Monday, October 15, 2012

Take Time With a Wounded Hand, 'Cause it Likes to Heal

Logging onto my fantasy football website today, I stumbled across a headline about a grieving college athlete who was going to take some time off.  That link is here:

I noticed two things in the story itself.  First, the player's sister died in 2009.  Second, the sister died in a car accident on her way to her brother's basketball game, driving through a snowstorm because she was intent on seeing him play.  Obviously, I can't know what is going on with anyone else's grief journey, but I'm guessing the manner and cause of her death have been particularly hard for this young man to deal with.  It may be that this is why he needs time off from basketball, and not classes.

Whatever the case, I was glad to see this story because it brings grief into the spotlight a bit, and especially serves to remind people that the pain, difficult feelings, and adjustments you need to make in the wake of death are not buried alongside the body, and aren't put to rest days after the death.  So often, we read about players missing one game to attend a funeral, or there is a blurb about how an athlete is coping with a family member's death in the immediate aftermath, before the death has really sunk in.  Oftentimes, it is not until weeks, months, or even years later that we fully appreciate the loss and what it means. 

Kudos to this young man for bucking the critics (and believe me, they're out there -- people looove to judge how other people handle loss, but that's a post for another day!) and doing what is right for him, right now.  I hope he finds some peace and resolution on his journey. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Putting the Pieces Together

When I was younger, my mom and I (and later, my sister, when she became old enough) would put together jigsaw puzzles.  We'd especially enjoy this over Christmas break, as my mom is a teacher and we'd have time to tackle one or two each winter.  I hadn't really done this in a while, probably since college, until recently.

A while back, I started getting into puzzles again.  Specifically, after moving to San Antonio.  It started when I had to pick up some things for work at Hobby Lobby.  I hadn't been to Hobby Lobby in a very long time, and was entralled with all its offerings.  I found a couple of really cool puzzles there, and bought them.  Both were "collage" style, which are my favorite -- baseball and football.  As a random aside, my cousin Katie and her boyfriend (whose name is Brian) also did the baseball puzzle and finished within hours of us, even though neither of us knew the other was doing it (she lives 1,000 miles away)!  How's that for weird?

I digress again in this paragraph....feel free to read it or skip ahead to the next paragraph.....despite the fabulous selection of craft items, decor, and accent furniture, I won't be shopping at Hobby Lobby again anytime soon.  Why?  1)  Everyone can practice his or her own religion, but the personal beliefs of those at the helm of a corporation should not dictate the medical choices available to its employees.  I mean, if the founders were members of the Latter-Day Saints, would it be okay to deny employees coverage for organ transplants and blood transfusions?  Just had to point that out in the interest of fairness, as it would seem I was endorsing Hobby Lobby above, when I am not.  Not after learning this.  Stepping off my soapbox now...; and 2) the two puzzles I bought at Hobby Lobby (each costing $18) had missing pieces!  Seriously. We took up our living room rug and moved all the furniture to look for them, but found nothing. I don't think it was the cats either, as I never found misplaced pieces, "evidence" of consumed pieces, and there is also the fact that we have successfully completed other puzzles, both new and used (including one that looks to be from the 1980s, that my friends bought from a thrift store, a puzzle we borrowed from them knowing it has been through moves and partial completion previously) without any pieces being missing.  Only the ones purchased at Hobby Lobby have had this disappointing conclusion (it is very anticlimatic to realize you won't have that triumphant feeling of putting the last piece in place after HOURS of puzzling).

Despite being disappointed with missing pieces, the puzzles were fun, and Sheldon and I enjoyed putting them together.  Most recently, I put one together on my own -- the one that is pictured, a 1,000-piece Elvis Presley quote collage that was nearly the size of our coffee table (the picture is made up of quotes, like a photo collage).  In a way, it felt symbolic of what's going on in my life....I'm putting the pieces together.  Except in life, you don't know what the final result is going to be, what the picture is going to look like.  During all these hours of solo puzzling, I started to think about the parallels between what I was doing and my life's journey.

