midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “death”

Intersection of Beginning and Ending

For the second straight day, I couldn’t get my mother on the phone and got no reply to my messages. The last time I called from work and left a message, I got a sick feeling. I knew something was wrong.

I called my wife Amy and told her to meet me at my mother’s apartment building, where we had struggled to move her a year earlier during a period of my mother’s physical health decline and struggle with a mental health disorder. At midlife, roles had reversed and we had become my mother’s caretakers and support system.

When we got no response to our knock on the door, dread came over me. We entered and found her dead on the bathroom floor, cause of death unknown. Though she had been experiencing health problems, they were more the nagging kind than life-threatening—until they were even more than that, suddenly.

It was a tragic start to a political campaign. Only five days earlier, I had registered in dontknockfront-cover_6283732Maryland’s capital of Annapolis as a Democratic candidate for state delegate. I had never told my mother I was considering running—our relationship had been strained during her time of unpredictable and volatile mental health, exacerbated by her stubborn nature and rebellious streak. I didn’t want to mention a political run until I was fully committed to entering the race and felt she was on firmer ground. I had planned to let her know I was in the race the next time I saw her. I never got that opportunity. I felt terrible I had never shared the news.

The profile story on my candidacy in the Baltimore Sun with an October 8, 2013 dateline coincidentally hit the newsstands the same day that Amy and I found my mother dead. That day, I was going to proudly present the article to my mother, my biggest supporter, as I broke the news to her about my candidacy.

I wrote about my mother’s political influence on me and the impact of her death on my nascent campaign in Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics:

I credit my mother Sandra Sachs, a diehard liberal Democrat from Boston who had a fascination with the Massachusetts Kennedy clan, a devotion to other charismatic pols and a penchant for volunteering for campaigns, for getting me interested in politics…

The Sun article provided me a nice opening salvo. Now I just had to back it up with real action. That is, as soon as I could plan a memorial service for my mother, meet and make plans with funeral directors, coordinate with out-of-town family, untangle her financial affairs, launch the bureaucratic estate settlement process with the Register of Wills, negotiate with her landlord, make repairs to her apartment, sell her furniture on Craigslist, and move all her other belongings out of her apartment within three weeks. Not the ideal way or frame of mind to launch a campaign.

So the first month of my campaign was put virtually on hold while I dealt with my mother’s affairs and coped with the sudden loss emotionally. In a spiritual way, I felt Sandra Sachs with me during the campaign, watching over me as I traveled door-to-door and marched with people who were struggling day-to-day. It occurred to me that maybe it was fate that I was running at all. It was my mother who loved politics and took pride in identifying herself as a Democrat, the party of inclusion and champion of the vulnerable, with her roots as the daughter of Eastern European immigrants who settled in the gritty outskirts of Boston and who lived a hardscrabble, working-class life. She would have been proud, I thought, looking down. No one from my family had ever run for political office before. The Kennedys we were not.

My mother’s keen interest in politics landed her on Capitol Hill as a staffer for U.S. Senators Bill Bradley (D-NJ), who ran for president in 2000, and Daniel Moynihan (D-NY), no small feat for a woman who spent her initial post-college years in the 1960s into the 1970s raising kids, and then battled back from debilitating depression to gain a foothold in the workforce.

At one candidates’ forum in particular, at a large residential retirement community outside of Baltimore, I felt my mother’s presence with me. I eschewed my usual stump speech in favor of an effort to connect with the seniors on an emotional and personal level, as excerpted from Don’t Knock, He’s Dead:

“I have a good idea of the issues you have faced and your current challenges,” I told the Charlestown [Retirement Community] residents, “but not because I read it or heard a policy wonk or a politician talk about them. I know from personal experience, from trying to help my mother with problems the last couple of years of her life before she died, when her health was going downhill.”

I told them about my mother’s challenges with downsizing and finding appropriate housing; exploring assisted living facilities; searching for viable transportation when she couldn’t drive; navigating a poorly coordinated, frustrating health care system; determining finances; and finding social outlets.

I wasn’t aiming for sympathy, but nevertheless several of the attendees and my fellow candidates offered me condolences and said my speech was heartfelt afterwards. Once again, I didn’t know if my speech had earned me any votes, but I was proud that it was memorable.

Nearly four years later, following a dinner celebrating my daughter Rebecca’s graduation May 20, 2017 from the University of Maryland, Rebecca told me she was sad that Nana – my mother – wasn’t there to celebrate with us. Another prideful campaign sadly missed. Whenever Maryland plays the University of Michigan, often now that Maryland is in Michigan’s athletic conference, Rebecca said she’ll think of her grandmother, who took great pride in transcending her poor, neurotic family in working class Malden, Massachusetts to arrive at a beacon of rah-rah American collegiate life in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and who ingrained the “Go Blue!” Michigan chant in her grandkids.

And I’ll always think of my mother when I recall my run for politics, one of her other great loves.

Use Your Time Wisely

Death is an unpleasant topic. Naturally, people want to avoid thinking about it. I’m no different. Whenever my wife, the ultimate planner, wants to talk to me about making plans and arrangements for my own inevitable death, like an advance health directive, so she and our kids aren’t clueless about my wishes or forced to shell out money for services I neglectfully avoided covering, I balk or change the subject.

