Legacy of Laughter

Legacy of Laughter

My big brother Joe, who died recently, was an excellent pediatrician. Admired for his professional competence and genuine caring, he also carried a secret weapon, a weapon that, in the long run, made him a better physician; Joe had a great sense of humor.
I recall him telling me about meeting another doctor at a professional meeting and being asked his specialty. “Pediatrics,”Joe answered. “Oh,” said the doctor, with just a touch of patronizing in his voice. “I can’t understand why anyone would want to spend his career looking after a gaggle of snotty-nosed kids.” Joe replied, “Why, what is your specialty? ”
When the doctor replied “I’m a proctologist,” Joe admits cracking up. (Proctology is a field of medicine dealing with disorders of the rectum, anus and colon.) Joe said, “I’m sorry Doctor but I’ll take the kids any day.”
Another time Joe was working on a team of medical professional and found himself partners with one of those pompous professionals we have all met from time to time. According to my brother, this was a nice guy but he just took himself a little too seriously. The next time he went out on rounds with the doctor, Joe surreptitiously planted a piece of paper on his back with the words “KICK ME.” The sight of the distinguished physician drawing mysterious giggles from the nurses and other staff must have been hilarious. Joe admits that it was a junior high school kind of joke but had no regrets. “In our profession you need to show your human side,”
Having a good laugh, especially at ourselves, is a good weapon to have in our arsenals, whether we be doctors or super market cashiers, old folks or youngins. Laughter puts our lives in perspective when the “woulda, shouda, coudas” of daily living get us down.
A sense of humor enables us to see our lives through the prism of the ancient redwood forests and the mighty ocean and the billions of years our planet has existed. Man o man, we are so blessed just to have been given the gift of life.
We have our role to play as human beings…to tread lightly upon our planet, to be kind to others, to give back the gifts God has honored us with, to stand by our kids and family, to dance and sing and yes,to know how to laugh and share that gift with others.
It helped make my brother Joe an extraordinary doctor. It can turn our own lives into something special as well.

laughter, perspective, sense of humor

When Just Getting Up is Hard To Do

When Just Getting Up is Hard to Do

She is old, very old. The wrinkles on her skin and thinning white hair announced to anyone who sees her that she is near the finish line of life. Still, she manages a faint smile when she says good morning.
“You know, I didn’t think I was going to make it out of bed this morning.”
“Don’t you feel well,” I ask.
“No, I’m not sick. Sometimes I lie in bed and just have to talk myself into a reason for getting up. Know what I mean?”
I do know what she means. Our older generation is like a kid at a birthday party who is given a gift she is not sure what to do with. We have been given the gift of many more years of living but we are not quite sure what to do with them.
The very phrase, “the gift of years” can sound hollow to a lonely older person. As my late mother-in-law famously expressed it, “Screw the golden years; you can have them.” I suspect that many gray heads would find it easy to relate to her sentiment. Don’t you agree?
So, what do those of us “of a certain age” do with the years that, ready or not, have been gifted to us? For many of us the stresses of aging are softened somewhat by the presence of family and grandchildren nearby. But for those who find themselves alone in the world, the process of aging with its many losses is more than just challenging.
We can bitch and moan about it. That’s pretty normal. Sometimes it’s even therapeutic. Old folks should be cut some slack to complain but when we find that the complaint department is closed for the duration and no one is listening to our gripes, then what? Sadly, some of us give up. We die inside long before the brain (and heart) is dead.
There is a better way. It starts with changing our attitude. What we can do is call upon our life experience, our elder wisdom, and to figure out a way to use the time we have been given. A good starting point is to lift our gaze from staring at our own navel and start thinking about how we can contribute to our world. To paraphrase JFK, “Ask not what other people can do for you; ask what you can do for other people.”
What we can do for others, especially if we are confined to home or limited in other ways, may seem inconsequential but each one of us has something unique to give. If even the flapping of a butterfly’s wings has an effect on the other side of the world, does not an act of kindness, a heartfelt thank you, a word of forgiveness contribute to making the world a more loving place?
The timeless words of St. Francis are meant for all ages but perhaps speak most eloquently for those of us seeking meaning in our latter years. “It is in giving that we receive; in loving that we are loved.”

