When Life Attacks

People often use the phrase “life happens” as a sort of catch-all explanation for why things don’t go as planned. The implication is that life continually happens to us, the passive, unwitting masses. The actor Jim Carey has suggested that life actually happens for us. What I want to know is what do you do when life repeatedly and relentlessly attacks you from all sides? Huh? What do you do?

This story begins in late October, when my 95-year-old mother-in-law suffered what appears to have been a mini-stroke caused by multiple occlusions, which had until then gone undetected. Her son, a retired healthcare worker with whom she lives, rushed her to a local hospital ER, where she was diagnosed and admitted for treatment. Sometime after that, Mom was transferred to a rehab center for physical and occupational therapy.

A few weeks later, my brother-in-law and his wife were scheduled to be at a family wedding in North Carolina. The wedding was to take place on the same day as my daughter’s “big second wedding reception,” but I’ll get to that later. Our intent had been (a) for my wife to care for her mom in her brother’s absence, (b) to involve Mom in our daughter’s big celebration, and (c) to give Mom a nice Thanksgiving. In one fell swoop, all of this had become uncertain at best.

In the days that followed, after one of several visits with her mother at the rehab up in Lindenhurst, my dear wife suffered an unfortunate accident while getting into her car in a near-empty parking lot after dark. The result was an awkward fall that resulted in multiple fractures to her left leg and foot. She texted me from the emergency room of a hospital in Libertyville, “Please don’t get mad,” and proceeded to tell me what had happened. Our son, who lives in Rogers Park on the far north side of Chicago, miles closer than my own home, drove up to offer assistance. The medical staff at the hospital in question — and there seems to be a great deal to question — saw fit to splint my wife’s leg, told her not to put any weight on it, and promptly discharged her. Eventually, our son drove her home.

Meanwhile back in Plainfield, while our son was driving his mother home, our daughter, with the help of her husband and a friend, set up a corner of our TV room with a mini fridge, commode, food, beverages, and other accouterments, with the hope that my injured wife would be able to make do without risk of injuring herself further. In no time at all, it became clear that this was not to be the case. The following day, we were all working together to seek more competent medical attention for my wife.

I should mention that while all this is going on, I had arranged to work remotely in order to ensure that Karen would never be left alone in such a vulnerable state. I can only thank God and my employer, a family-oriented company not quite like any other I have experienced, that this was even possible. Even so, life just kept right on happening. I had been working away on an almost calm Thursday afternoon when the news came to me via email that my mentor of the past four years, also my direct superior, partner in crime, and friend, had “parted ways” with our company. This seemed odd to me, as only hours earlier I had neither seen nor heard any indication from the man that he had any intention of executing such a departure anytime soon. Hmmm. As is my nature, I reached out to people. No information was volunteered and I did not pry. I just let it go at that and went back to shouldering life as it continued happening. And believe me, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

A day later, a competent orthopedic surgeon examined my wife’s injuries, gave a rather alarming assessment of the “cookie cutter splint” that had been applied at the previous facility, scheduled urgent weekend surgery two days hence, and having declared that my wife should never have been discharged in her vulnerable condition, sent her to the emergency room across the street from his office.

Sometime after 3:00 AM the following morning, Karen was admitted to Silver Cross Hospital. One day later, on a Saturday morning down in surgery prep, we were informed that due to a testing oversight, surgery would have to be postponed. To say that Karen was displeased doesn’t quite cut it. Because she could not be safely discharged, my dear wife was now stuck in the hospital pending that surgery. Meanwhile, our daughter’s second wedding reception, two years in the making, was scheduled to take place that very evening.

You see, it’s like this. Two years ago, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our daughter got married. Teresa had always wanted a big feast of a wedding, like Karen and I had enjoyed so many years ago, but the pandemic restrictions rendered that impossible. At one point, Teresa and her husband-to-be had created a spectrum of contingency plans, ranging from a restricted ceremony with the two of them, a priest, and a witness at the low end, to a modest celebration of up to maybe 50 people at the high end. The latter is what took place, but the whole time, they vowed to follow up with a full-blown reception the following year, after all the restrictions had been lifted. Unfortunately, the following year still held some restrictions and much uncertainty. And so it came to pass that 2022 would be the year of the big second reception.

