The Truth About Hearing Loss And The Workplace

Well, it’s complicated.  In the last decade I was fortunate enough to work in an environment that was welcoming and inclusive.  I taught college-level English classes and was lucky enough to be surrounded by understanding people.  But it hasn’t always been that way.  Ask anyone with a hearing loss and they will tell you there are struggles. As our hearing loss accelerates more and more, frustrations on both sides tends to heighten unless there is an understanding of how we sometimes function differently than the masses.

There are struggles to assert we are capable and worthy of employment.  Struggles to assert we are committed to excellence.  Struggles that dictate we have to jump through hoops and go the extra mile to prove we are equal.  Struggles to understand why some people don’t understand diversity and find differences annoying or even subject matter for jokes.

Some of those struggles are because of mindsets created long ago about persons with hearing loss.  Some of those struggles are because those who have varying levels of deafness do not advocate enough for themselves.  Sometimes the offenders are those who are educated, in an authoritative role or even in do-good roles that require an understanding and compassion for the human condition.  Textbooks can teach theory, but practice is the true litmus test.

We as persons with hearing loss must teach our employers what our special needs are.  Often, we do not.  This is because we are often afraid if we ask for special accommodations, even as simple as written instructions or facing us when someone speaks, we will be perceived as a even more deaf and struggling to do our job.  The biggest mistake we make,and we all do it, is bluff.  We pretend we heard a directive when we may have heard only part of it or none of it.  We are often too humiliated to ask again and again what was said.

Now here’s the thing…even though The Americans with Disabilities was signed in 1990, there are still things that happen in the workplace that violate the rights of those with hearing loss.  Like any other “ism,” there will always be people in our society that use their power in unfair and negative ways.  When a person with hearing loss complains of mistreatment, what happens?

In her essay entitled “The Ways We Lie,” Stephanie Ericsson explains there are many ways we lie from little white lies to lies that are damaging and destructive.  Here are some of the ways this essay can be applied to the deceit that sometimes takes place in the workplace regarding those with hearing loss.

“IGNORING THE PLAIN FACTS

“In the ’60s, the Catholic Church in Massachusetts began hearing complaints that Father James Porter was sexually molesting children.  Rather than relieving him of his duties, the ecclesiastical authorities simply moved him from one parish to another between 1960 and 1967, actually providing him with a fresh supply of unsuspecting families and innocent children to abuse….” (Ericsson)

How does this apply to the workplace?  There are complaints filed in companies that have “open door” policies any day of the year.  How often does the company admit to wrongdoing?  Whether it’s disability, racism, sexism, homophobia or any other prejudice, companies are just not going to risk admitting to wrongdoing and have a suit on their hands.

“DEFLECTING

When you have no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff. –Cicero.

Some of the most skilled deflectors are passive-aggressive people who, when accused of inappropriate behavior, refuse to respond to the accusations.  This you-don’t-exist stance infuriates the accuser, who understandably, screams something obscene out of frustration.  The trap is sprung and the act of deflection successful, because now the passive-agressive person can indignantly say, “who can talk to someone as unreasonable as you?”  The real issue is forgotten and the sins of the original victim become the focus.  Feeling guilty of name-calling, the victim is fully tamed and crawls into a hole, ashamed. I have watched this fighting technique work thousands of times in disputes between men and women, and what I’ve learned is that the real culprit is not necessarily the one who swears the loudest.” (Ericsson)

I know a few people who have actually been so exasperated they threw the F-bomb at the offending employer after being continually verbally abused.  Who could blame them?

“STEREOTYPES AND CLICHES

Where opinion does not exist, the status quo becomes stereotyped and  all originality is discouraged. –Bertrand Russell

…They take a single tree and make it a landscape.  They destroy curiosity.  They close minds and separate people.  …Fat people, ugly people, beautiful people, old people, large-breasted women, short men, the mentally ill, and the homeless all could tell you how much more they are like us than we want to think…” (Ericsson)

I remember once many years ago and before I was profoundly deaf, someone asked for directions to my office. He was told to go upstairs, get off the elevator on the second floor and speak to the woman with the hearing aid.  That was a revelation for me because it never occurred to me that someone would define me by my hearing loss.  But what does someone see when they see us? Do they draw a picture in their mind of who we are before they know us?

