is a wonderful exception. He will be by Wendy’s side every step of the way. And, whenever possible, one of Wendy’s support team will be there as well.

Wendy MartinelliWendy—now known as “Super Wendy” in Facebook circles—is going to beat cancer. We know it. We believe it. We look forward to it. And I will don a pink “Team Wendy” tee shirt and celebrate with the best of them. She will need to be “Super” in order to win the fight ahead of her. I will chant “Go, Super Wendy” as she crosses the finish line.

But, to my mother’s heart, she will always be the Dancing Girl.

Image result for dancing shoes

Monday, April 6, 2015

Letter to the Other Driver: Fifteen Years Later

The first "Letter to the other driver" was written on Easter Sunday, April 30, 2000. At that time, it had been 51 days since Ron's car accident. The original letter was printed in the Daily Times in June, 2000.

Today's letter is written 15 years later.

Dear Driver of the Red Pickup Truck that ran a light on Paoli Pike on March 1, 2000,

My daughter and I were coming out of the hospital yesterday when I asked her if she thought you--the driver who caused her father's grievous car accident--ever thought about Ron and his family. We were walking up an incline and she, with her longer and younger legs, was a bit in front of me. She did  not immediately answer me. I thought perhaps she had not heard me.

Then she stopped and turned, the freckles standing out in her pale face. Visiting her father when he is so ill is never easy. "Probably not," she said. She shook her head and smiled sadly. "His life wasn't changed forever."

So true. You, the other driver, received a ticket and, eventually, your insurance company sent us a check for the amount of income Ron would have made in a year. The company probably raised your insurance rates. The check did not completely cover the out-of-pocket medical expenses for the first three years. 

This is fifteen years later and the medical expenses do not end. Ron is spending yet another holiday in hospital, away from this family. In the last 15 years he has been hospitalized, on average, twice a year. He has had 26 major surgeries. His body is a mass of scar tissue. What we have paid out in medical bills would have seen all three of our children through college without the need to take out student loans.

I work three jobs to keep us afloat. I am always tired and frequently lonely. Our children have all been raised to adulthood without a "real" father. These things are sad. We still regret the circumstances of March 1 that brought us here.

But we have moved on. We have survived. And in our survival, our adaptation to a husband and a father so altered, we have found a new reality. We do not forget--we can never forget--but we adapted. We loved the old Ron, and we learned to love the new.

Perhaps what I say next will not matter to you because, as Bonnie observed, your life was not changed. But sitting in church on Easter Sunday morning--again without Ron--and realizing just how precious is the gift of forgiveness Jesus gave to us, this thought occurred to me:

We've forgiven you.

It did not come easily or quickly. The more surgeries Ron needed to endure, the more our lives changed and we learned to live with the specter of chronic illness, the more we held onto our anger. We needed to blame someone. So, it wasn't until six months after the accident that our oldest son, Dennis, voiced his thoughts. "You know, Mom," he said, " I used to be really angry at the guy that hit Dad. Then I realized that it was just a mistake. He didn't wake up that morning gunning for Ron Cobourn. It just happened." His siblings nodded in agreement. It was time to forgive you.

We never told you.

And perhaps it makes no difference to you, but it made a difference to us. Forgiving you meant letting go of our angry. It gave us more energy to focus on Ron. The last fifteen years have been difficult, but not without joy. Our two oldest have found wonderful partners for their lives. Our youngest is buddies with his father. And I have achieved not only a doctorate in education, but found my voice as a writer.  Ron continues to be as involved in our family life as his health allows. One of our favorite memories is of our daughter's wedding last June. Ron was unable to walk her down the aisle, but with the assistance of several friends and his walker, he danced with her briefly, something he had vowed he would do. Everyone at the wedding cried.

And so, nameless and faceless driver, we have come to another Easter, another hospitalization, another close brush with death. We remember March 1. It changed our lives forever.

Perhaps it did not change yours at all, but I like to think that it did, that once in a while you think of Ron and maybe pray for him.

I prayed for you this Easter morning, you who accidentally and without malice so injured my husband and altered our lives. We have survived. Jesus has risen. We are forgiven.

And we forgive you.