Karen had been in tears when she realized that she would not be attending our daughter’s big reception but nobody was willing to place her in harm’s way for the sake of attending a party. Still, we all vowed to do the next best thing. If we couldn’t bring Karen to the celebration, we would bring the celebration to Karen! All night long, an entire team was busy capturing elements of the celebration and streaming them to my wife. And believe me, it was a hell of a time. Being surrounded by friends and family enabled me to set aside all my concerns of the day, if only for the moment.

The following Tuesday, we were back in line for surgery, only this time it happened. Without going into the sordid details, the surgery ended up being every bit as involved as it had promised to be, involving substantial hardware to compensate for one repair that would not be possible. Still, it had gone smoothly, the surgeon assured me. As expected, there would be a lengthy recovery ahead.

Hours had passed before I was able to see Karen again. When they brought her back to her room, my wife looked like she had seen too many miles of bad road. I opted to let her rest and went to run all the errands she had assigned to me prior. By the time I returned to the hospital that evening, Karen was her old self again, with color in her face, a twinkle in her eye, and that unmistakable sense of humor that we have so long shared between us. We still had no solid indication of how much longer she would be in the hospital or exactly where she would go next.

Two days later, happy Thanksgiving! Karen was still in the hospital. Administrative red tape, undoubtedly lengthened by the holiday weekend, prevented us from knowing with certainty where she would be going from there, but we knew it would not be home. Based on recommendations from the social worker and from our primary care doctor, Karen selected a rehab facility close to home. But there was paperwork to be filed and then reviewed by somebody, somewhere, before we would have any kind of confirmation of the transfer.

Long before any of this had transpired, our son John had begun scheming an “event within the event” to take place on Thanksgiving Day, which would be hosted for the first time by our daughter Teresa. John assembled an entire team of accomplices, all working together below the radar of his significant other, Emma. Even her mom was in on it, agreeing to fly in from California the night before and be snuck into the house that morning, under cover of carefully orchestrated distractions. At the appointed moment, everybody came together and witnessed a beautiful and most eloquent proposal, all live-streamed to my wife’s hospital room, of course. There were many teary eyes, my own included.

Life, which always happens, had begun to cascade. The following morning, Emma would depart Illinois, first for her home in California and shortly thereafter to Honolulu, to start her latest job assignment. John will follow her sometime in January. Between now and then he will get their belongings moved from their Chicago apartment and move back home for a few weeks, along with their dog and cat. Then he, too, will be off to Hawaii.

But wait, there’s more! I woke up the Friday after Thanksgiving with telltale sinus issues that seemed to indicate I would be coming down with a cold soon. I was already committed to making a run up to see my mother-in-law and bring her some fresh laundry that I’d done a few days earlier. Not being able to make that run on Thanksgiving had killed me inside but with everything else afoot, it was impossible, simply too much — and I was the very last to admit it.

I stopped in Rogers Park to pick up John on my way up. During my last visit to see Mom, when I had picked up her laundry, she wasn’t sure who I was. I tried to help her remember, unsuccessfully, and went home feeling so deflated and alone. My son had this knack for drawing a reaction from his grandma, even if she wasn’t sure who he was, and so he gladly came along. We did better together than I ever would have on my own. I am grateful.

By all rights, this should be the end of my story and it would have been more than enough at that. But you see, life doesn’t just happen. Life continues to happen, sometimes relentlessly.

By Saturday morning, my “cold” symptoms were much worse and on top of all else, my senses of smell and taste had completely disappeared. After more than two years of testing negative for the COVID-19 virus, I had become convinced I was a “no-vid,” incapable of becoming infected. But my God, I had just spent a day surrounded by people celebrating Thanksgiving and then gone to visit my 95-year-old dear mother-in-law, stopping from time to time to visit my health-impaired wife in the hospital! Could there possibly be a worse time to contract this damned thing?

Of course you know what happened next. Not just one but two tests came back positive and I was instructed to quarantine for five days, to inform anyone whom I might have exposed, and to inform my employer and ask once again to continue working remotely. Please pause for a moment, look back on everything I have just shared with you, and try to imagine what this task might look like.

