Years ago, I read One Thousand Gifts, by Ann Voskamp. The premise, that everything that happens to us is a gift, the good stuff and the tough stuff, is hard to swallow. I have an easier time understanding the truth of it when I look backwards. The challenge rests in being thankful for the difficulties as they happen, rather than miserably enduring them. I’ve spent a lot of the last year with my dad and, try as I might, I cannot muster up the faith to be grateful that he has Alzheimer’s. Watching him disappear into the disease is painful. It’s been a long two years since he was diagnosed, but I am finally ready to write about it.
I was sitting in my car when my brother called with the definitive results. “He definitely has Alzheimer’s, Joy. We just left the appointment and it’s confirmed.” We’d noticed stray symptoms for months, but this disease is tricky. It hid behind personal quirks, like the fact that he has always been a bit scattered, regularly losing his keys, wallet and phone. It also hid behind his funny personality. My dad has always been able to put everyone at ease with a well-timed, self-deprecating joke. When he couldn’t remember where the restroom was in a familiar restaurant, he turned to me and said in a crazy radio voice, “Now if one of you kind folks can remind me where the restroom is, I’ll be on my way.” His coping mechanisms kept the truth hidden as well. For instance, rather than admit he couldn’t read a menu, he’d ask, “What are you having? That sounds good, I’ll have that, too.” Alzheimer’s can lurk for years before denial and blaming other causes finally stops carrying enough weight. In my dad’s case, another disease, myasthenia gravis, caused one of his eyelids to droop and his speech to slur. A general confusion and lack of facial control associated with that disease allowed all of us to ignore his vision and depth perception problems as they began to change his capability. But at some point, we just knew in our guts something was off.
My mom went wading into the complicated world of health care to try to get help. My dad took an assessment and the doctor discounted the results. “This shows you can barely string words together; something must have gone wrong.” My mom explained that the facilitator of the test was rude, and it took place in a loud setting so my father couldn’t really hear her. The doctor ordered a new test. However, the insurance company was refusing to pay for the first test because the rude facilitator had also miscoded it. [Insert here months of waiting for this to be corrected!] Finally, my dad was reassessed, but the results were similar. More uncertainty. The next test was a brain scan, which showed where his brain was lighting up with activity. Unfortunately, the scan showed many dark spots. The part of his brain that translates his vision was dark. His vision is fine, his brain just mixes up the messages. He looks at his plate of food and his brain shows him there is no silverware next to it. He can feel the silverware. He knows it’s there. But for him there are not even shadows or blurry patches; he sees a smooth wooden table on both sides of his plate where, in fact, a napkin, knife and fork sit. He has learned to stop asking us where his silverware is and just feel around for it.
Shortly after the diagnosis, it was really clear he needed to stop driving, immediately. For all dementia patients, this is an early, but massive blow. It’s represents a loss of freedom and autonomy; it’s a public admission of what’s happening, a surrender of personal agency. The doctor strongly suggested my father let driving go but said she’d like it to be a family decision made together with my dad. I decided this was in my column, so I started by visiting for an extended time and asking my dad if he’d help me save money on a rental car by sharing his car with me. I promised I’d drive him wherever he needed to go if I could just use his car when I needed it. He agreed because he’d give me the world if I asked it of him. I felt a pang the first day I drove him to work. I knew he’d never drive again, but he didn’t. I dropped hints, opened conversations and he acted as if I were not speaking. One morning, a few weeks into the arrangement, he announced he’d like to use his car himself that day. When he got in the shower my mom and I looked at each other. Was this the showdown we’d been dreading? Who was going to be the bad guy? Neither of us has much experience standing up to him – he’s a dominant fellow and led our family with a clear, Father-in-Charge approach. In the end, we split the duty. I jumped in the car and fled the house leaving her to say, “Joy has taken your car. I’ll drive you to work today.” He realized then what we were up to and was not happy.
My dad has always been attracted to flash and these days he’s obsessed with the color purple. As a mental fog settles and his vision blurs, perhaps my dad’s senses are reached only with extremes. He listens to his radio at volume one thousand, he can eat ice cream all day, at any time, the sweeter the better, and he wants to wear purple clothes. My sweet mother acquiesces, and I noticed recently she even bought purple bedsheets for him. He’s talked her into buying him two sports coats this year – both purple.
I find it both exhausting and easy to spend time with my dad. It’s exhausting because his needs are relentless, and he requires way more care than he’d like to admit. Part of the challenge is giving him the care he needs while keeping his dignity and self-respect in place. It feels easy to me because I’ve parented kids – a similarly complicated process. At 5pm, as we head toward dinner, my Dad asks if we can please stop for ice cream on the way. “No, Dad, we haven’t had dinner yet”…. “Who cares about that? Who made the rule you can’t have ice cream before dinner, huh?” I watch him struggle to zip up his coat and then give up, leave it open and put his hands in his pocket. “Can I help you zip your coat?” I ask. “Nope, I don’t want it zipped right now.” At the end of each day he’s exhausted as he climbs into bed. “Did you take your medicine and brush your teeth?” I ask. He lets out a big sigh and gives an eye roll that competes with any middle schooler today. “Sheesh. Can’t a man get some rest around here without being pestered all the time,” he mutters as he gets back out of bed to do me the favor of taking his pills. I was walking with him in an airport and we were both pushing the cart of luggage. He likes to be helpful, but he can’t see where he’s going, so we have to do it together while I actually direct it. I noticed his shoe was untied. Without thinking, I stopped our cart, bent down to re-tie it and then we walked on. It was a simple act, hardly worth remembering or mentioning, but it stuck with me long after. It was muscle memory. That little act of love and care was something I’d done thousands of times for my kids and it flowed like water from me. I didn’t resent it, blame him or get frustrated by one more delay. I just dealt with it like the best moms do. Except, I’m the daughter.
In the beginning, I was desperate to get our family connected with emotional support, and I spent a lot of time that first summer understanding local resources. By chance, I caught the head of the Elder Care and Dementia Support Services from Sibley Hospital on the phone. At the first sound of her empathy, I burst into tears and she sat quietly with me. I asked a million questions about what to expect and timelines, and here’s the best line she shared with me: “When you’ve seen one case of Alzheimer’s, what you’ve seen is one case. Every person progresses differently, every family copes differently, every personality exhibits the disease differently.” She told me to watch my dad, know my dad and love my dad.
I know I’ve sat with friends as they’ve struggled through life challenges and I’ve said the exact wrong thing in those moments. I’ve been forgiven because they see my heart and they are grateful for my presence, but until I’ve been down a particular road, it’s not easy to know the best way to walk it with someone. Though my family and I have a way to go on this path, we are far enough along for me to share a few ways that are decidedly unhelpful and a few that have been life-giving.
In the unhelpful category is feeling inundated by all the stories of unknown people that are shared with me all of the time, especially if the point of the story is to show how annoying and frustrating these people with dementia can be with their repeated questions and their embarrassing antics. My whole family gets it, but we don’t benefit from hearing about it from people who are not in the trenches. Add to that all the well-intended medical or general advice. We’re with doctors, he’s in trials, rest assured he takes his medicine morning and night with my mom in charge and there’s sadly not much to be done for Alzheimer’s today. We are doing all we can.
In the helpful category are the people who have engaged him. The hardest part for him is losing the skills needed to occupy himself. When people call him, set up times to meet with him, invite him to lunch or dinner, he’s a different person (and so is my Mom.) Relief floods in. He’s not forgotten or overlooked (one of his fears); he realizes people remember him and miss him enough to call. Especially when preachers he’s known his entire career make an effort to call and encourage him, listen to him, treat him like he’s the minister he’s always been, he is buoyed.
When I am in town, I often read and respond to his emails and texts with him. There’s one particular minister who makes me weep from his loving emails. He shows my father So. Much. Respect. He has taken over a ministry my dad created, and he maintains such a delicate balance of honoring where the ministry began while taking it to a new realm. My father pesters him with emails and suggestions and can’t quite let it go, but this man responds without a hint of frustration. That’s helpful, showing my Dad grace.
Several women in my parents’ church community are the angels. Each Sunday they hand my mom covered dishes of curries, meats, vegetables, rice dishes and salads. My mom works full-time still (and we want her to as long as she wants to) and this helps her so much. Her evenings are full as it is and being able to quickly heat up healthy food for my dad and herself is a really huge help.
In the Alzheimer’s world there is a big emphasis on “caring for the caregiver.” My mom can win any endurance test set for her. She rarely gets frustrated or overwhelmed and has so much love for my dad that she doesn’t even see it as caregiving; it’s just life. Married Life. But I know she’s weary. The breaks she has when other people give my dad attention is all she really needs.
