Learning to Bend

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“Blessed are the hearts that bend; they shall never be broken.”

—Saint Francis de Sales

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I don’t feel 75. Seeing myself in the mirror every day, I’ve learned to ignore the lines and moles and turkey wattle so I can say to my reflection, “You don’t look 75.” But when I see myself in a photograph, bent over, my back as the Psalmist says, “like a warped bow,” I think, “Who the hell is that old fart?”

Still, I’m beginning to wonder if my bent back isn’t trying to teach me something.

Besides the fact that until I lost four inches I always liked being taller than most people, I’ve also always prided myself on not bending—that I strive for goals with single-minded determination (See https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2018/06/26/finish-line/). In high school, I spent a good 360 days a year with a basketball in my hands. While never a star, I did learn to overcome the dysplasia that would later result in bilateral hip replacement and a general lack of coordination enough so that my former 8th-grade basketball coach used me as an example of what hard work can accomplish.

As a high-school English teacher, I worked seven days a week creating lesson plans, correcting essays, organizing my classroom, and going to professional conferences. And when I left teaching to begin writing, I established a strict routine for writing at least five days a week, augmented by summer conferences. I returned to school at the age of 60 to get an MFA, and then continued with more summer conferences. I spent twenty years working on a novel, writing I can’t tell you how many drafts, changing it from a memoir to a novel (available on Amazon or from my website, https://richardwile.com).  Since then, I’ve maintained my writing schedule, publishing this blog without fail every two weeks for the past three years.

But there have been times when persistence and self-discipline haven’t paid off—have actually proved counter-productive. For years after the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie from cancer, I tried to treat my grief as another athletic opponent to be overcome by the will power that had served me so well in the past. I disdained my tears and shoved my anger down, refusing to bend in what I saw as submission to grief.

But the more I tried to bury my anger, the more it resurfaced as guilt, shame, and resentment. Recently, I learned that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That was me—shutting everyone out as I obsessed with somehow “winning the battle” with grief—and if I didn’t become insane, I certainly became irrational. Not until I surrendered my shame and my guilt and my anger—in other words, my ego— to what I now call the God-of-my-not-Understanding (See “https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/03/07/dont-ask-why-just-ask-for-help/), was I able not only to survive Laurie’s death, but to discover joy and love and, most of all, Grace.

The more I think about it, the more I question how well my rigid single-mindedness has actually served me. In going to reunions, talking with old classmates, I can see that those years I spent playing basketball kept my circle of friends small, kept me from knowing some really neat people. I see how the game burned me out, so that I never wanted to play basketball again (and seldom watch the sport anymore). And I see that one of the reasons I was so miserable in college was that I had no idea what to do with myself without the game. (Bridge and pool were poor substitutes.)

One of the major sources of my guilt after Laurie died was thinking of all those weekends I corrected papers and went to school to put up new bulletin boards when I could have been with my child, and I still regret not spending more time with her. Now I’m asking myself whether as Mary Lee and I grow older and our grandchildren grow up, I’ll regret having spent more time focused on the computer keyboard than on them.

I’m also wondering if I’ve been too hung up for too long on the idea that to bend means only to yield or to submit. Bend also means change, growth, bending towards something—such as the way plants bend toward sunlight—or someone—such as how I bend for my grandchildren or toward the alter at church.

And I’m thinking I need to be more intentive about bending, being less rigid, growing instead of remaining inert.

I’m going to start with this blog. I’ve enjoyed the last three years of publishing it every two weeks, but I’m also feeling pressure to continue even when I’ve nothing to say. And as I’ve been writing today’s blog, more and more things have cropped up—an upcoming pilgrimage to Africa, work on an editing position I hold, trying to put some legal stuff in order—which has made making my self-imposed deadline difficult. I think of how I burned out on the basketball court, and I don’t want that to happen.

So I’m going to take a sabbatical. Prepare for Africa, let the experience teach me what it has to teach without worrying, “Can I get a blog out of this?” and then take some time to process not only the journey to Tanzania, but also my journey toward my eighties. I hope to work on some longer writing projects that have been kicking around in the musty, dusty corners of my mind.

