Lessons from a Stranger

Today is my granddaughter Olivia’s birthday, a day that reminds me of the juxtaposition of “things,” things like emotions, events, and experiences. I’m thinking of a man I never met who had a profound effect on my thinking. Because of him, I’ll never take my blessings for granted; nor will I ever be insensitive to the feelings of others (or at least that’s my goal).

On that spring morning the other grandparents and I felt excitement, mine bordering on giddiness. We walked and talked and snacked and waited. And then we waited some more. We were allowed in and out of Amanda’s room for part of the day, and then as the big event became more imminent, the medical personnel shooed us out. We adjourned to the huge waiting lobby filled with clusters of sage vinyl couches and found a vacant sitting area. As we made small talk, a feeling of anxious anticipation permeated the atmosphere.

“Dumas said all human wisdom could be summed up in two words, wait and hope,” I quipped. Anxious smiles greeted the remark. We knew the moment was close, and yet there was nothing the four adults could do. It was in the hands of the doctor and Amanda. And God.

Life teemed all around us. At least two groups of expectant parents came for “the tour.” Led by a member of the hospital staff, the excited parents-to-be were given instructions on where everything was and what they could expect on delivery day. The group stopped just short of the double doors that led to the labor and birthing rooms, and we listened as their guide informed them about what went on behind those doors. Securely locked, the doors were sacred portals beyond which no one could pass without permission and a code of some type.

Several medical personnel bustled about with clipboards and pagers, all busily intent on their missions. I watched the scurrying about of doctors, nurses, and orderlies and recalled Annie Dillard’s poignant passage in For the Time Being about an obstetrical ward in a busy city hospital. As Dillard described the activity level, she said there “might well be a rough angel guarding this ward, or a dragon, or an upwelling current that dashes boats on rocks.” She then asks if we, her readers, should perhaps “remove our shoes, drink potions, and take baths?” Because, Dillard writes, “This is where the people come out.”

Chitchatting about various topics, none of them too serious, we scarcely noticed the quiet arrival of an older man who came to join our group. Truthfully, he didn’t so much join us as he filled an empty seat for a few minutes. Because of the various seating combinations in the waiting area, and we had grown accustomed to sharing our space with an assorted crew of people as the day had progressed. He was just another seat filler, someone with whom we’d share small talk and commiserate about the waiting…or so I thought.

Cap pulled halfway down his forehead, his coal black eyes stared straight ahead. On the frail side, his downcast demeanor made him appear even more shrunken as he sat still and silent on the sage green sofa, his dark face immobile and unreadable. He appeared to be around 60, but frankly, it was hard to determine his age. Serious sorrow, rather than his age, could have been responsible for the deep lines etched beside his mouth and the empty look in his eyes.

The four grandparents-in-waiting continued to talk, and hoping to bring him into our conversation, I tried to establish some eye contact with the newest member of our cluster. My friendly overtures were to no avail, and I could tell from my surreptitious glances at his face that to him we might as well be pieces of furniture. He seemed oblivious to his surroundings as he dealt with some inner turmoil or heartache. Still and silent, he created a sacred inviolate space around him that no one could enter.

Looking straight ahead, the sad, silent man pulled a brown bag of plain M & M’s from his shirt pocket, and for the entire time he sat amongst us, he slowly and methodically ate the chocolate pieces. He didn’t tilt his head back and jiggle several at a time out of the bag. Nor did he spill a few in one hand and examine the multi-colored morsels before popping them into his mouth. He ate them unhurriedly, one by one, not savoring–merely chewing. Did he even notice their sweetness? Did eating them merely give him something to do, something to momentarily assuage his pain?

After a few moments, I noticed a lone tear streaking down his cheek, and then another and another. From my vantage point, I could see only his right profile, but I’m certain the tears were coursing down both sides of his face. Despite his sorrow, the candy man’s demeanor was one of dignity and restraint. The juxtaposition between our emotions and his couldn’t have been more obvious. Seeing his pain almost made me feel guilty for feeling so much hope and happiness.

What had happened to cause him such distress? Had he lost a wife or a daughter? Had one of the women in his life given birth to a stillborn child? Northside Hospital’s Women Center is a full-care facility that handles just about any women’s issue imaginable. From surgery to seminars, females from 12 to 100 are treated. The area where we sat was right outside of the labor and delivery area, but there were other sets of doors radiating from the waiting area, all leading to some mystery-shrouded ward. Which ward had he come from?

