Valentine’s Day with “The One”

Valentine’s Day with “The One”

Today is my 9th Valentine’s Day with my husband, and I have lost track of the number of cards and gifts he has given me in the years since we met. Such a stark difference from my relationship with Eric’s birthfather. I told John the other day that I can probably count on two hands the number of gifts Tony gave me over the 10 years we were “together.”

“Really?” John asked. “Even including birthdays and stuff?”

Yep. Including birthdays and stuff.

I still remember what may have been the only Valentine’s Day gift I ever received from Tony a Chieftains CD the year Eric was born, 10 days before his birth, to be exact.

Looking back now, there were so many clues that Tony wasn’t “the one,” and yet I clung to that relationship for dear life. I had a loving father and (through no real fault of her own) an absent mother. I remember realizing how similar my relationship with Tony was to my relationship with mom. Although I lived in the same house with her, it was like she wasn’t really present. And though I was in a relationship with Tony, he was never really around. One of first things I had to get used to with my husband was being able to go to the movies by myself by choice, as opposed to going alone because he didn’t happen to be calling me back that week.

I long ago gave up trying to figure out the low self-esteem that must have driven my willingness to stay and stay and stay through the years. I’m just grateful for the day I finally had enough and decided the only way we were truly going to move on from each other was by putting physical miles between us. When I originally moved to New Jersey, it was with the thought that Jersey would be just a pit stop; ultimately I would make my way to Boston. Though I visited Boston a couple times, I never made the move there. Interesting, it’s where Eric chose to attend university.

By the time I was finally ready to leave Tony, I had neither the money nor the emotional stamina it would take to start over somewhere new, so instead of moving to Boston, I moved back home to Phoenix even though the desert has never, ever really felt like home to me. Those divine plans being what they are, it still took nearly 10 years for me to disentangle all the tentacles from my relationship with Tony so that I could finally be open to meeting John. We met though a blind date via Craigslist in July 2009 and have never looked back.

And just as there were all those signs that Tony was not the right guy, there were many signs that John was. For one thing, he had a cat. A single, 30-something guy had taken it upon himself to head to the Humane Society in search of a four-legged friend. He told me he had originally intended to adopt a dog, but when he saw Libby, she told him she was going home with him, and she did.

He was also the first one in our relationship to give the other a greeting card and a gift. Long was my habit to be the first to make such a bold move, but on our third date, John brought me a card and some flowers. He’s sentimental like his grandmother was. When she passed away in June and we cleaned out her house, we found what appeared to be every greeting card she’d ever received, going all the way back to high school. Whether it’s his birthday or Christmas or our anniversary, John sets the cards out on the coffee table or his desk in his office and displays them for a while.

Most importantly, though, John was where he said he’d be when he said he’d be there. He had a job that required him to be up before dawn, so even on weekends he went to bed early. I remember going to his apartment one Friday night around midnight to leave a surprise on his car. I wrote messages on a couple pads’ worth of heart-shaped sticky notes and stuck them on the back windshield of his car in the shape of a large heart. As I made my way over to his place, the old doubts started creeping in. Would he be home? Would his car be in its regular parking space at his apartment complex? Man, what a sigh of relief I breathed when his Corolla was right where it was supposed to be.

Over the years, he has surprised me with concert tickets, flowers, balloons, stuffed animals, jewelry, and seemingly countless other thoughtful gifts, big and small. Today will be no different, I am sure. The best thing about Valentine’s Day with John is that it’s not that big of a deal because every single day with him is special.

One of the best relationship books I’ve ever read is The Surrendered Single, by Laura Doyle. In it, she explains that the right guy will never make you wait for his call or wonder if he cares about you. He will treat you like a queen, and you will always know how much you mean to him. I spent a lot of years giving the wrong guy the benefit of the doubt. He was the right guy for just long enough, though, or our son would not be here. Nevertheless, I couldn’t be happier that I moved on and gave the actual Mr. Right a chance.

