Losing My Grandfather

I’m a private person. Some of you call me “the turtle” — because I work things out in my head long before I’m ready to let those thoughts escape my mouth. I blame it on the odd combo of being both sensitive and deliberate. Normally I wouldn’t open up about something so personal in such a public forum but if writing this helps me, sharing it might help someone else…

My grandfather passed away yesterday. He was 96 years and 11 days old. The news shouldn’t have been a shock. Just recently he had moved into a nursing home and the doctors warned the family that he was on borrowed time. And I say “the family” because I wasn’t part of those conversations since we’ve been estranged for quite some time. I thought I would accept his passing with the same stoic indignation I did when he pushed me to the margins but it still hurt. Because even though he inflicted a fair amount of pain in my life, he’s still the only grandfather I ever knew.

I left work soon after I got the message. Went back to my 12’ x 24’ hotel room where I’m spending most of November and put my head under the covers for the rest of the day. Alternating back and forth between grief and thinking that the worst part of this job is those days when you need home but it’s the one thing you can’t have.

I’m thankful for the co-worker who walked me to my car. For the friend who called and offered to drive six hours just to sit with me so I wouldn’t be alone. Even more I appreciate her words when she said, “You can be sad. Even though you weren’t close he is still a part of who you are.” How true.

My grandfather talked politics and wouldn’t listen unless I had something intelligent to contribute. I blame the curse that is the love of partisan debate on him – because it was the surest way to gain his attention.

I’m strong. That’s what happens after years of being beat down. Not literally but, damn, his words could be harsh. And he didn’t spare anyone’s feelings.

Because I was his only granddaughter and didn’t want to be exiled to the kitchen when everyone else was having fun outside, I spent most of my childhood trying to blend in with the boys. I probably wouldn’t have lasted these eight years working with the military if it weren’t for those years pretending to be a tomboy.

He was also stubborn. In the same way I know I can be. It takes two people not willing to talk for years to not actually talk for years.

I had always hoped that when his health deteriorated, he would find enough love inside of him to reach out and tell me he loved me and was proud of me. But he didn’t. And that’s going to have to be okay. We both drew our lines in the sand. And those two lines might as well have been on different planets. I had my reasons. He had his. Sometimes that is just how things work out.

But I’m still sad. Sad he’s gone. The only grandfather I knew, my last grandparent left. I don’t know how to accept the “sorry for your loss” condolences. I lost him a long time ago when those lines were drawn. But today’s sadness is because yesterday I lost hope that our relationship would someday change. The ending to this story has been written. And it isn’t the ending I wanted.

I tried. I really did. Growing up I was much closer to my grandmother. I knew how difficult life was for him after she died suddenly more than 20 years ago. Because it was unbearable for me. I wrote letters. I called. I wanted so badly to build a relationship with him that might fill the void created after she was gone. But it didn’t work.

Family relationships like ours have an interesting arc. First a break. Then anger. Which sometimes can catalyze rebellion. Which creates a greater divide. Over time the distance eventually just becomes accepted. Lingering hurt rises to the surface on occasion but for the most part you’ve both just moved on. Sometimes a pivotal event can re-open communication and lead to forgiveness. But not always.

I’ve never liked the “never go to bed angry” cliché. Because we’re allowed to be angry. We’re even allowed to hold onto that anger if it gives us the strength we need to protect ourselves from more hurt. At least until that anger becomes as destructive and unhealthy as the source of it. And when that happens, forgiveness – the “in your heart” kind — is the best option. I learned all of this from him too.

I remember my last words to my grandfather and I’m just glad they weren’t hurtful. I visited him in March 2008, hoping the time that had passed since we last saw each other had mellowed our difference of opinion. It hadn’t. But I know I tried one last time. And that has to be enough now.

That’s what happens when you’ve lost people you love before. Especially when those last words weren’t the ones you would leave them with if you knew you would never speak again. It makes you careful not to repeat that mistake. And I’m thankful I didn’t.

His passing – for all of its lessons and observations on the twists and turns life can take – leaves me with the same thoughts I’ve had when grief has overwhelmed me before. Those universal truths we all acknowledge… That life is short. That we must give of ourselves. That we must do our absolute best to live without regret. That we can’t fix everyone and, in fact, the only thing we can fix is ourselves. That everyone in our lives is a part of who we are – both good and bad – and that we must honor our own paths by learning from them all.