Along with the frustrations of living with this disease, there is also levity. If my dad is really comfortable and relaxed, he can laugh at some of his mistakes, like word mispronunciations, or forgetting which direction to turn at the top of the stairs in his home. Last year, before I moved back to the States, my parents visited me in Singapore for a trip of a lifetime. Together, the three of us visited Cambodia and Thailand and even made it to Indonesia for a day. We were a three-person team and commandeered help wherever we went. I had no trouble announcing, “this man has memory trouble and we need extra help” whenever we boarded a plane, checked into a hotel or even went to restaurant. My parents might cringe as I’d give the speech, but no one turned down the extra attention!
My dad had such a great time. Each day he’d smile at me and say, ”This is so amazing.” Amazing became the word of the day, every day. He had one bad day where he just couldn’t stay awake. We’d been running at full speed and had one more day to see and do the things on our list. Because he couldn’t stay alone in the hotel, we took him with us and he slept in the taxi all day as my mom and I got dropped off to see temples and do shopping. Our taxi driver, Chati, smiled and patted my dad’s sleeping tummy, “Papa stay with me today.” He’d drop us, meet us, drop us, and meet us all day until we went home to go to bed.
In Bangkok, we had a beautiful hotel suite in a fancy, but perhaps not-so-well-suited-for-us, hotel. There were no light switches, everything was run by an iPad. There were mirrors and glass everywhere. It felt like a fun house to my dad. We convinced the manager to provide a small reading lamp in the bathroom so at least my dad could find the bathroom in the middle of the night. Imagine this: We are all asleep and only the little light in the bathroom is on. My parents were in the big bed and I was around a partial wall in a twin rollaway. We didn’t have tons of privacy, but enough for us; we all settled down to sleep. I awoke from my typical insomnia, so I opened my iPad, put in ear buds and started to watch a random police drama. I didn’t realize it, but my dad had gotten up to use the bathroom and then he couldn’t find his way back to bed. In confusion, he wandered around the wall into the living area where I was hidden under the covers watching the moment the killer approaches the victim from behind. Just at that instant, I felt something sweep across my feet on top of the covers. It was my dad’s hand feeling for his bed. As the killer raised his knife behind the innocently unaware woman in my show, my brain thought, “a cat just ran across my bed, but what is a cat doing in this hotel?” The killer stabbed her just as my Dad sat down right on my feet! I threw the covers back screaming, he jumped up screaming, my mom leapt out of bed in the other room screaming, grabbed the iPad and lit up the whole suite like it was daytime and the three of us stood there screaming at each other in confusion. Eventually, we calmed down and figured out what had happened, and we laughed and laughed. As my mom took him by the arm back to bed, I heard my father say, “I still don’t know why Joy was watching a show in my bed!”
My father is a retired minister and, occasionally, still gives sermons. He has a lot of them in his head and his heart, but not all of them will get to be preached, we know. As long as he can give them, though, it appears people want to hear them. For right now, my mom has pieced together a great care arrangement. We understand my father’s needs will shift but, for today, it works. His assistant helps him for a few hours each day and they mostly respond to emails and texts and work on sermons. The assistant types up his spoken thoughts, reads Scripture to him and repeats this process day after day, slowly adding content and depth to the sermon for weeks at a time. When it’s ready, they announce that my dad will hold a seminar and the congregation signs up to attend on a Saturday morning.
On that day, someone will act as the reader, following along the outline of my dad’s thoughts, reading what my dad spent weeks saying and writing. My dad will listen to the words as the reader reads and will ad lib and expound when he wants. The reader will make sure they (mostly) stay on point to help my father deliver his heart. It’s a brilliant system.
Last fall, I was visiting before one of those sermons and we rehearsed the day before for about three hours. I played the part of the reader and my dad played himself, trying to remember what he wanted to say and what he wanted to emphasize. As soon as we had gotten through the whole thing, we started over from the beginning again. But, he’d already forgotten some of what he’d said the first time. I watched him experience frustration and anger and I could feel so clearly – maybe for the first time – what it feels like to be him. To be caught in this world of confusion and frustration but wanting so desperately to contribute and feel relevant. Relevancy has one definition to my Dad: to encourage people through the only vehicle he’s ever known – his voice in a pulpit. At some point, I suggested we take a break and he sat outside with “his birds.” My mom helps him fill two bird feeders every week and sits with him on the deck while he whistles and calls the birds. I went into my room and lay across the bed and wept for 15 minutes. The sorrow I felt was so deep. All that he’s lost and how hard he strives to remain, to stay with us as we know him, felt too heavy to carry that day. We reconvened at the table and hit it again, and he did a brilliant job the next day. No, he wasn’t the preacher he was in his 40s, but he doesn’t need to be. He was himself, as open and vulnerable as he could be, doing his very best up there to leave someone with some encouragement.
As you’d expect, he was exhausted afterward. The adrenaline was gone, people were surrounding him with gratitude and kind words, someone dimmed the lights to signal that it was time to leave the building. My father was just humming along, enjoying the post-sermon release as my family and I were huddled nearby waiting for him. We waved him over when he was free. He reached me first and I said, “Well, what a great job you did,” and he stuck out his hand to shake mine and said, “Thank you so much for joining us today.” He was gracious, but a little distant. I kept staring at him, shaking his hand a little longer than necessary and he politely pulled it away. I’d known that this would happen. I knew it was coming, this first time he wouldn’t know me, but I wasn’t prepared for it. I took his hand with both of mine and pulled him close and said, “Daddy, it’s Joy. You were awesome.” His shoulders sagged, he hugged me close and he knew it was me.
I’d trade a daddy who recognizes me for this one who is showing all of us how to hold onto hope, to desperately keep giving to others and living his testimony any day of every week. And twice on Sundays.
I still struggle to see his disease as a gift, to see it as something for his good, or my good. It’s ruthless and robbing and it reaches deep into a family. But I can’t deny there have been gifts along the journey of his disease, the most significant being that I find myself so close to him again. And P.S. we haven’t had another moment where he hasn’t recognized me. It will come again, I am sure. But he’s my Daddy and I’ll be his girl even when it happens the next time.
Happy Father’s Day to you.
If you have five minutes to watch part of his sermon about tenacity, I offer it to you, here:
Last year, a friend’s comment pierced me. I was regaling him with stories of my day, which had been full of outlandish examples of helping other people. Honestly, I was expecting him to say, “What a crazy day! You must be wiped out!” Instead he smirked and said, “Joy needs to be needed.”
I felt as if he’d slapped me. After an exhausting day of laborious physical care for someone in need, it felt like I’d been ridiculed. To make matters worse, that same friend had benefited from my help earlier in the year when I’d been a last-minute call for child care and was nearby after a surgery to provide ice changes and meals. It was fine to need me then, but now he’s making fun of me? I was indignant. I don’t need to be needed. I notice needs and try to help! Isn’t that a good thing? I stewed all night about it; in the morning, I confronted him. My friendship with him runs deep so I knew he had my best at heart and he’d appreciate my honesty. Naturally, he was horrified that he’d hurt my feelings and he affirmed his gratitude about the times I’d helped him, but he didn’t back down. “You shine brighter when you are helping others,” he said. “It’s just your nature.”
I know myself well enough to know that when my heart stings, there is truth to be discovered. Like, maybe a comment struck just a little too close to home. Not exactly bull’s eye, but if I dig around and self-examine, I’ll likely find the place where it connected beneath the surface. For months I’ve pondered why his comment cut so deep. What’s so bad about feeling good when I help others? I guess on the extreme we call this co-dependent behavior, and to a lesser degree, people pleasing. I’ve certainly danced my way through both of those danger zones, but at this point in my life, I rest comfortably in a healthy place on the giving continuum. At least, I think I do.
Louis, my youngest, graduates from high school in two weeks. Today, I decided to read all the college essays he submitted months ago. Buried in the middle of a fabulous essay, I found this:
My mom likes to say that there are two kinds of people in the world: givers and takers. It’s how we view the world, how we treat others, how we look at our place in the universe…. For takers, the world is full of opportunities for them to snatch. They live in a fantasy land of wealth and options—life is within their grasp. They eat all the bananas, they never buy groceries, they always take the first serving at meals.
Givers, like my parents, are the opposite. They look at the world as empty, and they are the only ones who can fill it up. They give their time, their energy, and their sanity. My father flew from Chicago to Houston to help my sister’s ex-boyfriend move into college because his parents couldn’t leave Singapore. If I’m ever sad, or anxious, or worried, my mother gives me whatever time I need to help me through, time she could spend doing any number of other things, like making money.