When It Comes to Sharing the News of Great Loss

When It Comes to Sharing the News of Great Loss

Today is the second anniversary of losing my sister. It’s hard to believe two years have already gone by. Then again, I looked up on February 10, fearful for a moment that I’d let the day go by without remembering. But would that have been such a bad thing? My husband’s grandmother was a big one for death anniversaries. It seemed she would mark the day on the calendar and look forward to it for weeks, then spend the whole of it working herself into a frenzy of sadness and tears – as if that were somehow expected of her, that she wouldn’t be a good widow or mother if she weren’t visibly and viscerally wracked with grief.

Death anniversary or not, I think about my sister often. She was two years younger and, in the last dozen or so years, my best friend. It’s a hole that will never be filled, as no one could ever take her place because no one will ever know me like she did. My husband is a wonder – he understands and accepts most of my moods and peccadillos, whether it’s excitement for a new project or sadness because I’m feeling Corina’s loss. But we don’t have the shared history, the stories, the childhood memories, the laughter about how weird things could be with our mom. He also won’t go thrift store shopping with me or to get a mani-pedi, no matter how nicely I ask.

Although, as you may have guessed if you’re reading this blog, I’m not a terribly private person, I am rather selective about with whom and how I share personal information. I don’t typically post every detail on social media, preferring instead to be in more direct, personal contact. I have a small circle of girlfriends, and as things were progressing with Corina’s health, I kept them updated. She was getting better for a while, and we were quite hopeful. Then things went downhill quickly.

The adopted family relationship can be a difficult one – what do you tell them, and when? Kathy’s sister-in-law was in treatment for breast cancer when I was back in New Jersey in June 2013 for my son’s high school graduation. She passed away that October – and Kathy emailed me a day or two after it happened. I knew she was sick in June, but was still surprised to hear of her passing. Then a year later, my husband’s father passed away in late 2014, after a brief illness. I’m not even sure that I updated Kathy before it happened because it was so quick. When it came to Corina, though, I continued to hope she would rally again, so I hesitated to tell anyone how much her health had deteriorated. Finally, I felt I had to let Eric’s family know … just in case. So I called Kathy – and she told Eric – maybe a week beforehand.

When Corina actually passed, I knew that I had to be the one to tell Eric. (I don’t know why I still have such a hard time saying she died. Usually I refer to her passing as “when Corina left.”) I couldn’t leave that job to Kathy. Eric was still in college at the time, and he hadn’t been returning my texts or emails very promptly in the months prior. But that day, he answered when I called. I really wanted to hold it together and just report the news, but I couldn’t. I could barely get the words out because I was crying so hard. Poor kid – I can’t imagine how that must have freaked him out. He’s a kind, sensitive young man – but how was he supposed to respond to such terrible news from his birthmother, a person he’s intimately related to but still doesn’t know all that well? I was so grateful in that moment that Corina and Eric had had the chance to meet and get to know each other a bit at my wedding.

He got pretty distant almost immediately after that phone call. And as much as I might think I deserve to be upset about that (on the rare occasion, I do feel that way), I know that Eric has had a lot to process when it comes to all avenues of life, not to mention the adoption. Being adopted, at all – why didn’t we keep him? The fact that his birthfather walked away and Eric has had no contact with him since the day he left the hospital with his adoptive parents. My dad dying when he was 11 – and them never having met. Meeting me for the first time at 16. Adolescence and graduation and choosing a college that was far enough away from his parents to give him a sense of freedom. Keeping up his GPA. Losing his aunt. And then me dumping more loss on him. When I can view it with that clarity, I’m not at all upset that he needed some distance and time – just grateful that we’ve subsequently managed to evolve to a pretty good space, at least for the moment.

My son is going to be 23 in a few days. He’s no longer a little boy – or a teen – barely still a student. He’s a young man with a bright future. I’d love to think it will all be sunshine and roses for him from here on out, but that’s not reality. Life is a mix of ups and downs, good and bad. The fact is that there will be more loss, because that’s just the nature of life. My hope is that he’s developing a strong coping mechanism and that he continues to lead with his heart.

Cousins, Cousins, and More Cousins

Cousins, Cousins, and More Cousins

To my knowledge, my son has 3 bio first cousins: my sister’s daughter, Samantha, and Tony’s sister’s daughters, Emily and Rebecca. He has never met any of them. He also has a cousin on Kathy’s side, little Parker, the most precocious 7-year-old you’ve ever met in your life. It was very special to watch Eric, this brilliant college senior, spend time with his little cousin over the Christmas holidays. The two of them have a very special bond that is heartwarming to see in action.