 

 

 

 

 

Hunting Goran Ivanisevic

Ok, maybe “hunting” isn’t the right word.  But that’s how I’m referring to my travels to the Dalmatian coast next week. Of course, this vacation is not to be confused with the “Stalking Warren Buffet” tour through Omaha awhile back. Mostly because this time I don’t know Goran’s favorite restaurant, business address, nor did I email his secretary about arranging a meeting (yes, we were guilty of all of the above in our unsuccessful venture during a USC football weekender in Nebraska). In fact, according to Wikipedia, Goran lives in Monaco. And he hasn’t posted anything to Twitter since 2013. So this trip is far less strategic than the search for the oracle. But what else do I know about Croatia than it is the birthplace of the most exciting tennis players to ever win Wimbledon? Nothing.

And that’s the beauty of travel. Right now I can only research online or browse a travel guide to see photos of rocky beaches and sweeping views of the Adriatic, to read other traveler’s descriptions of old city walls and fresh seafood dishes. But a week from now I will be able to exchange words in a new foreign language. I will fall in love with cafes and bars I can confidently recommend to friends who follow after me. Maybe I will come across art that will hang in my home and trigger stories about our adventures.

This trip is a bit of an experiment too. My first expedition over an ocean with nothing but a backpack and a modest budget. And this control freak has capitulated all the big decisions to a dear friend who knows the region much better than me. Here’s hoping I can redeem myself after our last failed trip together.  I’m still haunted by the moment when he proclaimed it was “either your way or…your way” after I insisted on staying at a pricey B&B in an almost-sold-out Cooperstown because someone didn’t bother to check the dates of the Little League World Series when plotting our road trip. [ahem]

This is why I wore last year’s t-shirts and tennis shoes all summer. Why I’ve never bought a piece of new furniture. Why I drive past every Starbucks and brew tea at home instead. So I can afford to travel the world’s open roads.

This trip will bring my country count to the mid-40’s. I could have paid off my student loans or maybe even my mortgage with the money I’ve spent on travel the past twenty years but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Because I so desperately want to live a life that can best be summed up by those lyrics of a special One Republic song:

“I, I did it all
I owned every second that this world could give
I saw so many places, the things that I did
With every broken bone, I swear I lived.”

Next week I will confront my fear of flying, again. I will press through that social anxiety that plagues me when I venture outside of my comfort zone (thanks, PTSD). I will sample unknown foods that I may not like, take wrong turns that will lead me away from the next monument on my checklist, and probably even unintentionally insult someone who will like Canada a little less because of me. (I never admit to being American in those moments). But I will likely share a pint with a stranger who will teach me something I need to know, learn a bit of history, dip my toes in a new body of water, hike for a breath-taking vista and laugh with an old friend.

Oh the anticipation of an adventure on the horizon…one that will make the world a little smaller but where first-hand experience will make a far-off place more familiar and more exotic at the same time. When “getting inked” means a fresh stamp in my passport and, if I’m lucky, I will add to my count of memorable connections across the globe too.

 

 

Surviving Suicide – Nineteen Years Later

The rest of the world recognizes Suicide Prevention Day on September 10. But for me it will always be today — June 6. Nineteen years now since Rick took his own life and it’s still the one tragedy that has changed me more than anything else.

Suicide…it’s why I’m deliberate about the last words I’ve spoken to the people I love, why I fight through my fear of being vulnerable to express how I feel, why I sometimes pry beyond what’s comfortable or socially acceptable when I see someone in pain, why I too often put others before myself and why I “take everything to 11” as I was recently told. Because I learned too young that life can change in an instant. Because June 6, 1996 is when I learned how incredibly short life can be.

Rick was my best friend in college. We met my first week on campus at USC. I was just a freshman and he was a few years older. I was poor and stranded in South Central with no clue how to navigate the city; he had a car, a trust fund, and an insatiable sense of adventure to discover everything amazing in LA. The greatest gift of those college years was that he chose to take me along for the ride.

He lived well and introduced me to “la dolce vita.” Even though I had a boyfriend at the time, it was Rick who took me out to my first fancy restaurant. And Rick who taught me about wine and was the first to order a bottle to pair with my dinner. Thankfully no one ever asked for my ID when he would brush past security without pause on the way into the St. James Club or Nicky Blair’s (where he always insisted mobsters were sitting at the next table).

I will never forget those late nights drinking Long Island Iced Teas at Casey’s bar downtown or smoking cigars at Nazareth’s in Beverly Hills. Or how he insisted on broadening my horizons – from ordering Thai food to finding an old school cinema for a screening of “This is Spinal Tap.” Rick has a starring role in the best memories of my college years. And in my life after, because he also gave me my first real job that sent me in the direction of the professional path I am on today.

