my love/hate relationship with Christmas

For most of my life, Christmas was never a really big day to me. I treated it as a day off with family. A day to be nice to each other. A day to try to remain pleasant. A time of year to be charitable. It was a day for kids as far as I was concerned. My Christmases have evolved over the years.

My earliest memories were happy. My family didn’t have a lot but my father always showered us with gifts, especially my mother. He would shop up until the stores closed, it was never enough. The earlier he started shopping the more gifts he would buy. We couldn’t afford it, he paid for it all year, but he did it anyway. He had nothing as a child and he wanted better for his family. Dad would repeatedly ask my mother if she was pleased with her gifts. She always was, fortunately, because his happiness depended on it. He loved us, he loved the holiday. I have such fond memories of Christmas back then.

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When I became a parent, we did the best we could to give our children an amazing experience. My wife did all of the shopping and wrapping. God bless her, I couldn’t do it. I was in charge of assembly, working late into the night after struggling to get 4 excited kids to sleep. We would be woken at 4:30 or 5 to the sound of them rustling under the tree, barely able to contain themselves. Exhausted but resigned to our fate, we would succumb and get up. Despite our best efforts to make the opening of presents organized and last for a few minutes, it was over before we knew it. My wife would help the kids move their presents to their rooms and clean up and I would start dinner and prepare for the arrival of the rest of the family. While doing this I would pour the first of many cocktails in preparation for the impending drama. I could count on my wife losing it over something that day, the big question was what.

When the kids were young, I did enjoy Christmas. As a father, the memories of my little ones tearing open gifts, barely waiting their turn for the next one, smiles from ear to ear are etched in my mind forever as the best part of being a parent. I felt their joy. As a husband, Christmas became one more day to dread. My wife ruined it for me. I will never know how someone capable of all of that preparation, organization, and detail with gifts couldn’t handle my mother and father coming over. After a few years of consistent shit storms, her being uptight, anxious and rude to my parents, I began to dislike the holiday. It was more than I could handle.

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Now, the children are grown. We no longer have a house to put up a tree and we are far apart. We will get together for dinner and a modest exchange of gifts. I will be virtually empty-handed this year, I simply have nothing to give. They will understand, they are not toddlers anymore. I’m still dreading the day, I can only think of how it used to be.

Sadly, it took the events of the last year to teach me the true spirit of the holiday season. By reaching rock bottom I am forced to look up. By having nothing, I have a new appreciation for good thoughts and intentions. The weight of commercialism is lifted from me. I find myself light on funds but generous of spirit. I have love in my heart and a true desire to help anyone if within my means. I want peace on earth and I have goodwill towards my fellow man. It’s all I have. But at the end of the day, I think that’s the overall message of the season, isn’t it?

the reason for the season

“Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about” Charlie Brown famously lamented.

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Fortunately, Linus bailed him out.

The Holiday season. I’m in the midst of my 52nd one and I still don’t know how I feel about it. It is so many things to so many people.

It is the celebration of the birth of a savior who I have always grappled with my belief in. It is also the source of division between people of different faiths and non-believers.

It is a time to show our love for each other in the form of giving gifts. But due to rampant commercialism and consumerism, the presumed spirit of love, generosity, and peace are replaced by excess, greed, and stress.

It is a time for parents to live up to expectations and give their children the “in” toy or gadget, to see the smile on the face of their children. It is also a time when struggling families are unable to provide any good gifts, because life is hard, and they have to endure the disappointed looks on their children’s faces.

It is a time to gather with friends and family, eat and drink and enjoy each other. It is also a time of year that is depressing for many who are alone, grieving, suffering or struggling who only want the season to pass.

Fortunately, underneath it all, it is still the one time of year when people can be counted on to be their most generous, loving, aware of others in their community and just plain nicer. You don’t need to believe in a loving God to appreciate the importance of kindness, the value of charity, and the rewards of giving.