My husband has just a couple cousins, as well – and they are quite a bit older than he. That is, on his dad’s side. Not sure about his mom – she’s not really in the picture, and other than his sister, he’s not close to anyone from her side of the family, including any cousins who may exist.

I, on the other hand, have literally dozens of cousins. My parents, though not prolific childbearers, had siblings who more than made up for their lack. My father’s younger brother had 11 children, and his younger sister had five. His oldest brother and sister entered the religious life, so neither had children, but the five Orsini siblings managed to bear an average of 3.4 children each. Then there was my mom’s family. I don’t even know with certainty how many cousins I have on the Rendon side – but as she was one of 11 herself, there are many, many cousins. I believe only three remained childless, and each of the other eight had between two and six kids each. Let’s lean toward the six and say that’s an average of 4.5 – so I’ll put my guess at the number of cousins on my mom’s side at 36. Holy cow! My family, alone, has enough first cousins to field more than five baseball teams!

Things is, I still don’t really know what it’s like to grow up in a sizable family. Because my dad left the priesthood to marry my mother, they were forced to move away from the diocese where they met. They decided if they had to leave, they might as well move to a sunnier climate – which is how I ended up in Phoenix, as opposed to growing up in Michigan. Or so the story goes (I feel certain I am missing a few details!). So there were five of us for a while: my mom, dad, younger sister, and older half-sister – until my older sister decided to seek her fame and fortune in New York City when I was all of about 6 or 7. So then, it was just the four of us. No big Thanksgivings. Only ever needed the leaf for the dining room table if my mom invited people over for dinner – which might have happened twice in my entire childhood.

I was so excited to spend the holidays with my high school boyfriend because his family always had a houseful of people. His mom and aunt and grandmother would make lasagna noodles from scratch, hanging them over the furniture to dry – what a sight! And there were PEOPLE around! It didn’t matter that I didn’t know them and went mostly unnoticed in the corner – it was just so exciting to have more than three others to share special family events with.

My niece had a strange growing up experience. My sister did the very best she could, always putting Samantha’s needs first. And if she were honest, I think Sam would tell you that she was never really deprived of anything. She was in the Phoenix Children’s Chorus, which enabled her to travel the country and the world performing. She attended and graduated from TCU – and spent two semesters abroad during that time. Yet, she bounced around a lot as a kid – spending only the first couple years with both parents. Then she went with Corina to New Jersey for a bit, before they eventually came back to Phoenix. And, for better or worse, she spent a lot of her growing-up years around my mental-health-challenged mother.

She and Eric are just 3.5 years apart in age, and they’ve never met. John and I will celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary this St. Patrick’s Day. I had wanted Samantha to sing at our wedding, but she made other plans, opting to go to Florida for spring break instead. It really wasn’t that she missed our wedding that was so upsetting – although John has said he can’t wait for her to get married so he can not go to her wedding – as much as it was the fact that she turned down the opportunity to meet one of her few cousins, my son, Eric. I’m not sure whether or how much thought he’s ever given to the fact that he has never met Samantha, but I’ve given it quite a lot. Sam’s not what you’d call the giving type – she’s always done things her way, regardless of the consequences – so in retrospect, it shouldn’t really have come as such a surprise that she chose a personal vacation over our wedding. My sister called it karma that Sam got the flu the second her plane landed and she spent her entire vacation in her hotel room.

My son is pretty much the exact opposite – going out of his way to be kind and generous. Kathy told me that he was right around 3 when his sister went to sleep-away camp for the first time. Kathy was a bit nervous, as her daughter had never been away from home for more than a night. Eric could see how upset his mom was, so he threw his arms around her neck and told her, “Don’t worry. I love you, Mama.” Eric and Sam are both smart, though, and have both attended fairly exclusive schools. I wonder what they’d talk about if given the chance – and hope they’d get along. Maybe someday.

In the meantime, I’m quite happy to know that Eric does know what it’s like to have bigger family get-togethers. Kathy and Bruce were very generous in including me in Eric’s high school graduation celebration. That was a party that extended far beyond just family. But even when it is just the family, it’s Eric, Kathy, and Bruce; Eric’s sister and her husband; Kathy’s brother and his little boy; and Bruce’s sister and her husband. That more than doubles the size of my family celebrations as a kid.