I’d like to say that someone offered him a tissue and that we became shoulders to cry on. But no, that didn’t happen. Subdued by the newcomer’s obvious distress, we grew quieter, and after a few moments we gave up our feeble attempts to continue our earlier lighthearted banter. We all tried to ignore him, not because we didn’t care but rather because we respected him and his anguish. The candy man had built an invisible wall around himself and seemed to be saying, “I’ve got to get myself together before moving forward.” His grief was a private thing, and we all sensed and respected that; we too had experienced punctured hearts.

But that was eight years ago. Today I’m feeling jangled by the memory of a stranger whose sadness continues to haunt me. What is he doing on this May afternoon? Have his tears dried? If we met today, would he talk to me? And if so, what would he say?

I think he’d tell me something that I already knew, that while there is suffering, there is also joy. And that perhaps pain serves to make us more aware of the exquisite sweetness of life. I hope that the candy man’s heartache has eased and that he has joy in his life.

Tender Mercies

Don’t worry. I’m not going to get all-religious and start spouting off (or writng down) pious phrases. I just want to share a few thoughts I’ve had the last few days without coming across like a zealot.

Quick story. Nearly three decades ago, my father and another man were engaged in a conversation when my dad noticed the man looking at me with what seemed (to my father) to be curiosity. When Daddy looked at him inquiringly as if to say, “Why are you staring at Jayne?” the man  said, “Is she the sister that’s a Mormon?”

Daddy said he turned back and looked at me again and said, “Yep, she’s the one. But don’t worry. She’s not fanatical about it.” I wasn’t offended when my dad shared this story. I knew what he meant. I’m not going to knock someone over the head with my beliefs, especially when I’ve always known that talk is cheap. Some of the most Bible-quoting, holier than thou folks that I know are the scariest. But that’s a story for another day.

That said, I’ve been thinking of the phrase “tender mercies” and some associated incidents that I’ve observed lately.

My husband has a heartache. It’s been nearly a year since his son died of melanoma and each day is a struggle. Although he has three other wonderful children and seven precious grandchildren, that almost unbearable pain is still there. Sometimes it’s a dull ache, like a muscle that you’ve overused, and then for no apparent reason, the ache become a sharp pain that nearly cripples him.

BUT every day of his life, good things are going on. I like to call them “tender mercies.” One recent day, he got a message from his son’s first cousin letting him know that he (my husband) was in his thoughts. “Hey man, just wanted you to know I’m thinking about you. I know this time of year is rough.” A tender mercy, one that conveyed, “I care about you, and I haven’t forgotten Chris. Never will.”

He has seven healthy, beautiful, energetic, and funny grandchildren. One of them spent some time with her grandfather in a deer stand last week, just chillin’ and enjoying Mother Nature. Little Cooper, the youngest one in town, always warms his granddad’s heart when he says, “Hey PaPa” as he runs into his arms. This past weekend, my youngest grandson Ethan cried when we left Atlanta, not for me but for Otis. To me, all of these are tender mercies bestowed by a loving Heavenly Father. Some cynics might say, “If He’s so loving, why did He take Otis’ son?” I don’t know the answer to that. I’m Jayne; He’s God.

Last week as I was leaving church, a former bishop told me of the sudden death of one of his brothers-in-law. He was hit by a speeding 17-year-old and died immediately. As we talked, the grieving bishop  said, “But he wouldn’t come back even if he could.” I needed to hear that. What a true statement. Knowing what Chris is currently experiencing, I don’t think he’d want to come back now even if he could. I told his dad that, hoping to offer some solace. Was it helpful? I don’t know. I, however, see that chance conversation as a tender mercy.

This post is longer than I intended it to be so I’ll wrap it up. My thoughts on this beautiful Monday morning are not fanatical or preachy. At least I hope not. I just wanted to share my belief that there are always tender mercies around us, but we can’t always see them when we’re focusing on the sad, evil, vile, sordid, heartbreaking stuff.

As a final note, I can’t recall the moment of my sweet mother’s death without also recalling the love that surrounded her at that moment of passing. I’ll always remember the soft hymn playing in the background (at her request) and the sun dappled radiance in the room. My sibs were all there, and I know they felt those tender mercies too.

Missing the Picnic

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My daughter called me while I was in Target earlier today. Whenever she calls during the day at an unexpected time, I usually think, “Uh-oh. Something’s wrong.” Today was no exception.