I try hard to be a giver… But it doesn’t always work out; it doesn’t come naturally to me. I don’t understand how my parents put up with it all … But I do try. I try my hardest to give what I can—my time, my input, my energy—to those around me. Because that’s who I am. That’s who my parents have raised me to be.
This giving, this “needs to be needed”… it’s a thing. If my boy is writing to potential colleges about it, I must have managed to make it a core family value, a thing to be passed on. Why doesn’t it sit well with me? Why did I resist when my friend pointed it out?
I’m closer to understanding it, but here’s some of why it hurt: No one actually needs me right now.
Soon, Louis will graduate and fly off to a summer working on a farm, on his own. After that, he’ll move to a new city and begin a life without me. I fully expect he will never live at home again. I’ve been warned about the empty nest. Sure, I’ll be waving and smiling as my last child crosses that stage to get his handshake and diploma, but inside will be utter heartbreak. As a feeling of nostalgia floods me, I’ll stare blankly at my husband and wonder what in the world we’ll talk about for the next 25 or 40 years. Women who’ve gone before me have whispered to me about it. “It’s a new chapter, is all.” “Parenting just looks different; it doesn’t end.” “You’ll need to invest in your marriage in a new way.” “You’ll finally get to do all the things you’ve wanted to do.” “It can be exciting if you let it be.”
No one spoke about the loss of not being needed any longer, and that’s where I feel empty. I feel like I have so much more to give. I always knew I had enough mothering to give four children, but I only had two. I’ve had to intentionally ration this nurturing love so that I didn’t overwhelm my two. Sometimes I think of my business as my 3rd child who will never fly the coop. The more smother-mothering I give that one, the faux kid, the more she blossoms. But not the first two, my real children. I have to hold back.
My dirty little secret, the one I can’t share with everybody, is this: I’ve loved being a mother. I mean, I’ve really, really loved it. It feels dirty because I’ve always felt like society needed me to be more. It needed me to really, really love my career, really, really love politics, really, really love non-profit work and volunteering, or even really, really love my husband. (Remember that pot-stirrer?) But for me, mothering is what lit my fire. It’s made me shine brighter. Sure, days were long and hard, it was a thankless job for the most part and it wasn’t always fun. I recall one particular night my husband emailed me from a posh restaurant where he’d just enjoyed a delicious dinner in London on a business trip. I read his note while eating the leftover Kraft macaroni and cheese that was still on the kids’ plates hours after dinner. Part of clean up routine – after bath, books, songs, one more potty, one more hug, one more banana-because-I-am-still-hungry, and a can-I-sleep-in-your-bed and will-you-lie-with me…sigh – was that I finally got to eat dinner alone. But dinner was usually whatever was left on their cold plates. So, was mothering, glam? No. But satisfying? Deeply. Like, deeeeeeeeply. An ex-boyfriend wrote me after I had my first baby, ostensibly to offer congratulations, but then asked why I’d stopped working. “I always thought you’d do more with your life, “ he casually said. Nope. “More” was right in front of me and I fully stepped into it. “More” was raising these two:
“More” filled me up.
To. The. Brim
I got lucky with the two kids I got and they got lucky with me. We were three peas in a pod. I was good at my job and I was happy in my job, but I have no job now. Except my actual job, which I will keep plugging away at. But my soul’s work, it has finished.
My friend worked for a bank for many years and the bank closed the division she’d run. It was a management decision and had nothing to do with her work. In fact, they hired her back to oversee the downsizing of the department and she was great at it. It was methodical and important work. But, she told me that as much as she found the downsizing work satisfactory, she’d rather have done it for a different company, one she hadn’t worked so hard to build. As she chipped away pieces of the funds, investors, clients and human resources, she was cutting down the very thing she’d brought to life.
Yep. As successful as I was at mothering, these last few years have been just like that: intentionally stripping away my control, my influence, my involvement, my voice in their ear. Stepping back, so they step forward. Creating a hole in me, so they could feel full.
And now I am empty.
I’m in the final stretch of this job. My last day is known; it’s two weeks from tomorrow. There will be no retirement party. Like my friend, if I’ve done my job well, there will be nothing left. The boy will take it all with him. Parenting is a one way street. All the love and care is supposed to flow from me to them and then they keep walking down that street away from me, headed to their own destiny. This is how it is supposed to work, Joy.
One of my BFFs messaged me last week.
Her: How are YOU??
Me: I am good, sister. All things under control and doing a good job mothering my last final weeks of having any kid live with me. 😦
Her: When does he leave?
Me: Graduates June 6. Flies June 10th never to live with me again!!!!
And then she proved her worth as one of my best friends by asking me this:
Her: Give me three words to describe how you’re feeling.
Me: loss, unknown, free
Her: That makes perfect sense
Me: you are the bestest of friends to ask me that sweetie
This weekend we had our final family Sunday night dinner. This is a big deal, guys. A really big deal. The Sunday night family dinner is the cornerstone of our week. As far back as my kids can remember it was our special time. They could invite friends, or they could be surprised by who we invited. It could be us four or twelve more; week to week we never knew. But Brad always cooked on Sunday nights. On this our final-final, Brad pulled a huge slab of beef from the fridge and smoked it for hours and hours on our grill. I set the table with care. I asked Louis if he wanted to invite anyone and even suggested a few people. “I think they’d be fun to have, but it’d be more fun for it to be just the three of us.” So, I only put out three plates. It took me six months to stop accidentally setting the table for four when Emma, his older sister, went to college, but I’ve finally switched gears to three. Soon, I’ll set for two.
Today, when I finally caught up with Louis’s essays, months after he’d turned them in, I found this:
What will you miss the most about your current community when you leave for college?
Schedules are sacred. They’re the only things that never change. Sunday: Wake up. Go to church. Get lunch. Chug a coffee. Do homework. Then, the Gordon family dinner.
It’s a little tradition we have, a part of the schedule that—come hell or high water—will not change. Every Sunday, the members of the household convene to share and laugh about the week over food. No matter who’s at our table, from best friends to half-strangers to the various ne’er-do-wells of Singapore, we always have Sunday dinners. It’s more than a meal. It’s my communion. It’s my safe place. It’s my childhood.
Soon, I’ll have my last sacrosanct Sunday dinner before I head off to university. But I know that someday, I’ll manage to find a new group of tablemates. Even if my family is halfway around the world.
Louis, it looks like I’ll need to do the same thing. I need to find new tablemates. My heartbeats will be halfway around the world and my table is still big, but now empty.
There is loss: I’ve worked my way out of a job.
There is unknown: Who am I after this? What if that was my life’s work? What if I am never this passionate about anything else?
But, there is also freedom. I’ve done this job well. I can turn off the lights and walk out, walk into a new world.
It’s time for me to find other places to give, because, well, it turns out my friend was right: Joy needs to be needed.
I am so happy he does not need me as much anymore.
One of his essays touched me so deeply. I’ve been blowing my nose ever since reading it. If you have time, and can take some geek-talk, you can read it here: Louis’s magic essay . During the time in his life that he writes about, I quietly asked a close friend, “Am I warping him by making myself his best friend?” She put her arms around me and said, “Joy, you are saving him.” You were right, NBF. This picture is Lou and me, just last week at one of the many ceremonies meant to bring me to tears. We’re still the dynamic duo. Through thick or thin he can always count on that.
That won’t ever change, Lou!❤️
Do you have a child moving on to a new phase? Into the crowded hallways of the scary public school you’ve been giving the stink eye for a few years? Walking away from college to pursue his own thing? Into boarding school? Is your girl getting married? Leave a comment below and tell us about the transitions you are facing in motherhood and how you are dealing with it. Wise ones ahead of us, what helped make it easier for you?
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Last week,I lost my grandmother. It doesn’t feel like I “lost” her, though, which implies some panic or confusion about her whereabouts. I guess it’s better described as we let her go. Or she let us go. Or she let go of us. In any case, she’s gone. And I miss her.
She was a few days shy of her 97th birthday. Many have asked, “Was she ill for a long time?” Not really, she was just old for a long time. It’s clear to me now that old will eventually get all of us.
“Were you two close?” others have asked. Yes, I think we were, but she was close to a lot of people. I’m certainly not the only one missing her today. One of my friends texted me, “She was such a big part of your life!” Indeed she was, especially in my adult years. Over the last twenty years we’d hit a rhythm of my visiting her throughout the year as often as I could – a meal here, an overnight there – but for sure, come mid-July, I’d bring my children and we’d stay overnight for a few days in her home. Until her late 80s, she’d visit me in California during the winter as well.
