Thursday, August 22, 2013

Bubba Teeth

My friend's mom passed away today. My heart is breaking for her. I was thinking about our group of friends and the heartaches we have all suffered in last few years. And as I was thinking one question came to my mind: "Where is the picture of us with our Bubba Teeth?"

Before I get to the story of  the Bubba Teeth, I want to give a little background about this group of friends. We call ourselves the Polyester Sisters because one thing we have in common is the history of being incredibly embarrassed by the crazy polyester (double-knit polyester to be specific) that our mom's wore. We embraced it. Made a joke about it. Make quilts out of it. And made it our identifier. But our love of polyseter (the double-knit kind) is not the most amazing part of our group. The amazing part is that we have been friends for life. Literally. Like since birth. And more amazing than that? Our parents are friends. And some of us are relatives. It's a little complicated to explain the details of how each of us are connected to our parents. It's not really that necessary. Through the years I have learned that something I took for granted is not all that common. And while I think it is great that there are friendships that have been together since High School, or the first grade, in my head I silently think that to me that feels a little late to start a friendship and then I realize how unique, and dare I say lucky, us polyester sisters are.

We are lucky in friendship. But we haven't been lucky in all areas of our lives. And that is where the Bubba teeth come in. One of our sisters lost a baby, unexpectedly and without any good explanation, a few weeks before the baby was due to be born. Tragic. Heart breaking. We all mourned with her. At this same time one of my sisters (by blood and by polyester) was preparing to move herself and her four small children across the world to a different country AND send her husband to war all at the same time. Terrifying. Overwhelming. We empathized with her unimaginable anxiety at this situation. And these two things were on top of the other stresses and heartbreaks of everyday life. Things like jobs and unemployment. Wayward children and feuding family members. Depression in ourselves and others. Unrealized dreams. As was our style we gathered together at someone's house to just be together. For some reason that night we ended up at the store. Honestly, I can't remember why. But as we were leaving the store someone spied the candy machine full of Bubba Teeth. We wanted them. We all wanted them. Our hearts were heavy and our reflexes slow. We stood looking at them for some time and discussing our temptation to buy them but lamented the fact that we didn't have any quarters. Was it worth getting change fore? And then one sister (the one who had lost the baby) smiled and reached into her purse. She pulled out a bag of quarters that she had either because she collected them from her rental property's coin laundry or she used them to run her rental property's coin laundry, I can't remember which. But I remember the feeling of "meant to be" as we made the quick decision to put them to use. As soon as the teeth came out of the machine the entered our mouths. And the giggles started. We laughed and laughed and laughed. We made our way back to the house. We laughed more. We took pictures and laughed while we did it. And then I think we probably did some more crying. But in the middle, in the sea of sorrow and fear, we had an oasis of laughter based on those silly Bubba teeth.  I kept those Bubba teeth in my car for months after that. And now and then, when life seemed bleak or overwhelming I would put them in and smile.

I have been struggling with sorrow lately (as I stated in my previous post) and figuring out how to be happy while there is so much sorrow in the world. I have had a question, that I know I had an answer to before but I couldn't find one to now: How can I be happy when there is so much sorrow?  Isn't it insensitive to laugh when others are crying? Isn't it disrespectful to the sorrow, to laugh while we grieve? For weeks I have been struggling for an answer. And today it came to me..... in a memory of Bubba teeth. Life, without laughter, isn't life. We need the laughter with the sorrow. We need the laughter to make life worth living in spite of all the sorrow. Without the laughter (ie happiness) we would have no loss to mourn. As I pondered this concept I remembered the thoughts that my sister wrote before she died. They were her parting thoughts, things she wanted to say to us that she had loved after she was gone. I treasure these words from her. The first thing in them is "Don't cry. Yeah right, me the big cry baby. Of course you can cry. But please laugh too. I have loved laughing with all of you." There it is, from someone in the midst of the sorrow. She was experiencing it for herself and the cause of it for the rest of us. And in her wisdom, at her parting, she gave us permission to cry and laugh together. And she told us how much it meant to her that she had been able to laugh with each of us in her life. It's just like a big sister to teach you something even after they are dead. It's okay to laugh. It is more than okay, it is necessary. Life is full of tears. In my little group of polyester sisters that totals only eleven people from only six different families we have lost to death a total of four parents, four children, and four siblings. And that only accounts for the sorrows that come from death. There are so many other avenues for sorrow in addition to death.

Sorrow will never go away. And I understand now that the only thing we can do to really deal with it is to make sure that laughter and joy never go away either. The truest sorrow of all would be if we had no joy to mourn losing.

So to my friend tonight who has lost her mother to death, I mourn with you. My heart aches for you. I have cried with you today and I plan to cry with you in a few days at the funeral, and in the days between now and then, and the days that follow. And in addition to all this crying you have my word that I will also laugh with you. We laughed today. And we will probably laugh together at the funeral and in the days between now and then. And we will for sure laugh many times and for many reasons in the days that follow. As your friend I promise you this. Because sorrow is a part of life, laughter must be also. And the truest of friendships and the most resilient of lives are those where laughter and tears exist together.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


The other day I came home from work feeling very down and discouraged. It had been a tough several weeks at work with a lot of sick kids that just kept getting sicker. That day one story that we thought was getting happy suddenly got sad again. As I walked out of work that day I decided that I really, once and for all, needed to quit this job. And almost as soon as I thought of it I heard a firm "No!" answer in my head. Or my soul. I have been wanting to quit for a while. To stay home with my kids. This is a reason I could be at piece with quitting over. But quitting because times are tough and it is hard to see so much suffering is not acceptable to me. Right now I am having a hard time understanding why, but I know firmly that it is not.