Popping Juliette’s Bubble

Popping Juliette’s Bubble

Adoption played a starring role in my life the whole time I lived in the NYC area. It seems, in retrospect, that I’d meet someone new, and within a few minutes they’d know about my son. So it makes sense that I told one of the temps working with me in the admin department of the Lehman Brothers Investment Banking division. Her name was Juliette and she was, at the time, making a film about witches. Like many temps, she was a working actor/producer who needed a day job to pay the bills.

If you could picture a woman who’d make a documentary about Wiccans, you might imagine a goth chick. Juliette was most definitely a goth gal. She wore only black, had long straight hair worn loose down her back, and seemed paler than the average woman. We got to talking about my son’s adoption, and Juliette mentioned that she, too, was adopted. The first thing I (still) wonder, on meeting an adopted person, is whether they’ve had a reunion with their birthfamily. As I’ve matured, I’ve become better at discerning the appropriate time to ask that question – sometimes it’s never appropriate. When I met Juliette, I believe I pretty much blurted it out immediately.

And, not surprisingly, I think I put her on the spot. “Um, well, I’ve never really searched for my birthmother,” she explained. She went on to describe an adoptive mom who was the epitome of June Cleaver and told me she’d never felt quite at home in her family.

“You know,” I blathered on, “chances are that you’re a lot like your birthmom. She’s probably arty and interesting and liberal. You might look like her too!”

Juliette’s face fell. She enjoyed being a misfit in her family, in terms of foiling her adoptive mom’s preference for pearls and dinner parties and Good Housekeeping décor. She had chosen to rewrite history in her head, and had more or less convinced herself that she’d descended, fully formed, into this family. And all of the things that made her different – and in her mind, special – were uniquely hers. Although she was 35 years old, it had never occurred to her that she had progenitors and, due to simple biology, was likely somewhat similar to them. Rather than comforting her, the thought that she might be similar to her birthmother seemed to horrify her.

As a new birthmother, I was shocked by her reaction to the idea.

I hated to think that my son might, out of hand, reject me as his birthmother. This was a lot less likely to happen, however, simply due to the timeline. Juliette arrived in her family back in the days of fully closed adoptions, when birth and adoptive families traveled distinct paths which the agencies took great care to ensure never, ever crossed. With our adoption beginning as semi-open, Kathy, Bruce, Tony (to the degree he was involved), and I were much further down the road toward extensive knowledge about each other – which means the mystery never really existed for our son. He knew who his birthparents were, where we were raised, the kinds and levels of education we’d achieved, what our parents had done for work, our religious beliefs, our health histories, and pretty much anything else he or his parents thought to ask – then and since.

Juliette had none of that. Everything was unknown, so instead of assuming she was like anyone else, she preferred to imagine that she had been a blank slate, and that she, personally, had chosen every trait that made her unique. Again, biology tells us otherwise. The nature/nurture debates still rage on, but the fact is that our physical traits, at the very least, are passed down. And likely personality traits, as well as social preferences and much more.

I lost touch with Juliette not long after she stopped temping with us. I did see and recognize her on the news in the days following 9/11, among the ash-covered faces running for their lives in the rubble of the Twin Towers. And I peeked at her Facebook page before writing this post. She’s still involved in acting, but in an entirely other milieu than filmmaking. According to an article in EOS magazine, the witch documentary did get made, though I could find no reference to it on IMDB. The article mentions Juliette’s teenage escape from conservative Orange County, Calif., but it says nothing further about her upbringing. I can’t help but wonder if she ever looked up her birthmom – or if her birthmom might have searched for her and been thrilled to discover what a wildly creative and successful woman her daughter has become.

Adoption is weird – there’s no right or wrong in terms of how the relationships ultimately turn out. We all just do the best we can. I never meant to burst Juliette’s bubble about her imagined story of origin. But at least a tiny part of me would be gratified to know that I planted the idea of a search that might not have taken hold otherwise.