“DISMISSAL

Dismissal is perhaps the slipperiest of all lies.  Dismissing feelings, perceptions, or even the raw facts of a situation ranks as a kind of lie that can do as much damage to a person as any other kind of lie.” (Ericsson)

When an employer is dismissive of a complaint someone makes in the workplace they are being deemed irrelevant, invisible and it only affirms to the offended party that they are marginalized in our society without a right to a voice.

So what’s the answer here?  Do we speak up or keep our mouth shut if we are not being treated fairly or if we are experiencing abuse?  There is no easy answer.  But here are some of my personal thoughts.  

Once, many years ago when I first started losing my hearing, I was walking into the cafeteria for a coffee break and I overheard a co-worker say to a group of women including my boss, “How does she know when her phone rings if she can’t hear?” She thought it was hilarious, but it was my first real experience seeing how mean-spirited some people can be.

Years later, I was involved in event planning.  I noticed my boss didn’t fill me in on the planning of some upcoming events, and I asked her why.  Her response was, “Because you can’t hear and I would have to shout, and then I would get laryngitis.”  I had worked there for five years, long hours skipping lunch and gone for two years without a sick day, –worked events at the Waldorf-Astoria and The Plaza hotel for as many as 1,200 people including well-known celebrities, and I did it well.  I was so hurt by her bluntness that day I walked out feeling so humiliated I didn’t know if I ever wanted to come back.  What hurt most was this was an acknowledgement of my progressive hearing loss and how it was affecting me in the workplace.  Two days later I came in and had a long talk with her.  She not only apologized, but she made an effort to try to understand the dynamics of hearing loss.  That was 30 years ago, and we stayed friends until she died recently.

I haven’t always been an advocate for myself.  Honestly, it’s sometimes a no-win situation as many will tell you.  It’s very difficult to be an advocate and not get emotional about the struggles we face every day.  Organizations such as Hearing Loss Association of America helps  members  deal with hearing loss in the workplace through their meetings, convention seminars and written materials. (www.hearingloss.org)

Also, books such as Living Better with Hearing Loss, A Guide To Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends…and Hearing Aids by Katherine Bouton are helpful. Katherine Bouton also has a blog hearingbetterwithhearingloss.wordpress.com.

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Here’s To A New Season…

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Post surgery and on my birthday two years ago.  I’m looking forward to special chats with my grandson.

 

So here it is 11 days post cochlear implantation surgery in my left ear.   My right ear was implanted in 2005 and has been my only source of intelligible sound for a few years now.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that when the device is off, the recipient defaults to a status of profoundly deaf.  It’s really amazing to think that this tiny device implanted under the skull can reconnect someone to the world around them.  I thought about that a lot the week before my surgery and found myself feeling a tremendous amount of gratitude and a little weepy.  That my surgeon told me he thinks I will probably even benefit more from this surgery than the first one gives me the same goosebumps I felt when I received what Santa promised to deliver on Christmas morning as a child.

The days preceding surgery I spent time with my sister Stephanie in California visiting family.  It was a special time with lunches at my nephew’s outdoor picnic table, lots of laughs with her grandson Antonio, a visit to Hollywood, time catching up with a cousin I haven’t seen since I was about five years old and taking some time to discover L.A.  I also enjoyed sitting on the porch and watching the monarch butterflies, the hummingbirds and a California fall day at its best.  But one of the most profound moments for me was walking down the street with my sister and her reaching for my hand, just like we did back in the days when we walked to Washington Elementary School.  Sometimes the greatest messages take place in silence.

Before long, it was time for us to take our red-eye flight back east, and the following day I packed another bag to stay over my daughter Melissa’s house in NYC the night before surgery.  An amazing professional chef, she asked me what I would like to eat the night before surgery.  I told her something simple.

After  Melissa, Lou and the baby greeted me at the door with smooches, I sat down at her dining room table, and we enjoyed a pasta dish, no kidding, — in the shape of tiny ears.  It was a dish that contained shrimp and escarole, one of my favorite vegetables.  My family’s presence was calming.  Somehow even the dog seemed to sense something big was about to happen.

The next morning we took a cab uptown to NYU Medical Center Ambulatory Care.  Traffic was horrendous.   But once we got there, we met my daughter Valerie and all three of us waited for the nurse to call me in.  My daughter Valerie reminded me if I had trouble communicating,  just call them in.

So the nurse asked me if I was nervous.  Nope.  She asked me all those questions they repeat over and over to make sure they have the right person.  She asked if it was my left ear they were operating on.  She asked why I was here today.  The correct answer was to have a cochlear implant, but I couldn’t help throwing in there that I was anxious to have a purpose for that ear besides hanging an earring.