I drove home that day with a very heavy heart. The image of a mom standing over a bed, looking down at a tiny baby that was struggling to breath and open her eyes, connected to many, many tubes attempting to save her, the mom's husband's arms wrapped around her shoulders, tears streaming down the mom's face. How do I make sense of this, again? I got out of my car and started the walk to my own house, trying to figure out how to switch gears from mourning with those who mourn to being a happy and upbeat mom to my kids. (It's not that I don't believe that mom's should be allowed to mourn, or that kids should see it, or that I have to be upbeat all the time. But I learned a long time ago that it is not fair to me or my friends and family, or practical, to take mourning home from work every day.) I thought I would have a couple minutes to sort it out and switch gears as I made my way up the elevator and down the hall to my own apartment. But as I opened the door to the building I heard children laughing. My children. I was washed over with love and joy and gratitude. And guilt. As I put a smile on my face and swooped up my own little one and kissed her all over I couldn't reconcile my good luck with the tear-streaked face I had left at the hospital.

One of the things you have to learn early on if you work in a hospital or any field where you are constantly exposed to suffering is how to cope with it. How do you live a happy life when you are exposed to so much sorrow? You learn that you can't take all the emotions home if you want to continue to work in the job. You have to figure out how to make peace with it. One of the ways I had made amends was to realize that  I too would have my days of suffering. I would have my moments of loss and mourning. But if it wasn't my turn I didn't need to take on the emotions of those who were currently having their turn. After all, before their own heartache they had been able to rejoice and live life day to day - I should have that same experience. It wasn't that I lost the ability to have empathy or to support those who are grieving. On the contrary. I am filled with empathy. In countless ways I am a stronger and softer and more understanding person because of my role of being a witness to sorrow. And when I am with the person I am completely present, and sensitive, and sincere. My heart truly and completely aches for and with them. But when I leave I try to separate and re-enter my own life.

This "strategy" of remembering that it is not my sorrow, that I will have my own sorrow and it is not my turn has always been rather effective for me. And I would think that based on that I would be "coping" even better at this time. After all, I have just (and am still) experiencing my own personal sorrow. I just buried my sister, much too soon, and after much too much suffering. I am carrying my own cross of grief right now, which makes me think that I would be more willing and able to not carry others' grief too. But what I realize is that I have never completely separated my grief from theirs and refused to carry it. I realize it is not possible. All grief is connected. Because I have had my own loss I am more sensitive to the loss others are experiencing. And because I am carrying my own weight, I have less room to carry others. Even though in my heart and soul I really, really want to. But I'm tired from carrying my own. And from watching so many others carry theirs. And I am tired. Exhausted. But not just physically. My soul is tired. Their is too much sad. Too much.

So why can't I be at piece with quitting? I know I am not alone in this desire. I talk a lot with my co-workers about this. We are all tired. We all entered this field because we wanted to help people. And it is painful to realize again and again that while your heart and intents are in the right place, things are often out of your control. One of my co-workers worries that her son's Birthday has forever been ruined for her because one of our patients died suddenly on his Birthday and now every Birthday party she has for her son reminds her of a patient she feels like she failed, and his family left behind to mourn, on the day she is meant to celebrate. She knows she can't take it all on herself, but she struggles yearly with how to be happy when others are mourning. We talk together about our "second careers". One of my friends and co-workers second career dream is to be a bagger at a grocery store where the biggest question she has to ask each day is "paper or plastic". No one lives or dies based on this question. Or gets offended. Or has their life turned upside down forever. Before I started working at the hospital I had a job in a law office and I spent a lot of time filing. I used to alphabetize folders and think about how I wish I had a job that had more meaning. Now there are many days when I craze to alphabetize. Just me and the alphabet. It is set. It is all decided. It is virtually impossible for me to screw it up. And no one is crying about the alphabet or mourning the life that should have been. Common second careers include opening a bakery, working in a flower shop or a book store and being a travel consultant. My own second career involves me writing a column for a magazine. From home. In my pajamas. On hard days we talk about our second careers a lot. But most of us show up to our "first career" again the next day. And the reason why is what I am trying to answer for myself in this moment.

They say some professions are not so much jobs as callings. I guess to an extent I believe this. And in my own life I feel like I am doing the job that I was meant to do. And one of the reasons I keep showing up is because I feel like I belong there. At some point I realized that while it hurts to witness suffering the suffering would not disappear just because I wasn't seeing it. If a person cries and no one is around, the person is still crying. And it doesn't seem fair to me to leave someone crying just because I don't want to hear it. It doesn't seem fair to me to turn my back and walk away just because I can. I want to be there. The paradox is that while it hurts me to see so much suffering, I receive some relief knowing that I was present, that I didn't turn my back, that I (hopefully) did something to help. And while I understand the importance of good boundaries for self-preservation, I also understand that their is a peace that comes from walking into the fire rather than walking around it. And I don't want the fire to be stronger than me. I believe that is where the firm "no" came from when I wanted to quit. Quitting is okay. I hope I might be able to do it someday. But I need to do it on my terms. Not on sorrows terms. I don't want sorrow to win the battle. I don't really know how to fight it right now. I know in the past I knew, but I have forgotten. The only thing I remember is that I shouldn't let it win and there is a reason and a way. And for now, until I remember the res, I guess this needs to be enough.