I was with her the day before she passed away. I wish I’d known it would be our last time together, though I don’t know if I’d have done anything differently. I’d visited her many times in the nursing home where she lived out her last eight months – sometimes she was alert and knew exactly who I was and we laughed about old times and caught up about new times. During other visits, she was in her own world and I did my best to enter into it. On that last visit, she appeared to be lost in her own thoughts, though she’d politely respond to me. “Lucy, this is Joy, your granddaughter. I am in town from Singapore and I came here to tell you I love you.” “Oh, well, thank you very much,” she answered, as if a staff member had given her the time – and then she would drift off to sleep again. Just before I departed, though, she piped up and said, “Well, I have one surprise for you. The weather changed; that’s my surprise for you.” Somehow this makes me think she pieced together who I was, after all. We’d spent hours last summer comparing her weather to the weather in Singapore.
Of course, I knew she was going to die. In fact, during the last year of her life, she’d told me many times she was ready. “Why do I have to go on like this?” she’d say, after a particularly tough day. Getting old isn’t pretty or dignified, I now know. The process is full of frustration, compliance, coping and loss. I’m a little more prepared for it after watching Lucy do it with such grace. I’ll never make the assumption again that losing an “old person” is somehow easier or more expected than losing any other loved one. Though she was ready to go – and I thought I was ready to let go – I didn’t understand that the grieving and mourning wouldn’t begin until she left. It’s painful no matter when or how a loved one goes. I didn’t know that before.
I’m sad today and I miss her so much. The day after she died, I was at a work conference in San Diego and some of my beloved colleagues who’d heard about Lucy’s passing sat me down and gave me a gift. They said, “Tell us about your grandmother.”
Without thinking, I replied, “My grandmothah was a nuhse in the Ahhhhmee.” I wish this blog had an audio format, because I’d imitate my grandmother’s voice like I did for my colleagues. I had to channel her for a moment because I wanted them to know an important part of her – her voice. It’s impossible for me to think about Lucy and not hear her speaking. Her accent, her clear articulation and how strong she spoke was so much a part of how I knew and understood her. No one else in my life spoke quite the same (well, except her sister, Betsy, with whom I often confused her when I was young.) To know Lucy was to love her voice.
Indeed, she was a nurse in the army. She enlisted after she graduated from nursing school at Duke and was immediately sent to the South Pacific. She witnessed horrors and difficulties I’ll never know that made her into the pillar of strength she was for the rest of her life. Today, I am lucky to have one best-friend-grandmother still with me, but I’ve had three WWII veteran grandparents pass on. Three times now, I’ve gone to the same little chapel at the veterans’ burial grounds near Annapolis, MD and listened to the soldiers play taps and watched them fold and present the flag to the family with gratitude for the veteran’s service. I remember when Lucy sat in the front row and received the flag from our country in gratitude for her husband’s service. Last Friday, my father received it for his mother’s service. If you are invited to a funeral, go. If you are invited to a veteran’s funeral, run and get a front-row seat.
Her service was held in the Methodist church she attended. I’m a preacher’s daughter, so I know how to estimate a crowded church. I’d guess there were almost 300 people in attendance. At 97, Lucy had probably already buried that same number of friends. What a testament to her life to see so many people still around who knew and loved her.
I learned so much from Lucy, but mostly she showed me how to laugh and have fun. When I was twelve she taught me the joy and freedom of skinny-dipping. Thankfully, she was on hand to rescue me with a towel when my bathing suit sunk to the bottom of the lake and other swimmers arrived! About twenty-five years later, she took my children down to the little beach on her property and right there for all the world to see, she taught them the same thing. She laughed herself silly when the crabbing boats came in and waved to us.
She loved “a pahhhdee.” It didn’t matter if she had 2-3 people over for soup or a crab feed for thirty of us, she would call me on the phone and say “Oh, Joy did we ever have a party!”
Her life showed me the value of making and keeping friends. More people than I will ever know loved my grandmother. She collected friends daily and never shied away from approaching strangers and turning them into friends. Her sweet, life-long friendship with Eleanor is one I admire and try to emulate. (In fact, I recently wrote about it here.) How did Lucy find friendship so easy, when in fact we all know that making and keeping friends can be a challenge for many of us? I think it had to do Lucy’s way of showing a focused, steady and unwavering interest in the life details of whomever she was with. To be in her presence was to know she was “all there” for you. Holding space for the other to shine was one of her gifts. Whenever I arrived for a visit, she’d have two lists ready. The first one was a list of questions about my family, my business and my life. Before I’d arrived, she’d thought long and hard about me. She loved friendships that spanned generations. After an afternoon out with a woman in her thirties. Lucy called me to say, “Joy, surround yourself with young people. They will keep you young!”
She also taught me to stay current. Lucy’s love/hate relationship with her computer was something to observe with awe. She embraced technology in a way I can only hope to do as I age. Her emails were funny and filled with mistakes and sometimes I’d get multiple emails in a day with no content or that were meant for other people. She struggled her way up the learning curve when the internet exploded, but she basically kept up. I remember multiple July visits in a row teaching her how to copy and paste and later finding the instructions in her own handwriting taped to the side of her computer. One time I called and she said, “Joy, I cannot speak right now. My friend is here fixing the computer.” I later found out her friend was a 15-year-old boy from down the street she’d call about once a week for help.
As fiercely independent as she was, Lucy modeled something very important for me: asking for help. She was not afraid to show vulnerability when she needed something. Many of the people who gathered for her service were answers to her calls for help, and I loved all the big and small ways her community assisted her as she aged. She was able to live a long time on her own and in her home because of them. Neighbors, church members, and friends across the creek constantly checked in on her and helped her with rides and things around the house. When I would come visit, Lucy would get out her second list, which was full of things she needed my help with. After we’d talked and visited for a while she’d say, “Ok, Joy, here’s my list, get the step ladder.”
Finally, she taught me the pure joy of eating ice cream. Lucy watched her figure her whole life. But after a day of eating celery for breakfast, cantaloupe for lunch and a spoon full of cottage cheese for dinner, at nightfall the ice cream would come out of the freezer and the fun would begin. When she stopped driving in her early 90s, I thought the Highs convenience store up the street from her house might go out of business because that little old lady wouldn’t come in for pints of ice cream any more.
During the last year of her life, she had very little interest in food. She’d force herself to eat though she wasn’t very hungry. I’d cajole her and try to make it easy by focusing on the most delicious thing on her plate. “Oh Joy, I really couldn’t eat another bite!” Just then, an aide would walk by with a tray of ice cream cups and ask if she wanted any. “Why yes, I’ll have one now and I’ll take another one to my room for later, ” she’d say. There was always room for ice cream.
After Lucy’s funeral service and the moving veteran’s graveside service, many of her friends and family gathered at her house to visit and remember her. My daughter walked down to the crabbing pier to see the skinny-dipping beach and breathe in that Chesapeake Bay atmosphere one last time. Together we looked at pictures on the walls and introduced ourselves to the neighbors who’d heard all our stories over the years. After a few hours, the crowd dwindled and the only ones who remained were her children, grandchildren and the spouses she’d long accepted as family. We’d eaten a hearty lunch provided by our closest family friend, Chris, Eleanor’s daughter, and we’d talked ourselves out, but we didn’t want to separate. Who knew when or if any of us would be in her home again? Who knew when we’d even see each other again?
Just then, my Uncle Randy and his son-in-law Ryan darted up to the Highs and loaded up on ice cream. Together we filled heaping bowls and toasted our dear departed Lucy one more time. We did just what she’d tell us to do: We Enjoyed. Every. Last. Bite.
Thank you for indulging me and listening to my memory of my grandmother. My friends, Betsy and Rebecca, gave me such a gift when they asked me to tell them about Lucy. I’d love to hear about your loved one – still with you or departed. If you’d like to share, leave a comment here. I’ll treasure your story.
Six years ago, during a dinner party of adults, I excused my 12-year-old son to go to my room to watch a movie. Much later, after the dishes had been cleared and the last of the guests departed, I climbed the stairs to check on him. He’d dragged my armchair across the room to sit comfortably, three feet from the screen. “This is the only way I can see,” he explained. “I have to do this in math class too, in order to see the board. Didn’t the teacher call you? She said she would.” Off to the eye doctor we drove and sure enough, the boy was near-sighted. His chatter filled the first car ride after picking up his frames. “Can you see that over there? Look at those houses way over there! I can see their rooftops!” On and off went his glasses as he tested before and after versions of his sight. The most remarkable thing, he shared, was seeing individual leaves on the trees as we drove past.