The nurse asked me again if I was nervous.  Nope.  At that point I just told her give me the juice and send me to that happy place and wake me when it’s over.  That surprised my kids because I don’t like to take medication.  But they broke out in laughter.

The nurse walked me down the hall and instructed me to go into Room 4 with her.  Ah, I get Suite 4 I joked.  The celebration was about to take place.  Everyone seemed in good spirits as I was told to take a deep breath and I said a silent prayer looking up at the lights,  asking my deceased husband to ask God to watch over me.

Next thing I knew, I woke up with a thick gauze “headband” bandage across my head.  I looked like I just completed a tennis match.  At first I thought I was back in L.A., but soon realized the operation was over.  My first thought was, “That’s all?”  I felt very little pain.  I had very little swelling.  I didn’t have the vertigo I had the first time.  Very little. I was shooting questions to my kids and the doctor.  I asked my kids to take a picture of me to remember the day.

I went back to my daughter Melissa’s house and shared a meal again with family.  Greek chicken soup and a lentil dish.  Melissa insisted on spoon feeding me.  What a reversed role from the past. But it was nice.  I slept in a chair (for comfort) and Liffey, their dog, stayed at my feet the whole time.  If I moved an inch, he moved an inch closer.

Valerie came home with me for 2 days and nurtured me and watched I didn’t try to do anything I wasn’t suppose to do.  I snore like a locomotive, but she never complained.  When she left, I found a card on the table expressing how proud she is of me, and letting me know we will always find a way to communicate.

My sister Stephanie came for a day and then Lucille.  Friends called to ask if I need anything.  I really can’t say I’ve had a hard time, and if this gives anyone courage to go through with this, that makes me happy.

My device will be turned on December 2, the same day the tree will be lit at Rockefeller Center.  Can’t wait to play with all those toys Cochlear Corporation gives their recipients to help hear on the phone, in restaurants and other settings.

The tree has always had significance to me because when I was a child, my mother would put all 7 of her children on the train to see the tree.  Then we would go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and light a candle, sometimes go see the Rockettes at Radio City and get a sandwich at one of those Horn and Hardart automats.  Each of us would get one of those little plastic souvenirs you shake and it appears to snow on a tiny village.  That was the beginning of the season for us.

So on December 2  after my appointment I will stay in the City for a bit and enjoy all the sounds and sights of the season. I just may go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and light a candle in remembrance of my mother and how she made the season magical, — and gratitude to my family and friends for always being there for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Oliver Sacks: Doctor, Writer, Artist and Amazing Human Being

Dementia.  Parkinson’s Disease. Tourette syndrome.   The world of the deaf.  Vision and perceptions.  Autism.  Covering conditions from cradle to grave, in his case studies Dr. Sacks put a face on the condition.  His examples helped us to understand ourselves and those we know who may be afflicted with such conditions.  He cared deeply about all of us.  Much like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross http://www.ekrfoundation.org, rather than simply quoting peer-reviewed journal studies, his books remind us of the reality of having real people in our lives who suffer from these conditions.

Dr. Sacks passed away this past week at the age of 82.   He was a neurologist at NYU School of Medicine.  He has always been one of those people I would have loved to have 10 minutes with to chat and pick his brain.  In addition to his brilliant career as a doctor and writer, there was something very human about Dr. Sacks, and when he wrote it was clearly expressed in his words. The New York Times has referred to Dr. Sacks as “the poet laureate of medicine.”

Be sure to read Sabbath,  http://(www.nytimes.com/2015/…/oliver-sacks-sabbath.htmlone of the last articles The New York Times published before his death. In this article, he shares his early experiences with his deeply-religious family.  He also talks about the pain he felt at an early age revealing his homosexuality to his parents and his mother’s rejection.  In the end, Sabbath is a celebration of a new day, and a time of peace at the end of his lifelong journey.

Also be sure to visit his website:  http://www.oliversacks.com and click on his blog and  read All Hands on Board and click on the link to the four-minute film about “Patrick Otema, a fifteen-year-old boy from Uganda that had never had a conversation with anyone in his life.  Despite my own battle with deafness over the last 30 years, I cannot imagine the isolation this young man has felt in his 15 years.  No music.  No laughter.  No connections.

