Legacy

Last weekend, I went to see the Broadway musical Carousel. I had been anticipating seeing it for months. Three bars into the opening number, The Carousel Waltz, my eyes filled with tears. Not because I was anticipating the sorrowful plot elements or the poignant ending (though of course I was). I was moved to tears by the beauty of the music.

My reaction was visceral. In the space of a few seconds, I felt the gorgeous music take root in my gut. It surged through my chest as if it were a powerful river tossing my emotions in a rushing current. Moved and overwhelmed, I wept.

I know that this must sound like overwrought hyperbole. I promise it is not. To say I love music doesn’t come close to describing its effect on me. I don’t just listen to music. I devour it. I experience it with all my senses, not just my ears. It takes me out of the here and now. Unlike most people, I can’t have music playing in the background while I work, or tidy up, or have a conversation. The music commands my full attention, pulling me in and enveloping me.

When I was growing up, the house was filled with music. The phonograph played all day long. It was one of my mother’s greatest joys. She could fall into music as if down a rabbit hole in the same way I do now.

Mom played many different types of music. There were the Yiddish songs of The Barry Sisters, World War II-era popular music such as The Andrews Sisters, classical music, even some soft rock such as Simon and Garfunkel or Don McLean. She didn’t expose my brother and I to this variety of genres and sounds with the conscious intent of providing us with a solid music foundation. She simply played what she loved, what made her happy, and shared it with us because she wanted us to be happy too. I know you can’t teach someone to love music. However, by creating a musical environment in our home my mother most definitely nurtured and reinforced an innate predilection.

The deepest musical bond my mother and I shared was a love of Broadway show tunes. We played the same albums over and over and over, inhaling the songs and learning every single lyric. Our standard rotation included Carousel, Oklahoma, The King and I, West Side Story, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, Finian’s Rainbow, Camelot, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, and The Man of La Mancha. You can see she had great taste. These are arguably the greatest musical scores in the musical theater canon of that era (from the 1940s through the early 1970s).

While our passion for music created a bond between us, it didn’t follow that I appreciated it. When we went to see a musical play or movie, my mother would inevitably sing along. Every. Single. Time. Not loudly but most definitely audibly. Typically, she was set off or inspired (depending upon your perspective) when the actors performed one of her favorites, either something especially upbeat (think Seventy-Six Trombones) or intensely poignant (The Impossible Dream). Every time, her behavior annoyed and embarrassed the hell out of me. I would tap her on the hand, and if she didn’t get the message I would hiss at her, “Shhh! You’re disturbing everyone.” I knew I could have said it in a nicer, gentler way, but I didn’t care. I thought a grown woman should know better. Now I wish I had been more generous of spirit.

In the late spring of 2011, my mother was diagnosed with a virtually incurable type of leukemia. One day I will write of her courage and grace during the 14-1/2 months she lived after her diagnosis. The chemotherapy and clinical trials (eight of them) she underwent during that time required many lengthy stays in the hospital. Since my mother felt fine until the last two months of her life, she was bored to tears during these periods that she was trapped (as she justifiably called it). My father and I were there nearly every day, but there was no escaping the ennui. We passed the time with small talk, reading, watching sitcom reruns, and staring into space during periods of silence.

One early evening, the three of us were sitting in her hospital room watching an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond that we had seen at least twenty-five times before (if not more). There was a knock and in walked a young man holding a guitar. He introduced himself as a volunteer and asked if we would care to hear him play on the guitar and sing for us.

My swift and cynical reaction, one I fortunately kept to myself, was no I don’t want to listen to some corny amateur musician. I groaned inwardly at the prospect of having to plaster a fake smile on my face while he performed.

My mother, on the other hand, replied, “Yes, thank you, I would love that.” I looked at her and saw she was beaming with delight. When he asked what she wanted to hear, mom thought for a moment before she asked, “Do you know any Simon and Garfunkel?” “Of course,” he replied. “How about The Sound of Silence?”

That was one of my mother’s favorite songs. Throughout the performance she was smiling with her entire face, and singing along, which made the young man smile back at her. Swept up in the moment, I sang along too. He played a second song (I don’t remember which one) before he left. My mom’s smile and upbeat demeanor lasted the rest of the night. To this day I thank the Lord that I didn’t voice my contemptuous view about an experience that gave my mother such joy, as music always did.

During the last few hours of my mother’s life, she was uncommunicative. I remembered someone telling me that hearing is the last sense to go at the end of life. It was possible she could still hear the world around her. I positioned myself on a chair near her head and tuned in to the music I had stored on my phone.