My hope is that this year, happiness is not measured by the size of the box or the price on the tag, but by the love behind it. We need to be giving each other kindness, acceptance, tolerance, a cup of soup, a coffee, a sandwich, an ear or an encouraging word. Things that cannot be bought in a store and have no expiration date. That is to say, they should last all year.

 

My Special Purpose…Part 2

Deciding to be more positive would prove to be less daunting than actually doing it. I was in a rough place. I was still jobless, broke and living with my mother. Not exactly the cover of Forbes Magazine. I decided that the first course of action would be to embrace my surroundings. Despite the hectic, chase- the-dollar-lifestyle I had been living (and dying from) I was always a lover of the outdoors, an avid reader and a fledgling blogger. I spent time outdoors, read voraciously and started this blog…often all while outside. I soon realized that this was where I was meant to be, I just got here earlier than I planned.

I also found myself thinking clearer and better than I can ever remember. I achieved a state of Zen in my thinking, I achieved presence. For the longest time I have felt that I was not living my life, but instead watching it play out in front of me. I had achieved clarity and a desire to be completely, brutally honest with myself. I looked at everything, the good, the bad and the seriously ugly in a harsh and unforgiving light. I sorted out what would never be possible again and cast it aside. I envisioned what I would be capable of and I game-planned it. I forgave myself for my mistakes and I asked God for guidance. I decided, as cliché as it is, that my two choices were to dwell on the avalanche of misfortune that had swept my life away or to move forward. My income would be modest, I would never have the career, lake house and garage full of muscle cars that I had been working for. But money has become less important to me. What matters to me is quality of life.

I decided that I would do whatever it took to get healthy and stay healthy enough to secure my legacy. I would master the one thing that I was able to do consistently, sometimes unknowingly and without effort…to inspire. With apologies to Steve Martin, I found my Special Purpose.

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It might seem corny but I have always had an underlying desire to help others. My original Graduate school curriculum choice was counseling. I wanted to either be an underpaid social worker or a School guidance counselor. It wasn’t until I got married and my life became all about paying bills that I grudgingly decided that I needed a “real job”. I decided even then that I would always do what I could to help others, as a job or as a calling. I always felt as if I could do more. Now it appears that maybe I have.

The one thing that got me through decades of illness, bad relationships, and financial hardship was a hard-headed denial. I refused to acknowledge those things that threatened my goals and I was able to downplay and often shut out thoughts that were “downers”. Starting with my chronic illness, I loved when someone said: “you don’t look sick.” Well, that’s good I would think to myself that’s the goal. As I got worse, and more and more people knew about it, the more determined I was to not show it. My doctors would later say that my denial worked for me. By not acting sick I actually stayed healthier.

With regards to my marriage and the money problems, well they were one and the same. My wife would constantly attack me about the finances, asking me if I knew what was going on. If I knew how much trouble we were in? Of course, I knew, but I asked her if she thought it was helpful or healthy to dwell on it. Perhaps I should stay home? Give up? Not try at all to make it better? I suppressed it and went to work, it beats laying down and dying. As with the illness, when people found out how much trouble I was in they would marvel and say “you would never know it by looking at you.” Once again, that’s the point.

My children are grown. My miserable marriage is pending divorce. My health is relatively stable for now. I am debt free. My mind is sharp. Nothing is stopping me now from utilizing my special purpose except time. How much life is left in my years? I’ll know soon enough. But until then I am going to be the best person I can be, and hopefully, instill hope and inspiration in others. Not to achieve accolades, my end goal is so much simpler than that. I only want to be remembered as a good person. I think it’s doable.

I have already started the journey. I have forgiven myself and let go of my grudges and anger. I have forgiven some people that held more of a hold on me than they deserved. I tell people how I feel about them. I take time to say thank you. I find a way to help instead of an excuse not to. I volunteer at the food bank. And I just submitted an application for financial aid in order to study to become a Substance Abuse Counselor. I’m on a roll and nothing is stopping me now. If there is a way that I can make someone’s life just a little better and I have the resources to do it then I’m going to try. Someday, someone will say to my stone “Yea, he was a good guy.” That is all I want. To be the best friend, father, son, cousin, and human being that I can be.