This blog is too short to include all the many contributions Dr. Oliver Sacks has made to society.  His website contains a wealth of information about the man, his work and how he impacted people around the globe.

Obviously, Dr. Sacks had his own struggles in the course of his lifetime, but he placed his attention on others and leaving the world a better place.  In the article Sabbath, Dr. Sacks concluded:

“And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.” (NY Times, August 14, 2015)

Nicely done Dr. Sacks.  Wherever you are in the universe,  thank you from “us.”

Let There Be Sound!!!

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It was a muggy, humid morning in July, and I walked over to NYU’s Cochlear Implant Center from Grand Central Station as the people in the City rushed with Starbuck’s containers and attaché cases to arrive at work on time. This would be the day I would be evaluated for a second cochlear implant. I wondered, am I a borderline candidate? Knowing I have some hearing left in that ear, I also wondered if I would be denied and would be forced to continue to struggle with my everyday communications. I wondered if I was doing the right thing to move forward with this as there is a good chance any residual hearing would be lost during the operation.

I sat quietly waiting for my audiologist to call me in.   A middle-aged man who was seated next to me seemed to get a bit emotional looking at a small child who evidently recently received a cochlear implant. He sighed and commented to me that if it is hard for us, imagine how hard it is for a child to live in a world of silence.

This man apparently was going through a rough time. He struck up a conversation with me explaining that he had recently been implanted, and this loss was particularly difficult for him because he is a musician. He further explained that he didn’t know anyone else with a cochlear implant, and he was feeling very isolated going through this alone. He asked, “Does anyone know what we go through as we transition to different levels of hearing loss?” It was evident that he was in the early stages of the cochlear implant rehabilitation process, but he seemed to be doing remarkably well from where I was sitting. That’s when my audiologist arrived in the waiting room and called me in.

The two-hour hearing tests are not new to me. I have one cochlear implant, and I was being tested for a second implant. The nationally-acclaimed center where I was tested runs a battery of tests with the processor on, off, hearing aid on and off together and separately.

So here I was in the testing chamber, isolated from any external noise. My audiologist was about to test my left ear, the one that is being tested for implantation. At that moment, I had many fears. What if I AM border line and have to continue struggling to hear store clerks, public announcements, religious sermons and simple conversation? How much hearing do I have left in that ear? I was soon to find out.

On single words, I could hear “noise” but was unable to make out anything intelligible. When it came to full sentences, I sometimes could make out a word or two in the sentence. The most profound moment for me was when I was asked to raise my hand when I heard two beeps. Mostly, it was long gaps of silence for me.

Did I really just miss long stretches of sound in that test? Am I really THAT deaf in my left ear? We never know what we aren’t hearing. Suddenly and unexpectedly I felt a tear run down my cheek in the silence of the chamber. All I could hear was the words of the man in the waiting room vehemently pleading to me, “Does anyone know what this feels like?” I thought of my mother who lived in an era of shame for any disability and denied her own hearing loss for decades. She refused to wear a hearing aid until she was 88 years old. I wished I could have hugged her.

The verdict was in. I am a candidate. That’s good news, right? I have no natural and usable hearing left in either ear. Do I accept myself as a profoundly deaf woman? I bit my lip and swallowed hard. If the audiologist saw my eyes welling up, she was polite enough to pretend she didn’t notice.  While there is a sense of mourning we feel whenever we lose any part of a vital sense, there is a feeling of celebration knowing I am lucky enough to live in a time when there are solutions. Helen Keller wasn’t. Neither was Thomas Edison or Beethoven.

Ten years ago, I lamented to a friend that after receiving my first cochlear implant that voices sounded like Darth Vader. Having received bilateral implants himself years before, he told me “Be patient. The next time you see me you will hear better, and the time after that even better.” Blair was a no-nonsense guy, and if he made a claim, you knew he meant it.  What he told me was true. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is magnificent. So is listening to Satchmo with my right ear. I never did see my friend again as he and his wife died in a tragic accident, but I never forgot his words of encouragement. I hoped that day as I shared my friend’s words with the man in the waiting room maybe someday he will pass those words on to someone else.

So my struggle is almost over. The simple tasks everyone takes for granted every day will no longer be a struggle.  I’m grateful to be alive at such a time that I am not forced to sit in the deafening halt of silence that feels very much like death, but one that is colorful and connects us to people and the world around us.

What’s in a name? My grandson calls me Maya.