There were a lot of songs from which I could choose, from many different genres. In many ways the music collection on my phone mirrored the musical life she and I had shared. I turned up the volume and held the phone to her ear. I played some classical music. Then I played some country music, a genre she and my father had come to love later in life. Finally, I played If I Loved You from Carousel. Soon after that she died. I hope the music she loved was her final awareness of this world.

Thank you, mom, for a gift that has transformed and enriched my life. I miss you.

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Most of us have memories of our mothers, whether they are still living or have passed on. Memories may be happy, sad, heartwarming or any combination of emotions. These memories–not material items–are the true legacies our parents leave us. In honor of Mother’s Day, it would be great if you would share a memory of your mom in the Comments section below. Thanks and to those of you who are mothers, Happy Mother’s Day!

Taking A Chance On Myself

Volunteering has been an important part of my adult life. I have served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations, including as a charter board member of a group that provides free legal services to victims of domestic violence. I know that serving on these boards provided a valuable service to organizations pursuing noble goals. But in these positions, I felt too far removed from the good work being done “in the trenches.”

I have also had experience with “hands on” volunteering. When I was in my twenties, I spent one night a week in a church preparing tax returns for low-income individuals, pro bono. I served as a court advocate for adults-both women and men-seeking restraining orders to protect themselves from domestic violence. For several years I was a docent at an historical synagogue in New York City that is now a museum, dedicated to telling the story of Jewish and other immigrant groups who came through the Lower East Side upon arriving in the United States.

However, all of the above made me tense and anxious before, during, and after my shifts. Apprehensions of all sorts ran through my mind. What if they found me dull or not particularly helpful? What if I gave them incorrect information? What if I simply did a lousy job?

I was not surprised by these emotions. I have never been comfortable around strangers. I hoped that once I immersed myself in the experience, I would begin to feel competent and at ease. Sadly, that was not the case.

I know volunteering isn’t about me or my needs. In my opinion, if you volunteer in order to feel personally fulfilled, you’re missing the point. You do it to ease someone’s suffering, to make a difference, large or small, in someone’s life. Nonetheless, I didn’t think it was selfish to look for a position that was a better fit for me. I felt my misgivings and limitations were making me a less than effective volunteer.

A friend of mine suggested I volunteer for the organization where she works. Its mission is to provide comprehensive care, close to home, for children with cancer and blood disorders and their families. Its network of outpatient clinics comprises seven pediatric hospitals in the NJ/NY/Philadelphia area that serve over 6,000 children a year.

The organization was founded by a couple who lost their nine-year-old daughter to cancer over 40 years ago. During their daughter’s illness, they had to travel hours-sometimes more than once a week-in order for her to receive the best treatment. This exacted a profound toll on the entire family, including their other young daughter.

They vowed to find a way for children to receive treatment close to home, thereby making the patient more comfortable, and minimizing disruption to the family. Today, the organization provides numerous services-medical and psycho-social. (You can learn more at www.thevaleriefund.org.)

When a child is receiving treatment for cancer or a blood disorder (such as sickle cell disease), they often spend many hours at the hospital. They may be bored or uncomfortable or frightened. Weary parents or caregivers may need a break from sitting on a hard chair jammed into the tiny space between the wall and the child’s bed.

Many pediatric units employ child life specialists whose job it is to minimize the trauma of being in the hospital for patients and their families. In most cases, they are social workers with training for this specific kind of work. They may hold a child to soothe him or her during a procedure, bring toys or video games into the room, sit and talk with the patient, or show the parents and other adults where they can find a cup of coffee and a snack. These examples are a small fraction of a child life specialist’s tasks and responsibilities.

This is where volunteers are able to make a large impact. Under the guidance of the child life specialist, volunteers do activities with the children-play games, assist with a crafts project, read to them, or just have a conversation-and give the adults a chance to be “off duty,” even if just for a few minutes. Volunteers also free up staff who feel as if they are being pulled in ten directions, or need to tend to critical emergent situations.

My friend’s suggestion piqued my interest. I love children and babies. I love just being around them. I am enchanted by their quirky, singular views of the world, the inventive ways in which they express themselves, and their spontaneous hugs. I was 99% certain that my fondness for children would be stronger than my stranger anxiety. Still, I could feel my familiar doubts and misgivings rearing their ugly heads.