Marriage and, by the way, Family

MARRIAGE and, by the way, Family

I remember taking a college course entitled “Marriage and Family.” In those quaint olden days it seemed fitting to put the two subjects, “marriage” and “family” together. Most couples got married and had children. That’s just the way it worked. Putting the two topics into a single course made sense because in the vast majority of cases, people planned to raise children.
Not so much anymore. A scholar by the name of Cormac Burke, a participant in the current synod on the family in Rome, reminded us recently that family is, fast becoming a dispensable part of marriage. He says “Modern marriage is basically an a deux arrangement, an agreement between two people that has nothing to do with children.” A family can of course be added on later but only if convenient.
“Children,” he adds, “instead of being the natural fruit of married love and the glue that holds it together in times of stress are reduced to the category of minor accessories to the personal happiness of two separate persons and so dispensable,( like the marriage itself) if they do not serve each individuals happiness.”
We talk a lot these days about the rights we are owed as married people (gay or straight). We want tax advantages and inheritance rights perhaps forgetting that these rights and privileges were by and large given to married folks in order to protect and provide for the offspring of their marriages.
Was it the 80’s that was referred to as the “me generation?” I’d suggest that we could call ourselves the “me and you generation.” We have become so obsessed with a couples personal relationship and fulfillment that the broader social nature of marriage and family has faded into insignificance.
I submit that marriage is greater that the personal relationship between willing partners. A married couple becomes part of a society bigger than themselves. They have certain rights as members of society but they also have obligations to that same society. This includes being open to raising a new generation of children themselves, or fulfilling their obligation in love and compassion to those children who have no one to take care of them. Foster kids and homeless kids are “our kids” too.
We are not doing very well by our children. They are the ones who suffer when we separate marriage from family, when we pursue our individual lives as though they are an afterthought in the scheme of things, as though their welfare is not the most important aspect of marriage.

Losing a Brother

Losing a Brother

I lost one of my older brothers a few months back. I thought I was coping pretty well with his loss. You know the drill. Time is a great healer. He’s in a better place. It was a good death. Yea,yea yea.
Then September 20th. dawned, Dan’s birthday. For the first time, I would not be calling him on the phone or dropping him a card in the mail to wish him many happy returns. Sometimes Dan and I would put a single dollar bill in the card, a throwback to when we were kids and a dollar bill was always included as one of our presents.
But now, a birthday without my brother? No! From deep within me came the rumblings of a grief I did not expect, a sucker punch that made me look for a chair to rest in. Dan is gone.
Dan is gone. My big brother, my role model, my confidante. He was the one who told me the facts of life when I was only five-years old, taught me the art of tossing a perfect one hand push shot on the basketball court, and a curve ball on the baseball diamond. Dan was my partner when he and I would play Pa and my brother Dick on our golfing vacations. We played stick ball together. I was proud to caddy for him when, as a fourteen-year-old kid, he won the junior golf championship in Buffalo.
It is said that the greatest loss in life is to lose a parent or a spouse or, God forbid, your own child. I have no quarrel with that thinking but the loss of a sibling deserves honorable mention among the panoply of losses.
A brother or a sister is part of you. You grow up together, sleep in the same room, and wear one another’s clothes. Once you reach a certain age you don’t snitch on one another. You scheme to fool your parents and keep one another’s secrets. There is competition between siblings. That goes without saying. But there is sibling loyalty, too. You honor that. There are certain things mom and dad need not know; things you share that you share with on one else.
My brother and I grew up at a time and place when people, especially brothers, were not physically demonstrative. No hugging for us. You’ve got to be kidding. A hand shake or pat on the back was about as close as we got to showing our affection for one another. No. “I love you man” stuff for us.
But, at the end of Dan’s life, we both realized that saying “I love you” to a brother was not only acceptable, it felt right and good. Because, the truth is we did love one another. The inhibitions finally melted away and we spoke heart to heart, soul to soul.
We still do. On my imaginary birthday card, with the traditional dollar bill tucked inside, I wrote “I love you, Dan. I always did and I always will.”