I feel like I had a good idea what my life was going to look like when I was with Brian.  We were putting down the pieces that formed a pretty good picture -- marriage, a home, our careers, two cats.  It was far from complete, but the borders were done, and a good deal of the middle.  Then, when he died, it was as if someone (ahem, God) swept the whole thing off the table.  There, on the ground, were the remnants of what we had been building together.  There were large sections still left intact -- our friends, my job, our house -- but it wasn't a cohesive picture anymore.  Everything was in pieces.

For a while, I vacillated.  Would I get back to work putting that puzzle together again?  I had sort of lost my interest and my passion for what we'd been building.  It wasn't the same without him, wasn't as fun.  While I was taking time to think about what to do next, I realized I could start a whole new puzzle, one that would look totally different.  As always, you have to start with the border.  The border sets the boundaries of the puzzle and tells the other pieces where to go, what space to fill.  It literally is where you start, and that was the first thing I had to decide in my life. When I started my new puzzle, the outline was no longer Iowa-shaped; I built it in the shape of Texas.

Having established my new boundaries, I had to fill in the middle, which is the meat of the puzzle, the pieces that make up the bigger picture.  What's hard is that life, unlike a jigsaw puzzle, offers unlimited pieces.  Everything around you is a piece that may or may not fit into your picture -- every person you meet, every job opportuity, every city in the world, every decision, every opportunity you can take or pass up, etc.  Sometimes more than one piece fits, and you have to choose the best one for your picture.  Sometimes a piece seems to fit, but later on you realize it doesn't after all, and you have to take it out and throw it back in the pile.  You have to choose your pieces carefully to make sure they do fit and they make the best picture possible for you.  Going into my new life, my plan was to go at it solo, and to work on putting my soul back together, then concentrate on the career portion of the picture.

However, as often happens with puzzles, things didn't proceed neatly as planned.  I did well with the healing portion, blogging and journaling, and talking things out with friends.  However, as I tried to identify the career pieces and put them into place, I kept coming across other pieces.  You know how some puzzle pieces are so distinct that you immediately recognize them and know where they belong?  Even if you try to ignore those pieces and continue laboring away at the part of the puzzle you are intent on knocking out, those pieces keep jumping out at you, to the point that you have to put them in place before you capable of seeing or finding any of the pieces you might be looking for.  Despite my intent to get the career portion of my life put together before anything else, the pieces that kept jumping out at me were the love and friendship pieces.

I put the friendship pieces in place eagerly, happy to have something fit into place so well.  The puzzle grew and grew as one piece led to another, which led to another and so on.  Eventually, the friend portion of my life started to look like it was going into "love" territory.  I kept seeing Sheldon on these pieces of my life.  I didn't want to put him into my life -- I didn't want to build that part of my life yet, because I didn't have the work part put together.  It didn't fit my plan.  Besides that, I didn't think it was a fit -- I literally remember telling him once why we didn't fit together.  I was so sure of this that I wasn't really willing to try just putting that piece into my puzzle.  I was sure he belonged in someone else's picture.  I tried out some other pieces, and none fit.  I kept seeing him amongst the pieces out there, and finally realized -- or finally admitted to myself -- that he fit perfectly into my bigger picture.

Now, I'm still laying pieces down, and picking up those that I realize don't seem to fit after all -- career pieces, more friendship pieces (some of these need to be set down in San Antonio), spirituality pieces, grieving and healing pieces.  Still, I work on the puzzle every day, and more and more of the bigger picture is coming into view. 

I wouldn't have planned to build my life in the manner and order that I have -- figuring out the love part of the picture before the career fulfillment part -- but, looking back, I wouldn't have it any other way.  In life, aren't love and family the most important things, and the biggest indicators of happiness?  I realized I'd rather have a career that fits into my family than the other way around.  That's not to say this is the best plan for everyone -- I think it really comes down to which pieces jump out at you, which ones have a clearly defined place in your life.  Those are the pieces you have to put together before you can move on to the next phase of the puzzle, even if that wasn't the way you intended for things to come together.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Making Your Mark (or Marcia, or Kimmy....)