My husband is like the Pied Piper. Children flock to him, whether they know him or not. He has an ineffable, child friendly charisma, and a bottomless supply of “make believe” games. As I watch them all smile and giggle, I don’t know who has more fun-my husband or the kids. He never gets tired of playing with them, never says, “OK, I have to go now.”

I do not have my husband’s golden touch. Sometimes kids ignore me, sometimes it is me who just doesn’t know how to engage with them. I lack the imagination to invent games, or come up with silly things to say that will make them laugh, or jump up and down with glee, or exclaim, “More, more,” or “Do it again.” Certainly, this isn’t true all the time, but comparing myself to my husband, I wondered whether I was the right person for this role.

Driving to the hospital for my first volunteer shift, I was excited and nervous-mostly nervous. What if I inadvertently upset a child, or said something that is against hospital protocol? What if the parents or caregivers preferred that I leave? What if I couldn’t find something to interest a child, or became impatient?

The child life specialist led me to a room where a 12-year-old girl rested in bed, her mother and grandmother sitting beside her. Her face was red; the child life specialist told me she had been crying during a procedure a few minutes earlier. She had an IV in her arm and wore flannel pajamas decorated with small bouquets and pink embroidery around the collar. As I looked at the forlorn expression on her face I thought, “Maybe she is in no mood for me.”

To the contrary. She smiled when I introduced myself, and happily agreed to play some games and do some crafts projects with me. We chatted while she decorated a small purse, and played Connect Four and a card game. She giggled with delight when she showed me how she could make a funny sound with a ball of pink slime inside a jar.

There were no awkward silences. As far as I could tell, I hadn’t said anything to upset her, or that sounded “lame” to a 12-year-old. She enjoyed talking to me, and I was able to keep my half of the conversation going. We were both having fun, and I think I took her mind off her illness and needles and being in the hospital-at least for a little while.

Eventually she grew tired; she wanted to lay in bed and watch a movie that was on the TV she shared with the other patient in the room. Once her mom had her settled comfortably on the pillows and under the blanket, I told her that I was leaving. She turned a sad face to me. I asked her if she wanted me to stay and watch the movie with her, and she said yes.

I couldn’t believe it! She liked having me in the room beside her, even if we weren’t talking or playing. In a relatively short amount of time we had forged a connection. I smiled at her while I sat back down; deep inside I was doing cartwheels.

Walking to my car, I reflected on my experience. It occurred to me that I had learned a number of lessons that day.
—Stepping away from an activity I didn’t enjoy did not mean I was a quitter. It didn’t mean I was selfish. When something’s not working or doesn’t feel right, I need to give myself permission to move on to something else.
—No matter what my age, I most likely will not have tapped into all my skills and talents. There is always the potential to discover something new about myself. I grew a lot as a person by walking through-instead of around-my trepidations and allowing myself to try something at which I might fail. So often my knee jerk reaction is to assume I “can’t do XYZ” or “won’t enjoy QRS.” By taking a risk on something out of my comfort zone, however, I may discover a new interest or hobby that brings me pleasure and for which I am well-suited. Except for singing. That is one skill I will never, ever have.
—It is almost always satisfying to connect with someone on a personal level. Everyone has joy in their life, everyone experiences tragedy and grief. Sharing stories, ideas, and feelings with another human being has the potential to heal, soothe, comfort, teach and learn-not just myself, but perhaps the person with whom I interact as well.

I walked out of the hospital that day happy, my spirits buoyed. I want to feel that way more often, but I realize I am the only one who can make that happen. No one is going to hand me happiness on a platter. At times that may mean trying things I think are “out of my league.” But it will be well worth the effort.

I am interested in hearing your reactions to this post. What experiences have you had with volunteering? Have you been in a situation that was out of your comfort zone, only to find that it turned into a positive experience? Have you ever been surprised to discover something about yourself? If so, what were the circumstances, and how did it affect your attitudes or outlook on life? I would be delighted to read your thoughts in the Comments section.

As always, thank you for reading this blog.

Letting Go Because I Love You

Before I begin this post, I want to thank all of you who have been reading this blog and following The Tarnished Year’s Facebook page. I hope you continue to enjoy and learn from my pieces, as well as from the featured articles. I also hope you find comments by fellow readers to be thought provoking and present points of view you might not have considered previously. My intent in leaving space for comments is to stimulate discussion amongst my readers.

Please tell your friends and family about us. If any of you are interested in being a guest blogger, you may reach out to me at Rhonda@TheTarnishedYears.com.