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What’s in a name?  Words are symbols, very much like the ancient pictology that was etched in red rock many years ago.  Newborn babies are named after their ancestors, parents or even rock stars before they ever get to speak their own name.

Long before I ever became a grandparent, I thought it would be unique to be called something other than the usual “grandma.”  Being a person who has always enjoyed playing with words, I decided years ago when the time came I would like to be called “Grandmary.”  It seemed to have a nice ring to it, and  it would include my name and that of both my maternal and paternal grandmother.

But somehow, whenever my grandson would greet me, he would refer to me as “Maya.”  It’s a pretty name with a rich history as I soon learned.  We have all heard of children calling family members pet names that have stayed with them for life.

I did a little research and this is what I found:

It is common knowledge that Maya is the name of Central American culture.  But every culture has a take on this name.

Most intriguing is that in Nepali language Maya means love.  I like that.

In Arabian and Indian-Pakistani it means princess or “honorable matriarch.”

It is a short form of Ma’ahan in Hebrew, meaning spring or brook.

Maya means “generous” in Old Persian.

Latin interpretation implies great.”

Roman mythology dictates Maia is the daughter of Atlas whose name was given to the month of May.  Romans Maia/Maya is the incarnation of the earth mother and goddess of spring–for which the month of May is named.

Maya was the legendary Greek mother of Hermes by Zeus.  It can also mean mother.

The Bengali and Bengali Muslim  interpretation is love, kindness, sweetness and kisses.

In Japan “Mayu” means reason and truth.

In Hindu it means illusion.

How did this little boy know I am all that!  Just kidding.

This week my grandson is celebrating his second birthday.  I never knew my maternal or paternal grandmother, but I know somewhere in the universe they smile down on this beautiful little boy.  He symbolizes “spring, a brook, kindness, sweetness and love” to all the “honorable matriarchs” in our family.

He can call me Maya anytime.  I like that.

The Truth About Grief And Loss

Weisbaden, Germany
Weisbaden, Germany

Most people over the course of a lifetime endure a multitude of losses that are a necessary and natural part of life. There is the loss of a loved one, loss of one’s younger self, loss of an able body, loss of one’s community after a disaster, loss of one’s livelihood, loss of one’s sense of family or the death of a pet. There are many other types of losses, but these are the ones that often come to mind.

Helen Keller once stated, “What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us” (www.goodreads.com). This couldn’t be more true.

It has also been said that grief is the price we pay for love. The greatest loss another human being can suffer is the loss of someone we allowed ourselves to love deeply. We risk the hurt that comes with allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to let someone into our heart. That can be a spouse, parent, friend or a pet.

As we grow older, we lose many people. I lost my husband before I lost my parents. That was not the natural order of things. Losing a spouse that you know for four decades is like losing a part of your soul. Losing a parent is like losing part of your deepest history. Losing friends is a rude awakening that anything is possible and time is passing. For those who have lost a child, I cannot imagine the courage it takes to continue on. Pets are sacred gifts that come into our lives, and they are humble and loving.

While it is true that in time, it does become easier, we never truly “get over” someone we love. There is no timeline for grief.   Every individual must experience grief at his or her own pace.

It has been said that grief is like waves. Sometimes you may think you are doing really great, and then something will remind you of that person to bring back quite vividly the deep love you shared with that person. You may smile or weep. It could be 5, 10 or 20 years later and quite unexpected the tears will still flow.

The truth about grief is that love is forever whether it’s a parent, spouse, child or pet. There are many reminders of our time with our loved ones.  It could be a birthday, an old faded picture or someone who is walking down the street who looks like a loved one in the distance. I sometimes pass a man on the street that will be wearing the cologne my husband used to wear and I feel his presence as the person walks by. I went into an Italian restaurant one day and ordered pasta fagiola, and they made it just like my mom did, and I felt like I was back home for a moment at her kitchen table chatting with her.  When I am in the supermarket, the scent of a tomato just ripe off the vine reminds me of my father’s garden.  I love dreaming of people who have passed.  It’s like they came for a visit. I know others who have expressed this sentiment.

So May 21 my late husband would have been 69 years old. What would he have looked like 14 years later? What would our lives be like?  Knowing him from then on will always be the chapter in our lives we never got to know.  But I still feel his presence somehow.

Only God knows where life will take me, and I have an open heart because life goes on. A wise young woman once told me we should love as many people as we can in a lifetime. But I can say this with certainty and gratitude: Love is forever, and there will always be a special place in my heart for this special and much-loved human being.

