Goodbye –forever

    I related a story to my son the other day. 

    Don’t laugh –I do this sometimes. I speak, he sort of stands there. I pretend he’s listening. Like when I read him these blog posts. He may not appear actively engaged, but he doesn’t, on the other hand, flee. I consider this a good sign. 

    The story had one of those sledgehammer messages. (I’ve learned that subtlety is overrated when dealing with teens.) But behind the most obvious point I was trying to make was another with a more universal message, which he may have missed. 

    Maybe not. 

    Because teens live more in the instant than in anything long-term, it’s hard for them—or many of us, for that matter—to think far-off. Because we don’t sometimes plan for the inevitability of the future, we often miss chances in the here-and-now that we later regret. 

    It’s a hard lesson, and one most of us have probably learned in the hardest of ways. Only in retrospect do we realize that we had a chance, but let it pass. 

    Most of the time we don’t know it’s the last time we’re saying goodbye to someone–until it’s too late. 

    Sometimes we have to scratch at our memories to even think to the when of a last encounter. Often, we can’t recall those last words we spoke as we were leaving. 

    And then there’s the leaving. 

    One kind of leaving is like the distant voyage away from a shore. The people, the buildings, the horizon simply become less. They slip from our sight, become specks in our memories. They’re like the healing of a wound, the fading of a scar. 

    Another leaving comes when the end is inevitable. There’s a chance, an opportunity -for those of us willing to take it.  A way to say goodbye. 

    Maybe the worst is the kind that hits like my sledgehammer message. A lightning bolt out of a blue sky; a chirpy ringtone heralding a  horrible message. 

    My story was one of those. A death. But one that had that magic goodbye and one last I love you. 

    We don’t always get those. 

    And it’s not always about death. 

    My son has been saying goodbyes to classmates and friends. I don’t think he thinks any of them will be a last time. He’s unlikely choosing his words with forever in mind. 

    As my seniors left after our last time together, they gave me thank-yous and gifts and goodbyes -and promises that they’d keep in touch –for sure. 

    I chose my words more carefully than they. 

    Be we
ll, be happy -have a good life.
 

    Michael’s more apt to offer a quick see ya later. Because he assumes he will. 

    I’m less sure. 

    Maybe then I should treat those goodbyes with a little more respect. Because until it’s upon us, we really don’t know if it’s a goodbye-til-later or goodbye-forever.




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Keys to the Time Machine



    The keys are more likely to land in the laps of my children these days, but I doubt they notice the weight or understand its value. I’m sure the offerings would earn a much more worthy reaction if they came attached to a logo-emblazoned key chain.


    But they don’t.


    So it’s likely that the kids and their cousins miss the lead-in nuances. That they don’t sense movement of the vehicle until they’re fully onboard.


    Once strapped in, though, they’re in for the full ride. Usually, quite entranced and willing.


    I’m still a kid in the eyes of the next generation up, so I’m able to enjoy an occasional trip on the time machine, myself.


    Always a treat. Often a surprise.


    One of my students was recently assigned an audio project whereby he would record an interview with someone who had been a “witness to history.” His particular task was made more difficult because he didn’t have a means off campus.


    No worry, I assured him, among my peers and me, surely we could find a witness or two.


    Not so easy.


    The lot of us proved just a little too young, and a little too lacking in the pulse-of-the nation experiences that might have set us front-and-center at a few world events. Collective minds together, we came up with the one person who perhaps had the right resume.


    It worked. Norm at least had the college campus recollection of listening to the somber toll of bells that indicated President Kennedy had been assassinated.


    When I shared this story in a family setting, my mom, aunts and uncles, offered their recollections of where they were the day that Kennedy was shot. They each remembered. Vividly.


    But it was my uncle’s nonchalant memory of his buddy rushing to retrieve him with the statement,  Jack’s been shot. C’mon we’ve got to get back to the White House.


    What? Huh?


    You were in D.C. when Kennedy got killed?


    A shoulder shrug.


    How did I not know this? How did WE not know?


    (I called my cousin on the way home; she had no idea.)


    Let me explain. My uncle is not some political stalwart. He’s not a diplomat or a dignitary. This was merely one of those place-and-time situations. He was stationed in D.C. Just happened to be there as history unfolded.


    (Btw, he also attended the funeral, but I’m getting too far astray of the time machine message.)


    My uncle and his siblings hold keys.