Caricature of an Adoptive Mom

Caricature of an Adoptive Mom

A birthmom friend of mine, Lynn Franklin, wrote a book about her adoption story, titled May the Circle Be Unbroken: An Intimate Journey into the Heart of Adoption. In the book, she juxtaposed her adoption experience with the changes that had taken place in adoption from the time she placed through the time she wrote the book in 1998. I have a story in that book, and I helped Lynn with the transcriptions of her interviews of people on all sides of the adoption triad, as well as adoption professionals. One story, in particular, will haunt me forever. In quickly flipping through the book now, I do not see this particular story. But I’ll never forget transcribing the words.

The interviewee was a woman – an adoptive mother who, with her husband, had ultimately chosen international adoption. They first opted for a traditional adoption through the same agency I used, Spence-Chapin. Founded in 1910, the agency is one of the oldest and most reputable in the country. I was referred to them by a colleague who had adopted through them.

As a birthmother who used only Spence-Chapin’s birthmother services, I can simply guess what might have occurred on the adoptive parent side, in terms of counseling and recommendations. One thing that was strongly encouraged of prospective adoptive parents (I don’t believe it was mandatory) was meeting a birthmother so they could ask questions and get some sense of what adoption was like through her lens. I volunteered to be one of the birthparents with whom prospective adoptive parents could speak. The idea was to give prospective parents a glimpse into the life of the birthmother, from why she might choose adoption to the kind of contact she might desire after the adoption was complete.

I had asked about open adoption early in our process and was told something along the lines of, “We don’t really do that.” Spence was traditional through and through, and though open adoption had started to pick up support on the West Coast in the early ’90s, Spence was very slow to come around to embracing it. They were cool with semi-open adoption, though, which meant limited contact between the birth families and adoptive families, facilitated by the agency. So at this point, a prospective birthmother could choose between a [still] closed or semi-open adoption.

Evidently, all of this counseling and meeting of birthmothers was too much for this couple Lynn had interviewed. I still recall the woman’s words from all those years ago. “There was just too much namby-pamby handholding at this agency. We just wanted to get it done.” This was the definition of a power couple: he was a Wall Street investment banker and she was a corporate lawyer. They were used to getting what they wanted when they wanted it. And they wanted a baby now. Not tomorrow. Not in a month or two. TODAY. And they were willing to do whatever it would take to get this baby. She stopped just short of saying they were willing to pay whatever it cost to buy this baby.

So they left Spence-Chapin by the wayside and opted instead for a private international adoption. Remember my post about parents returning “damaged” babies to agencies in Eastern Europe? This couple was headed down that same path. I was terrified for whichever child they might have adopted, because anything short of perfection was not about to be tolerated. And what were the chances that their adoption attorney might have found a healthy, highly intelligent, Type A baby just waiting for them to come along and scoop him up?

If I hadn’t personally known Lynn and heard this recording for myself, I would have sworn the interview was a clip from a bad Lifetime movie script. My stomach was in knots just listening to this woman describe her expectations for her new child and the family they would build. People are people – whether they adopt or give birth to their children. Some are great at parenting; others have no business doing it. I have no idea how that adoption turned out – and I hope for the best for the kid who eventually made his home with this couple. But even after all these years, I still fear for how things might have gone.

Where Are You on the Happiness Spectrum?

Where Are You on the Happiness Spectrum?

In re-reading yesterday’s post on the subject of victim thinking, I can see how it might have come across as offensive. That wasn’t my intention. The fact is, I’ve been blessed with an optimistic streak for which I can take no personal credit. I realize that it’s a gift from God, the angels, and/or the Universe. I did nothing to deserve it and I couldn’t get rid of it if I tried. Which means I, perhaps, had a head start in dealing with the supremely challenging emotions that come with surrendering a baby through adoption.

And it’s not like I didn’t struggle with my own bout of depression following the adoption. My depression manifested through anger. For the entire first year of my son’s life, I was pretty much angry at the world. I remember being reprimanded at work by a manager for something not work related and I told her off something fierce. And my apartment was a disaster. My sister, Corina, came out to visit from Phoenix and we spent her entire visit cleaning – boy was that eye-opening. Eventually through meetings with my social worker and my birthmom support group, I found my way back to equilibrium.

