Second-guessing past actions is silly because you are someone new

It was a joyful, peaceful Sunday. My new wife, Candace and I were enjoying brunch, reflecting on  the Catholic mass we had just attended and on our week. I candidly confessed that All Souls Day in early November had prompted me to reflect considerably about my late wife Jean. Candace, a bit surprised at the parallel, replied that she too had been reflecting the last week on her late husband David.

As we talked, we realized that it would probably be an error to call our thoughts grief. Our grief has matured, if you will, into melancholy, a sense of loss and definitely sweet appreciation.

I then wistfully confessed that many of my thoughts centered on second-guessing how I handled Jean’s illness and death. Like many widows and widowers I have talked to, I worry about things I should have said, comfort I could have offered and kindnesses I wish I would have extended. As I expressed my regrets Candace gently offered her wisdom. “You did your best with what you had. You loved Jean in the very best way you could and that’s all she could have asked of you and I know that’s all David asked of me. We did our best.”

As I rolled Candace’s comforting words around in my mind, I experienced my own flash of understanding for which I am incredibly grateful. It is actually quite silly for me to second-guess because I am quite a different person from the one who attempted to comfort Jean and hold her hand as she faced death. Her valiant outlook on life, her acceptance of imminent death and the crushing reality of grief changed me in fundamental ways. Comforting my children, and receiving their comfort altered me too. So did the journey of finding new love with Candace. I realize my grief counselor’s incredibly wise advice to “tend the garden of grief over Jean and the garden of new love with Candace” transformed me in fundamental ways.

As I ate my frittata I realized how fruitless it is to wish I would have acted differently 16 months ago when I am a new person complete with fresh bumps, bruises and new revelations. If we are growing in understanding and appreciation we simply cannot rationally assess what that other guy in our past should have or could have done.

Candace is correct. We did our best. My love for Jean, her illness, her death, my grief and my laugh-filled journey to an exciting new love with Candace are now part of my odyssey. If I pay attention, they can be great teachers for the next part of my adventure.

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance

Somebody down the street always has it worse

One morning last week I had terrible trouble buttoning the top button on my dress shirt. My right arm and hand are largely decorative, as opposed to functional, so such simple tasks can be difficult. It may strike you as a silly frustration but for the briefest moment I felt just a little sorry for myself.

As suddenly as that emotion hit me it was replaced by the thought of my friend Jennifer Longdon who struggles with the very genuine difficulties of navigating a wheelchair and the debilitating troubles brought on by a random highway shooter several years ago. Jennifer recounts her challenges often on Facebook and any friend of hers quickly comes to realize the real pain of disability.

I felt foolish for lamenting my trivial challenge when many people like Jennifer know genuine pain and obstacles from hell.

Actually I learned that lesson very early in my life and I tell the story in my book, “Some People Even Take Them Home.”

When I was 11 or so and still in a pediatric ward I contracted an infection and was placed in protective isolation to protect against the dangerous spread of mysterious bacteria to other patients and staff. Everybody who came into my room, from nurses to doctors to Mom, donned surgical robes and masks.

As I wrote in the book: “The desolation and loneliness of that imprisonment were suffocating until two surprising teachers arrived to show me how fortunate I was.

In the room next to me were two young people I never met. They had as profound an effect on me as anyone else in my 64 years. They were two-year-old twin boys and they had been severely burned in a Saginaw, MI house fire. I knew the boys only by their constant and hideous screams. They were critically injured and their skin was obviously gravely tender. I listened to them yell in agony for hours on end. Horrible, piercing cries communicated unbearable torment.”

Even at my tender age I was sharp enough to realize that my own infection was small potatoes. Those boys taught me the true meaning of suffering but I vividly remember the slow dawning of a vital truth.

I have no idea if those little boys survived. I pray they did. What did survive was the belief burned into me that somebody down the street, or around the corner, or in the next hospital room always, always, has it worse than I do. That’s why I try so hard to smile through tough times. I hope those screaming, crying boys have made me more caring and more generous.

A little thing like that damned shirt button serves to remind me how grateful I need to be.

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance

Tending “two gardens” has reinvigorated and sustained my life

The grief to new love trilogy-Part I.