    Last Thanksgiving, the same uncle regaled with stories of the Lavadora man, who rounded the streets of Boston selling his magical bleaching water. Holding court around a table full of food and family, he took us all back. To another time, to a different era.


    It was as if Einstein’s musings on the fluidity of time travel were being tested outside the lab, fueled on a satiated hunger, a bit of wine, and a rapt audience.


    The kids were enthralled. Some of the big kids were, as well.


    I wonder that we don’t appreciate the treasure chests available to us all while we still have access to their keys. What’s so easily unlocked with a small prod or a simple question can also be too easily lost. Unless we’re wise enough to grab a hold of the keys and give the time machine an occasional spin.







   




Motley Crew


    My brother and I were standing at the back of the room when I looked to the people gathered around the family members.


    What a motley crew, I whispered to him.


    He glanced up, nodded and chuckled.


    We weren’t being unkind or inappropriately disrespectful in such a somber setting. It was merely an observation.


    And an accurate one, at that.


    Surrounding the casket of Mikey Fat (seriously –his lifelong nickname) were an assortment of my father’s childhood friends. Among the dignitaries were a construction worker, an accountant, a bachelor who’d managed to live unemployed until his forties, an attorney who’d gone afoul of his clients and the law, and the now-passed Mikey Fat –a much overweight gentle soul whose idiosyncrasies would have had him diagnosed with server neurosis if such  a term were used in his day.


    The commonality for these men was the corner in Eastie on which they all stood as boys. Hanging out, shooting hoops, shooting-the-shit, as my father might have said.


    That my father’s loyalties to this mismatched mix of men never wavered said something about the time in which he grew up. It said, I think, more about him.


    I remember my dad asking me to pen a letter in his name on behalf of the lawyer friend. The fact that my father’s own moral compass couldn’t have tolerated such a transgression didn’t matter. His friend was in trouble. You do for your friends. Like you do for your family. You stand by them, no matter what rules they had broken, no matter what mistakes had been made.


    The ideal may sound quaint in today’s world of ever-altering alliances.


    But I wonder often about that very simple premise –of standing up for and by someone, of having his back. And why it is today on such infrequent display. I see so little evidence of it in the world, in general, but more sadly in the generation of children who have become adults under my watch.


    When I asked one of my students recently how many of her college friends she expected to keep after graduation, she said she wasn’t sure, then quickly turned the question back to me –how many had I continued to call friend?


    None.


    Not the answer she had expected.


    Nor was its addendum –probably because I kept my high school friends.


    The fact that many of the people who remain most important in my life have known me since I was a kid probably says something about me. I’m not sure what. Am I unadventurous because I live within a 25 mile radius of where I was born and hold onto the connections that geography makes easy? Does my still dependable circle of friends indicate that I’m loyal or lazy?


    Hmmm.


    My friends would likely form a line alongside allegiance. But they can hardly criticize my long-term fidelity without calling into question their own.


    My father, my mother, my brother –all share this bent toward long-lasting relationships. Even my oldest brother, who traveled the world, brought along with him on his life’s journey a few of his closest hometown friends. I think he was better for it.


    I think we all are.


    My kids and my students seem to understand the bond of family. They get the idea of unconditional love from/to a parent or a sibling. I don’t know, though, if they see the potential for it elsewhere. Or rather, maybe they think they do –but then are too often disappointed. They either feel first-hand betrayal, or are themselves too quickly willing to forego effort for expediency.


    Maybe it’s all part of their hyper-connectedness beyond small circles. These digital natives seem to communicate well with the world. They do less well, however, communicating across a room. And the speed with which they do most everything seems to foster impatience.


    And if a relationship is truly going to stand the test of time, it demands a certain measure of patience.


    And perseverance -and loyalty.


    I  understand that  my young charges cannot fully fathom the notion of having friendships that have lasted as long as they have been alive.


    Makes me sound old. And maybe a bit naïve –because I still hold dear to a long ago ideal of loyalty that my father taught me so well.

Revenge



    Revenge is in vogue. At least by way of the new ABC nighttime soap bearing its name.



    Never mind that the eye-for-an-eye premise from which it stems has been around for as long as time. Or that the show is an admitted rip-off of The Count of Monte Cristo.


    Revenge has come to the Hamptons. And to those of us who may be willing to wait out the plot twists that it will surely require if it is to survive beyond a single season.
    


    Judging by the wait-and-see temper of its reviews, Revenge stands a chance.