I do think I may be the most fortunate man alive. In addition to the outpouring of sympathy and understanding from my wife, my family, and my friends came nothing but solid support from my employer of almost exactly four years and a plan for moving forward from all concerned. And this is exactly what has enabled me to continue on in the face of life as it happens.

Now I am healing. My wife, still in the hospital, waits patiently for her rehab assignment. Various family members and friends are dealing with cold, flu, and covid infections, not all of which are related yet we recognize that we are related and hold each other up as we move forward. We have only one rule and that is to never ask, “What next?”

Unlike most of my stories, this one has no clear ending. Life happens, sometimes all at once. The thing is, life will keep right on happening until it ends. Whether you believe it is happening to you or for you, what you do with this ever-unfolding life is up to you.

Me, I’m still here, still standing, still moving forward. It’s been an interesting few weeks, though. And if you’re still here with me, reading along, thanks for hanging with me.

Yes I Am the Bad Guy

Some theologians profess that God permits evil in this world in order to bring about a greater good. I promise you that I am not here to argue theology but please bear this point in mind as I share a couple of stories with you because it may become pertinent. Now let me be the first to admit that I am no angel. In fact there are at least a few people out there who probably suspect the opposite about me.

From as far back as I can remember, I have always been a spiritual sort but despite this, I have repeatedly fallen in and out of conformity to the practices — and presumed good graces — of organized religion, specifically Roman Catholicism. I am writing this largely for the benefit of my children and any of their subsequent offspring that may follow, but the rest of you may be amused as well. Let’s talk.

I think I was about fourteen years old when I began to have feelings for this girl from Indiana whose mom was a work associate and good friend of an aunt of mine. By way of the ongoing friendship between those adults, “Agnes” (not her name) and I would meet from time to time and, being close in age, would get paired together. I saw my first major rock concert with her at a stadium in Bloomington, Indiana. We even went on a few trips together. We were too young to know much about love but at that age, the hormones were doing their thing and, well, suffice it to say that we liked each other and never hesitated to express our affections when we were without adult supervision.

One autumn day, I was tagging along with my aunt to run errands in her 1975 Caprice Classic station wagon. As is often the case with young teens, my mind was on that girl. At some point, my aunt commented, “You really like Agnes, don’t you.”

I responded without even thinking, “Sure!” I will never forget what my aunt said next.

“Well, just make sure you keep it friends because her family would never allow you to become more than that.”

I had no clue what she what talking about, so I asked why. The wind had already been taken from my sails and the conversation that ensued twisted my gut into knots. My aunt explained that the girl’s family was Serbian and they belonged to the Serbian Orthodox Church. I hadn’t even known what a Serb was up until then, but I’d had Greek friends since childhood and therefore assumed that the Serbian Orthodox Church must be similar to their Greek Orthodox Church. Okay, fair enough, but that didn’t explain why Agnes couldn’t be my girlfriend. She couldn’t be my girlfriend because of her religion? Why not? I’d had a non-Catholic girlfriend before (my interest in girls started very early) with no issues.

Well let me tell you, the answers to my first questions may have unsettled me, but my aunt’s answers to that last one positively enraged me. Like the Greek, Serb culture is intertwined with their church and to keep that, they tend to marry within their own nationality and religion. I had naively assumed that religion was supposed to bring people together. You know, love thy neighbor and all that good stuff. But here it was, dividing people, just as it has done through the ages. The very idea that I could be declared off limits to a young lady because I was Italian and Catholic floored me.

And from that point, my opinions on religion — not just my own but religion in general — was forever changed. I began to question everything and the more I questioned, the farther I distanced myself. By the time I was halfway through college, I had become a professed agnostic. Not the most welcome thing to be at a Jesuit university, but there I was. And while I was still very spiritual at that point, by choice I was not practicing any religion.

During my last year of undergraduate study, something unusual happened. I became involved with a young lady named Karen, whom I’d known since the start of my freshman year. We had never dated each other nor shown the least inclination to do so. But the circles in which we ran intersected from time to time and on one magic night, something happened that would change the course of history for both of us: I kissed her.