But when you reach midlife, inevitably you start confronting the reality of mortality more frequently. In 2016, that reality has hit me harder.

During one two-week stretch, two vital fathers in their 40s who were involved professionally in the tennis industry – one instructor whom I knew and the other a friend of a tennis academy owner for whom I was working – each died. The teacher I knew, Bobby Hoffman, was stricken with cancer. The other died unexpectedly of a heart attack.

Recently, my father’s partner’s daughter, in her early 50s, who I got to know well during several visits, was found dead of unknown causes. A few weeks later, my father’s partner also passed away suddenly, perhaps stricken by grief.

Earlier in the year, I discovered a woman I had dated when we were both in our 20s, who went on to achieve remarkable success in the newspaper business, had died of breast cancer at 49.

I only have one surviving parent, and he’s closing in on 80. His brother, my beloved uncle, died in 2000 of juvenile diabetes shy of 60.

This post feels like a real downer as I write it. But as a counselor-in-training who embraces the existential theory of counseling – the search for meaning and purpose and concepts such as free will and individual responsibility to chart our destiny – death is an inescapable aspect of life that, if acknowledged and confronted, can be used by individuals to maximize their potential, deepen relationships, set and pursue goals, determine priorities and enhance the joy of living.

There comes a point in life where we are hit like a brick between the eyes to tell us we don’t have forever, like it once seemed. It sounds trite, but it’s true and a lesson learned only with maturity: It’s what we do with the time we do have that gives life its meaning. Time is our most precious commodity. It’s cliché, but true again: We don’t know how much time we have. Bobby Hoffman didn’t; my tennis buddy’s friend certainly didn’t. And the greatest shame would be to piss it away.

Facing a Match Point

It has not really been intentional, but death has been a recurring theme on this young blog about midlife. There was cyclist Tom Palermo, tragically mowed down in the prime of life by a drunk bishop. Two vibrant co-workers at my current job have been at work one day, gone the next. Perhaps it’s inevitable that when you reach midlife, feelings of immortality are stripped and death becomes less an abstract concept and more a certainty you have to reckon with. And that can be a good thing, motivation to be your real self, focus on the things that are most important and for which you have the most passion, take more risks, express yourself more fully and love more deeply.

This post, however, is about life, not death, though its specter, I would imagine, is present, a hard thing to dance around. It is about the fight for life and the preciousness of life. It is about braving the worst of times so one day again the best of times will feel even sweeter. It is about having to dive deeper into one’s soul and mine further into one’s spirit than ever previously imagined. It is about adjusting and learning new ways of living, being and relating.

I received an e-mail from my tennis buddies that a friend – really an acquaintance, but I know if I knew him better, he would be a friend – had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Before I say more, I want readers to consider making a donation to Bobby through the GoFundMe website set up to help cover costs for him and his family.

Bobby is a tennis pro at the clubs where I play, and has coached at the high school and college levels. We have crossed paths and talked a number of times. I know something about his job from personal experience.

After a layoff from a public relations job in 2002, I got certified as a tennis instructor from the U.S. Professional Tennis Registry. I had been a competitive junior and college tennis player, and had always been interested in teaching – especially competitive juniors – but never had the time. Now I did. I taught for a while for the same recreational organization where Bobby teaches, spent a summer teaching at a summer camp, and coached a girls high school team. I made an arrangement with a local swim and tennis club to teach members and non-members on its two seldom-used courts, and began building up a clientele. I taught for a nonprofit organization that ran after-school programs, and eventually became its organizer and director of a high school training program. I loved it, but as I eventually re-entered the corporate world, my tennis teaching started to dwindle. At one point, I talked to Bobby about assisting him with his juniors program, but it never came to pass.

I only describe my own experience with tennis teaching because I know that as a successful tennis teacher and coach, Bobby possesses many attributes that are going to help him in his fight to recover. Any successful tennis coach must have energy, passion, enthusiasm, patience, positivity and spirit. That’s what rubs off on students and keeps adults and kids coming back and hooked on working to improve their games. I can tell Bobby possesses these traits by his community’s outpouring of love and support. He has had an impact, likely far broader than he ever thought.

As an individual sport, tennis teaches many life lessons: managing emotions; staying positive; focusing on the moment; having a game plan, and adjusting when it’s not working; dealing with adversity; valuing the process as much or more than the results; and fighting hard and never giving up. These, too, can be applied to Bobby’s challenge.

Bobby is somewhere in his 40s, younger than I am and too young for this. For me, as with the Tom Palermo story, this hits home as another case of “there but for the grace of God go I.” Life is unfair. And for Bobby, this sucks. But I notice he is already learning new things. When I e-mailed him about writing about his journey, he responded that he had learned from the outpouring of community support to “put my pride and privacy to the side and allow people that want to help to do so.” We all have our walls and our desire to be invulnerable. In acknowledging vulnerability, I believe Bobby is letting some walls down. And in so doing, he will be letting in the caring and love that will strengthen him to beat his illness. I’m praying for him and his family, and hope with all my heart I see him out on the court with his students, hitting balls and barking encouragement, come spring and summer.

To donate for Bobby, see: http://www.gofundme.com/ka1jw4

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