Now, as I mentioned in a prior post, I did a lot of work to be OK. But you can only do the work if you know that doing the work will help. What is one supposed to do if they’re stuck in the mire of sadness and have no idea that talking to someone or exercising or meditating or praying or hiking or making art or dancing or listening to music or playing with a pet or gardening or doing yoga or watching children at play or cooking will help them feel better?

Some people’s brains are wired completely the opposite of mine. Their natural default is sadness, pessimism, and depression. I’ve only recently started to get a sense of how truly awful that must be and feel a lot of empathy for them. I can’t understand it, personally, and neither can I imagine bearing that burden day in and day out.

I mean, little things that would set off a lot of people typically don’t bother me. Missing a plane, getting lost, running late for an appointment. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve learned not to care what other people think. However, I tend to think there’s more to it than that. Not to mention that I’ve watched friends – people I consider incredibly spiritually grounded – get incensed over something like spilling food on an expensive pair of slacks. This isn’t to say that I’m an angel and never lose my cool – trust me, I’m embarrassed to recall the way I’ve responded in certain situations when I’ve been angry (i.e., depressed) or stressed out. It’s just not my normal baseline to be irritable, angry, or sad. And those are the little things. Imagine when it comes to the big stuff.

Corina was two years younger than I. We grew up in the same house with the same parents. Presumably, when it comes to the nature/nurture side of things, our nurture experience was pretty similar. But she was a grudge-holder. She knew how to nurture negative feelings, hold onto them, and sometimes turn them into all-consuming soul fires. She was pretty sure that’s what caused the cervical cancer that eventually took her life. And even as she knew that it was anger that ultimately made her sick, she was unable to release it so that she could properly heal. She started to recover – was even on an upswing. We saw the tumors shrinking and knew she was getting better. But then she let the people with whom she’d been angry back into her life, without having developed a coping mechanism for dealing with the still-unresolved anger. And before she knew it, the anger was back, and the cancer raged on.

I am sad for my loss, so sorry that her life was cut short and that while she was here, her experience was so different from mine. I remember her telling me one time that her estranged husband – her daughter’s father – was probably going to disappoint her, so it was better to expect that and be right, than to hope for the best and be let down. She had impossibly high expectations, for herself and for everyone else, so she spent a lot of time being disappointed in people. And angry that they couldn’t give her what she thought she wanted or needed.

Even as I mourn my sister – it’s coming up on two years this February 12 – I know that her journey was her journey, just as mine belongs to me. We had different outlooks on life, different approaches, different coping mechanisms. I can wish all day and all night that Corina’s outcome would have been different, but it won’t change things. So I talk to her, I remember her joyfully, and I recommit to living my life well and happily. As I write this, I realize that anger seems to be the way my depression manifests – because I spent the majority of 2016 being angry at the world. I cursed at more drivers that year than I probably have throughout the entire rest of my driving life. And yet again, over this past year, I seem to have found my way back to my baseline of fairly happy and optimistic.

No doubt the same dichotomy that existed between my sister and me exists for birthmothers. We live at all points along the spectrum from happy to sad. Each of us occasionally waivers from our “normal” – but we all tend to come back to that place that is our natural state of being, of looking at the world.

How does one who is unhappy change things? That’s a complicated question I’m not in any way qualified to answer. People spend their entire lifetimes trying to decipher the scientific, medical, and spiritual answers to that question. I’m guessing it largely depends on the source of the unhappiness – if it’s a chemical issue, there’s one approach. If it’s physiological – brain wiring – there’s another approach. The thing that’s probably simplest to address is circumstantial sadness. Please note, I am not conflating simple with easy. Even for a typically congenial person, it doesn’t necessarily take much to get into a downward spiral. One negative thing happens, so you’re feeling bad about it, and then some other small trauma occurs. Then another. Even if you’re usually in a pretty good head space, you can get caught up with feeling like you’re on the merry-go-round to nowhere good.

I believe in the Law of Attraction – we get more of what we focus on. So if we’re heading down that path of sadness, anger, resistance, and victimhood, chances are good we’re focused on what we don’t want, rather than on what we do want. Please understand, I know this sounds easier than it may be to put into practice, but I swear to you that if you are in that negative space and you can find ONE THING to be grateful for, and focus all of your attention on that one thing, you can start to shift out of the negativity to at least a more neutral emotion. And chances are, no matter what your circumstances, you have many things for which to be grateful.