Happy 69th birthday in Heaven Eddie.

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen May 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Invisible Woman: A page in the diary of a late-deafened woman

 

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Many years ago, when I was a student at The College of New Rochelle’s School of New Resources, I had the opportunity to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  The book deals with issues such as race, society and identity.  I was deeply moved while reading the book, and it made me think about how the issues described in the book could be applied to persons with disabilities or any other group struggling for their right to dignity.  That, along with an experience described in the next paragraph inspired me to write the poem Invisible Woman.

 

One day while paying for groceries, there was a woman ahead of me in line with her husband.  She appeared to be afflicted by some type of palsy, and after checking out, she had a seizure.  Her husband did his best to comfort her and escort her out of the store, but the clerk snapped, “People like that should be kept at home.”  I was mortified to think anyone would think they have the right to determine if another individual is a valid member of society, and if their presence should be allowed.

That sparked me to write this poem based on my own observations as a late-deafened woman and the sometimes insensitive treatment of persons with disabilities:

Invisible Woman

Your eyes shift downward, or you look away,

I understand your predicament, you don’t know what to say.

You say it’s scary,…to think it could happen to you.

And if it did, you wouldn’t know what to do.

It’s okay, –glance at the evidence of my deficiency, when I look away.

It’s part of the experience, a natural part of my day.

On no! It’s not catchy! You can shake my hand.

I’m just like anyone you’ve met, across our great land.

We’re really more alike,than you can perceive.

I pray there’s a God.  I for one still believe.

If I ask you a question, you reply to my spouse,

What’s someone like me,doing out of the house?

I don’t mean to frighten, but yes, it could happen to you.

And if it did, do you know what you would do?

You would still marvel at sunsets,and bathe in dewy rain.

You would develop compassion,and learn to sustain

the unexpected changes that would come your way,

–to appreciate life, day after day.

And you know what else might be of interest to all?

We laugh and we love. We learn to stand tall.

We realize life is full, even after the fall.

Because you don’t see me,doesn’t mean I don’t exist.

The more that you think this, the more that I will persist,

to marvel at sunsets, and bathe in dewy rain,

and develop compassion and learn to sustain

To visit the orcas at Stellwagon Bay,

to blow out birthday candles, –what a thrill, I’m just that way.

To visit covered bridges and lighthouses too,

and yes, there’s still a curious child in me who loves the zoo!

But one more thing, before you walk away.

Did you know Milton was blinded with pen in hand?

His work was pure genius, beyond what many can understand.

And Beethoven’s world was silent when he wrote his best songs.

FDR led the country in a wheelchair for three terms,

no one’s ever been president that long.

And Edison deaf, yes you heard right.

Over 1,000 inventions! God that man was bright.

The irony of this verse is simple as can be.

The next time you see me, please, please just see ME.

 

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 1999.  All Rights Reserved.

Mortality, Moonstruck and Metamorphosis

Recently, I read the amazing Anna Quindlen’s book Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.  In her book, she describes her observations about later life leaving a discussion about mortality for the last chapter.  It got me thinking, especially since I am in my sixties.

Two months after having my first baby, I discovered a lump in my breast.  For months, I was closely watched, and experienced my first mammogram at the age of 26.  Everything turned out fine, but at the time, I ran out and bought life insurance to protect my husband and daughter.  At that moment, I admitted to myself for the first time that I am just another mortal soul.

As we get older, it’s not uncommon to wonder how much time is left.  I don’t think it is morbid.  It is realistic.  Are we aiming to ensure we get to live our best life?  Take that special trip while we are still healthy?  Does it mean time to just go fishing without a care in the world?  For others, it may mean falling in love one last time, or for the first time.  Some just want to sit under a palm tree and watch the world go by.  How about the baby boomer who launches a whole new career?

I’ve given a lot of thought to time well spent.  Living simply.  Meaningful days with family and friends.  Pausing and praying or meditating.  Being grateful for what I have, and not expecting life to be perfect.  Maybe just appreciating a small moment rather than expecting something spectacular to happen.  What is spectacular is life itself, if we take a moment to notice.

What does enlightenment mean to you?  I came home one day and asked my late husband what enlightenment meant to him.  He quickly answered, “When I have a day that nothing goes wrong and I feel peaceful.”  At the time, my response was, “That’s all???”  I finally understand that he was on to something.  I get it.