Readers of this blog followed my grief journey from last September to May of this year when I took a summer break. One of the first and most significant posts was the entry which argued my good friend Ian Punnett’s perspective that “you cannot do grief wrong.” That advice, delivered the night of the wake for my dear wife Jean Fannin McGuire, guided my emotional journey and my writing about grief.

And the journey indeed felt special to my circumstances. For the first six or seven weeks I could not have told you what my emotions were. I have used the word kaleidoscopic to describe them. I rewrote the last chapter of  Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance during that time. As I look back at those words it is obvious I wrote them in a frenzied fog. Most of the sentiments were right on, but I lacked serious perspective. Seven weeks after Jean’s death a family wedding sent me into a profound downward spiral of grief which lasted for a couple of months. It was horrible.

I have written before that I found grief exhausting. It was also incredibly lonely. Four things began my  recovery from what felt like the depths of grief.

The first may strike you as weird, but I had a conversation with Jean as I drove to work. I told her I was going to do two big things I feared she wouldn’t approve. I offered her a deal that if she came back I wouldn’t do those things. She didn’t return. That may sound like a silly exercise, but it was incredibly important in my grief process. It helped me realize that no matter how much I cried, Jean was gone from my life and I was on my own. That forced me to move ahead.

The second thing that pushed my grief to a new stage was my realization that I had not been very nice to people while I was grieving. I was just angry at everybody. When I found myself grunting at students I knew I had to stop feeling sorry for myself.

The third key force in working through the depths of grief was my grief counselor, Jenny Diaz. As I wrote in this blog, she strongly urged me to repeatedly watch a video of Jean’s life that reduced me to sobs. She advised me to watch it until I could celebrate it rather than sob. To this moment, I remember vividly the first time I felt incredible joy just marveling at Jean’s smile. I have tried to celebrate Jean ever since.

There was a fourth factor in moving past grief but I never wrote about it. I have felt free to talk about my own journey but I have been reluctant to talk about the journeys of those close to me. About three months after Jean’s a death, a friend from the Star Tribune in the mid-80s, Candace Hadley, contacted me and offered grief help. Her husband died two-and-a-half years before Jean did. I had worked with Candace and we were good friends. Candace and I had been out of touch for the best part of 25 years when we first talked about grief on a Monday night in late September. The conversation lasted 55 minutes. I know, I checked my phone. It was more than obvious that our friendship had survived the years.

As weeks passed and we talked for long periods on the phone, the bond grew stronger but I was still grieving. I thought about Jean’s death constantly and yet I could clearly see a new relationship was beginning. The tension between two powerful new forces in my life–grief and new affections– left me confused and anxious. I made the decision that even though a wonderful relationship was developing with Candace I could not proceed while I was still in the throes of grief.

Fortunately, I discussed it with my grief counselor Jenny before I ended it. I worried whether I could grieve Jean and love Candace at the same time. Jenny was convinced Candace and I had something important. Jenny shared with me the metaphor that has sustained me for many months and will forever sustain me. She said, “You need to tend two gardens, the garden of grief over Jean’s death and the garden of your new life with Candace.”

That precious metaphor released me to grieve Jean at the same time I was falling in love with Candace. With Candace’s understanding and patience I was able to process my grief and build a new life and a new love at the same time.

My two gardens are incredibly important to me and they’re flourishing. As my Facebook followers know, this summer my family and I had a touching, sad memorial for the first anniversary of Jean’s death. Facebook followers also know that a few weeks later I proposed to Candace and we will marry Sept. 12.

NEXT: Part II of the Grief to new love trilogy: the qualities of a late in life relationship.

Fortitude comes from laughter and perspective

St. Joseph’s New Hope, my home Catholic parish in Minnesota, hosted a book reading and signing this summer for my book, Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance.

The event was my favorite book event so far. More than a 100 old friends, new acquaintances and the just curious turned out to hear me read and explain passages from the book. Just like the book, there was laughter, plenty of tears and, I hope, some wisdom. There were also questions. Some of those were probing and provocative.