  • Did you sleep in a bed last night with a roof over your head?
  • Did you wake up this morning, able to breathe on your own?
  • Were you able to stand up and walk to your restroom with indoor plumbing on your own two feet?
  • Does the water from your tap run clean? Do you have easy access to clean drinking water?
  • Is there food in your refrigerator?
  • Is there one person in your life whom you love unconditionally – and one who loves you the same?
  • Do you have a pet or a plant you can talk to?
  • Do you have free/easy access to music?
  • Is the air inside and outside your home clean enough that you can breathe easily with no need of a face mask?
  • Do you have more than one pair of shoes?
  • Are you reading this on a phone, computer, or device you own?

You get the idea, right? Every time I stay in a hotel, I am reminded how blessed my husband and I are. There, in one room, we have more luxuries than most people in the world: carpeting, a nice bed, a closet with hangers, clean running water, hot shower, AC/heat, a fridge, a coffee maker, an iron, a TV, multiple pairs of shoes, several changes of clothes, toiletries…

Yet we can get in this place where we start to take life for granted, instead of being grateful for the small things. And if we are unable to muster gratitude for the little things, there’s absolutely no way to appreciate the big ones. Our culture teaches us that instead of celebrating the victories of others, we should envy them: if they win, it must mean we are somehow losing. For example, I heard the other day while in the Houston Hobby Airport that the person who recently won the $450 million MegaMillions jackpot was a 20-year-old kid from Florida. I mentioned this out loud to my friend, who was sitting across from me, adding, “Good for him!” I was sincerely happy that this kid is now set for life. The man sitting behind me immediately started to grumble, “What’s a 20-year-old gonna do with all that money? Spend it all and lose it. He’ll be sorry.”

I’ll bet if I asked that same man to name five things for which he’s grateful, he’d struggle to come up with them. Not because he doesn’t have anything to be grateful for – but because he’s become habituated to focusing on what he doesn’t have and what he doesn’t want. I’m no expert, but I think that before we can be happy, before we can even love, we have to learn to be grateful. It’s not just a cliché – an attitude of gratitude really can change everything.

When You’re Not Invited to a Party You Didn’t Want to Attend Anyway

When You’re Not Invited to a Party You Didn’t Want to Attend Anyway

My friend Cecelia and I worked together at Lehman Brothers in the 1990s – I for the Fixed Income Division, and she in the facilities/design department. We weren’t particularly close, but our work paths crossed with some regularity and we occasionally had lunch together.

I think it was an off-the-cuff comment about my former roommate and Tony’s best friend, Mike, that led to the idea of fixing him up with her friend, Annette. Now Mike is a big guy – tall, somewhere in the neighborhood of 6’4”, and also a large man, girthwise. He’d been single for a while, having married and divorced his high school sweetheart when they were both 20. Eventually moving East to get out of the Iowa sticks where he and Tony had grown up, he was soon to become our new housemate; I was less than thrilled at the news.

Mike was a liberal and much more politically aware than I was back then, but we had some really interesting conversations. I could talk with him for hours about all manner of subjects, whereas Tony’s interests were generally limited to baseball, blackjack, his CD collection, the Boston Celtics, and all things Macintosh (Apple). Tony’s political persuasion was nonexistent – but he would have been a Libertarian, if he’d cared enough to get involved. I still remember him arguing that seniors didn’t deserve any kind of price break at a movie theatre or on a bus, as they didn’t take up any less room than anybody else. To be fair, it was sometimes difficult to tell whether he was serious or kidding. Mike eased my mind when he, who’d known Tony for about 16 years at the time, told me he was never quite sure, either.

The thing is, my friendship with Mike seemed to rattle Tony. Years later, Tony explained to me that he was a master compartmentalizer – and it just hadn’t computed for these two disparate parts of his life (his childhood best friend and his adult girlfriend) to overlap in the way we had. At some point it became obvious that Mike had feelings for me – but I never saw him that way. It wasn’t just loyalty to Tony – I was never romantically attracted to Mike. Damn, I’d wished I was – would certainly have made things easier!