I recently got to see Chris Gardner (, whose autobiography The Pursuit of Happyness inspired the Will Smith blockbuster of the same name, deliver a speech.  If you ever have the opportunity to see him speak, take it!  He was inspiring, funny, witty, and entertaining.

One thing that struck me about what this brilliant and wildly successful man had to say was his message about breaking negative cycles, and how our greatest legacy is how we shape generations to come.  He spoke of growing up without a father, with a poor excuse for a stepfather in his place, a man who would threaten him, mistreat him, and constantly remind him, "I ain't your daddy."  Gardner vowed as a five-year-old child that he would not be an absent father, that he was going to be in his children's lives when he had kids, and that he would be not just a "father," but a "dad."  If you have seen the movie, read the book, or heard him speak, you know he honored that commitment.  He became homeless because of the fact that he was a father (no kids allowed at the men's shelter), yet he still provided for and took care of his son as a single dad, making sure his son was safe and fed while he went hungry and scraped by, trying to make a better life.

Gardner, of course, went on to make millions of dollars as a stockbroker, despite starting out in the business as a homeless single father with just a high school education. He was wildly successful before writing a best-selling book that parlayed into an even more successful movie. I think we'd all agree that if a mega-star like Will Smith portrays you in a movie, you've "made it" in life. In spite of all of this success, Gardner said the most important thing he has done in his life is to be there for his children, to raise them to know that they are loved and supported by their father, something he never had. He is most proud of breaking that cycle of men who weren't there to raise their children, and he spoke to the fact that many families have some negative cycle repeating itself generation after generation -- abuse, poverty, obesity, molestation, teenage pregnancy, etc.

When speaking about the impact of breaking this cycle, Gardner pointed out that the money, fame and success he's had were good to have in his lifetime, but that they don't hold a candle to the fact that he raised his children right and given them a gift -- the gift of presence and unconditional love and support -- that they can pass on to their own chidren, who can pass it on to their own, and so on.  He said that many generations from now, his legacy and mark on the world won't be what he did as a stockbroker, but it will be his offspring, who will be in a better, more well-adjusted place because the cycle of abandonment was broken.

It's an interesting concept, to think about how our influence on others can carry over across generations.  If someone raises their children well and is able to "fix" some of what was broken in the existing family dynamic, you hope those children will carry those lessons and that example forward to their own children, and so on.  You help form the next generation so that they can form the one after that, forming a new (healthier) cycle.

I had a lot of mixed feelings about this message.  On the one hand, it rings true.  Our mark on the world can only be carried forward by other people.  On the other hand, I don't think those people have to be your children.  Many religious and philosophical leaders, as well as artists and writers, died childless and still have a profound effect on the world years later (or we have a good hunch that they will, for some still living)....Jesus, Mother Theresa, Socrates, Oprah Winfrey, Anne Frank, Florence Nightengale, etc.

In discussing Gardner's point with Sheldon later, I broke down in tears when he said he agreed that having kids is your way of leaving a lasting imprint on the world.  I wondered, aloud, what kind of lasting mark someone like Brian makes on future generations, having died young without the change to mold a future generation of his own offspring.  It's something I've thought of, usually fleetingingly, because it's been such a painful thing to think about, and is so unfair that it makes me very angry for Brian that he didn't have that opportunity.  I also thought it was something I couldn't do anything about....until Sheldon responded to my lament/question.  He said, "The children we're going to have couldn't have existed if it weren't for Brian.  He will always be a part of our lives, and theirs.  We'll tell them stories about him and make sure they know the best parts about him."  I went from sobbing to smiling through my tears at those tender, wise words.

I know when we make our Mark, or our Lisa, or our Hannah, that those kids will be shaped not just by us, but by him.  We wouldn't be the people we are, and the parents we are going to be, and our children-to-be wouldn't have come about, without him.  His impact will be there for generations to come. 

I'm so lucky to have a man who not only sees that, but helps me see it; and who not only is okay with that, but encourages and is thankful for that.