I couldn’t tell you why I did it. I’m not sure I know now. We were sitting in a neighborhood bar frequented by students who lived nearby. We were there with a group of friends, not as a couple, but found ourselves sitting together after everyone else had left the table to play pool, load the jukebox, talk to other patrons, etc. I have no idea what we’d been talking about. I know there was a pause in the conversation and during that pause, I leaned forward and kissed her. Something I cannot define moved me to act in that moment. That’s all I know.

I froze, realizing what I’d just done and not knowing what to expect in response. Karen looked at me and without batting an eye, said, “Oh, come on, you can do better than that.”

I felt like I had slipped in to a dream sequence but not being one to ignore such a challenge, I did indeed try to do better. Apparently I did alright that second time because we continued on from there. By the end of that evening, I went home with my mind swimming in a whole new sea of possibilities. There was only one problem: That young lady was already engaged to another and everybody knew it, including me.

What the hell had I been thinking! We barely knew each other! She was scheduled to be married to another guy! Anybody else in his right mind would have run like hell, had he been foolhardy enough to do what I’d done. But no. I saw her again. And again. And again. The very idea scared the living crap out of her at first. She literally ran away from me the day after that first kiss, as soon as I gave credence to doing anything more than forgetting that kiss had even happened. But I ran out after her and a few blocks later, as soon as I realized she could run faster and farther than me, I begged her to stop running and come back.

Had she kept going, that would have been the end of it then and there. Remember, we still didn’t know much about each other at that point, so going our separate ways shouldn’t have been a very difficult thing to do. But that’s not what happened. She stopped running. She walked back to me. Why? I can only suggest that we both saw something in each other from which we could not run, no matter how utterly wrong moving forward may have seemed to anyone else.

We continued talking. We started going places together. Hanging out together. Spending more and more time together in an effort to discover everything we possibly could about each other. Our relationship grew in all directions, at an astounding pace. At some point, she broke her engagement off with the other guy. That’s right, this lady walked away from a sure thing to take a chance on nothing but the strength of a possibility that we might have a future together.

Most people don’t know this part of my story. There was surely no reason to brag about it. I don’t even think I told my parents about this. Not all of it, anyway. And believe me, I was hated for this. Not by everybody, not even by all that you would have expected to hate me. But by some. Her fiancée, for sure, although he and I never saw each other after what happened. My regular friends seemed to take it all in stride. Karen’s parents and grandparents seemed relieved that her engagement was off, and they were friendly to me from the first time we met, but I’m not certain they saw me as having been the catalyst for that broken engagement.

You want to know who really hated me? Karen’s roommate, who was also engaged at the time. As I came to understand it, my very existence threatened everything that was supposed to be a certainty in her life. She thought Karen was off her rocker and likely told her so. Me, I held no grudge against the roommate. I even attended her wedding. But I don’t know whether her opinion of me ever changed.

To Karen’s fiancée, her roommate, and others like them, I was absolutely the bad guy. What I did was wrong, against the rules, from the very beginning! Why would I even think about doing such a thing? Maybe because I saw past what was apparent on the surface. Maybe we had both been driven by the force of love before either of us had even realized it.

In the end, despite Karen not being Catholic, we did get married, almost three years after that kiss from nowhere. Whatever it was that drew us toward each other with so much force was in fact real and had driven us forward. The greatest possibility came to fruition and we are still married more than thirty-five years later. We produced and raised two children, who are now adults themselves. They would not exist today had I not done the wrong thing so many years ago. I know ours was not exactly a storybook marriage by any stretch of the imagination, but it has been beautiful nonetheless.

But please know this: What we have today was never a sure thing at face value. It was only a sure thing in the realm of possibilities. It is also the product of some wrongdoing. But despite all this, had we not done what we did, there would be no story to tell, no thirty-five-year marriage, and no two grownup kids.

Some theologians profess that God permits evil in this world in order to bring about a greater good. All I can say in this regard is that not everything is as it appears to be. Am I the bad guy? According to some, yes. Would I do it again? Yes. Everything that happened was supposed to happen. This I believe to be true.

Sometimes when the spirit moves us with such force, we’ve just got to go with it.

As always, thanks for hanging with me.