Hey God, It’s Me, Tony

Hey God, It’s Me, Tony

I was volunteering as a sort of surrogate grandpa for abused and neglected kids in California. We “grandparents” lived in our own separate quarters on the village grounds. It was heartbreaking working with kids who had seen much tragedy in their young lives but there were times when it all seemed worthwhile.
Ten-year-old “Tony” dropped in on me just after I had received news that my older brother from back East was at death’s door. I’m sure the anxiety showed on my face when Tony paid his visit. “Grandpa Hank, what’s the matter? he asked me.
“Tony,” I explained. “I just got very sad news about my older brother. My sister called me and said he is very sick and may not live through the night.
The little boy sat down; his eyes showing his empathy. “What can I do to help? “he asked. “Nothing much anyone can do,” I replied. “I guess if you wanted to say a prayer for him that would help.” The boy sprang to his feet. “Do you mean NOW?”
I really wasn’t expecting such quick action but I answered, “Sure, You can talk to God anytime”. Tony was a man of action. He went outside on my front patio and lifting his eyes and arms heaven-wards, here are the words the little guy was sending up to heaven.
“Hey God, it’s me, Tony. Grandpa Hank’s brother is really sick; He might die.. Could you help him get better?” Then after a short pause, he continued. “I’d sure appreciate any help you can give him.”
Tony came back inside and he had a smile on his face. “Grandpa Hank, there were some construction guys working on your street and they probably thought I was a little weird praying out loud like that. But I didn’t care. Heck, I wasn’t talking to them anyway. I was talking to God.”
Well I thanked him, of course, and then, looking him straight in the eyes, I said to him. “Tony, I asked you to pray for my brother because you know what? God has a special place in his heart for children. That’s just the way he is. I think that when a kid prays to God, God will answer him.”
So the little guy left with his parting words “Don’t worry Grandpa Hank. Your brother will be OK.” I felt that I was in the presence of someone very special on that day. I can’t begin to claim I know the mind of God. Whether a miracle of curing took place on that day, I don’t know.
I do believe from the depths of my heart that the creator of the universe does listen to the prayers of children and that, in itself, is miracle enough for me.
PS. My brother did recover and now, five years later, is still doing well…

The Deeper Side of Love

“What the world needs now is love sweet love. That’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”

Remember Dionne Warwick belting out that Bert Bacharach song back n the day? Pretty song isn’t it? The lyrics express the yearning in all our hearts for the warm embrace of amour. There would be peace in the world and in our souls if only we could share the love within us.

We all know what love sweet love is don’t we? It’s that feeling you experience just walking hand in hand with a close friend. or getting a smooch from your grandchild. It’s those warm fuzzies you get after making love or the sense of pure joy you feel at the birth of your child. We all know the feeling. We need it; we crave it. We drink to it and write songs about it.

But we don’t devote nearly as much time acknowledging the deeper side of love. I’m talking about that aspect of love that comes with tears and pain. It’s the love that accompanies suffering and sadness and even death.

We tend to ignore this flip side of sweet love. We mention it in our marriage vows “in sickness and in health, until death do you part) but we move on quickly to the wine and roses celebratory moments. Yet, it is this deep side of love that is the support of a man taking care of a wife stricken with Alzheimer’s disease or enables a person to ay down her life for a friend, even a stranger.

People use other words to describe this other aspect of love, words like courage or commitment or sacrifice but, to me, these are just other words for love. Behind every act of courage or heroism is that deepest motivator of all, the power of love.

There will come a time in the life of all of us when we are called to live the deeper side of love. The call may come unexpectedly like the sudden death of a loved one or slowly like being asked to stand by as a brother or dad or grandma passes away in a sterile hospital room.