Carrie was upset because she had forgotten her five-year-old’s end of the year picnic. She and the teacher had been communicating about pizza and times, but Carrie thought the date was Wednesday the 21th and not Tuesday the 20th. A social child and real party animal, Colton was going to be some kind of upset when he woke up from his nap and realized that he had missed the big bash.

It’s time to mention that my daughter has five children and that her husband has been in California for several days. During his absence, Carrie has juggled numerous events, including three birthday parties in one day. She has managed to carry the extra load with aplomb and good humor until today when she got her days mixed up.

She wanted advice from me on how to handle her feelings of guilt. Ha Ha. Doesn’t she know that I  feel remorseful about more things than I can count? I told her what a wonderful mother she was (is) and reminded her that she was just ONE PERSON. Running a large household is challenging in the best of situations, and when one parent is gone and the family is a state away from other family members, then that ONE PERSON just has to do the best she can in juggling homework, housework, and playtime.

She knew all of that, so my “mom talk” was falling on deaf ears.

Then I remembered Stephen Covey, a man whose wisdom has aided me in many situations. One of my favorite Covey concepts is that of the emotional bank account. The people in a relationship make deposits such as hugs, meals, back rubs, gifts, time, attention, or anything else that the other person perceives as good.

Sooner or later the individuals are going to make withdrawals. Withdrawals range from angry words and raised voices to forgotten anniversaries or birthdays. While withdrawals are never good, their harm is not quite so dire as long as the emotional bank account is still in the black. If there are more withdrawals than deposits, then there could be trouble.

“Here’s the thing, Sweetie,” I told Carrie. “You make dozens and dozens of deposits every single day for all of your children, and this is one withdrawal. One.”

“He’s going to be so upset.”

“Yes, you’re right about that. Tell him you’re sorry and hug him tight. Remind him that you love him, and then you might want to apologize again.”

“I just feel so awful, so guilty.”

“I know that feeling all too well. But feeling bad on and on is not going to help matters. Apologize and stop beating yourself up.”

If I know my daughter, she still feels wretched about missing the picnic and is worried about Colton’s feelings when he hears his friends talking about the fun time they had. But can a mother prevent that from happening? No. She can only apologize. Apologizing, by the way, was considered by Covey to be a major deposit. When it’s added to Carrie’s other constant deposits, their bank account should stay in good shape.

Although it was a bit disheartening to hear of this mother/son situation today, I’m glad that Carrie called. I’m now reminded of Covey’s concept and am thinking of some deposits I need to make.

What about you and your relationships? Are you overdrawn? Is it because you need to make more deposits and fewer withdrawals? Has the other person made deposits that you aren’t giving him or her credit for?

 

Rainy Day Thoughts

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Years and years and years ago, my brother Mike and I went for a walk around the block in the rain. Why we decided to do such a thing, I don’t know. Neither of us were particularly into fitness in those days, mainly because we were young and thin and healthy. Our mother was a stickler for the major food groups. We never even tasted pizza until we were in high school, not because our parents didn’t approve of it but rather because there were no places to buy it in Camden until the 1960s.

But I digress. Yesterday morning I put on a hat, opened my bright orange IKEA umbrella, and headed out the front door for a walk in the rain. “Enough is enough,” I thought. “I’m not going to be held captive indoors by this rainy weather another moment.” Undaunted by the steady drizzle, out I went for a brisk walk around the neighborhood. It was delightful! With temps in the 60’s, the plunk-plunk of water splashing into puddles, and the cool rain hitting my calves, I was glad that I had decided to brave the elements.

Here’s what I noticed right away, the circles in the puddles. Puddles were everywhere, and the steady dripping of rain made some interesting circular designs. Some circles were big and some were small, and just about every single one of them overlapped or intersected with another, sometimes several others. Plus, ALL of them rippled out into ever widening concentric circles.

The puddle patterns made me think of my brother and our walk that day decades ago and of our parents and their love and care for us (not just the two of us, but all four children). All six of our lives intersected and overlapped, then and now. Today even the grandchildren and great grandchildren are affected by that original family of six and the experiences, choices, and interaction that we all had. Plus, none of the family members live a cloistered life. All are involved, even the young ones, in some type of work, church, play, or community activity, thus giving them the opportunity to intersect with even more lives.

Here is my point (at last). The choices we make and the things we do have a ripple effect, and some of them affect others with whom our lives are entwined and connected. Right now I’m getting ready to go on another walk around the neighborhood. Like Mike said, “I keep moving so I can keep moving.” I know exactly what he’s talking about. After my walk, I’ll get gussied up (sort of) for church. I know for a fact about the ripple effects of that experience. If I didn’t go, well, we don’t even want to think about how beastly I might feel and act.