A mother of a severely cognitive delayed child, who had obviously had a difficult trial raising her son, rose to tell me her challenge and then asked, “Where do you get your fortitude?” Nobody had ever asked me that question before and I had no glib answer. I briefly thought about fortitude as a gift from the universe, but that felt like a cheap, unhelpful answer.

Uncertain of exactly where I was heading I told the searching woman, “It starts with laughter.” I think that is a key message in my book. You always have the choice to cry but that brings down you and everyone around you. When you laugh the world grows bigger. There is suddenly more space for courage, grit and affection.  Some people have commented that some of our family humor was rude. Walk in those shoes, baby, and I will show you rude. The dictionary defines humor as “a comic, absurd, or incongruous quality causing amusement.” Another definition says humors are “peculiar features; oddities; quirks.” Any parent of a developmentally delayed or developmentally disabled child will tell you there are more “peculiar features, oddities and quirks” in raising such a child than there are Minnesota mosquitoes. Those oddities can drive you insane with frustration or you can laugh at them and make them your friend. For me and my family that laughter was a critical source of any fortitude we managed.

Then my answer wavered just a bit until I suddenly got the courage to tell that small crowd that, for me, fortitude is all about how I choose to look at life. In a way that I had never expressed before I talked about attitude.

I asked the group to let me make an illustrative assumption about their day. I said “let’s say 10 things happened to you today. I dare say seven of those were very good things. Nice happy moments of minor triumphs and joys.” I went on. “I will also guess that about three things that happened today were bad–everything from a flat tire to an overly-critical boss to a minor slight by a friend.”

I then observed that the difference among most of us is the choice we make about what to focus on at the end of our day. Are we obsessed with the three bad things or do we find solace and victory in those seven good things?

For me, celebrating those seven nice moments gives me the strength or, if you will, the fortitude, to power past the tough challenges and truly enjoy this earthly journey.

Happily, the woman nodded in agreement.

My “take-back” machine fantasy would be a winner but reality is tougher

I spent a good part of an airplane flight this weekend tinkering in my head with a fantastic idea for an invention that would revolutionize human behavior. I tried to develop the “take-back” machine.

My fool proof concept would allow us all to take back the stupid, inconsiderate, mean things we say. You know, the ones we regret the minute they pass our lips. The ones that hurt and do damage to the last people we want to hurt. We all do it. Our demons grab our tongues, we lash out and then spend the next minutes, hours, days and even years regretting what we said. The “take back”  machine would allow us to take back those things and act as if they were never said.

Now, I can’t claim my idea is original. This weekend, for the second time, I watched a 2013 movie called About Time. It’s about a young man, who at age 21 finds out the males in his family can repeat time. If the young man, Tim, botches a date or hurts someone or wants to avoid a terrible event, he simply backs up time and gets a “do-over.”

The concept of  “do-overs” in our life is so delicious, so alluring and such a giant problem solver that I decided that super-fix should not be allocated to one person or one family. My “take-back’ machine would be universal and available to all of us who have very big feet and even bigger mouths to stick our foot into.

But “do-overs” and “take-back” machines are fantasies. We don’t get second chances. Life is to be lived once with all our pearls and lovely statements and our foolish, mean-spirited attacks. We really don’t need do-overs if we have three things.

1.Forgiveness. We are all human. There is not a perfect person among us. We will all screw up and say stupid, ill-considered things. We need to forgive those who say things like that and we need to seek forgiveness for our mess-ups.

2.Lessons. We need to learn from the bad, ill-tempered things we say. If we find ourselves saying something that cuts someone to the quick we need to learn that comment hurts and vow never to say that sort of thing again. If we do say it again and even again, we need to go back to number one and seek forgiveness and figure out why we are so ugly.

3.Reconciliation. I had a Facebook conversation last week with someone from my past who wrote from the heart about reconciliation in his life. It made a mighty impression on me. Letting old hurts and contempt fester, damages our soul and leaves us the loser. Reconciliation and reconnecting to people we have hurt or who have hurt us is the only route. And, reconciliation doesn’t have to wait years, it should wait minutes.

Do-overs would be nice, but being more considerate, opting for forgiveness and reconciliation, and learning from our mistakes are really the only options available for mortals like us.

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance