You can remember your loved one and be happy at the same time

I was talking to a close and incredibly smart friend over the holidays about memories, grief and loved ones.

I told him how happy I am with my new wife, Candace, and how happy she seems to be. As the conversation meandered I mentioned that Candace was a little down because the four year anniversary of her husband’s death was New Year’s Eve.

My smart friend expressed confusion. He could not understand how one minute I could say Candace was incredibly happy and then tell him that she was melancholy over her late husband’s death.

I was briefly surprised before I realized again that people who have not experienced the loss of a spouse just can’t understand how conflicting emotions exist with you all the time.

I gently told my friend he was thinking about emotions as a zero sum game and they are not that at all. I told him melancholy and happiness co-exist. One does not replace the other.

I completely understand how difficult that is for someone who has never lost a spouse to comprehend. Intellectually it probably does not compute, but for someone who has lost a spouse the feelings are genuine. To explain to my friend, I put out my left arm in a straight line. Then I did the same with my right arm.

I said the straight line represented by my the left arm is my late wife Jean. I miss her. I loved her and I loved our life together. I regret that our wonderful nuclear family no longer exists. I am deeply saddened that my kids lost their beloved mother. I think about her and what she would have thought about scores of events and people each week.

Then I moved to my right arm and told my friend that was my life with Candace. We laugh uproariously practically all the time. We learn and come to enjoy eccentricities like my sneezes and my constant aches and pains,  and her obsession with Christmas decorating and her cats. We cultivate a new love with all sorts of tender moments each day.

The two lines are wonderful in their own right. They do not subtract from each other. One of those lines is a memory. It cannot be lived again, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be treasured and remembered fondly without detracting at all from the other line. That other line is now. It is real and it can be savored, felt and hugged.

So when Candace was melancholy about David’s death I never felt a single pang of jealousy. Because I experience the same emotion all the time, I knew that she could remember, honor and miss David at the same time she loves me with all her heart.

One of those straight lines represents yesterday. The other line represents today. The two separate lines just are. They are distinct worlds and they are as real to me as my right foot.

Candace holds both of her lines in her heart at the same time and so do I. We treasure yesterday and our late spouses. We savor and live today with our new spouses with everything we have to give.

Gratitude for one day is not enough, let’s stop taking stuff for granted

So many millions of Americans will gather for a huge dinner Thursday and practically all will profess that they are thankful for all that they have.

And yet, we are reading every week just how angry Americans are. Americans are angry at government and the economy and it is obvious that we are pretty angry at each other.

Relax, this is not a political post. It’s not even a traditional Thanksgiving gratitude post. I am full of gratitude this Thanksgiving for my new wife, my fantastic children and happy, active grandchildren and despite my aches and pains, my health is pretty darn good.

But my reading and reflection recently forced me to think about all that I take for granted.

I have read a several important World War II books recently such as Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson and 1944 by Jay Winik. Guns at Last Light taught me how much I have taken for granted about the courage of my Dad’s generation. So many young men from so many countries suffered pain, starvation and death and most of us just take it for granted. We don’t genuinely bleed for their suffering or even put it in perspective. Our world would be dramatically different if the world’s leaders had not marched so many young men people to their death, so many of them might have attained greatness.

The book 1944 is a difficult, emotional read that taught me more about the Holocaust than I have ever known. It becomes clear after reading that book that our ancestors’ treatment of Jews, Japanese and even German-Americans was despicable. As the hate, vitriol and prejudice swirls around Muslims and the American political campaign, I bow my head in shame because we have been here before. And those of us with German, Japanese,or Jewish heritage should take absolutely nothing for granted. We won a cruel lottery.

The other day, a good and valued friend who has brightened my life beyond measure, told me his cancer is terminal. On Thanksgiving one of the happiest and strongest men I know will have little to take for granted. I need to stop taking my life for granted too. Every day is an amazing gift and I have to give deep, personal thought to how I want to spend the days left in my bank.

Last week, a regular showed up at our daily coffee klatch. The man is what my wife would call an “Eyore.” He is not an effusive or positive guy, to say the least. When he displayed his typical forlorn nature another fellow said “Things tough at home?” Our friend Eyore brightened up and said something like “things at home are great, but work sucks.” As he griped about work, I interjected, “but things at home are great, right, let’s celebrate!” He stopped griping, looked at me long and straight and simply said, “Thank you.”

True gratitude doesn’t assume anything. It takes nothing for granted. The universe, or karma or God owes us nothing. Every morsel, every dime, every friend, every loved one we have is a pure gift. We are owed nothing. Do be thankful Thursday when you are celebrating with family and friends, but take nothing for granted. Celebrate everything you have and for heaven’s sake, stop being so angry. If you are in America, you are pretty darned lucky.

Serious family illness can teach valuable lessons

I went out on a date with my new wife, Candace, last week. A date may strike you as small beans, but for us, it was a very big deal because since October 2 she has been recovering from difficult brain surgery to clamp off an aneurysm. The surgery was three weeks after our delightful wedding. Recovery has been difficult and painful, complete with double vision.

Everywhere I look these days I seem to find medical crises that create incredible tension and challenge for my friends and their families. Few of us get a pass on major medical issues and my experience with Candace crystallized some important truths that may be helpful for others.

One of the most important ones is that friends standing with you is invigorating and comforting beyond understanding. Four dear friends sat with me during the surgery and one, Gregory,  surprised me by flying to Phoenix from Sacramento just to sit with me. Candace was exuberant to know I had that kind of backing but her friends have flocked to her side too. Flowers and cards have bolstered her day after day. One of her closest friends, Cathy, sent almost daily cards, and some days two cards. We’ve gently joked about her apparent obsession, but at the worst moments of healing, the love vibes behind Cathy’s cards are palpable and sustaining. That kind of support prevents you from crawling into yourself and from dwelling in self-pity.

A second lesson is that it is important to live in the present and not in the past. I was sorely tempted to conflate Candace’s health crises with the fatal health journey of my late wife Jean. I tried to fight against the temptation to relive that experience as I worried about, prayed for and cheered for my dear Candace. It was probably natural to compare and contrast the two experiences but it’s a fool’s game. You cannot possibly equate two different health cases and it only leads to futile worry and stress. Deal with what you have in hand and don’t make it worse.

Another important lesson learned is patience. As far as medicine has come, recovery from serious surgery is just damned hard. Between overcoming the effects of surgery, recovering energy, dealing with serious pain and anxiety over being “normal” again, the convalescence takes a great toll on the patient and yes, the caregiver too. It is easy to say “relax and be patient,” it is much harder to do so. Celebrate small forward steps and keep the big picture of healing in mind.

Perhaps the key lesson during recovery is gratitude. In our case, a doctor discovered the aneurysm when he was looking for the cause of an ear problem. It was fortuitous beyond belief. Then we found out that the aneurysm was very close to bursting when it was clamped. Call it blind luck if you wish, but Candace and I believe there was a Divine hand looking out for her, and for me. Whenever Candace struggles, and my heart bleeds for her, we grab each others hand and remind each other how lucky and blessed we are.

We know Candace and our marriage has caught a big break and we’re thrilled about it. The final lesson to learn is how we can take advantage of our fresh new opportunities by  converting our gratitude into action.

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

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.