And maybe I will have inspired others to do the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My special purpose… Part 1

I’m not dying, I just live like I am.

This past July I wanted to die. I was so sick, so down and out that my will to live was receding like the tide. Chronic illness had hospitalized me before, kicked me pretty hard but never knocked me to the floor. I always managed to dust off, put on a good face and pretend everything was fine. But this past July was different, it was a perfect storm that came roaring in and left my life in a debris pile when it left. In the 3 ½ weeks I was hospitalized I would lose my job, my apartment and be forced to accept that I needed to go on disability. In addition, I learned that I had lost about 30% of my kidney function. The realization that my Kidney Transplant, the greatest thing to happen to me other than the birth of my children, was failing was more than I was prepared to deal with. I was losing my famous optimism. I could handle a few punches but not the barrage I had been dealt.

I would check out, pack my few remaining belongings into my civic and move to my mother’s house to recover and plan my next move. God bless my mother. She welcomed me into her home, without judgment and gave me all of the tools to recover both physically and emotionally. It would be weeks before I would get my breath back, literally and figuratively, and start to plan my next move. Priority one was getting out of my very uncharacteristic funk. It was bad, even my wife who I feel notices nothing about me, commented “you need to find the old you, the fighter. I don’t recognize this guy. Get him back.”

It would be Facebook, of all things, that would get me on track. Many years ago, when I was really getting sick and in need of a transplant or dialysis, I joined an online support group for Kidney patients. I made a few friends across the country, one of them was Jeanne from West Virginia. Jeanne was at the same stage I was and we often commiserated about our progress. I would get a transplant much earlier than she would and she followed my progress. For someone I never met we knew each other well and had a solid connection. Fast forward to August, Jeanne has since received her transplant and she is doing great. She posted on the 4-year anniversary of her progress and her new lease on life. I was compelled to comment and I posted that I found her “inspirational”. Her response floored me. “You were my inspiration, thank you.”

I was floored by this revelation. To think that my story had compelled someone, had given them hope was invigorating. I told one of my best friends about this, he agreed with her. I would learn that he and many others found my “push forward” attitude refreshing and motivating. That had never occurred to me and I was floored. I only acted as such to motivate myself to keep going. I knew then that I had to find my old mojo, if not for me then for others. I needed to, at this point the only thing that gave me any joy was my children who I never saw but loved more than anything.

To be continued

PC vs Common Decency

I do not stand with the people that insist that as a Country we should shout Merry Christmas from the rooftops. We do not need to assert that this country was founded by people primarily of Judeo-Christian faith.  Multiculturalism is a wonderful thing. There are approximately 29 Holidays celebrated within the month of December. It is culturally intolerant of us to insist that everyone says Merry Christmas. I believe that “Happy Holidays” is just fine. That is my bow to the age we now live in.

On the other hand, if someone, anyone for that matter, wishes you a Merry Christmas and it’s not your holiday…take it and say thank you. The overall point is that someone took the time and made the effort to say something nice to you. Don’t be offended. If someone offered me a peanut-butter and Jelly sandwich and I had a nut allergy I would say thank you for the sandwich. It’s common decency. Which, like common sense, is not common.

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Lighten up people, please.

Poker face

“You know, there’s this really great support group at a church in town. You may get something out of it” she said. Roxanne had startled me, I was zoning out in the chair. I removed my headphones, retracted the extendable arm of the TV, turned and gave her my full attention.

“Do I look to you like I need to go to a support group?” I asked. “I’m the last one in this room who needs that.” I subtly pointed out the people around me, nodding my head in their direction. “I mean, look around.” All around me were cancer patients, attached to bottles and tubes getting chemo, plasma and god knows what. They looked very sick. I was the only non-cancer patient in the infusion center, there for an anemia deficiency. I thought I looked pretty good in comparison.