One day over lunch at Chin Chin, he offered me a marketing assistant position at the start-up company where he worked. He talked faster than usual, drove a bit erratically. If I wasn’t an ignorant 21-year-old kid, I might have recognized those first signs of what would become a six-month manic episode. Shortly after I moved into his office, he took some time off “for stress.” If only I had known that stupid Chinese chicken salad would be the last meal we shared.

All those memories are burned in Technicolor. Just as vivid as the moment his brother-in-law looked me in the eye and told me Rick was gone forever. And how he explained in his emotionally-sterile manner that Rick jumped from a balcony in downtown New York.

Over the next several years I spent an inordinate amount of energy begging God for one last conversation, one more hug. So many of those days consumed in pleading prayer for a sign to let me know his soul was at peace, crying for Rick to forgive me for not knowing he needed to be saved.

But in the almost two decades since, simple faith has replaced that yearning. I’ve grown closer to God and the God I know is defined by love; I don’t believe He punishes His children who are tortured by mental illness. I don’t need to see Rick’s shadow to know this. Nor do I need to see him at all to know he is sometimes near.

A suicide survivor is one of the family and friends of someone who has died by suicide. My heart breaks again every time I learn someone else I care about has joined this not-exclusive-enough club. That’s how this article started. I was thinking about the upcoming June 6th…thinking how even though the pain has numbed, I still miss him terribly nineteen years later. And that’s when I discovered that someone in my world recently became a suicide survivor too. He said he was looking forward to getting the funeral over with because he hoped to get some closure then. I told him the funeral wouldn’t help. Nothing would. Not for a long time. That he would never understand the why and that he would forgive his friend long before he would forgive himself for not being there on that last day. I had nothing but the brutal truth for him. It wasn’t what he expected to hear but platitudes wouldn’t prepare him for the long road ahead.

What I did say to comfort him was how I grew from the experience. How losing Rick made me more empathetic, contributed to my understanding of mental illness, gave me courage to intervene when I saw others struggling, and enabled me to help others cope with loss. That attributing these qualities to surviving suicide helped me feel less of a failure as a friend.

I also thought about how Rick’s suicide probably saved my own life when I struggled. I’ve had some dark days but suicide was never an option because since 1996 I’ve known too well that whatever pain I’ve felt paled to that which suicide would inflict on the people I loved.

And during these last few days leading up to the dreaded anniversary I’ve been reflecting on how I found my way through the grief. How I discovered that friendship and love doesn’t evaporate with death. It doesn’t even fade. Rather, Rick lives on through his friendship and love that has been the source of so many pay-it-forward moments over these past nineteen years. I have kept Rick’s spirit alive by trying to live life as big as he did and by sharing great life experiences with others the way he so generously shared his life with me.

I still think of Rick every time I see a 90’s model Saab, still toast him before those Trojan football games at the Coliseum, and still celebrate his birthday every August. I wish he could have seen past that darkest day to all these good memories he would have been a part of since then. And I wish somehow he’s able to enjoy these moments that I know would make him proud so he can see how we are all better for having been loved by him.

A few years from now Rick will have been gone as long as he was here. But that milestone is irrelevant. What matters is that instead of saying I’m sorry for the 6,939th time, eventually I found a way to live la dolce vita he inspired. And I hope my story of surviving suicide will help a few others find their way too.

Midwest Living, Midwest Loving

An old boss once told me, “The only people who leave California are those who can’t make it here.” I was 23 years old and he was an icon of success so of course I listened to him. Then I banged my head against that brick wall for fifteen years more until I decided it was time for me to leave too. Not because I couldn’t make it. Because I was tired of trying to make it something it wasn’t.

When I came to that conclusion, I was a bit aimless. I went in the direction of Chicago but the “lake-effect” spooked me a bit. That’s probably why I didn’t protest when work diverted me to Kansas City for a lengthy assignment. My friends gave me a generous share of grief about landing in a “fly-over” state. I thought they were equally crazy to risk their financial futures staying in a state with rising income taxes and a brewing public pension crisis. Priorities.

It’s now been almost two years since I ventured east. Over time the extended stay turned into a resettling of sorts — in a city I never imagined living, living a life I never imagined loving so much. Of course, it isn’t all gumdrops and lollipops. For example, this weekend I discovered consignment furniture shopping isn’t the treasure hunt it was in Newport Beach. Apparently there aren’t as many angry empty-nesters here who punish their husbands for sleeping with the secretary by redecorating their house every year to stay on trend. Six glorified thrift shops later full of oak dining tables and pine chests I walked out with a brutal case of whiplash to 1984 but not one piece of Baker furniture. Again, priorities.

