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Posted By Opening the Heart

      "It's never too late to have a happy childhood"     Ken Kesey

   In my therapy practice, I see a 64 year old man who is dying of liver cancer. John tells me that he asked his oncology doctors at Dana Farber in Boston to be "straight" with him in re: to longevity. John said "They told me I have 3 to maybe 20 months to live". He added "That was 10 months ago". He is a very successful businessman, impeccably dressed in clothes that fit him perfectly. He tells me this stoically, without a tear or any drama. And yet, there is a tenderness to his voice when he adds that he wants to "get some things right" before he dies. He explains that he would like to get closer to his two children and also to their partners. "My whole life, I never knew how to make time for John". What this meant was that he grew up in a home without a lot of emotion or warmth. But he learned to work and be productive from the time he was 14. And he was successful at harvesting recognition from his accomplishments. "I had no idea that maybe I should aim for a little more balance in my life" - to try to grow love for both self and others. His disclosure that he never made time for himself was poignant to me. He'd never just vegged out in front of the tv with his feet up, munching popcorn or went to the movies, or took a stroll in the park with his son on a beautiful early spring day- never took time to just enjoy himself.

   Two weeks ago John asked his daughter-in-law, Suzanne, to go with him to meet with the social worker at Dana Farber for some "planning" to bring closure to some of the details of his life. Frank, the social worker, suggested that John may want to write instructions for his family regarding who John wanted to be pall bearers at the funeral, and also for John to make a list of who should be notified of his passing. As John gave the names, Suzanne wrote them down. And as John continued, he gave up a tear and he became quiet as the names of loved ones caught in his throat and more tears came.

   Suzanne looked up, her eyes also filled with tears. She'd never seen John cry before. At lunch after the meeting, John thanked Suzanne for being there, telling her how much it meant to him to have her there. She hugged him hard and long and said how much his tears meant to her and they cried, again, together...

   Someone told me that in this country, we spend $300 million dollars a year on costumes for pets for Halloween. And I thought of how much we spend on ourselves, too, to put on costumes and masks for this one day each year. But really, when Halloween is over, we take the masks off, but make sure that the other masks we wear year round are still well in place. I thought "Where in our lives do we feel safe enough, courageous enough, to take off those well-fitted masks and risk showing who we really are, how we really feel".

   It occurred to me that at that meeting with the social worker, John really was, finally, taking time for himself to be real with his daughter-in-law, and what a gift it was to them both. But, even more, what it might mean to John's son and grandchildren to be able to see behind the curtain. Since that meeting, John has committed to getting other "things" in order. He is meeting his son for breakfast once a week and he has invited his daughter to go with him to a conference on "Living Beyond Cancer". I have such admiration for John and his courage to not give up learning how to love even at the end of his life.

   With Love and Respect, JonJon


Posted By Opening the Heart

   When I went to my 50th high school reunion a few weeks ago, I had many mixed feelings: would I recognize people, would they recognize me? How well had I aged compared to everyone else? Would I still have a crush on Arlene Mattarazzo? Would Francene still have a crush on me, or even remember that she'd had one? Who remembered what, how would we look, was it a mistake to come? Then I remembered to breathe and came back to the moment and marveled at how quickly we could still descend into the busy, negative mind. Then, I made a decision to just have a fun time. In my therapy practice, when I teach mindfulness strategies, I will often speak about learning to develop perspective- to watch the parade rather than march in it. In regards to my reunion, "marching in the parade" meant getting lost in the worry, doubt, comparing, fretting. When we do march in the parade there is a lot of drama, and when there's drama, there's always suffering close by. When we are able to watch the parade from the grandstand, there's less drama, and, therefore, less suffering. So I decided to just see each person who came before me that night as an interesting form of the Beloved, of God- and that I could just have a good time with the dance.

   There was Richard who was one of the first to marry in our high school class, and he married my wife's best friend, Louise. They married young and divorced before I even got married, and Loiuse, a high school beauty, was now a depressed, aging alcoholic. There was my friend, Ted, kind, heart of gold, a little awkward, and never married. There was Linda who screamed when she saw me and hugged me and said "Oh Jon, you haven't changed a bit"! And I walked away saying to myself "I've never in my life, ever, seen that woman before"! And there was my life long friend Jay, with his wife of 40 years, now a grandparent three times. How did that happen to us who played stickball in my backyard after school and went to summer camp together?

   And then, I found myself standing in front of the Memorium Board. Here were all the people in my class who were no longer living: Carl, who died right after graduation; Tom, who was walking on the ice on Bullough's Pond when he fell through and drowned.... And there was my closest friend, Billy. Bill's family was my second family. If I was not home, I would likely be at his house, hanging with the guys. We were there one Saturday afternoon just being 14 year old bad boys when our friend, Lester, called, and we passed the phone around giving him a hard time. Just seconds after the call ended, the phone rang again and I said "Give me that phone.... What do you want you little shithead!?"... "I'd like to speak to my son, Jon...." "Yes, Mrs. Myers".

    It took me many weeks before I had the courage to show my face at Billy's house. Mr. Myers answered my hesitant knock and he said to me "Billy's in the den.... And the little shithead is in the kitchen if you want to say hi".

   Billy and I were always together- always getting into mischief. Well, not entirely true. "We" would get into mischief, but he was the one who always got caught. In that long moment standing before his picture, I had such a deep ache of missing him. When I thought of his death 22 years ago, and looked around me at 50 years passing in the blink of an eye, I thought "Do we really need reminders that life is short"? The answer, I think, is that we do. We keep needing reminders to wake up, to come alive, to watch the parade and to try to stay in the moment. And in this moment, I was sad and grateful and aware of the separation from a friend of the heart.

   With Love and Respect, JonJon

Posted By Opening the Heart

   A few weeks ago I went to my 50th high school reunion. It was a great night, seeing old friends, meeting people who weren't friends but maybe, after connecting with them that night, realized they could have been. It was a hoot hearing how others had remembered or experienced me back in high school. Charlotte gave me a huge hug and pulled me over to meet her husband, James, whom I had played baseball with in junior high school (now known as middle school). I had a crush on Charlotte for three weeks my junior year of high school.

   So, in high school and college I lived for baseball. I remember looking out the window of my English class on the first floor to see how quickly the snow was melting because the sooner the field was dry, the sooner we would be out there breathing spring and throwing a ball and running the bases. My senior year David tried out for third base, my position. He was dating the coach's daughter, Susie. The coach, "Fergy", was a tough, old-school guy who took baseball very seriously. If he saw you throwing a snowball before practice started on March 1st, he'd keep you out of practice for two weeks for risking throwing your arm out.

   Well, the end of March I was cut from the team and I never really got over it. I didn't know what to do with myself after school. I was stunned. I didn't feel I deserved to be cut and I blamed David.... Cut to the reunion and I was talking with some of the guys who had played sports, remembering old times, telling stories, laughing, enjoying reliving memories. Then David came over. "Hi Jon". "Hi David." We all continued to talk but I was a little distracted and I began to think: "Jon, you're 68. The only way to be at peace with this is to go for it".

   So I said, "David, can I ask you a question?" "Sure, Jon". "David, did you really think you were better than me at third base our senior year?" He looked at me, puzzled. "What do you mean Jon?" "David, Fergy cut me from the team senior year. You ended up playing third base". "Jon, I didn't play third base. I sat on the bench most of the year. Terry played third".

   I was really stunned. It took me a minute to take in this new information. "Really? You didn't start at third?" "No, I only got into a couple of games". "David, I'm sorry, but I'm really happy". And I couldn't help being struck by living my life for 50 years with a myth: not ever having gotten over something that never happened. I got up and I scanned the room looking at faces and remembering. How many other myths for how many others in the room? There was Steve, always on the fringe in high school, never part of the crowd I was friendly with- never someone I took too seriously, or took the time to get to know. Steve, who came back from three tours in Vietnam, a shattered man, in trouble with alcohol and alienated from his wife and kids.

   I thought "wouldn't it have been something to look beneath the masks we held carefully in place 50 years ago- to be able to see deeper". Yes, probably would have been some trip! But more importantly,, in this moment, asking myself if I'm any more skilled at looking deeper than the masks or wounds- deep enough to see the compassion and humanity we all share.

   With Love and Respect, JonJon