So Mike was lonely. I don’t think he had any particular ideas about the physical description of the woman he wanted to meet – but she had to be relatively smart, at least able to carry on a good conversation. At 6’2”, Ceclia’s friend Annette was tall for a woman. And so it was based on that very foundational commonality – height – that Cecelia and I arranged The Blind Date. If I’m not mistaken, Mike’s first comment when I asked how things had gone was that she had horse teeth.

“But did you like her?”

“Enough, I guess. We’re having lunch again later this week.”

Within a couple weeks, they were seeing each other regularly. Since Annette was Cecelia’s friend, I’d never met her, so Mike arranged for the three of us to have dinner at South Street Seaport so that she and I could get to know each other. I still grit my teeth recalling that ridiculously uncomfortable meal. Annette was the first to arrive at our appointed meeting place. I arrived a few minutes later. We were both about 10 minutes earlier than Mike. Aware that Annette was working in the art department at Estée Lauder, I tried to start a friendly conversation with her. I opened by asking if she paid particular attention to her competitors’ TV commercials and magazine ads. Her answer, through clenched teeth (and, I imagine, looking down her nose) was, “Oh, I don’t watch television.” All right, then. Eventually Mike showed up to break the silence that had ensued – and we walked over to the Seaport together. We must have looked quite odd, me at my full 5’2” stature, walking with this pair of Goliaths.

As long as I’d known Mike, he loved pizza – would willingly eat it seven days a week. Adding peppers and onions to it was as close as he came to ever eating healthy food. He and Tony had devised a weird gastric concoction, a combo of Dinty Moore Beef Stew and Hormel Chili that they called “Domestic Violence.” One of the funniest things I remember was when one of them bought a bottle of habanero pepper sauce. The instructions on the bottle said: “CAUTION: Do not add more than a couple of drops of this sauce to your dish.” These idiots added almost a teaspoon and then tried to eat it. The stuff was so hot, even they – who were used to eating food so spicy that all you could taste was the hot – couldn’t eat it and had to throw it away. So we were at this seafood restaurant – Mike, his new girlfriend, and I. Imagine my surprise when he ordered a salmon sandwich.

Again trying to further the conversation, I asked whether Mike had told Annette about the adoption. Annette said she had no idea what I was talking about – so before I continued the conversation, I gave her a quick rundown about having placed my son with Kathy and Bruce a year or so earlier. Later during the same meal, Annette made a comment that indicated she had known about the adoption prior to my telling her. Christ, this woman was a piece of work! I’m still not sure why she had me tell a story she already knew, but I went from being uncomfortable with her to intensely disliking her, and we were less than two hours in. We made it through the dinner – and within a few months, Mike proposed to her.

This was all happening at a point when Tony and I were definitively OFF. Not dating, rarely speaking. Of course he would be Best Man. It took me a long time to get over, but even though I was one of the two people responsible for the blind date through which Mike and Annette met, I did not receive an invitation to the wedding. Damn, was I pissed! It just seemed like such a thoughtless, graceless thing to do. I’m sure they were worried I might create a scene and mar their special day – but obviously they didn’t know me very well, because I just wanted the courtesy of the invitation. I had absolutely no intention of actually attending the wedding. Isn’t that ridiculous – to be upset not to be invited to an event you didn’t want to attend in the first place? But perhaps you can relate.

I heard from Mike after the wedding that Annette had forbidden him from bringing anything from his prior life – other than his clothes and computers – into their new house. It was as though she wanted to eradicate anything from his life that pre-dated her. I understand wanting to start fresh, but for crying out loud, the man was nearly 30 years old when he met her – of course he’d had a life before her! That worried me at the time – but they’re still married, so who am I to say?

The last time I spoke with Mike was September 12, 2001. He worked in Building 7 of the World Trade Center and was among those fleeing the rubble from the Twin Towers. I called to make sure he was safe – thankfully, he was. Social media changes everything, though. Peeking through his Facebook posts a few days ago, I learned that Mike’s mom passed away just this past November. It would be quite odd for me to reach out at this point – but I send love and good wishes through the ether, ever grateful for his friendship all those years ago.

What do you think the chances are that my invitation just got lost in the mail?