I wish sometimes that we only had the sweet love of the Bacharach song but we were created for more, much more.
We only become fully human when we can accept both sides of love, the laughter with the tears

Scattered Reflections of a Monkey Mind

Scattered Reflections Of a Monkey Mind

My mind is all over the place. Can you relate? I’m like a kite on a windy autumn day, flying this way and that way. I came to the chapel to meditate, to reflect on God’s presence in my life and in the world but OMG, He (She) is not here. The Spirit is hidden underneath all my monkey mind distractions. What God? He sure ain’t here in the chapel with me.

Is he anywhere? Atheists claim that God did not create us; rather we have created God. Nah! I don’t buy that but they are partly right. The God we imagine as a benign old grandfather in the sky is definitely a figment of our imagination. I’ll never find that God in the chapel or anywhere else.

So I ask myself, where will I find the real God? Could be I’m looking in the wrong place. Maybe it makes more sense to search for him in people not in the sanctuary. God is in the moments of our lives. It’s like we have to go out of ourselves to discover his presence in the universe, in people, in nature.

If we don’t find his presence in a child’s innocence or in the heroism of a soldier dying for his country or in the compassion of adult children taking care of aged parents, where can we find him?

God is found in quiet time (if I can keep awake and discipline my monkey mind) but he is discovered more obviously in relationships. Ay! There’s the rub. Finding the image of God in one another is more challenging, don’t you agree?

In the musical Oliver, the little waif of a boy sang “Where oh where, oh where is love” Abandoned by his parents, physically abused at the orphanage, Oliver yearned to find love (God) in his life and it wasn’t easy. The people he had met in his short life didn’t exactly exude the milk of human kindness.

Like Oliver, the wounded vet or the spouse taking care of a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease, can be pardoned if they ask, “Where oh where oh where is this God of love.” And you know what mates? Sometimes, we just don’t know. We yearn to see God and at times he has the unnerving habit of playing peek-a-boo with us. Is it okay to get PO’d with the Almighty? But where else can we go?

So, I will continue to search for God in the people around me, the washed and the unwashed, the saints and the sinners because I have experienced way too much love, way too much grace in my own life to doubt his presence.

And, I’ll continue to search for God in the quiet of the chapel because I know, (if only I can stop nodding off); I will find him there, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saving the World All by Ourselves

Saving the World All by Ourselves

Fellow “do-gooder” and a close friend of mine were talking about all the people in our lives who needed help with their problems. Relatives, friends, kids, old folks all were up for discussion. We worried about all of them. Man! It was exhausting trying to figure out how we could rescue all these people. There wasn’t enough time in our days to solve all their problems. We were starting to feel depressed just thinking about our inadequacies.

Then, in a flash of enlightenment, (or was it the red wine?)  we hit upon the only possible solution. “You know something,” my friend said in mock seriousness “You and I can’t die. We have too many people depending on us.”

We had a good laugh at ourselves over our own imagined self-importance. We decided that it was time for self-appointed “fixers” like ourselves to get a life and time to take ourselves less seriously. The truth is, and we know it in our heads, we don’t change anyone.  People solve their own issues or they don’t get solved.

The troubled teen-ager I angst over will get over his anger issues (or he won’t.) The mom driving herself crazy over trying to balance taking care of an elderly parent and two little kids will eventually figure things out. The man with a drinking problem will stop drinking when he wants to and in his own time. Divorce happens, our pet pooch dies, kids make mistakes; but life goes on. It ain’t a perfect world but it’s all we got.

Does that mean we don’t lend a hand to a kid in trouble or take no responsibility for the planet we inhabit? Of course not. We are in this world together, mates. To be human is to care for others.

But we “fixers” need to accept our limitations. Even religious people (among the worst of do-gooders) would do well to acknowledge that whatever good we do is only a part of a larger design. God is still in charge.

The Creator has his own plans for our lives and the lives of wounded teens and traumatized vets and ill-nourished children. We are part of the plan and God or the Universe or the Spirit invites us to be part of the solution but we are not the whole show. God works through us but we are pretty silly if we think we are in control. Those who would carry the whole world on their shoulders, need to stop, look at themselves and, like my friend and I, have a good laugh.

 

“Spot Players,” Subs and Coming Off the Bench

“ Spot Players,” Subs and Coming Off the Bench

My brother Dan and I were reminiscing the other day about Dan’s high school basketball career. My brother’s role on the team was to be the “spot man.” Dan’s defensive skills were modest at best and he was not known for the spring in his legs or his speed, so he was not a first stringer. But man, the kid could shoot. Give Dan a clear shot and it was good for two points. So, when the team was down a couple of points and needed a shot in the arm, the coach would call on Dan. Invariably, he would oblige  SWISH!  A basket for our team.

Our conversation got me thinking about the roles we play in our lives, Few of us are called to wear the mantle of super stars, whether it is in politics or sports or the entertainment business. We are destined to be bit players in life’s drama. We may as well face it; our demise when it comes will not grab headlines in the media. Headlines are reserved for the JFK’s or Martin Luther King’s or the Brad Pitt’s of our day.

Yet, like a spot player on the basketball court or a bit player in a movie, the parts we play are important. I recall a high school teacher saying to me “You have a gift for writing. Use it.” I doubt if he remembers the moment when he said that to a boy struggling with his own self-esteem and how much that mattered to me.

On another occasion, a “spot player” entered my life in the person of an older Afro-American woman. I was grabbing a pizza at Union Station waiting for the train. The tables were all taken so I asked a young man if he would mind sharing his table. He agreed and just before we began scarffing down our pizzas, the black lady asked if she could join us. “Sure no problem,” we said. But before we could began to eat, the lady, a complete stranger, asked us to wait a moment. Spreading out three paper napkins in front of us, she bowed her head and said a prayer. We waited politely until she finished. Then she turned to us and said with a warm smile, “Gentlemen, now we can dine.”

I was impressed by the way this lady turned the prosaic act of downing a pizza into something sacred. She went out of her way to share this meal with a couple of people she had never met and would probably never see again. She, as it were, came off the bench to teach us a valuable insight, one that has stayed with me all my life. She had her moment with a couple of strangers and played the role to perfection.

As the years have gone by I have come to believe that the Divine Director has a role for us to play. The world is still in the process of creation and we are in the cast. For most of us, we have only a bit part but, as any good director will tell you, bit parts done well can make or break a production. Spot players can win a game.

Companions on the Journey

Companions On The Journey

When I call to mind the good companions who once shared my journey, the pain of their loss returns. I feel like crying. Yet, in a strange way, they seem to help me move along my way and we walk together.”

                                                       Rabbi Chaim Stern

      My wife Kathleen passed almost eight years ago, but she is with me still. I don’t think of her all the time but at certain times, I feel her presence and know that she is still with me on my journey.

I have shared my experience with others who have lost a spouse or child or parent and there is instant recognition in their eyes. “I know exactly what you mean,” a woman friend told me. “It’s not that I obsess over my late sweetheart. I have mourned his loss but I am fully engaged now in living my life.” She paused before contining. “It’s just that, I feel him with me sometimes. It’s kind of eerie but also comforting. “

When we lose a loved one, we can’t help wondering. Is she still alive somehow? Does her soul rise from the ashes of death to live another life? Is she or he “up there and looking down on us?”

My own Christian religion has no doubt about an after life. Resurrection from the dead is one of the basic dogmas of our belief system.  Yet, I believe that even without the reassurance of religion, I would hold on to a conviction that the spirit in us remains alive.

The cynics will say, “Nonsense, when you are dead, you’re dead. End of story. I don’t agree. We may bury the bodies of our loved ones but their spirit remains. It’s the soul within us that puts a sparkle in our eyes and a spring in our step. It’s the spirit within that reveals who we are.

That same human soul that can dream dreams, and yearn for peace and compose songs and poems that can move the world, that soul capable of giving his life for another person or for a nation, is that soul dead? I don’t think so. The human spirit is as eternal as love and faith and beauty.

I know my wife is present on my journey because, as the Rabbi says, and I know, we walk together. She is with me just as surely as your parents or spouse or children are with you.