“Bill, you’re carrying around an awful lot of baggage, you can deny it all you want but this is what I do. It wouldn’t hurt to talk to someone.” I didn’t question Roxanne’s pedigree, she was good at her job. She knew all of her patients that had walked in after me, enough to hug them and in some cases elicit tearful responses. This was my first time at the infusion center and I felt like I have known her for twenty years. She was older yet youthful, matronly but attractive, professional but very comforting. I had come in expecting a simple shot, I was to find out that I was to be seated for a 90-minute infusion. In the time it took her to swab my arm, insert my IV and hook up the bag she had extracted my entire medical and personal history. She was very easy to talk to. I felt like she knew me. But did she know me enough to tell me I need help dealing with my apparently visible emotional baggage?

The problem is that I think I’m doing pretty good with everything. A lot has happened, and I have lost a lot of what is dear to me. But I roll on, in my family tradition and I try to stay positive. In doing so I make an effort to concentrate on my body language and facial expressions. Beneath it all, I am a control freak through and through. If I look like I am handling it, then I am handling it. What goes on in my mind will not show on my face.  I’m not feeling bad for myself, I don’t ask anyone for anything and I don’t want pity. “Why me?” is not part of my lexicon.

It never occurred to me that maybe I’m not pulling it off as well as I thought. Maybe only someone like Roxanne, the infusion center cougar, whose job it is to provide relief and comfort to the truly sick among us, can see through it. Or maybe I’m just kidding myself. Maybe I should talk to someone.

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I always thought I was a good poker player. I won a lot of tournaments. Until one day I played with my friend Jeff. He called all of my bluffs and beat me handily. It turns out I have a lot of “tells” that he picked up on. If I don’t have the poker face I thought I did, then maybe Roxanne is right. I mean, it can’t hurt, right?

Integrity and $2.25 will get you a coffee

I have been on a nice, even emotional ground lately. I have rolled with adversity and conflict without anger and frustration. The only good thing to come out of recent events is that I have reconciled my past, forgiven myself for past mistakes, and tried to approach my future as positively as possible. I was doing great until yesterday when I saw my wife.

As part of the divorce proceedings, we are required, as parents of a minor child, to take a class on the impact of divorce on children. Our youngest is 15 and she is fine with everything so the course would be a piece of cake. Sit through it, sign your certificate of completion and head home. I would drive her home, I would head back up and we would not see each other until Christmas.

When my wife initially proposed that we get divorced, she put it out there as completely amicable. There was no money to argue about so alimony was out of the question, no assets to bicker over, and an agreement that I would give whatever I could towards supporting the family. No court mandates required. Completely civil. She just wanted to move on and I agreed.

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In the ten-minute ride to her house, she completely changed her tune and started talking about what would happen once I started receiving my disability checks. I didn’t know how to answer that, particularly because I still have no guarantee that I will actually get approved. She began to talk about how much she would need for the youngest two children in the way of clothing, food etc.,. I explained to her that if I am approved I will do whatever I can for my family, reminding her of our previous conversation. She pushed on further, speculating again on a check that I can’t guarantee. Finally, I asked her to just give me a number. She wouldn’t. She refused. Apparently, her monthly expenses are private. They always were I suspect. She handled the finances and despite how well we did we were always broke. Exasperated, I told her she was unaccountable and it was unfair. She replied that I was trying to walk away from this marriage without consequence. Are you absolutely kidding me?

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This is a direct affront to my character. My character is all that I have left in this world and it is not in question. I am committed to always doing the right thing, especially with regards to the children I love so much. I have shown her my ass, figuratively speaking, by disclosing everything and offering it all if needed and she thinks that I would let my family go without anything when it is within my means to prevent it? All I ask for is some transparency, something I have never had in the time we have been together. I may have to have an agreement drawn up after all. I can’t believe that my integrity is on the line after the sacrifices I have made to do right by her. I never say this but I’m offended.

As my dad, a very honorable man often said…”sometimes, it’s just the point that matters.”