Thursday, May 26, 2016

Under Pressure

"If I die and wake up in the middle of a meeting in a room with florescent lights I will know that I am in hell." ~Fr. Matt

"I highly doubt that's going to happen but preach on, Padre." ~A Speckled Trout

Every Tuesday morning I have to go to the weekly staff meeting.  Since I mostly push paper and am not a decision maker of anything more than when I should take my lunch break most everything doesn't apply to me.  My presence, however, is required.  The beginning of each meeting starts with everybody sharing their highs and lows.  This was confusing to me during that first week of employment as I had nothing to report.  A comfy chair and an office Keurig could be a high, I suppose, and so I decided that would be my response when it was my turn.  Imagine my surprise when this was not business highs and lows but rather personal ones.

This exercise instantly got better because now I could learn a little something about my new coworkers and they about me and my exciting life.  Normally one to prefer to not speak up and have all eyes on me, I instead embraced this opportunity to tell everyone what was going on outside of my office life.  A daughter having a baby, another one about to graduate college, the Listen To Your Mother show in May....  I could go on and on with the highlight reel of my life, and being a team player I mostly kept it all high.

Driving to work every Tuesday I would mentally go over my weekend and think about what I was going to say to charm and entertain during my five minutes of highs and lows.  When I was two-timing and also doing my retail job over the holidays my coworkers loved my stories of crazy customers - especially the one who insisted to me that angels were not religious.  Sometimes it felt like I was doing stand-up for a new career path and maybe I was.  So imagine my surprise one Tuesday morning when instead of being asked to relate our highs and lows it was decided to switch things up and inquire....

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE DAY?

What?

Going first one of my coworkers said, "At night when I get to go to bed.  I am not joking."  She totally took what I was going to say as the first thought of many mornings is calculating how many hours of adulting I have to fake before I can call it good and climb back into that tempur-pedic.  I was in a pickle.  The high and low I had practiced had to be trashed and I was under pressure to come up with something different and so I said, "It would have to be the morning.  First thing when I wake up and the birds are singing.  They have so much to say so early!  Secondly, would be the first slug of coffee and how it courses through my veins like a blood transfusion from the American Red Cross.   Lastly, my flower garden that is right outside the front door that I pass on the way to the car to get to work.  All of a sudden it has sprung to life."

My coworkers smiled and nodded.  "Oh that's good," they said.  "Especially the coffee part."

And I smiled back and thought, "That might have been the biggest line of bullshit I've ever said out loud."  I hate the mornings.  If the birds wake me up I want to yell at them to PIPE DOWN.  If they don't beat the alarm in waking me up I want to throw that beeping thing that practically gives me a heart attack every morning out the window - quite possibly at the chattering birds.  The coffee part was true.  The garden?  That was an unnecessary flourish to a mostly false answer.

I dreaded the next meeting and what was suddenly going to be asked in the getting-to-know-you-question-of-the-week.  Fortunately we u-turned back to our regular routine and I was in my comfort zone.  "My high was a relaxed weekend puttering around the house, getting caught up on laundry and grocery shopping.  I do have a low this time, though.  The Good Wife ended and that has been my Sunday night ritual for years."

Cue the sad, pouty face.  I was back in the high/low business.

The next week we had our regular staff meeting - smaller in attendance and in a different conference room and I was ready.  "My high?  Going to my mother-in-law's 85th birthday party where we saw people we hadn't seen since we got married over thirty years ago.  My low?  You guys, the security line at Midway Airport in Chicago.  It snaked clear to the parking garage and it was at the crack of daylight on a Sunday morning."  They might ask me a few questions about TSA and my mini-trauma and then we'd move on to my right and another employee with their own set of highs and lows.

Imagine my surprise when once again the script was thrown overboard.

WHAT ARE YOU MOST LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS SUMMER?

Who is reading the HR manual all of a sudden?

I s.c.r.a.m.b.l.e.d.  "I would have to say that I am most looking forward to the sun since it's been so cloudy and rainy lately and the heat.  Definitely the sun and some good 'ol summertime heat."