But I’m also planning to resume this blog. I started it just after I’d published my novel, when I wanted to write something more immediate, more spontaneous. And it’s been a great help in getting me to see not only where I’ve been but where I’m going. It’s been part of my twelve-step work, which I’m nowhere near done with.  Through this blog, I’ve rekindled old friendships and made a number of new ones with people from all over the world.

But I feel I need to bend the topography a bit, “bend” both in the sense of yielding and in the sense of turning in a different direction, writing only when I have something to say, not because I have to say something,

Until then, to return to the Psalmist’s words, “peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers.”

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The Frames I see Through

 

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For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, I recently decided to make a pilgrimage to the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Maine where my daughter Laurie died almost thirty years ago of cancer. My specific destination was the hospital chapel where I’d spent so much time during the last six weeks of her life, and where I encountered perhaps the closest thing I’ve ever had to a “spiritual” experience.

The chapel hadn’t changed at all that I could see: same walnut paneled walls and altar, same cushioned chairs; the familiar hum of air conditioning punctuated by occasional voices in the hall, and, what I most remember, the large round window framed by red, yellow, brown, and blue panels, through which I could see the Penobscot River flowing downstream over the rocks—a living stained-glass window.

I sat as I used to on the left side of the altar in front of the window and thought of that surrealistic time and of my struggles to understand my daughter’s illness and impending death. But while I could recall the details, I could no longer feel the waves of anger that sometimes surged around the numbness in my heart. It was as if I were watching myself thirty years earlier, sorry for the poor bastard and all that he was going through, but at the same time more emotionally concerned with life now—working my 12-step program, dealing with the diminishments of aging and my apprehensions about dying.

Then I thought of my daughter’s dying in a room two floors above me, and about how I used to look out her hospital window at the same river, but how different the view here in the chapel was because of the shape of the window and its stained-glass frame. Which led me to consider the various ways I’ve framed events in my life, and on how often the way I’ve framed a particular incident has determined how I’ve responded to it.

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I remember hearing from one of my college English Literature professors that 18th Century travelers, uncomfortable—even afraid—of the uninhabited natural world, would carry empty picture frames with them in order to frame their views of the Alps. I can’t find anything on line about those traveling frames, but I have found that many travelers during this period put a convex tinted filter on a frame called a “Claude Glass.” Apparently, they would sit with their backs to a scene, holding the folding glass so they could see behind them. The convex shape of the frame brushed background objects into the far distance and the tinted glass softened the reflected tones in order to make settings look like the paintings of the popular 17th century French artist, Claude Lorraine.

You can still buy Claude Glass frames today. This one isn’t tinted.

These frames helped control and tame what travelers were seeing. They also gave a distorted picture of reality. I don’t know about you, but the way I’ve framed events in my life has often done the same thing. My 12-step sponsor talks about our “frame of reference,” the values and attitudes which we use to filter perceptions to create meaning. Our frame becomes our assumptions, our “shoulds.” And it is these frames, not the events themselves, that we react to emotionally. As the Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote some two thousand years ago: “Men [sic] are disturbed not by things but by the view they take of them.”

I’ve become aware lately that my frame of reference is often one created from growing up in an alcoholic family, so that for most of my life I’ve framed events by judgments, resentments, and fear of confrontation. Thirty years ago, when I sat in the chapel at EMMC, I judged myself responsible for my daughter’s death because I had left her mother and married another woman. Rather than confront my ex-wife when she said that she wasn’t going to honor Laurie’s request for her ashes to be scattered, I refused to come to our daughter’s burial service.

With the help of my sponsor I’ve been working to “re-frame” my view of the world—looking at situations from different angles, shifting my frame of reference.

And I wonder if I went back to the chapel a couple of weeks ago because at some level I knew I needed to learn something from the time my frame of reference dramatically changed.

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Thirty years ago, when I went to the hospital chapel I saw the events around me through the frame of “Why is my daughter dying?” None of the answers—cutting down rain forests is increasing cancer rates, her cancer is a statistical accident like getting struck by lightning, God is a sadistic bastard getting kicks from torturing innocent girls, and, of course, her death is my fault—did anything to relieve her pain, and only increased my suffering.