I’ve learned a few other lessons too: The best housewarming gift for a west coast transplant? A snow shovel, bag of salt, AND a windshield scraper. Even better if the package comes with a roommate who puts them to good use (love you, Bob!). Also, sunshine does not equal warm weather. And sunshine in the morning does not mean you should leave the house without an umbrella.

But when the dearth of quality used home furnishings tops the cons list, clearly the pros have it. For those of you who fly direct from LA to NYC, a quick list of the top 15 things you’re missing:

15.  You can pay your friends in beer to prune out-of-reach branches instead of trolling for strangers at Home Depot to help you.

14.  “How are you are doing?” is a real question, not a greeting. People actually want to hear what’s happening in your life. By the way, since “How are you doing?” is a real question, be prepared to listen to a real answer too.

13.  Four words: Concealed carry class Groupon.

12.  Finding hormone-free meat to buy is as simple as asking a friend who owns a ranch to sell you part of a cow.

11.  A 25-mile drive usually means a 25-minute trip. Seriously.

10.  And gas costs how much less? Then again, produce costs how much more???

9.  Not to worry because there is money left over after paying your mortgage. For things like World Series tickets. Go Royals!

8.  And you’ll never have to pay a delivery charge again. Because everyone has a truck. And everyone is willing to help haul your stuff.

7.  Grilling is a freaking sport. The BBQ Olympics are just down the street from my house. Need I say more?

6.  Sweaters and puffy coats level the playing field at least a few months out of the year. It’s only fair when the BBQ Olympics are just down the street from my house.

5.  There are two kinds of 70-degree days. The everyday kind you brag about on Facebook when the rest of the country is digging out from a blizzard. Then there’s the unexpected kind sandwiched in between two cold fronts in the middle of January that is the source of pure, unbridled joy and will undoubtedly inspire wild abandon.photo-14

4.  No need for tire chains to drive to the snow. Sure the slush sucks but building a snowman in your own front yard feels like taking a porthole to the best days of your childhood.

3.  CC&R’s?  Hahahahaha!

2.  The nearest Lion’s Choice is only a three-hour drive and that roast beef sandwich is even better than an In-N-Out double-double, animal style.

But, by far, the best part of Midwest living is…

1.  The four seasons. From the cleansing sweat of a tennis match on a humid day in July to the orange and red leaves that paint the landscape with a month-long sunset in October. And it’s hard to beat hibernating near the fire on a January afternoon while falling snow morphs into ice crystals on my skylights. Yet none of that is as awesome as the great transformation of Spring… Those itty bitty buds unfolding on the trees and the tulip stems pushing up through the defrosting dirt with steadfast resolve, seemingly unlikely survivors beating back months of darkness and bitter cold to begin again. The awakening that follows what seems like an interminable dormancy infectiously breathes new energy into our own lives and we begin again too.

And so we anxiously await the first sighting of a red robin in the backyard as a portent of our liberation.  Three-hundred-plus days of “sunny and 72” forecasts just can’t compete.

Breaking Free

Do you ever start telling a story and realize part way through that you don’t recognize your old self in the turn of events you are describing?

I’m not sure what prompted the flashback but it happened this week when I was talking to my roommate about what my life was like after I returned from Afghanistan in late 2011.  I opened up a small bit about my own experiences down range that triggered the PTSD and how I dealt with it when I got home.  And, by dealing with it, I mean how I spent a few months sitting around monotonously watching TV and playing solitaire until Dane flew into town to literally scoop me up off the couch to jump start the healing process.

I was trying to explain the darkness and the anxiety, the emptiness and the general feeling of being disconnected in the first world.  I remember all the times I got ready to go out but only made it as far as the front door.  I remember the short path between the family room and the kitchen that I wore down in my attempt to fill the void with comfort food.  I remember sitting on my bathroom floor gasping for air and trying to make sense of it all, struggling to understand how my homecoming back to Orange County to live in a beautiful house with a pool by the lake surrounded by old friends failed to fill me up with anything but profound loneliness.

I’m not sure Bob believed me.  I know he sees shadows of that person — when I’m startled by the simple things or exhausted after a stretch of nights without solid sleep.  And I’m sure there are other “quirks” he probably explains away with the PTSD diagnosis too.  But lonely and lost, compulsively eating and wasting weeks staring at the TV?  Who was that person?  And thank goodness I barely remember her.

