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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.

………………………

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!

A FACEBOOK ALTERNATIVE

A friend of mine sent this to me, and I thought it was so funny I wanted to share it with you. It showed no author attribution. If you know who wrote this, please let me know in the Comments section so I may give credit to this witty author. I have added a lot of my own material, but the credit for coming up with the premise of the piece belongs to someone else. By the way, to the best of my knowledge he or she did not post this on Facebook.

 

You may remember that initially Facebook was available only to college students. At some point it was opened to the general public and almost immediately lost its cachet among those initial users.

 

It also lost much of its utility. Now parents could see or read what you were thinking, what you were doing, where you were doing it and with whom. It was no longer a safe space where kids could complain about their parents. They could spy on you and ask you even more intrusive questions than they already did. Full disclosure: There is an option to make a Facebook page private, but that would only result in more questions: “What are you doing that you don’t want me to know about?” “What are you hiding from me?”

 

In response, other platforms soon developed, such as one where you send a select group of people a photo that disappears after ten seconds. I don’t know too many adults who use this tool, or even understand the concept of giving someone a time limit for looking at a picture.

 

Not everyone from our generation jumped on the Facebook wagon. Many cannot comprehend why Facebook even exists. What did it do for you that couldn’t be accomplished face to face? I thought it would be fun to experiment using Facebook’s methods to make friends and disseminate information but in person, rather than through electronic media. Here is a chronicle of how that turned out.

 

Every day I walk down the street and tell passersby what I have eaten, how I feel at the moment, what I have done the night before, what the weather forecast is, and where I am going either today or sometime in the future. I share with them inspirational sayings (often accompanied by cards bearing drawings of hearts and kittens), my political views, unsolicited advice, news about the Kardashians and Taylor Swift, and even my musings about the purpose of life. I extend holiday greetings “to all who celebrate.” If people don’t notice me approaching, I get to listen in on their conversations.

 

It’s not just a one-way street where I do all the talking. The people I meet fill me in on important information, such as rumors about members of their high school graduating class. Later the information may prove to be false but hey, so what? Nostalgia is a popular topic, such as asking who remembers the bowling alley that is now a CVS. Many feel it is important to say RIP in honor of the latest celebrity who has died, expressing as much grief as if they actually knew the person.

 

I encourage people to vent about anything that is on their minds. The larger the group of people, the more entertaining these sessions become. Some enjoy debating political issues, such as what they think of DACA or gun control or throwing paper towels at people who are homeless due to a hurricane. I also hear many sports-related debates, such as, “Is LeBron James as good a player as Michael Jordan was?”, or “How can Tom Brady be a better athlete at age 40 than he was at age 30?”

 

Sadly, it is not unusual for these discussions to morph into nasty arguments involving name calling and personal insults (at times including cutting remarks about someone’s mother). But no big deal; it’s all in good fun to call someone who doesn’t agree with you a moron, isn’t it? When these disagreements turn physical, I have to chalk up a point in favor of electronic Facebook.

 

At times, someone will assign me a task, accompanied by a directive to ask others to participate. They tell me that if I don’t comply (1) I am not a true friend and/or have my head in the sand regarding important social issues, or (2) some catastrophic misfortune will befall me. No one’s going to tell me what to do, though, so I mumble something noncommittal and sidle away as surreptitiously as possible.

 

A particularly appealing feature of Facebook is the ability to post photos or videos. To simulate this feature in my Facebook alternate universe, I always walk around carrying a stack of photos. I may start with photos of plates of food, and groups of smiling people sitting around those plates of food. I frequently show them pictures of my dog because who wouldn’t be interested in that?

 

I have lots of family photos, such as the four of us posing in front of Old Faithful, one kid with his back turned toward the camera because he didn’t want his “stupid picture taken next to some lame water fountain.”  My older son recently got married, so I have about 20 photos from the wedding that I like to show. I have noticed from time to time members of my “audience” trying to hide or stifle a yawn. But they must just be tired. After all, they expect me to look at similar photos of their friends and families. I don’t think they would do that if they didn’t enjoy reciprocating.

 

On Thursdays, I carry old photos with me. When I show someone one of these photos, I yell, “Hashtag TBT!” which stands for Throw Back Thursday. I may show them one of me at a ballet recital in a tutu, in an awkward, decidedly ungraceful pose that makes no one wonder why I didn’t become a ballerina. There are photos of my kids from the 1980s. They are wearing braces, large glasses, and sweat suits in garish colors that feature decals of Sonic the Hedgehog.

 

On average I speak to around 20 new people on every simulated Facebook outing. According to commonly accepted Facebook conventions, these people may now be my friends, even if our interaction was brief, or they told me to, “Get the hell out of here.” I currently am up to 357 of these new dear friends. I just have to go through one additional step—the friend request. The friend request is exactly what it says it is—you have to ask a person if you may be their friend. This is where electronic Facebook has it all over real world Facebook.

 

This process has high humiliation potential. No one ever says no outright. They just don’t answer, and extricate themselves from the situation, such as turning their backs to you or walking away. But the message is clear, and when it happens to me I feel crappy about it. If I were alone at my computer, it wouldn’t be quite as bad. Being rejected in front of a group of people? Not so much fun.

 

If the person accepts your friend request—with a handshake or a hug–you are now one of their confidantes, even if the two of you met just ten minutes ago. Again, electronic Facebook has the advantage over real world Facebook. Who wants a hug from some stranger? Oops, ignore that last sentence. What I meant to say was, “Who wouldn’t want a hug from a friend?”

 

Facebook users often point to the number of people following them as a metric for—well, I’m not really sure what they are measuring. I do know the goal is to amass as many followers as possible. (This also applies to friends.) I am able to report that I already have four people following me. I have noticed the same two police officers hanging around places I frequent. There’s also some guy who I guess thinks he’s incognito, but who keeps talking into his lapel. And several times I have come home to find my psychiatrist parked in my driveway. I didn’t think doctors made house calls anymore.

 

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.