A few weeks ago, my 20-year-old daughter returned home for winter break. In our taxi to see the new Star Wars movie (a Christmas tradition three years running), my son exclaimed, “Oh no! I forgot my glasses!” The driver pulled a quick u-turn and he hurriedly ran up to his room to get them. After the (thrilling!) movie, he handed his glasses to his sister to hold while he removed his sweatshirt and she jokingly put them on. And then she stopped dead in her tracks. Her mouth fell open in awe and her head made a slow circle, taking in the hubbub of the mall – all the glory of Christmas – the rushing shoppers, twinkling lights and bright decorations. She almost couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Apparently, she is also near-sighted, but we didn’t know it.
The following morning, we landed in Bangkok as planned and made our way to a shop where she had her eyes tested and picked out frames. Just like that, she got a new look – and a new outlook. It’s been a week now and she hasn’t stopped marveling at what she can see. She’s doing exactly what her brother did six years ago. On the top of a high rise admiring the view, she pointed to the distance. “Can you see that red building?” she asked. “How about that sign – can you read that sign?” The glasses went up and down over her forehead as she compared her naked vision to her improved vision. Nature is the biggest shock, she agrees with her brother. When we arrived at the Thailand coast to a little town called Hua Hin, she stared at the ocean. “Guys, I’ve never seen the ocean look like this, you know.” We all razzed her, “How could you not know? How could you not realize you couldn’t see?” Here’s the best way she’s been able to articulate it: everyone’s vision ends somewhere. The horizon, the distance, the skyline, whatever you name it, is as far as the eye can see. She just assumed that spot was a lot closer for everybody than it really is. Her reality was short-sighted.
The New Testament records a story of Saul (later known as the Apostle Paul) who God intentionally struck blind in order to stop the evil persecution of new Christians. Saul was a pretty awful character, honestly. After three days of blindness and misery, a minister nervously approached him to offer prayer and Saul, at the end of his rope, I imagine, accepted the offer. Saul repented of his wicked ways and the Scripture says, “something like scales fell from his eyes,” and his sight returned. He changed his name to Paul and became the greatest Christian evangelist of all time. He wrote much of the New Testament and his is a story of utter and complete transformation – a life lived one way and in a single moment that life was changed and made 100% new. A true conversion. He was blind – blind to his own evil ways, blind to the power of God’s love and the welcome of His embrace and physically too blind to continue to murder and imprison Christians – but then… then he could see. He could see the grace of God that welcomed (even) him. He could see his own sin and failings and he could see a way of escape from the dark life he’d been living. He could see so clearly that he reordered his entire life. It’s as if even his heart (or mind or soul) received vision after the scales fell.
I’m pretty sure I stumble my way through life mostly blind. Full of uncertainty and insecurity, I do my best with the vision I’ve got. It probably stops long before the horizon and much before I can take in all the beauty around me. It reaches only as far as my trust in my marriage, my security in my friendships, my hope placed in God and my handle on anxiety. On a given day, (sometimes depending on my struggle with insomnia), those can be fairly short distances. My vision is blurred and distorted by my numbing, my self-doubt, my self-sabotaging ways and my utter lack of sleep. Sometimes, I see myself bigger than I really am, the hero of a story where I am a bit player at best, and other times I view myself as weak and small – the victim of a story – where I am meant to shine. My vision isn’t trustworthy all the time. It doesn’t always provide me the truth.
I know what it’s like to have moments of clarity, though. Those watershed moments where suddenly I think, “I see it all clearly now.” Recently, I had a moment like this within my marriage, where by a small miracle I could actually see my contribution to a problem and I was able to own it rather than lay blame. Those were heavy scales that tumbled down that day. I remember a day long ago spent with two friends and the nagging feeling of being excluded and ignored. “I never need to feel like this again. I don’t need these friends in my life,” I realized. And it was done. As an entrepreneur I probably have had most of my clear thinking moments in my business. My own actions and efforts are the biggest predictors of my success. As simple as that sounds, that’s rare clear thinking for me. I’d rather factors beyond my control be in charge.
A casual friend told me about the moment she knew in her gut she must leave her marriage. She was on a couples date and her husband was openly flirting with the other woman. Then she overheard the woman quietly ask her husband what the secret to a long happy marriage was. Her husband of twenty years whispered, “I don’t know. I hate her.” Was this the first time he’d disgraced her in public? Probably not. And it wasn’t the first evening out that ended with hot tears of humiliation and shame, but it was the moment “something like scales” fell away for her.
As I age, my vision of my parents is becoming sharper and more in focus. I see their tender hearts and how well they’ve loved me. It’s clear now that they are humans who did their very best and though at times I may have needed more, or different, they gave me everything they had. This clarity brings a flood of gratitude. My wasted and limited vision in my teens, 20s and even into my 30s didn’t always allow this. I was in a blurry zone, but it’s clear now.
I’m compassionate to that younger self, though, the one stumbling around with her scales in place, doing the very best she can. She’s still with me now much of the time. My best friend tells me to try to do just the next very best thing and when that is done, go on to do it again. When I embrace that advice even though I can’t see the horizon or barely even the path beneath my feet, somehow I know not to step into the ravine. I know to avoid the potholes and to duck if a branch is hanging too low in front of me. Just the next very best thing is what I do.
With everything in me, I hope that 2018 is a year where clear thinking and more importantly, clear seeing reigns. Dear Lord, may I really see the woman standing in my mirror and understand her potential. May I see the women I meet and know them as three-dimensional humans, full of their unique hopes, stories and abilities. May I see my husband and children as people in process, like all of us. May the scales fall off in every role and every relationship. May I experience the beauty of the individual leaves and the rhythm of the waves in a new and more detailed way.
But if my year turns out to be muddled, confusing and clouded like many of them that have come before, may I trust myself to do just the next very best thing. May I work with what I can see in front of me, through my thick and heavy scales, and still enjoy 2018 one hesitant, nervous step at a time and somehow, through God’s grace, make my way down the path that rises up to meet me.
Blessings to all of you in the New Year. With your scales, your half-scales or your brand new glasses, I’m in it with you.
P.S. But seriously, how cute does she look in those glasses?
The first day of school this past August was a shock to our system. We were still jetlagged after returning to Singapore from the US, we were running late and the bus arrived early. Our goodbye was rushed, we missed the classic first-day-of-school picture and my son arrived at school harried, stressed and already feeling behind. This wasn’t a great way to start his senior year. Then Louis pushed the re-set button. The second morning he was organized and efficient, but the bus arrived early for the second time and my instinct was to again dash around like a crazy woman, yell at him to get out the door and toss his shoes through the bus door after him. Louis calmly sat on the couch, leaned over to put on his shoes, carefully tied each one and stood to properly strap on his backpack. “Umm, can you hurry?” I asked, as the panic rose and the bus driver stared at me through the open door. Louis was having none of it. “I’ve decided this year I am not going to let myself get worked up about things like this. The bus is early; I’m on time. The bus can wait. I want to have a peaceful day and it begins now.”
He was right. He was protecting his insides from the outside world. He has a very heavy academic load, volunteers for various clubs and often has to skip lunch or eat on the go. When his last class finishes, he races to drama practice, arrives home just before seven o’clock in time for the seventeen-minute family dinner, and then spends three hours on homework and studying. Somehow, even with his packed 16-hour days, he mostly has figured out how to block stress out.
This isn’t an advice column, but here’s some advice: if you want to be a valuable asset to your company, your family and your friends, work hard, but rest easy. This is the closest thing to a magic bullet the millennials will find to their constant queries about “adulting,” and it’s the winning combination employers, volunteer organizers, children and spouses will love about you. They will know they can count on you to work hard – really, really hard – but not be a stress case infecting those around with your own tension and strain.
But how do we do it? What does it look like to mix hard work with peace of mind? Louis’s mature approach made me look at my own life and examine whether I was showing up with this combination in my work, family and friendships, and how I might do a better job. What follows is some of what I’ve figured out.
Start with loving what we do. Louis loves multi-variable equations, the rules of traditional Spanish poetry and the family-like environment of a drama cast. His love for learning and engagement helps get him through his long days. I love being with women, creating warm atmospheres, assessing needs and finding solutions. If we hate what we face each day, we are dead in the water. If we want to have a high work ethic and give service with a smile, we need to fall in love with what we are doing or find something else to do.
Next up: Employ Hustle. Here’s how I describe my hustle:
Hustle is … saying yes to lots of opportunities, with confidence that later I’ll be able to figure out how to make it all happen. Anyway, much of what we plan to do never occurs. I can’t tell you how many people schedule phone calls, lunch dates, cabi shows, girls’ outings, workouts and travel with me – and then cancel or postpone. I say yes to all of them and then implement the ones that stick.