And still, “Why?” was the question that pounded in my blood as I sat in the chair on the left side of the altar and stared for the first time through the stained-glass frame at the river roiling in a December wind.

But as I sat, I became enfolded into the window, and from somewhere I heard the words, “Don’t ask why, just ask for help.”

At first, I didn’t realize what I’d heard. When I did, I angrily framed it, OK, help me understand the reason for my daughter’s pain and why she’s going to die before she’s ever really lived.

But I couldn’t take my eyes from the window. I felt my body loosen. The stained glass seemed to keep drawing first my angry words and then all of me into its embrace.

I didn’t understand then—in fact, I may not have fully understood until now—how the words “Don’t ask why, just ask for help” encouraged me to reframe Laurie’s death, shift the question from “Why is my daughter dying?” to “How do I cope with the death of a child? How do I find the help I need? How do I gain the courage to ask for that help?”

But it was through seeking the help of counselors, spiritual directors, my wife, my family, and the grace of the God of My Not Understanding that my life has been one of not only deep sadness but great joy.

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The older I get, the more my pilgrimages involve relearning the lessons I first learned years ago. It would be great if I’d fused “don’t ask why, just ask for help” into my frame of reference thirty years earlier, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. I still ask myself, “Why can’t people think the way I do, act as I act?” instead of asking, “How do I get the help I need to speak my truth with kindness and not worry about what others think or how they behave?” Or instead of asking, “Why am I going to die?” asking, “Who and what can help make what time I have left as productive and joyful as possible?”

Claude Gellée (Lorrain) – The Metropolitan Museum of Art 47.12. Title: Sunrise. Date: c. 1646-1647. Materials: oil on canvas. Dimensions: 102.9 x 134 cm. Nr.: 47.12. Source: http://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/ep/original/DT226758.jpg. 

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Scars

 

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For fifty years, I’ve been facilitating writing groups of various kinds. Participants have ranged in age from fourteen to eighty. They’ve been students, white-collar professionals, blue-collar workers, unemployed, and homeless. Over that time, I’ve begged, borrowed, or stolen certain writing prompts that always seem to work, no matter who’s there. For example, when a group meets for the first time, and I want to avoid the standard introductions and at the same time establish an atmosphere of trust, I’ll have us (since I always write, too) write about our scars.

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Almost everyone begins by at least mentioning physical scars. Men, especially, seem proud of them. The other night, I was watching a Netflix series called Longmire, in which Sheriff Longmire has been stabbed and his female deputy Vic is helping him bandage the wound.

“You’ve got a lot of scars,” Vic says. “How many do you have?’

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“Come on. All men know how many scars they have.”

Silence. Then, “Twelve…thirteen now.”

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that women are becoming less reticent about their physical scars. Last October’s Cosmopolitan magazine ran a series of photographs of women proudly showing their mastectomy scars. Photographer Ami Barwell said in the press release, “These photographs show that, despite what they’ve been through, these women are empowered. They are strong, happy, and sexy.”

Scars are part of growing up, and in many cultures, children are intentionally scarred when they reach puberty as part of sacred rituals to celebrate their becoming adults. Richard Rohr, whom I often reference in my blogs, wonders if the popularity of tattoos and body piercings these days isn’t a secular substitute for what young men and women once gained through circumcision, scarification, shaving of heads, and knocking out of teeth.

Our scars tell a story of our lives. My most unusual scar is the one on the inside of my right elbow that looks like a burn. I like to show it to people to see if they can guess what caused it. Most can’t, because the scar tells not only of my past but also of an era long ago and far away. When I was four years old, I was in the cellar with my mother one day while she was doing the weekly laundry in our wringer washing machine. Fascinated by the rotation of the rollers, I stuck my hand up to touch them. The next thing I knew, I was screaming as the wringers went round and round on my arm— the first of what we in my twelve-step program call our “goddamned learning experiences.”