It was an out-of-body experience this big, fat lie of mine.  It sounded like it was coming from the deepest recesses of a lying heart that resembles you-know-who-Trump.

I hate summer.  The sweat, the frizz, the relentless droning of the air conditioner, the stinky sandals. But mostly I hate summer because so many women seem to pull it off so well with their sundresses, casual ponytails, sun-kissed skin and perfectly minimal makeup.  Why do they taunt me and my beady sweat 'stache with their coolness?

"Huh," a coworker said,  "I wouldn't have guessed you to be a summer person."

This would be true because on every other day of the year I am neither a summer person nor a morning person - just a working girl whose only decision is when to eat the salad she brought from home and the big, fat lie she's going to pull out of her pocket when the highs and lows are no longer a priority on Tuesday morning.

"If I die and wake up in the middle of a meeting in a room with fluorescent lights I will know that I am in hell." ~Fr.  Matt

"I make shit up." ~A Speckled Trout



Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Closing Circle

For as long as I can remember my mom has been a frequent wake and funeral attendee.  As kids, we were going-to-church-clothes-regulars at the Fred C. Dames Funeral Home, where just above the casket hung a bunch of water-colored grapes on the wallpapered walls.   Back in those days a wake would be at least two full days and my parents believed that loading up the station wagon with all of us was an essential learning experience in life and death.  Since I was freaked out just by walking in the door of Fred's place, I kept my eyes glued on the grapes for fear that whoever was in the casket that year would pop up and scare the sweet jeezus out of me.

Whenever Mom tells me about a recent wake or funeral that she has been to I will always ask, "And how was it?"  She predictably says the same thing every time, "So-and-so looked good and you'll never believe who I ran into there." One time she went to a wake and on the way out passed a room that was empty except for the person in the casket.  "I decided to go in there and sit for a bit," she said, "because I couldn't imagine how anybody could die and not have a single person there to pay their respects."

"Well, Mom" I said, "maybe the family went out to get something to eat."

"Somebody should have stayed behind," she answered.  She would later add in almost a whisper "Kath, he was a professor." I didn't know if this was a simple fact she was passing along or a warning to share with my professor husband that he better start working on his people skills or he'd end up in a funeral parlor alone save for a stranger passing by.  "I stayed for a bit and said a few prayers," she said.  "It seemed like the least I could do."

*****

A few weeks ago I was driving around running errands and thinking about the father of my childhood friend.  Nancy and her dad had a falling out when her mother died that was never mended.  About that wake Mom said, "That might have been the worst one I've ever been to.  Nobody was talking or even looking at each other.  You could cut the tension with a knife."

Many years would go by after that when Mom told me that she had heard from Ed who had called to tell her that he had reached out to his daughter.  He was in the throes of a deep depression and his therapist thought that writing a letter and trying to repair his relationship with his estranged youngest child would be helpful to his recovery.  Nancy called me after she read the letter and was livid.  I listened once again to her litany of accusations but for the first time I didn't let her off the hook.  With my own dad gone even longer than her mom, I couldn't imagine having a father still alive but acting as if he were dead.  Sharing those thoughts with her would end our friendship as my perceived allegiance to her dad was enough for her to cut ties with me as well.

Since he was like a second dad to me growing up I decided I'd respond to him with my own letter.  The specifics of it will stay on those written pages, but I wanted to thank him for many things including being so good to my mom and dad when my dad was so sick.  He called me when he got the letter, and on a trip home awhile later he and Mark and I met for breakfast.  He carried a Ziploc bag with him that included old photos of him and Nancy's mom, the second wife he would be married to for a few short years before she would die of cancer, photos of grandkids, and the letter I wrote him.  "This is my important stuff," he said.  "You see what's in here, right?"

With Ed on my mind so much that day, I decided that since we were going to Chicago soon I'd call him and see if he wanted to meet again for breakfast.

That afternoon Mom called.  "I have some bad news," she said.  "I just got a phone call.  Ed died this morning."

Ed died this morning?

All morning I had been thinking of him on the very day he died?

A few days later Mom would call back to tell me about Ed's wake.  She would say that my childhood friend was a no show but that she talked to Nancy's older sister and her husband.  About Ed she said "He looked good" and then added, "he looked like he didn't suffer."