I don’t think I realized until that moment just how far I’ve come in those three years since Dane’s intervention and our Billy’s Mai-Tai marathon (because nothing jump starts recovery like nine rum cocktails at the beach with one of your best friends).  And the gravity of the change hit me with full force this morning.  Just a random Saturday… I woke up early and juiced veggies for breakfast before getting ready for my weekend gym session with my trainer.  Afterwards I rushed back to my house for a USC alumni club meeting and then will spend the afternoon preparing for my next work trip.  Tonight a friend and I are hitting up a brewery opening downtown.  This is the person my roommate sees now — which is nearly impossible to reconcile with the version from my story.

Many people know I was motivated to serve because I woke up one day in 2007 and realized I had taken so many wrong turns that I didn’t like or respect the person I saw in the mirror.  And so I left in search of a challenging adventure that would give greater meaning to my life.  I got what I asked for, and then some.  I came back with stories, souvenirs, an unapologetic and empowered sense of self…and a few scars too.  I may have found myself in those war zones but I was far from whole when I came home.

But just as losing yourself is an incremental, practically imperceptible process, I learned that putting the pieces back together works out the same.  As with wrong turns, take just one little right turn after another and eventually one day you wake up and you are so happy that you forgot what it was like when you weren’t.  And, when you’re sad, it’s just that. A temporary emotion as a result of an unfortunate circumstance — not the abyss it once was.

What started with a Mai-Tai binge turned into a journey of taking care of others and taking care of myself.  I inched back into the world, changed my scenery, made my health a priority.  The distraction of my best friend’s cancer battle that first year helped.  Even an absurd dating choice contributed to a few positive changes.  And so many friends encouraged me along the way; they will forever be my family.

As I was thinking about all of this on the treadmill this morning, John Mayer sang in my ears:

“Who says I can’t be free. From all the things that I used to be. Rewrite my history. Who says I can’t be free.”

Telling that story to Bob made me realize that sometime in the past year I did break free.  And I got my life back.  Not the old one I abandoned in Newport Beach eight years ago. The one I dreamed about having when I left.

 

Fifteen things I learned after traveling for fifteen days around South America

I still get giddy with the memory of those Brazilian ESPN announcers shouting a protracted “TOUCHDOOOOOOOWN” every time the Ducks made it into the end zone in that epic Rose Bowl game against Florida State.  Go Pac-12!  But that’s only one of many interesting discoveries made over the past couple of weeks celebrating the holidays south of the Equator.  Here are fifteen more:

1. Anything goes on Brazil’s beaches, no matter body type or size. Except a one-piece swimsuit. That’s like wearing pants to the Gold Cup. #didntgetthememo

2. In case you thought there was a fine line between the taxi drivers and drag racers here, there is no line.

3. Thinking “cha-ching!” when you get 30% more for your money than your currency converter app says you should is a bit premature. Apparently that was just the going “blue market” rate for US dollars. #jackpotnot

4. The end of society may have been signaled by the rise of the Kardashians but it’s been confirmed by the selfie stick. #armageddon

5. Partying with a cartel king, mafia boss and the brother of the former president of the country, all at the same time, falls under the category “typical Saturday night.”

6. The French have a consulate *inside* of a winery. #altavista #twobirdsonestone #dreamjob

7. When someone tries to convince you that the eight-hour bus ride over the Andes is so beautiful that you must experience it for yourself, focus less on the idea of beautiful scenery and more on the “eight-hour bus ride” part. Sorry, Mary!

8. Asking around about Christmas midnight mass can yield bad directions, misinformation and even an outlet adapter. Basically everything but helpful and accurate information about where and when to attend midnight mass. #travelfail

9. You cannot dance until 5am and then wake up in time for an 8:30am winery tour. At least not on a #countdownto40 trip.

10. When traveling through second-world countries, expect to be ripped off at least once. And to have to walk through raw sewage, at least once. Because these people are survivors. And plumbing isn’t as high a priority. #sheraton

11. If a taxi driver asks if you will let him take you to dinner, determine whether he wants the fare or a date before answering.

12. The hostesses at the Park Hyatt Mendoza are bitches. #truth

13. When traveling out of the country for the holidays, pack your own black-eyed peas. Otherwise your Jan 1 could turn into a frustrating and unsuccessful scavenger hunt that leaves you cursed with bad luck the rest of the year. #tradition

14. I never need to eat red meat again. For at least two months.

15. South America is awesome.

Why I Write

I have said that the main purpose of my memoir is to inspire, educate and entertain others.  I want to tell the story of how I turned my own life around with the hope that message reaches others who feel as helpless and hopeless as I once did. 

But this alone isn’t my sole motivation to put words on the page. 

I write because I believe that I must put my art out in the world for my love to find me.  Or, in case he has already found me, for him to realize it. 

🙂