As I moved into something resembling adulthood, I scarred the back of my head when I fell down some school steps onto a broken bottle. I garnered several knife scars from working in a market garden cutting lettuce, spinach, and beet greens, and a black scar when my friend Jerry and I were sword fighting with pencils in a high school chemistry class. (The lead is still in my hand.) Recent X-rays of my scarred lungs remind me of the years in college I worked fighting forest fires, inhaling wood smoke for hours until I could take a break, get away from the smoke, and light up a cigarette.

As an adult, I have a two-inch scar on my back from a fusion of L-2 and L-3 vertebrae, which kept me out of Viet Nam. I have two hernia scars (I’ll spare you a photograph), and two longer scars from bi-lateral hip replacement that I’ve always thought of as resulting from the time after my daughter died, when, like Jacob, in the Old Testament, I wrestled with angels.

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But if we’re proud of our physical scars, we tend, I think, to hide our emotional ones. I’ve spent seventy years hiding the scars of shame, rejection, and fears of confrontation and failure caused by growing up in an alcoholic family. And the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie has left a scar that feels more like an amputation, one that, even after thirty years, gets ripped open every time I visit someone in the hospital or read in the newspaper about the death of a young person. (That scar has been ripped open a lot lately.)

For some reason, our physical scars, which almost always are signs that we’ve failed at something, make us proud, while our emotional scars, which often aren’t the result of anything we’ve done, but have had done to us, make us ashamed. Maybe it’s because our physical scars say: “I can take it. I’m not a victim. I’ve survived,” while our emotional scars say, “I should be stronger, more in control.” When Laurie died, I felt weak and powerless. I did not go to her funeral. I refused to run her obituary in the local newspaper. I had recurring dreams about old high school basketball teammates making fun of me for being uncoordinated and slow. In other words, I was ashamed of myself, not because of anything specific that I’d done or not done, but because of who I thought I was: a loser.

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As I reach the seventy-sixth year of my earthly pilgrimage, one of my goals is to become as proud of my emotional scars as I am of my physical ones. This Easter has helped. As a practicing Christian, I believe in resurrection. But this year, I realized that even the risen Christ carried the scars of his death. In fact, in one of the most famous of these stories, his disciple Thomas will not believe that Jesus is risen until, as Thomas says, “I see the mark of the nails in his hand, and put my finger in the mark of nails and my hand in his side…” Only when Thomas is able to do so does he cry, “My Lord and my God!”

It’s Jesus’s scars that show his disciples who he is; I need to realize it’s my scars—physical and emotional—that reveal not only who I am, but also the ways in which I’ve become resurrected.

Or, as Bill, living in the local homeless shelter after losing his construction career because he’d broken his back and become addicted to pain killers, but who, nonetheless, was trying to put his life back together by taking on on-line course in computers, wrote for one of my writing groups,

“Scars are the ledger of life. The reminders of when we lacked experience. Wounds are due to ignorance and inattention, apathy, and sometimes poor coincidence. Some we hide from others, some from ourselves. Some are shared with only a few. Some we display proudly. You would think scars are grievous things. In truth they are wondrous. Scars are badges of life’s ills and trepidations…healed.”

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Bedside Pilgrimage

High school graduation 1988. I can see the cyst on the back of my daughter’s head.

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For the last few months, up until his death from cancer, I regularly sat in a nursing and rehab center by the bed of an old friend. The long corridors, the smell of disinfectant, the sounds of TV sets, the charts on the walls of Scott’s room, the nurses with their clipboards, brought back memories of when my daughter Laurie was in the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Maine, and what I would now call my six-week pilgrimage through strange, often surrealistic landscapes.

A little background: From the time she was twelve years old, my daughter had a cyst on the back of her head. Her pediatrician said it was probably harmless, but that if it got larger, she could have it removed. During her senior year in high school, the cyst doubled in size, so during February vacation, Laurie went for surgery. In March of 1988, a routine biopsy determined the cyst to be malignant.