In realizing our own mortality, it makes us more conscious of living well.  To make time count.  To celebrate what we have rather than feeling bitter or entitled if we don’t have everything we want.  But there is probably no other topic that we fear or dread.  

How do people react to that fear?  Buy that red sports car?  Lose that last 25 lbs?  Spend large sums of money?  Engage in destructive behavior?

In the movie Moonstruck, Rose, Loretta’s mother discovers her husband is cheating on her.  She asks her daughter’s boyfriend for insights into the situation.

Rose:  Why do men chase women?

Johnny:  Well, there’s a Bible story…God…God took a rib from Adam and made Eve.  Now maybe men chase women to get the rib back.  When God took the rib, he left a big hole there, where there used to be something.  And the women have that.  Now maybe, just maybe, a man isn’t complete as a man without a woman.

Rose:  (frustrated) But why would a man need more than one woman?

Johnny:  I don’t know.  Maybe because he fears death.  (Rose looks up, eyes wide, suspicions confirmed)

Rose:  That’s it!  That’s the reason!

Johnny:  I don’t know…

Rose:  No! That’s it!  Thank you!  Thank you for answering my question! (www.imdb.com)

Later, Rose confronts her husband Cosmo on the situation.

Rose:  I just want you to know no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.

Cosmo Castorini:  Thank you, Rose. (www.imdb.com)

Cosmo gets what Rose is saying to him about facing his own mortality.  Despite the humor incorporated in this story, this is a poignant moment.

Themes of mortality and death have been present in literature dating back to ancient Greece, and these themes continue to be present today. We sometimes hate to talk about it, but it also intrigues us.

The monarch  butterfly travels thousands of miles from Canada through North America arriving in Mexico ever year.  Unlike humans, they have a set destination in their journey.  Before they ever morph into  beautiful creatures with colorful wings, they go through four transformations.

Life is a continuous journey.  We morph many times in a lifetime, experience things we never thought we would experience, grow in ways we never thought possible.  We just don’t know when or where the finish line will be.  To me, that means celebrating every day in some small but meaningful way.  In understanding our own mortality, we understand the value and beauty of life itself.  

Francavilla, Italy: It Takes A Village To Raise a Child

Antonio Fiumara 1939

Antonio Fiumara, 1939

On February 18, 1935, just one month short of his 20th birthday, my father left his hometown in Francavilla, Italy.  He hopped on a train to Naples.  From there he boarded a ship called the Rex.  His final destination was the United States of America.  He had one suitcase of clothes, the equivalent of forty dollars in cash and a small prayer card in his pocket.

As a child, he would watch the boats transporting travelers in the distant Mediterranean Sea.  The day of his journey, it was sunny and mild in Francavilla, located in Angitola, Calabria, in the southern part of Italy.  Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, his journey was cold and choppy, and he was seasick most of the time.

When he arrived at Pier 84 in New York, he was scared and homesick.  He did not speak English.  Someone on the streets of New York was giving out free samples of what appeared to be tiny chocolate bars.  In reality, it was a well-known chocolate flavored laxative.  Needless to say, accepting this tiny sample was not a positive experience.

His early days in New York were disappointing.  Distraught, he visited the Italian consul with the hope of returning to his native country.  A very compassionate stranger there told him, “Do not be foolish.  My son, wait.  You will get to love it here.”  And he did.

But he never forgot his hometown, which he often spoke about with tremendous affection.  His mother raised him.  But there were many people in his hometown that contributed to his upbringing and values.  He never forgot them.

He spoke about the parish priests who mentored him and helped to shape his values.  Early on, he learned the value of meditation and prayer.  Throughout his life, he claimed a sacred space to pray, reflect and offer thanks.  His faith carried him through the most difficult times in his 93 years of life.  Evidence of his deep faith was the prayer card he carried in his pocket across the Atlantic. He kept it with him until the day he died.

Then there were the aunts, uncles and friends in his hometown.  They kept their strong ties with family and friends.  If you needed them, they came.  You didn’t have to ask for help.  If a baby was born, they celebrated with you.  If someone died, they grieved with you.  If there was a wedding celebration, all living generations would share in the joyous event.

During his childhood, some accompanied him to a place he called “il giardino.”  This was a community garden where he learned to plant and nurture tiny seeds and watch how they slowly grow into fragile and beautiful living things, — very much like a child in a village.