I could go a lot deeper into the above, but if I do, then I’ll lose the time for walking and worshipping. Can’t do that. The ripple effects of exercise are far reaching. Plus, the interlacing of lives, just like puddles, will be made more pleasant for my family and friends after I spend a couple of hours in church.

What about you? What are some ripple effects of your actions? How are some ways that your life and the decisions you make affect others?

In Sickness and in Health

 While chatting with my brother last night, he reminded me that I haven’t written anything based on what makes a marriage work. Maybe it’s because I don’t have any surefire answers, or maybe it’s because I’ve been busy. Or maybe it’s both. In any case, I promised him that I’d tackle that question this morning so here goes. Most of the post is based on an informal poll taken during a recent wedding weekend.

 When you see a couple preparing to love each other till death do they part and so on, it makes you think about what it’s all about. What does “in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer” really mean?  Most of the time the bride and groom are still so starry eyed and in good health that they can’t imagine the beloved dead broke, sick as a dog, or rude and dismissive.

So here are some of the tidbits I gleaned from toasts, polling, and personal observation. While intended for Ben and Jessica, these tips apply to any and all. Just what are some of the most important things to remember in making it last?

Having fun together. I think it’s important for a couple to do things outside of the house. They need to actually have a date night and/or to do things that keep them out of the rut.

Being willing to compromise. You can’t always have your way. Maybe it’s time to have Thanksgiving with his (or her) family.

Going for a win/win. Stephen Covey addresses this point in his Seven Habits book. Try to think of a solution that is mutually beneficial for both partners. While this sounds like compromise, it’s deeper and involves more thought.

Making deposits in the emotional bank account. Another of Covey’s ideas, this is a #1 activity in our household. Making regular deposits will come in handy when you make a withdrawal. I have a high school friend whose husband often stops by Wal-Mart after work and buys flowers for his wife. He’s not the kind of guy who does this sort of thing in a keeping score sort of way. He does it because she loves flowers, and he likes to make her happy. At the same time, at some  point in their life together, he might be forgetful  rude, moody, sullen, or distant, and I have a feeling that his wife won’t hold it against him. She’ll remember all of the many deposits (and not just in the flower purchasing department) that he’s made and will cut him some slack.

Putting the other person first. Getting rid of selfishness. This is a hard one for me and one I’d like to elaborate on. One day I came home from church, and my husband asked what I’d learned. When I told him that I’d been advised to put him first and to think of his happiness, he asked, “You had to go to church to learn that? I always think of things that might make you happy.” I was taken aback for a few moments because I realized that often, very often, I think of Jaynie and what she wants.

Having space. Giving each other space. When my sister-in-law Becky suggested this one, I immediately thought of Kahil Gibran’s poem entitled “On Marriage” in which he advises couples to let there be “space in your togetherness.” He mentions the pillars of a temple and how they’re far apart in order to uphold the structure. If they’re too close to each other, the structure would tumble and fall.

Communicating. Hmmm. Easier said than done. Men and women are so different from the get-go. Psychologists say our differences begin in the early stages of life, even before we’re born. When that little male embryo is flooded with testosterone, well, that’s just the beginning. Books have been written on this very topic so I’m recommending that you seek knowledge there. I just have to say,however,that learning how to speak up for yourself in the right manner and at the right time are crucial. No yelling and no snarky, hateful comments.

Respecting and loving the partner. As my sister-in-law Lisa reminded me, men need respect, and women need love. So true. We want to be cherished, and men want to be honored.

Being able to handle conflict. You have to learn when to keep things to yourself and when and how to bring up troubling issues. Interestingly, John Gottman who’s written extensively about marriage and what makes it work, says that sometimes it’s okay to sweep things under the rug.He adds that sometimes you just have to let things go too. For instance, I could yell and pout and whine about my husband’s obsession with hunting and sports, but why???? It’s not going to do any good, and it only poisons the atmosphere. Just find hobbies and interests of your own. That’s what I did, and it’s worked marvelously.

Having a purpose. I can see the value of this. I feel like if I went around and asked, “What’s your purpose for being married?” I’d get a lot of blank stares.

Time to bring this to an end and get to my next project. I just want to reiterate that I don’t have all the answers. If I did, I’d still be in my first marriage. All I know is that a successful marriage doesn’t just happen. It takes work, and it takes two to tango. Enough said.