Friday, April 3, 2015

Scenes from a Hero's Life

Written in July, 1998, at the Pennsylvania Writing Project

He's tall for his age, but with a gangling awkwardness frequent to adolescents, his arms and legs sometimes refusing to obey his brain's commands. Every morning, he hesitates just a moment before boarding the school bus, giving a quick glance back towards his house and taking a deep breath. He's been pushed on the steps, both getting on and off the bus, and there's still a bruise on his knee from last week's shove. But he steadies himself, adjusts the book bag, and marches to his seat. He sits alone. It is rare for another adolescent to sit with or talk to him. The bus driver smiles encouragement. She never has to yell at him for being out of his seat or throwing things. As she pulls the bus away from the curb, she sees him give a tentative wave to a passing car. Mom always waits until he is safely on the bus before leaving for work.

At school, he will find some camaraderie with others similar to himself. There is the small classroom in the corner by the library, he will struggle to read and write and learn. He will hold himself close to the wall as he passes in the hallway, memories still fresh of books being pushed out of his arms and scattered across the floor and trampled. In the cafeteria, he sill sit with Norman or Robby or Justin, other outcasts in the middle school ruckus. He will eat his lunch quietly and nearly, never having to be told to pick up his trash or put away his tray.
Image result for basketball net
And when he gets home and finishes his homework and chores, he will run out to his basketball court and spend hours making free throws and dunk shots. Here, his IQ and reading ability do not matter.

Tomorrow, he will do it all again, not complaining, simply accepting that for him it is all a little harder and will take a little longer. But he will do it again because he is a hero.

Maybe he's the student in your class that seems to be a loner, or the boy down the street who can't quite keep up with the others. Perhaps you've seen him riding his old bike up and down the streets alone. Or he might be the boy who held the door open for you at the WaWa and looked down at his shoes when you thanked him.

This boy's name is Allen. He's my son.

"Hero: One who shows great courage," says Webster's Dictionary. To our family, Allen has always been a hero. He has fought no wars, saved no lives. His name may never appear in a newspaper story or on a college degree. It doesn't matter. Those of us who love him know he shows "great courage" every day of his life.

New experiences come hard to him. Dr. Purcell says that kids like Allen need "practice before performance." He is the youngest by a half-dozen years. Everything he does, his older brother and sister have done before him. But both Dennis and Bonnie have helped Allen to cope with life, letting their experiences guide him through unfamiliar terrain.

Image result for sunsetHe conquered his fears in Youth Group this year. At first, he followed Bonnie around the room but she sill not be there next year. He developed his own routine.

He is quiet and attentive during the Bible lesson. He doesn't interrupt, but now and then a question will pop into his head and he will struggle to hang onto it. Often it is gone by the end of the lesson, but sometimes he can remember. the teacher always thanks him for contributing to the class. Once in a while, the young teacher is surprised by Allen's question and cannot answer. If people can see the sunset, why don't they believe in God?

After the lesson is over, Allen runs to the gym. He puts his Bible on the table by the wall and deposits his offering in the basket. This is the time he likes best and least; it is easy to get a basketball and make free-throw shots from half court but a lot of nights he plays alone. He will not ask another to play and others most often do not ask him. He is good at basketball, his height and quickness making him a worthy opponent on the court but he will not go to basketball camp this summer. The Youth Pastor has tried to encourage him, but Allen is still too afraid of new people and of being hollered at. He works hard not to cry when he feels unsafe.

He leaves the way he came, with his sister driving Dad's car. He knows that next year will be different. Bonnie will be at college and he will be on his own. There is still the Summer to go, though. Perhaps by September he will be ready for her to leave. She has been his companion on this trek to adulthood. She remembers.

The Summer has finally arrived. Allen counted off the days on the calendar and marked them with a red "X". his "Student of the Month" certificate sits on the dining room buffet along with his brother's college degree and his sister's high school diploma.  We are proud of all three. He needed a new suit for the two graduations, he has grown so fast since Christmas.  I am always a little startled when I see him; I expect a shorter child.

But he's not really a child anymore. Every so often, his voice deepens and cracks and he sounds like his brother. He is asserting his independence and has negotiated for the right to ride his bike to the park alone. The new watch on his wrist beeps to remind him to "touch base" every hour. One time be forgot, but he will not do so again. He doesn't want to lose his freedom.