The priests, aunts, uncles, friends and random people in the village filled a void in a child, and taught him how to pay it forward.  Years later, when my father was married and owned his own home, he sponsored some of his friends and family to come to America.  Often, the breadwinner in the family would arrive first to establish himself and then send for his family.

I remember many cold winter days in the 1950s that my father’s family came by boat, arriving in New York with our home as their first stop.  Sometimes, they would live with us until they were established.  Often, my father would recommend them for work at the factory where he worked.  They were always welcome at our dinner table.  I can only imagine how frightening it must be not speaking a word of English and not knowing anyone else on this side of the Atlantic. When he could, my father also generously remembered his church.  Maybe a small child in his hometown will benefit in some way.

As the old African proverb states, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.”  How lucky my father was to grow up in Francavilla.  Antonio Fiumara would have been 100 years old in 2015.  Perhaps this story is more about 100 years of gratitude.  I have never been to Italy, but if there is one thing I want to do before I die, it is to visit my father’s hometown where it all began.

Pay it forward.  Rest in peace, papa.

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2015. All Rights Reserved.

TEN REASONS WHY I’M GLAD I’M RETIRED!

This morning, I was peering out my window with a cup of hazelnut decaf while watching a snow plow drive up and down the hilly roads in my complex, clearing the roads for the residents. While deciding to retire from my teaching job took quite a bit of contemplation, I smiled knowing I didn’t have to trek up to the college and deal with yet more winding, hilly and icy roads in its bucolic setting.

For many of us, there is a tug-of-war issue when it comes to retirement. Retire completely? Keep one foot in the door? I guess the issue is whether or not you truly love what you do. While I do miss teaching, writing, which is something I have done for quite some time, is an equal passion that keeps me satiated.

But there are many dimensions to retirement, and here are some reasons I am glad I am retired from a full-time job and the drudgery of commuting:

  1. Rediscover that sacred space called home. The other day, I woke up on a bone-chilling day and decided it was a day I wanted to make Tuscan White Bean and Spinach Soup. While my olfactory receptors took in the scent of sautéed fresh garlic mingling with carrots, carmelized onions, baby spinach and baby portabella mushrooms, I listened to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as the wicks of scented candles danced nearby.
  2. “Let’s Get Together Soon.” How many times do we say these words, but never get a chance to really meet friends and family? Life is short.  Somehow, the word gets out when you retire, and you really do get a chance to do lunch.  I never felt so popular as I do in retirement!  Let the fun begin.
  3. No Lines- When I was working, one of the things I dreaded most was stopping by the supermarket after work and waiting on a long “express” line just to get a quart of milk.  One of the greatest things about retirement is choosing what you do and when you do it.  I love going into a store and seeing the best of a cheery salesperson in the morning before all the grouchy customers change his or her mood.
  4. Senior Day Discounts-  On Wednesday it’s Mrs. Greens.  Sometimes stores such as Kohl’s, McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts have senior specials, and you really have the time to experience them and use all the coupons you clipped.
  5. Morning Drudery-  I can take my time in the shower in the morning, I don’t have to worry about laying out clothes that look professional.  Although I like to look nice, if I feel like wearing gym clothes and just moisturizer, I can.  That’s liberating.
  6. V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N- As the old Connie Francis song goes, we all look forward to getting away and having fun.  No more asking your boss for time off!  This is the time of life as the Mamas and the Papas song goes to go where you want to go, do what you want to do!  Woohoo!
  7. Doctor Appointments- Let’s be honest.  As one friend put it, at this age we are “on maintenance.”  We NEED to pay closer attention to our health, and that is a good thing.  Sometimes we make the mistake when we are working of putting our health last.  Not good.
  8. Doing what you love- Visits to the library?  Joining a knitting club? Nature walks? Learning to swim? Photography?  Your time is yours, and the world is your playground.
  9. Discovering your inner child- Why do we take the world so seriously sometimes?  Who says we can’t still color in or outside the lines?  Fingerprint? Play hopscotch?  Ride a scooter?  Play catch?  Double dutch anyone?
  10. Grandchildren- See number nine.  My grandson gives me faith and hope in a weary world.  Getting on the floor and playing with him makes me remember there is still a lot of “girl” left in me.  Once you forget how to participate in childlike wonderment, that is when you grow old.  While I realize the need to grow, I refuse to grow old.  I see my grandson as a lifeline and pulse of what is to come.  That gives me faith in this weary world.

                          To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: …

                           Ecclesiastes 3:1-King James Version

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2015. All Rights Reserved.