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The title of my last post, Stuff Part I, (posted October 2nd), suggested that my subsequent post would be Stuff Part II. There will be a Part II, but events in my life compel me to write about another topic first.

I often think of raising children as a series of transitions. They go to preschool for the first time, and every few years there is a graduation: from elementary school to middle school to high school. They have their first haircut. They get their first tooth and, later, lose their first tooth. There’s their first sleepover and the first time they go away to camp. They learn to drive and go out on their first date. Each one of us has our personal Achilles heel, that one transition (or transitions) that makes us sad. You may be puzzled about why you feel this way, and then you realize it’s because you are wondering where your little boy or girl has gone.

Until three weeks ago, the most wrenching transition for me, personally, was when I dropped each of my sons at college for the first time.  I still cry every time I think about it. It marked the first time I felt that they were leaving me behind. I worried that a fissure might develop in our emotional bond, inviolable up to that point, because I now would play little to no part in their daily lives. I wouldn’t know their friends or when they had a paper due. I wouldn’t be able to walk into the next room and give them a hug. Of course I was excited for them, but it was excitement tinged with a feeling of loss.

Then came my son’s wedding day, and I realized all those prior transitions were bush league by comparison. In the weeks leading up to the wedding, I was aware that our nuclear family was being altered permanently. It nagged at the back of my mind, but I didn’t dwell on it. I did not cry as my husband and I walked him down the aisle, nor during the ceremony. But in addition to feeling joyful, it was bittersweet for me when they said their vows and walked through the crowd as husband and wife, wearing the widest, most radiant smiles I have ever seen. Perhaps some of you had similar feelings when your child married.

I have joked on more than one occasion that when I attend a wedding, I want to take the couple aside and tell them, “You have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what you are getting into!” Yes, I am trying to get a laugh, but I am not entirely joking. When your children get married, you hope you have helped them develop the wisdom, common sense and courage they will need pretty much every day of their marriage.

Newlyweds—my son and his wife included—have faith that they will be able to handle any challenge they encounter, fortified by their love and respect for one another. Having observed my son and his now-wife for six years, I agree. They love and understand and support one another unconditionally. I can’t imagine a couple more prepared to deal with adversity when (not if) they encounter it.

As I am not a soothsayer, I have no way of knowing what bumps in the road await them. In my head I can reel off a list of the more common ones: one spouse feels the other spouse spends too much time at work; your child is sad or struggling and you have to decide what (if anything) to do while your heart twists and contracts with pain; disagreements over money or childrearing issues arise; someone is diagnosed with a serious illness that puts a strain on the whole family; there is bickering about trivial things (you always forget to take out the garbage, you never turn the lights off when you leave a room) that stealthily erodes the edges of a marriage, perhaps doing more damage than larger arguments.

I am confident they will function as a team, collaborating to solve difficulties that come their way. But I also know I will have to watch, silently, from a distance, as they do so. My mother-in-law used to mime zipping her mouth closed when she had an opinion she knew she had to keep to herself. I will be rooting for them all the way, but it will have to be from the sidelines. They will need to navigate their paths, both as a couple and as autonomous adults, without my input. Much of what comes to mind when one thinks of being a parent—nurturing, advising, molding character, leading the way—is now a thing of the past for me.

At the reception, each parent had an opportunity to speak. My remarks began with a few amusing anecdotes about my son’s childhood, continued with some playful ribbing about my daughter-in-law’s reaction when she first met our family, expressed our delight that she was joining our family, and told everyone what perfect partners they were for one another. (They really are.)

Then I directly addressed my son and his wife.

______, marrying _____ will be the most profound change you have experienced in your life so far. You are starting your own family unit, distinct from the family that your dad and I have nurtured and cherished for 31 years. Now your primary responsibility will be to your wife, to this new family the two of you will create. That is, of course, how it should be, and it is a type of happiness I have always wanted for you. However, while you and _____ are building something new, your father and I can’t help but feel some degree of loss, as if a rope connecting us to one another is fraying a bit.

No matter how much you and _____ love one another, marriage is SO hard. The fact is the two of you have many challenges ahead that right now you can’t even imagine. So, I would like to leave you with these words that are from the book and movie, Corelli’s Mandolin.

Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being in love, which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Those who truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two.

I wished them a marriage and a life of intertwining roots, of growth that creates one indestructible tree out of their love. We all raised our glasses and drank a toast to the newlyweds. And then it was time to dance.