Hustle is … pre-planning. Most of the magic does not happen in execution – what people see in public – me “handling” it. That’s the easy part. The hard part usually happened long ago, as I sat in my pajamas laboring over my laptop: planning, confirming, thinking through additional options, securing details, confirming again, shifting and re-directing, until finally a well-thought-out plan is ready for me to execute.
Hustle is … chasing opportunity, instead of deciding for someone or for a situation all the ways she or it will fail. When I bump into non-hustle in another person – call it naysaying or fixed-mindset – I am taken aback; a closed mind literally shocks my system. I am wired to find solutions, and hearing a non-hustler say, “No … and here are all the reasons that will not work,” makes me crazy. Umm, let’s use our time together to figure out how this possibly could work or what else would work to get us to our goal. Of course, part of planning and strategizing is naming and considering possibilities for failure – but we’ll accomplish nothing if we call those possibilities “truth.”
Hustle is … the opposite of lazy. Clearly my body and my mind need regular times of rest and recovery. But I guard against being drawn into a sluggish, short-cut focused, lethargic life. Honestly, I have to push against slothfulness and hold myself to a high level of achievement, because I am a really accomplished relaxer. (Netflix binge, anyone?) But in the ongoing battle between my nature and my achievement intentions, I root for hustle.
Hustle is … playing the long game. Those who promote instant gratification are selling us a lie. Right now, I’ve got at least seven complicated plans in action – friendship plans, business plans, personal growth plans, health plans, family plans – and none of them will come to fruition this year. But I am working those plans like a fiend. When challenges arise on the path, as they always do, I do not give up on the plan. Instead, I regroup. When I’ve played the long game well and done the pre-planning work with care, the end result is so very sweet.
While hustle is an important skill to develop and even demand from ourselves, it’s only half the battle. Next, the trick to working hard and making it look easy is knowing how to keep all the hustle on the outside while protecting the inside stillness.
Protect the Still.
Mindfulness plays a big role in keeping my insides still. Sometimes, I narrate inside my head what is happening around me. Now I am presenting the collection. I am smiling at the woman who just entered the house. I am approaching the woman with the red top over her arm. I am loading up the car. I am driving to my next show. I am anticipating the friends I will see. I am searching for a parking space. This helps my racing mind relax and stop jumping to the next agenda item or strategizing too far ahead. Considering only what is in front of me helps the long days end well. I might sound a little crazy, talking myself through a stop sign, ordering an iced tea or walking to my car, but this is one way that works for me to maintain my stillness.
Including some margin helps, too. Accepting that things will shift also helps keep me calm. Recently, I was getting ready to leave for a show, with the racks and stacks of clothes already loaded to the ceiling of the rental car, when I discovered the car had a dead battery. With 45 minutes until show time and AAA ignoring calls, my margin was slim, but it was there. After phoning a friend who dropped everything but couldn’t get his hybrid car to jump my minivan, I watched oncoming traffic for a minute and then walked out and signaled to the first person with his window down. It was a visiting French businessman, talking on his phone. “Do you have five minutes to jump me?” I said. (Thankfully, he didn’t seem to understand the vernacular usage of that phrase.) Without a word, he pulled over and we got the cables hooked up. Bless the French. I made it to the show with five minutes to spare. (I was wearing some animal skin print trousers at the time. We now call them the “jump-me” pants.)
Don the apron. A friend told me that when her son took a job at Starbucks, he was handed his green apron and trained to consider the apron his shield. Throughout his day, as customers would complain or vent their stress on him, he’d let his apron serve as his shield against their harsh words and criticism. This picture was so powerful that I adopted it as my own, and now consider my work clothes my shield. A few years ago, I was training a new stylist at a show and we were in a hectic room filled with high-needs women. They were calling out questions, complaining about elements of their bodies or the clothes and creating heaps of discarded items around the room we couldn’t quite keep up with. I was sublimely floating in the mix. The gal looked at me and said, “Why is none of this sticking on you? I am having trouble breathing deeply!” I was wearing my shield. It all just bounced off of me.
My identity must be grounded. When I enter a crowded show, a social scene, an extended family gathering, or a tense professional or personal conversation, I need to know who and what I am. Before anything else, I’m firmly planted in my identity as a child of God. I usually don’t need to do more than briefly remind myself of that as my stress level rises. When insecurity, the need to please, fear of what others think of me, or that old stand-by message, you are not good enough for this, raise their ugly heads (and they come, Sisters, they still come at me), I whisper, “I am God’s child and I am loved just as I am.” That’s my re-set button.
Recently, I was on a busy sales trip, horribly jetlagged and feeling stretched a little thin. Things kept going wrong, like dead car batteries, a little fender-bender, more nights without sleep than I usually have to endure with jetlag, plus a misunderstanding with a friend, and I felt off my game. I was so foggy-headed I wasn’t sure I was giving my clients the attention and care I want to offer, and thought maybe I was coming up short of my own standards. But after a long day, I opened up this email from a generous and gracious friend:
You are a super star. You must really love your job because you show up with a huge sincere smile, don’t eat all day, never complain (even when your car dies), work standing up for 5 hours straight, try and find wifi at local merchant for an hour before you head off to the next show – seriously, everyone should have your energy.
Turns out, despite my self-doubt, I was nailing it.
To all the students tired in the endless cycle of quiz-test-exam, to the millennials trying to distinguish yourselves from your peers, to the stay-at-home moms considering a return to the workforce, to the young parents trudging through long days with needy toddlers, to the disillusioned professionals hitting walls of frustration, to the married couples entering their sixth month of marriage counseling, to the recovering alcoholics who have made it one year and still find it hard to go without a drink, to the artists waiting to be discovered, to the pastors looking for sermon inspiration and the volunteers feeling weary in well-doing: Keep Still and Hustle On, my friends. I am rooting for you.
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This is my grandmother Lucy and her best friend Eleanor. They met as neighboring young brides with growing families when they both lived for a short time in Rockville, Maryland. More kids arrived, jobs changed and they both moved away. Jobs continued to change and children grew up. About fifteen years later, they found themselves living as neighbors again – and this is where they’d each remain – in Annapolis, Maryland. Over the years, they shared crab feasts, backyard BBQs, family birthday parties, boat trips on the Chesapeake Bay, bridge games, books and conversation…lots and lots of conversation. They held each other as each of their husbands passed away and when their own bodies began to fail in different ways, they supported and cheered each other on through medical scares and adjustments. This year, they separately moved into the same retirement home so they could get extra care and that meant they got to see each other at meals, Bingo and sometimes just for a quiet afternoon chat. Turned out, though, that my grandmother Lucy, the younger of the two, needed a little more care than that home provided so she recently moved into a skilled nursing home an hour’s drive away. They are both in their late 90s; this picture is their goodbye hug before Lucy moved out – likely their last goodbye.
Oh, that I should be so lucky to keep my girlfriends as close as Lucy and Eleanor were able to keep each other. I’m only 44 and I’ve all but finished raising my kids. The days of meeting other moms on the Saturday morning soccer sideline are done. Those long sunny Friday afternoons playing in the street that rolled into two families heating up all the week’s leftovers we had in the fridge, laying them on a shared table and calling it “Picka-Picka,” are finished. No more, You take the kids after school today and I will take them tomorrow exchanges, or Can you take my kids out for ice cream tonight because I have to work and am worried about leaving them on their own. Now, girlfriend time is just that – time I can spend alone with my girlfriends.
I’ve started listening to a new podcast series by one of my favorite writers, Jen Hatmaker. Her podcast, “For the Love,” began with a series called, “For the Love of Girlfriends.” As I walked my dog in the rain this morning, I heard Jen say into my ear buds, “I invest heavily in my girlfriends.”
I felt tears spring up as her words landed somewhere tender in me. Because, I. Love. My. Girlfriends. That same tender spot was activated a few weeks ago when my business coach ventured a little more into life coaching. She asked me to think of this upcoming work season and consider all I wanted to achieve and receive and try to boil it down to one word that could serve as an intention. “Friendship,” I answered. “I want to lean into my gift of friendship.” “Joy,” she replied, “You are friendship – it’s what you do naturally. What you are saying is you want to be more of your true self this season.” YES! It turns out, my Girlfriends, we are linked in my heart. To be a better me, I need to be a better friend to you.
Life, though, with its supersonic speedy ride, throws so much in the path of “investing heavily.” I need more sleep than ever before and the older I get, the more time I seem to need to regroup alone. The extroverted me is asking, who is this new introvert moving in? I need more time to spend with my parents and my almost-adult children, and my marriage – like all the other ones – is an organic force that needs care and tending as well. Plus, I work, like, all the time and run out of hours and energy every day. How can I slice a fatter pie piece called friendship?