Suddenly, my daughter, her mother, and I were picking up the pieces of our lives and trying to put them back together. The diagnosis forced Laurie to withdraw from an American Field Service program to spend a year abroad, but that summer, when the tumor disappeared after radiation and chemotherapy, she applied to The Portland School of Art, planning to continue her treatments while taking one or two classes. Then, less than a week before school started in September, her leg collapsed while she was walking along a beach. She began physical therapy and made plans to reapply to art school in January. Confined to a walker at home, she found a job painting murals and designing menus for a new restaurant in town. When physical therapy did nothing but cause her more pain, she went into the hospital, at first for more tests, but after she developed a fever, her primary care physician decided to keep her there and begin another round of chemotherapy. That was when I took a leave of absence from teaching and moved into a Ronald McDonald House, less than a mile away from EMMC.

Summer, 1988, when we were hopeful. It’s hard not to see irony in the tee-shirt.

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Every morning and evening at the Ronald McDonald House, strangers on a journey none of us wanted to take would sit down together in the dining room to share stories. I’ve forgotten names, but I remember a woman—square and sixtyish—moving in slow motion in and out of the morning shadows cast by the light coming through the window over the sink, as she fried sausages for her husband, getting radiation for prostate cancer. I recall a five-year-old girl who was being treated for a brain tumor, and her stuffed penguin, Opus, sitting on the chair beside her at meals. And a man whose nineteen-year-old daughter’s transplanted kidney, the one he’d given her twelve years earlier, was failing and no one knew what to do next. “I can’t help her this time,” he’d often say to me. “What the hell do I do?”

At no time in my life have I ever felt more like a stranger wandering through an alien land. I had no control over the day’s events, no say in the final outcome. Every day, I would enter Laurie’s room and see that the morphine level on the gizmo intravenously feeding pain medicine was higher than the day before. Contractions in her throat and pain in her esophagus made eating more difficult, until Dr. Brooks made a decision to stop the second chemotherapy and to feed her through another IV.  She experienced pain in her leg, ankle, and foot. “I only want it to be over!” she told me. Yet, with each new setback, she’d ask, “What’s next?” What’s next was pneumonia, and test results that revealed her pelvis to be riddled with cancer. Soon she could only sleep for half to three quarters of an hour before contorting with pain. When Doctor Brooks prescribed an epidermal catheter put in so that the morphine could be administered directly to the nerve endings, the doctor who put in the catheter told me Laurie was now receiving as much morphine as anyone had ever received at EMMC.

I recall the morning she opened one eye at me while I sat by her bedside, holding her hand. She was on her back, but her head remained turned to the left, so her left eye was swollen. She reached up and touched my beard. “You need a shave,” she said. Those were the last words she ever said to me. Soon, her breathing became a combination of moaning and gargling. A nurse brought in some kind of suction device to clean out Laurie’s throat. The next night, when I walked into her room, all I could think of was the sound of my mother’s old coffee pot percolating from Laurie’s bed. That morning at 12:15 a.m. my daughter died.

I wish I could say that being with Laurie when she died was some kind of mystical experience, but all I remember was holding her hand and trying to keep her mouth cleared of mucus while tears and snot ran down my face. There was no feeling of the transcendent, no sense of having arrived anywhere. During those weeks, I read books on spirituality and theology. I spent time in the hospital chapel between visits. Yet I have to say that I never felt anything like the presence of God during that time, never felt comforted, experienced nothing except numb emptiness.

Yet, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing these blogs it’s that pilgrimage is an interior journey that continues long after the external one is over. As I found out in the months and years after I came back from the Ronald McDonald House, what I now call the God of my Not Understanding had been there. There had been a purpose to each of those days that I’ve never had since. I knew in the morning where I was going and why I was going there. No matter what else was going on, the great mysteries of life and death were always present. I learned more about courage, grace, and strength in the face of suffering from my daughter than from any coach, athlete, or soldier I’ve ever known. The reading I did, my experience with the silence of the hospital chapel, my giving up of control and entering into the unknown, all became the foundation for my life after Laurie’s death.

There were many times during November and December of 1988 when I wished Laurie’s doctor would just give her a shot that would end her suffering, but today, I treasure those last weeks I had with my daughter, They have become a sacred time, and my chair by Laurie’s bedside a sacred place, turning the experience into a pilgrimage— the most arduous of my life, and one I’m still, at some level, making.

Self-portrait, 1987.

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