    Maybe I’ll watch it.


    Revenge as entertainment is easier for me to understand than its lifelike sister.


    My mom used to say forgive, but don’t forget.


    Doesn’t really sound like forgiving then, but I think it was a cautionary mantra. And unintentionally, I may have taken the credo to heart. Some slights, try as I might, I can’t forget. Especially as a parent, when the mark they’ve hit is my kids. 

    
But revenge? Not for me. Nor do I understand a range of other emotions like jealousy and envy. I don’t get them.


    It’s not that I can’t relate to the anger at the root of revenge; it’s just that I Ieave its carryout to karma. What goes around comes around.


   Truth is, I haven’t the stomach for vengeance. Raw emotions are hard enough when they’re fresh. I can’t imagine holding onto them as they fester and grow.

    
I’ve known many people who’ve been tested in their lives and when I think to those who have come out the other side most intact, they’re inevitably the ones who’ve been able to let go of their anger.


    I liked my mother’s friend. She always treated me well, adored my parents and my family. But beneath the smiles she offered to us, there was always the trace of a muted rage. I didn’t know the full breadth of the backstory. All I knew was that the bile of her anger tainted most every part of her life. For her entire life. I wonder if she could have overcome her illness if she had found some sooner peace. Probably not. Happy people die, too.

    
My own friend could also have hung onto her anger. For a short while, she headed down its path. Her rage sometimes spilled over on nights out when her vocabulary was colored with curses.
 
    
But at decision time, she opted out of anger. Took a pass on revenge of any sort –even the legal, court-ordered kind.

    
It wasn’t worth it. 
    
    
Not to her.


    Not to me either.



    This isn’t magnanimous gesture on my behalf. It’s not a concerted or conscious effort to take a higher road. It’s more an energy thing. And a life-is-short sort of thing. I don’t have the energy to waste on an emotion I don’t like.
 
    
And life is short. Too short to spend it plotting revenge. Maybe even too short to spend watching it.


September 11th



    Last night Michael held the extension ladder so I could attach an American flag to the face of my house. I’ve only displayed such outward patriotism on one other occasion.




    We all know where we were, what we were doing. And why the day left such a lasting and very personal impression on each of us.

    
It changed the world. For us, for our children, for future generations.




    Approaching the one-year anniversary of September 11th, an editor friend asked if I’d add to her list of contributing writers answering the query: How have you changed since September 11th? I demurred. I hadn’t started writing again and I was reluctant to come out on such an emotionally charged subject. But the request lingered and something compelled me to respond.




    In that column, I waxed nostalgic about my daughter’s entry into the world. Apartheid was fading; Nelson Mandela was stepping up to lead his nation; the Berlin Wall had been toppled. What a glorious time in which to be born.




    But post 9-11, I heaped together a list of much that was wrong with the 21st century world. About the children who would grow up with the searing images of September 11th, I wrote “It is more a part of the fabric of their lives than ours because they step into this new world order with the heavy burden of changing it all.”

    
In spite of ever-horrific headlines and newsfeeds, on good days, I still believe our children are up to the task of meeting that awesome responsibility. That they can rise up and find light even when it may be dim and unapparent to us. 

    
I wonder sometimes how to pass on optimism to our children when there are so many reasons to fall to disbelief. But realize,that in this area at least,  it is more likely they who teach us.




    Before the Little Prince’s pilot became a man, he had the clear-eyed wisdom to note that “grown-ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”




    So it is at this moment that I turn to my daughter, my son and their friends looking for guidance. Teach me well. I can still learn. And I still believe in the promise of your tomorrows.





 

Pet Compassion


    Michael was in first grade when I summoned the strength to make the right decision and put my cocker spaniel down. Nicki was 17, old, sad. I had known much sooner than I acted, that it was time to let go. 

    
I just couldn’t.

    
And then one day, I could.




    And I did.

    
I went by myself, told no one but the immediate family. 

    
I thought I handled it well enough when I told Alex and Michael, when I gave them a chance to say goodbye.

    Maybe not.




    I received a note from Michael’s teacher the next day.




    Apparently during “pretzels” time when the kids shared the likes and dislikes of their day, Michael said that he hadn’t liked when his mother killed his dog.




    Hmmm.




    We had to put our dog down again.




    Technically, this one wasn’t ours. But with only one in the family, we all laid claim to the little guy at one point or another.