I’ve learned from moving abroad, and by traveling constantly, that it’s real work to maintain friendships and that work has to be taken seriously. Similar to the work of marriage, it’s best and most successfully done when both parties believe it’s 100% their job to do the reaching-out and initiating. Anybody waiting around for a text, or thinking, “You know, I am always the one to call. Let’s see how long it takes her to call me this time,” is sunk. Memories are too faulty for us to play those tit-for-tat games. I am “here two weeks and gone for two months” in most of the friendships I currently have, and those are with the friends I am lucky enough to live near or visit regularly. My Lucy- and Eleanor-style friends – the ones I’ve nurtured for many years – I see once in a blue moon as I’m passing through a city nearby, or we schedule a long Face Time catch-up when we can. One of my besties and I trade lengthy emails often, and when we reply, we interrupt each other’s paragraphs with different colored fonts so that it reads like we are interjecting into a live conversation. Another friend takes me grocery shopping or does it for me if I cannot tag along. While I was typing this, she dropped off two bags and we stood outside my gate laughing so hard at random things that we had tears streaming. Just after she pulled away she sent a message, “That was just what I needed today,” and of course it was soul-lifting for me too. Another friend leaves me voicemails regularly and asks “How can I best pray for you today?” Another lives five hours from where my eldest is experiencing a hurricane from her college dorm room and texted last night to say, “Can I go scoop her up?” When I was in labor with that child I passed that friend’s apartment and my husband stopped and beeped during a contraction. Our connections runs deep. Another makes eyebrow-threading appointments for me whenever I am in her town – even if we are off schedule from each other. She just comes to sit with me while I do the upkeep because she recognizes how busy I am and what a gift the hour of conversation is to me. Recently a friend moved into my home for a few weeks as she transitions to a new life and she makes me laugh every single day, usually through bitmogi. She’s a bitmogi ninja. Three other friends book a lunch reservation together whenever I can come. I know they cancel plans and move things around and always go to my favorite places because I don’t live in their town anymore and they know I miss the food and their company so much. I can’t begin to list the friends who have opened their guestrooms or kicked their kids out of bedrooms to host me overnight or overweek during the last four years – it’s too many to number. Investing heavily can look a lot of different ways, and I am a lucky gal.
I don’t have high standards for friendship, honestly. At least not in the beginning – I’ll give almost any woman a chance to see if we have the spark. This has been a useful mindset through an international move for sure, but it’s enhanced my entire life. Obviously it doesn’t work out with everyone, but it has afforded me a *very* diverse set of friends. Random ages, with/without kids, married and single girlfriends, various or no religions, working and non-working, American and everything else. It stays interesting.
Here’s what I look for in a friendship that will stand the test of time:
The Best of You. I don’t need you to be my Best Friend; I’ll find the best in you and I’ll offer you the best of me. We don’t need to align on everything and you don’t need to be my end all to all end alls. Maybe you are my writing buddy or the one who holds my whispered marriage stories or the one who will get me through the years of caring for elderly parents. Maybe I can be your shopping or lunching friend or I can sit in the hospital with you while your baby is getting diagnosed, or help you house-hunt. Don’t feel the need to meet all my needs, just bring your best self and know I’ll bring mine.
The Real Stuff. I’ve been told I’m a tad more comfortable sharing the tough stuff and getting vulnerable than the average gal and I try to keep that in mind and go slowly. It’s hard because the times I’ve chosen to dive in deep with someone new have mostly paid off and I see no reason to wait. I don’t need you to bare your soul, but I do need to be real myself. And I need to know you can handle it. You may not be a God person, but you gotta know I’ll share my faith journey with you. You may hold your parenting fears close like cards, but you’ll hear a lot of my worries about my kids.
We’ve gotta be on the same team. There are enough people in the world transacting, posing, one-upping, competing and manipulating. I’ve got no time for that in a friendship and I don’t think you do either. If something about me brings up an insecurity in you, or something in your past has taught you that women are meant to be jockeying with each other, we can either talk about it frankly or move on from each other.
I can do the group friendships, but I love the one-on-ones more. I really love parties. I’ve built my whole career around them, for goodness’ sake. And I love to throw my own birthday party as many years as I can. I fill the room and introduce my friends to each other. The connector in me comes to life in groups. Those long tables filled with laughing women make great memories, and they are the perfect place to include newcomers, but know that I’ll look for time to be alone with you too. Alone we can discover together what we can share and what we can be to each other. And groups can bring out a different dynamic sometimes… one that doesn’t foster the kind of friendships I want. A few times I’ve learned I could be an individual friend with a particular woman, but I needed to avoid her in groups.
Laughter. You don’t need to be my personal comedian, but we’ve got to find a way to laugh together. Laughter heals me and hits the reset button. I can get through almost any stressful thing if I can find someone to laugh along the way with me.
Grace given easily. I’ll freely give it and I’ll need it too. I can’t have grudges in a friendship and I need to know no one is keeping score. I’m certainly not. If I’ve hosted you for dinner more than you’ve hosted me, know I am not tracking it and I’m likely finding that you are giving to me in some other way. Remember that part of my giving you my best? It doesn’t always appear as Even Stevens. There’s no tally pad in my heart. And I’ll likely come up short if there is one in yours.
Listening, especially to the hard things. I like to hear the whole thing. The whole story. All your feelings and thoughts. I’ve worked hard to become a good listener and I am cued up, waiting for you. I went through a rough patch a long time ago and I just couldn’t seem to move past it. I needed to reiterate and revisit the hurt and each time I verbally went through it, I learned something new about myself. As time went on, that experience provided much-needed personal growth. But while it was happening, it was hard and miserable. A close friend offered to be my listener. “You never have to apologize for repeating yourself with me. I’ll listen to the story as many times as you need to tell it.” Ever since, I’ve tried to be to others what she was to me.
Recently, I was sitting in church next to a new-ish friend and she leaned over and whispered, “Hey, do you think sometime we could just, like, talk?” I looked up and saw some brimming tears. “Now,” I replied. I grabbed her hand and exited the pew immediately. You know what I felt? Honored. Hopeful. Ready. When a woman leans into me and makes a bid for a deeper friendship, I know I’m one step closer to a Lucy and Eleanor relationship.
We women have so much to offer each other in this little lifetime and no time to waste. We’ll be 90 and hugging goodbye over our wheelchairs soon enough. Can we get started today?
What do you look for in a friendship that will stand the test of time? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.
Seems like I am writing again. Subscribe in the upper-right-hand corner to receive the blog in your email inbox.
I was speaking with my friend, Kim, yesterday about the theme of the recent cabi sales conference, Fearless Pursuit. She said, “You are always so fearless, Joy!” Ha! If only she knew! I am fearful of so much — what people will think of or say about me, that I will fall short of my own expectations or ones others have of me, that I will bite off more than I can chew, or that I will fail to see the larger context and play out my life in small little ways. I am a recovering pleaser and fear has been a friend/foe for as long as I can remember. (A few years ago I even wrote a rare blog piece about my relationship with fear) No, I am certainly not fearless, but I am learning to be courageous. I am learning to feel the fear and do it anyway.
Please, please tell me you saw the Wonder Woman movie this summer! I took my grandmother and the two of us have been texting each other ever since to point out themes of female empowerment, courage, risky grit and leadership. My biggest take away is swirling around the idea of “calling” and how Wonder Woman was “called” to her mission, and that mission didn’t look like everyone around her thought it should. And if you’ve seen the movie, do you remember that moment when she entered no man’s land simply to rescue a village — a small blip on her quest to end WWI? When her team hesitated and said, “This is not what we came here to do,” and she replied, “No, but it’s what I am going to do,” donned her crown and climbed the ladder, I seriously thought my heart was going to explode. It was like she was saying, “This is all there is right now,” and that’s the line that keeps coming back to me as I do the little things to open and build my business this season, settle my family into the new school year, connect with far flung friends and touch base with my parents even when I feel too busy to call. “This is all there is right now,” is what is guiding me forward at the moment. It’s what my inner Wonder Woman is whispering to me so that I don’t get overwhelmed trying to eat the whole pie of my life — dreams, achievements, ambitions and all. This Wonder Woman will stick with me as I enter the big noisy cabi shows this fall and see that one shy gal standing in the corner needing some personal attention, the days when my inbox reaches 300 unopened messages, but a friend in needs wants to go for coffee, or when my kids ask for some extra help and love even though they really could do it on their own. It’s what has kept me traveling so much this past year.