Those words stung because my mom had never said anything like that before, but at 88 she's grieved for more than her fair share of people who have suffered on their way out.  I don't know anyone who has lost more people in her life - her husband, friends from church, friends from the old neighborhood and the new neighborhood, friends from high school that would always go to reunions with her, two full-term stillborn babies, a niece and nephew, a brother-in-law, two sister-in-laws, cousins, the spouses of cousins.  The list goes on and on, and instead of being sad about Ed, my sympathy suddenly turned towards my mom and her circle - a bigger-than-life tribe throughout my life that has gotten smaller and smaller as the years go by and the deaths accumulate.  How she must miss them all.

When the last of my mother-in-law's brothers died she said, "I can't believe I'm the only one left.". My grandmother, who lived to be 97, once said to me, "You don't want to live this long, honey.  You don't have any friends left."

No friends left?  Whatever in the world must that be like?

If it's true that when someone dies their energy dissipates into the world, the dearly departed, including Ed and a professor whose name she never knew, have been keeping Mom company for a very long time.....

......and while it certainly isn't the same as having them here in this life it is how she has lived without complaint.





Monday, May 2, 2016

The Show

When asked if I would consider being part of the team to bring Listen To Your Mother back to the stage in the Kansas City area, I said "yes" when I had no idea what that "yes" would entail.  My own experience when I was in the cast, however, was so life changing that to not consider doing that for other storytellers seemed selfish. 

A hundred times in the months leading up to the show I said to myself, "Oh, honey, you are in so over your head." Every Friday on my day off I cold-called businesses, pitched the show and practically begged them to consider sponsoring.  I heard "no" so much that after a couple of hours of that weekly rejection I would hold my head in my hands and think "how in the hell are we going to pull this off." I made in person cold calls and follow-ups that didn't go much better, but I asked them to at least consider going to the show to see for themselves how wonderful it is.  A couple of months later when the posters were done I called on them again saying, "Here you go.  Here's everything you and your customers need to know about this show."

When it was time to get those posters and then programs done I thought that there was no way I could deal with graphic designers and a printing company without looking like an idiot.  Sometimes that was exactly how I looked because even now I have no idea what a pixel is.  They didn't hold it against me and instead walked me through what they needed so both of us were satisfied with the end result.

Through it all I had a partner in Greta - someone I barely knew when we started.  It was a blind date that quickly turned the corner into an engagement.  We bounced ideas off of each other.  She would prop me up through my weekly sponsor rejection.  When the graphic designer emailed with a question or problem, Greta would jump in and take care of things if I wasn't able to respond right away.  Most importantly, it seemed when one of us was feeling the stress the other would instinctively know and help carry the load.

We also had a national team behind us that was phenomenal.  If you had a question there was an answer within minutes.  If you felt like things were going south there was a phone call.  If you wondered how teams in other cities did things you need only ask the Facebook group and you would have a dozen people weighing in with their thoughts and unending cheerleading.

We went into this without any idea of the kinds of stories that would show up when we put out the casting call.  Nobody told us how hard it would be to decide what pieces would be in the show. We heard so many good stories that we easily could have doubled the size of our show.  Ultimately, we put together a cast that would spend nearly two hours taking the audience through the hills and valleys of motherhood in the most spectacular way.

It would be impossible not to love this cast.  They are funny, gregarious, soulful, complicated, smart, wise.  They are kind.......the sort of kindness and gentleness that catches in my throat whenever I think of them.  They laughed at the funny stories and cried with the sad and tough ones every single time.  They are everything you could ever need or want in a girlfriend.  When they came back onto the stage at the end and the whole place erupted in cheers and a standing ovation, I was so proud of them.

After the show when we were having dinner, my son asked, "So what did you learn from all of this?"

I learned that I am capable of doing far more than I give myself credit for.
I learned that all of us feel connected by the stories we hear and share.
I learned that being part of being something bigger is an honor.
I learned that, like motherhood, providing the means for someone else to shine might be the most satisfying thing I have ever done.

I learned that I love to keep learning.