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?
P.S. Welcome to all the recent subscribers! I’m Joy. I post random pieces at random times, but I promise to keep you laughing, crying, or at least thinking! If you were forwarded this from a friend but want to catch the next addition (in 6 months or 6 days from now… we never know) simply fill out that form at the top right corner. It looks like this:
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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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!
I’m having an affair with Fear. He’s been with me for a while and I’ve come to depend on his voice and assurances like a drug. He’s raised my kids with me – he even attended a few parent teacher conferences, good fellow that he is – and he usually sits alongside me while I drive. He goes to doctor’s appointments with me and he always accompanies me to social gatherings where I am bound to meet new people and he spends the evenings whispering sweet nothings into my ear. Heck, he dropped what he was doing and followed me around the world when I moved to Asia. He can’t keep his hands off of me. We’re like that obnoxious couple making out in the dark at the movie theater or staring longingly into each other’s eyes while roller-skating to love songs. We are entwined, Fear and me.
Here’s what dating Fear offers me.
He keeps me from making dumb mistakes: When I am ready to leap before looking he says, Do you really want to ask that woman you just met if she’d like to go for a walk or coffee? She might think you are a friendless loser. When I consider initiating intimacy with my husband, he steps in swiftly with, Just turn off the light and roll over, Sweetie. Let’s not have you rejected tonight by a man too exhausted to think. Also, he’s probably noticed those extra pounds you’ve put on. When I want to offer my services as a fashion consultant, he steps between the woman and me and says Shhh! She’s going to think you are one of those pushy pyramid scheme people. Just let her go to Nordstrom! See, if he weren’t my boyfriend I’d go around making a fool of myself all the time.
He keeps me safe and the same. With his voice in my ear, I am able to plan, strategize, consider, ponder and talk, but I never need to act. Action takes risk and he has a no-risk rule and I’ve learned to follow it. As I lean toward a new direction, he forms a knot in my stomach. Lean back, the knot disappears. Forward, knot, back, no knot. Fear hates failure and he is always keeping me away from it. Don’t try that new exercise program because you’ll probably quit by the end of the week. Don’t attempt a new leadership plan for your team; no one will follow it. Don’t travel to that country; you’ll catch a disease. So I stay safe and just dream.
He helps me focus on the future. Fear is very in touch with how it will all turn out. He is sure and positive and firm in his predictions. And I believe him. He doesn’t need to wonder, hope or trust because he can see into the future and just knows. It’s spooky sometimes how right he is. I mean, we never really know for sure how other options might have turned out because we always follow his plan, but it’s because he knows best. He’s been a parenting coach for me in always looking ahead and deciding what particular scenarios mean about my kids’ future. He was definitely present and in agreement with the coach that said she’d never play in high school if I didn’t let her join a travel team in fifth grade and he was speaking as loud as my heart was banging about how the bullying would never stop for the rest of my son’s life. He’s keen like that.
There are some downsides to dating him, I know. My girlfriends think he is a drag and are so sick of my showing up with him at my side. And they swear, if I talk about him to them one more time …
He gets boring after a while. I have a taste for adventure and novelty and I want to experience everything the world can offer me. He’s a downer when it comes to exploring new places, new relationships and new opportunities. Always yap yap yapping in my ear about the what ifs, the shoulda-coulda-wouldas, the ways it might possibly tank, the embarrassment and shame I might feel, and how I might be financially vulnerable if I proceed. His routine is so predictable it gets old.
Giving my heart to him closes it to others. He likes to occupy my whole heart and makes sure there is not a lot of room for anyone else in there. He helps me read signals and cues that indicate others don’t like me, think I am dumb, are laughing at me or see right past me. Honestly, when I give him my ear it makes sense not to let anyone in. There are good reasons to be suspicious and I don’t like having a broken heart anymore than the next gal. I keep it closed and watch people walk by and sometimes I just wonder how my life could have been enriched if I let them in.
But the biggest downside to loving him is that I don’t grow. There is no need to attend any lectures or courses for personal development; they won’t amount to much anyway. Because I don’t seek out new experiences or meet new people, my viewpoints and perspectives are never challenged or enlarged. I have a hunch that there is more out there for me, but he keeps holding me back, keeping me safe.
I’ve heard Fear’s voice for so many years that sometimes I forget I have a choice. Sometimes my own voice offers up words I know would make him proud. Occasionally the people who love me want to keep me safe and whole and so they speak some of Fear’s best lines too.
I dream of breaking up with him. I wonder what would happen if I played the field and dated around. I dunno if I’m up for it though. Could be fun. I hear Hope and Trust are currently single, available and looking for dates.