Speaking of which, I’ve been living out of a suitcase for 15 weeks and tomorrow, I go home! I cannot tell you how eager I am to unpack, sleep in my own bed, walk my dogs and make toast in my own kitchen. This last stretch of travel has been wonderful and I’ve seen so many great friends and had fabulous cabi fashion experiences, but it’s time for a little rest and recovery as I enter this fearless fall fashion season and begin again. Stay tuned for lots of information as I dive into the collection and begin having shows, but for today, listen for your own sweet Wonder Woman’s voice and ask, “What is this thing in front of me that is requiring me to be fearless?” What fear are you feeling, but doing the hard work of courage anyhow? What is your no man’s land moment? What did you certainly not sign up for, but you now realize has become everything that you need to do? Well, I can’t tell you how you will get through it, but I can tell you — with certainty — you are not alone. I am cheering you on and I’d love to hear what you are fearlessly pursuing. You can just hit reply to this email and you’ll land in my inbox.
From one strong Wonder Woman to another — Much Love,
Your Singapore Joy
P.S. Truth time: This is a re-post. This morning, I emailed this to my Cabi fashion clients in my typical newsletter form. I usually receive 2-3 responses to a newsletter update. After just a few hours, my inbox had over 30 responses with women sharing their intimate and closely held fears, inspiration and triumphs with me. So… I’m not the only one who is familiar with fear and who is trying to overcome it, huh? Thought I’d share it with my patient readers as well. I promise, you guys, I will start writing again. I think about it, and you, all the time. Thanks for hanging in there with me during this quiet phase.
P.P.S. I know a movie scene outside of the context of the movie just isn’t that moving. But here’s my Wonder Woman Moment. Click Here
They say you’ll cry when you come and you’ll cry when you go, but what they don’t tell you is that you’ll start crying about six months into your stay as you begin to say a series of goodbyes and you’ll never really have dry eyes again.
It’s mass exodus month in Singapore, my least favorite time of year. Some people are returning home, some are moving on to another expat posting and some know they are leaving Singapore, but have no idea where they will go next.
I’m not going to lie, I’m really sad. When I first arrived, I met loads of old timers who were not interested in being my friend. They’d seen so many people come and go and they just didn’t want their hearts broken again. They were polite, gave a nice smile, said the let me know if you need anything perfunctory response to our introduction, but they did not open their hearts to me. I got it. I get it more now.
I opened my heart as wide as it would go, stuck a crow bar in it just in case it tried to self-protect and snap shut and I ventured out to find who my friends would be. I tried to remind myself that I wasn’t looking for a best friend, just the best in a friend. And whoa, Nelly! did I find the best. Somehow I managed to worm my way into the lives of a few old timers anyway and I met plenty of women who had just arrived like me and we all began the long road of getting to know each other. A few hundred lunches, walks, talks and shared experiences later, my life is full of amazing women – many of whom do not know each other. My friendship practice resembles a wagon wheel more than it does a tidy circle of trust.
Friends to exercise with, friends to shop with, friends to travel with, friends to pray with, friends to eat with and even friends to go to the fake, not-nearly-as-good Costco with! My heart and schedule are full and, well, I was recently thinking how I might not want to meet an eager newbie who will throw me off balance with her neediness and incessant questions. Gulp! I’ve become an old timer.
I sat with my friends from ladies’ Bible study last week and we explored the roles of mentors and encouragers in our lives. I thought back to people who had influenced me from the time I was a teenager to those who have walked the tough stuff with me in more recent years and I whispered a prayer of gratitude for them. I looked around the room and saw a few faces that had been my cheering squad when I needed it during my time in Singapore. One of them reminded me about the saying, A friendship isn’t real until you’ve cried together and boy have we had chances to cry together as we’ve prayed for children, husbands, finances, travels, illness and more. That room was filled with encouragers.
Living abroad is a wacky experience – some days I fly so high I can’t believe I am the lucky recipient of this adventure and I fall into bed those nights exhausted and smiling. Other days I burrow under the duvet in my overly air conditioned room and can’t face the world of foreignness, constant change and different-from-homeness for another second. Through those ups and downs, it’s been friendships that have helped balance me out. It’s always been the friendships….
And now SO MANY OF MY FRIENDS ARE MOVING AWAY. And I am deeply excited for their next adventures – some are empty nesting for the first time, some are moving to cool places, learning new languages and readying guest rooms for me to sleep in when I visit, some are finally moving back to their hometowns, to their houses waiting on their cul de sacs with the neighbors who will throw welcome-back-bbqs for them on grills filled with pounds and pounds of meat that didn’t cost a week’s salary.
I’ve attended goodbye parties – pool parties, brunches, coffees, dinners and lunches to say goodbye. I’ve written cards, contributed to group gifts, tried to express my sentiments to each of them and wished them well. And the tiniest, pettiest part of me can’t help but think, “Harrumph. Come August, I’ll be here. Right back here. Car sick in the back of a taxi, sweating through my clothes, chasing groceries and harassing waiters for more ice water, please.”
Deep down I can tell that some of these adorable women who have made an imprint on my heart will be friends for life, and some of them will have been friends while we both lived here. We’ll keep in touch on facebook, but we won’t see each other again. I’m trying to be okay with that. I learned when I moved away from San Francisco – my first move in almost fifteen years – that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t take everyone with me. Not everyone has the keep-in-touch gene. And yet, I remind myself, I am okay.
I will draw closer to the friends who are not moving – I have more lunches, brunches, walks and talks ahead of me with those ladies and perhaps a trip or two to plan. As many as I can count heading on to other things, I can count more who will be sticking around. Let’s make some dates, girlies.
And here’s a tricky part: there are new friends I have not met who will arrive here in just a few months. Sure, they will be needy and have a million questions, but won’t they remind me of someone else who came here – sweaty, messy, emotional and lonely – just two years ago? And if I can keep that crow bar in my heart jammed into place a little longer, keep my heart open and searching who is still here? who is my next friend? – well, there’s no telling what my friendships will look like by this time next year.
And for the ladies leaving, I’m letting you go. I learned a long time ago that open palms receive way more gifts and blessings than closed, gripping-so-tightly-til-my-nails-prick-those-palms ever will. Like other things I’ve wanted to cling to – cities, comforts, possessions, communities, I now place these friendships into that palm and hold it as open as my heart – they are free to go without worrying about me, free to embrace their new lives and make room in their hearts for their new friends. Perhaps I’ll be sleeping between the sheets in their guest room next year, or perhaps our time in each other’s hearts was meant to be simply a gift of Singapore. However our stories continue on – of them with me, and me with them and us on our own – our time together has been nothing short of magical.
Now forgive me for sharing aloud my farewells… Au revoir, my Michelle. Thank you for loving me before you met me and letting me just be me around you. Rachelle, you welcomed me into your inner circle without question and thank you to you both for bequeathing Cheryl to me. I promise to take good care of her. Kris, I think you will be popping into Singapore at times next year, right? Yes? Please? Christine, Hong Kong is not so far away so I think I might see you before too long, and Divya we know we can meet up in the Bay Area anytime. Melissa, DC! I go there every summer! Nida, you’ve certainly traveled well during your time in Asia – I’ll miss our movie dates! Kie, I am beyond excited about Taipei – it’s my favorite city! You have a bedroom whenever you need/want to come back and visit! And if Emma and Rachel keep jumping, IASAS track and field will be in Taipei next April! Sarah, you’ve modeled for me the me-I-want-to-be: your hospitality, graciousness, energy and non-judgmental open arms have affected so many of us at St. George’s. You are a true example of using our time wisely. Diana, the UK awaits and I know you are ready for this next step! Ivy, you have to give up your sunrise views and your beloved elephants, but I wonder (with great anticipation) what adventure awaits you back home in the desert? Gayathri, I think our paths might cross in Chatham! Melissa, may you continue to help women discover their strengths in New Jersey and Charlotte, time to conquer Europe! Hannis, I have you for a little longer, yes? Suzy, second Mom to my boy, keep on truckin’. Your smiley family will keep drawing us to PA. Therese, grace be with you as you transition. May you find the gifts of Seoul quickly; be on the lookout, dear, because they will be waiting for you there. And I will come hunt them down for you if they don’t reveal themselves fast enough, because I need to try bibimbap in its natural habitat.
And of course I am likely to have forgotten a few and that doesn’t mean I will not miss them, just that I am feeble-minded. I will think of you in your new places and I will pray for you and your families as you find your footing in whatever is next.
To all of you who have blessed me with generous friendship and shown me the way to be a welcoming, openhearted Singaporean Expat:
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace. (Numbers 6: 24-26)
Fare thee well!