Emotional Stimulus and Response

 

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I was sitting in a managers’ meeting at work a few weeks ago when the facilitator posed this question to each of us: “Are you more about facts or emotions?” He then proceeded to go around the table, which was essentially populated by the leadership team of the company for which I work, extracting an answer from each of us without passing judgment one way or the other. The responses were mixed, which made it very easy to be open and honest when my turn came. Without hesitating, I said, “I’m a walking, talking bag of emotions.” I couldn’t have fibbed if I wanted to, since the facilitator also happened to be my mentor. After everyone had answered the question, I seized an opportunity to return the question. “What about you,” I asked our leader.

“I’m a very emotional person,” he admitted, “but I make my decisons based on facts and I don’t allow my emotions to control me.” My mentor’s response caused my perception of the man to shift somewhat. Oh, I knew he was all about facts and I knew him to be a genuinely happy person, but if this guy was “very emotional,” he was so in a way that was very different from me. When I think “very emotional,” I think in terms of swings and this man is not given to emotional swings. This was a learning moment for me, one of three that would unfold in the space of a week’s time.

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My second learning moment came during a much smaller meeting when my mentor revealed to me something that should have been obvious — it had been right in front of my face for decades — but hadn’t been obvious until then. For many years now, at various companies, co-workers have looked to me for help, guidance, or outright direction even if they did not answer to me. The late Dr. Stephen Covey referred to this quality of leadership as “moral authority,” which differs from formal authority in that the latter invokes authority by title. And here is the second learning moment that my mentor handed me: Because people look to me in this manner, when I display adverse emotions, I profoundly affect others. As God is my witness, this had never occurred to me.

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Now let me back up and explain why this matters so much. Because I have never seen the potential harm it can and does cause, I have never been one to contain my initial emotions. Keyword: initial. For example, let’s say I have been working for several hours on a time-sensitive project that is nearing deadline. There is a substantial queue of equally time-sensitive projects right behind that one. At that moment, someone approaches me with three more such projects, each of which appears to disrupt the current priority and order of events.

My initial emotional reaction is to flare, to outwardly exhibit my displeasure. Without using words, the look in my eyes says, “Are you serious?! What is this, some sort of test?!” Moments later, the emotional flare has passed. I’ve already processed all the facts and revised the order of my business in order to make sure all the deadlines will be met, an accomplishment for which I am revered in consistently achieving.

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No harm done. Right? Wrong! Sure, I’m moving along my merry way again, not even giving that emotional flareup a second thought. But those who look to me for guidance and direction saw their leader falter — and that is the problem. People may feed on that, especially those close to me or who look up to me. Whatever they see, be it fear, anger, resentment, whatever, I just set the tone for the rest of their day, if not longer. What if I caused them to begin withholding vital information about new projects? What if I caused someone to stop coming to me for much-needed help? The results could be devastating for that individual, the department, even the company. Such is the far-reaching impact of my response, however short-lived it may be. Wow. How many casualties had I left in my wake? I silently vowed to myself, “No more!”

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My third learning moment came during a one-on-one session with my mentor. We had been talking about events — those things over which we have no control — and our responses, which are the things we can and should control. I don’t recall the specifics, but at some point I opined, “You aren’t afraid of anything. I wish I could be more like that.”

His next words stopped me in my tracks. “What do you mean? I’m afraid. I’m petrified.” I looked at my mentor, dumfounded. How could this be? The man sitting in front of me was a virtual Rock of Gibraltar. Nothing ever phases him. Nothing. In the midst of a challenge, he smiles. Even laughs. Scared? Petrified? What’s the secret, I wondered.

“I simply don’t let my fears stop me from pursuing my results. I contain my emotions. I control them. They don’t control me.”

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And there it was, my path to a better outcome, presented in three realizations.

  1. I can be emotional without being a slave to my emotions. My choice.
  2. Understanding that emotions are contagious and that I am a carrier, I can spread joy and gratitude just as effectively as I can spread despair and frustration. My choice.
  3. I can be scared as all hell and still move forward if I understand what I am moving toward and why — and others will follow me. Again, my choice.

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You know, it’s pretty cool to be at this stage of my life and my career and to realize that I am still learning, still growing both personally and professionally. I am a work in progress, absolutely not perfect, and that’s okay. I am always learning, always growing.

Sometimes putting my thoughts into words helps me to understand them better so if you’re still reading, thanks for hanging with me.