He's alone a lot, except for his friend Jonathan. Dennis is in the city. Bonnie works afternoons and I am at West Chester with the Writing Project. The lady down the street was supposed to "keep an eye" on Allen but he hated it there with the little kids. He doesn't need a babysitter, he told me. He is old enough to watch himself. We came to a compromise; when Bonnie goes to work, Jonathan is allowed over for company. Allen gets $5 a week for "watching himself." He is saving for a new ten-speed bike.

His sister complained. Shouldn't she be paid for the mornings she is home with Allen?

Allen answered her. "No. You have a job and get paid. This is MY job."

It's not easy being the hero and the baby. Everyone is going in their own directions, hurrying towards their destinations. Allen, too, rides to his (perhaps on a new ten-speed bike?). His road has a few more bumps than some, but it's what you expect when you're a hero.

You just keep riding.


My friend Nancy and I talk about our "quirky" sons. Of a similar age, Nate and Allen have both had learning challenges caused by physical maladies. They've been teased and bullied in school, but both are sweet young men who continue to expect the best out of themselves and others.

Allen's issues were caused by elevated blood ammonia, a situation in which the liver does not adequately process ammonia products found in food--particularly protein--and releases the ammonia into the bloodstream. This has the potential to damage cognitive processes and can cause learning disabilities, tremors, confusion, and a condition known to all mothers of teenage boys--with and without high blood ammonia-- "stinky feet." Elevated blood ammonia can happen to anyone at any age. Left untreated, it can lead to liver failure.

While tests of blood ammonia are routinely preformed on newborns, we did not discover until Allen was 4 that his ammonia was four times what it should be. We were told to control his protein intake to decrease the ammonia levels.

For the most part, Allen was an easy kid. The youngest of our three, he demanded very little attention. He required an adapted curriculum in school and had difficulty with new situations. Allen was only 8 when his father began to exhibit signs of clinical depression and just 14 when the car accident permanently disabled and damaged his father. When I was a Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project Fellow back in 1998, I wrote a story about Allen called, "Scenes from a Hero's Life." To me, Allen has always been a hero. He handles the challenges of his life without complaint.

Allen's early diagnosis was bleak. I was told, when he was 5, that he would never be able to live an independent life. His sister and I worked hard to help Allen have as much independence as possible. Despite the prognosis, Allen earned an Associates of Arts in Applied Computer Technology. He's never been able to find a secure full time job, but he always works. Despite Ron's ups and downs, Allen and his dad are buddies. Years ago, we began referring to Allen's peculiarities as "quirky". We love him for who he is.

I've thought of Allen as my neglected child. Ron's car accident and prolonged illnesses took much time and attention. Never the squeaky wheel, Allen took what "Mom time" he could get.

We had a bit of a lull in the Ron department over the winter, and I began to wonder if there might not be more we could do for my fine and quirky fellow. I went on line and looked up Occupational Vocational Rehabilitation, filled out the application, and was thrilled when Allen received a letter two weeks later. Getting an appointment was not easy--and Allen needed some coercing--but we finally met with a case manager on April 1. And, it looks like Allen will be eligible for some services. He will need a neuro-psych evaluation and then he can apply for Social Security Disability and Medic-aid. It will take months to make it all happen and a continued explanation to Allen of what is going on. But, my mother's heart is glad that Allen might have a chance at a brighter and more independent future.

I guess we're all a little quirky. I live with several who are. Allen's issues with high blood ammonia and Ron's car accident shook, but did not end, our world. My son's struggles and refusal to quit inspired his sister, Bonnie, to work with developmentally delayed children. And I know that I am a better and more sensitive teacher for having had this blue-eyed bundle as my youngest child.

I'd like to end with one of our favorite "Allen stories." On the occasion of our 25th anniversary, Ron and I renewed our wedding vows. Each of the kids said or did something special. Allen's tribute to us was a short speech about "courage". He told the entire congregation that what he had learned from his parents was the meaning of the word, of hanging in there when the going got tough, of not giving up on the people you love.

Right back at you, kid.