    I told Michael what was coming, offered the idea of going by Auntie Dawna’s to say goodbye to Logan.




    He took a pass.




    Logan was a good dog.




    As his aunt, I took on an occasional dog sitting shift or two. Last summer, he and I got in quality time on the beach in Maine. During designated doggy hours, I walked/he ran; I threw/he fetched. We played, made friends –mostly the four-legged kind- and took in vistas of the Atlantic surf that force the deep intake of an appreciative breath. Salty sea air –cures all that ails you.

    
Well, apparently not all.




    Logan left us just before this year’s Fourth of July beach party.




    Appropriate, since he wasn’t a fan of the fireworks.




    We’ve put off fully processing his departure.




    But we did much processing beforehand.




    Somewhere in the midst of those many conversations, I would offer the observation that we often handle end-of-life decisions for our pets far more humanely than we do for the people in our lives. With our pets, we formulate a plan and take steps of action that assure they leave us without pain and with a form dignity intact. 

    
I don’t like to think about dying. I’m one of those without a plan.




    And I should know better.




    There isn’t anything worse than watching someone die.




    I know why Michael didn’t want to say goodbye to Logan. He’s always hated transitions and saying goodbye is the worst sort.  

    
I’m with him there.




    I don’t like that we lose people too soon.




    There are always conversations unsaid, hands not held, hugs not given.




    We want another year, another week, or just a day. A single moment, even.

    
When Logan left us, he could still run the beach, fetch a tennis ball. The last memory we’ll all have of him is likely a happy one. I wish I could say the same was always true about the people in our lives.


 


    Most of us know rationally the steps we could take to offer a compassionate ending to those we love. But we hesitate, just a bit –and it’s usually just a bit too long.



    Our hearts hold out for the chance of that one more moment, even when our heads know it’s time to let go.



Nancy Kerrigan


    To the chagrin of all my past professors and editors, I’m pretty adroit at avoiding controversy in my writing. Not a fan of the sensationalistic big headline stories, I’ll read them, but generally leave their coverage to those more itchy for a scoop than I. 

    
But the Kerrigan family story recently played out publicly in the courtroom and media has gotten my attention. Less for its front page drama splash than for the complex back story that was surely built upon decades of painful day-to-day mini-dramas. Because as many of us may see Mark Kerrigan’s sentence to two-and-a-half years in prison in connection to the death of his father as a story’s closure, I am certain those closest to the family understand that it is but another chapter in a life-long saga dictated by addiction. 

    
So much of this story’s coverage seems scripted for television. For Nancy’s sake, I hope no one chooses to further exploit what would most likely have remained a family’s personal tragedy, had in not been for the renown of one of its members. Perhaps the producers of such fare will take a pass –it does seem a bit too easy.




    Each of the actors in this particular drama played exactly the role one might expect; no plot twists, no shocking last-minute revelations.




    The sister, whose success outshone the other members of her family, stood up for her big brother. And in speaking for the victim, she said with likely accuracy that “my dad never would have wanted any of this.” 

    
The District Attorney spoke of accountability, but in the aftermath of victory, the Assistant DA acknowledged that “there are no winners here.” 

    
In handing down the maximum sentence, the judge pointed to “a middle-aged man” and his “repeated failure to address substance abuse and mental health issues.”




    Most telling, though, may have been the statement read by Mark’s aunt on behalf of his mother. Brenda Kerrigan said that she had “lost her husband and, for the last 16 months, have had only a shadow of my son.” My guess is that her son has been lost in the shadow of his addiction for much longer than that.

    
Anyone who’s been touched by alcoholism, even at its periphery, knows its cost is great. Certainly at its heart is always a single wasted life, lost potential, sacrificed relationships. But none of us is an island and the very connectedness that makes us human can also render us helplessly attached to those we love and the havoc they may wreck. The collateral damage of addiction spreads like shrapnel. None are left fully unaffected: parents, grandparents, spouses, aunts, uncles, children. And, yes little sisters. 

    
Families have a certain order to them and regardless of how old Nancy is or how well she’s managed in her life, in one facet of it, she remains Mark’s little sister. The seeds to her unconditional support for him were planted long ago. As difficult as it may be for her to continue to stand up for someone who continually lets her down, sometimes, it’s harder not to. Because hidden in the shadows of Mark’s addiction are stories that only a family can know, and which, to the chagrin of television producers, they most likely will remain unwilling to share.