25 January 2006

Happy Birthday, Daddy -

"To become a father is not difficult, but to be a father is." ~ Unknown

I always teased my friends, that my Dad was the clone of one Mister Fred Rogers, except, of course, that he smoked a pipe which I don't think Mister Rogers ever did. Other than that, there were always such wonderful similarities between the two men. Both were gentle, loved children and always had time to listen to whatever problem might be weighing on their offspring, or whatever other young people might come to visit for advice. Even if it was during a period of the year when my father was busy closing out his "end of the year" accounting, if someone needed his counsel, or maybe just an ear or even a place to vent their frustration, it was common knowledge that my Dad's room was always open. Even if the angst that needed to be discussed happened at 3:30 AM.

If I had to pick just a few adjectives to describe this amazing, humble, wise and witty guy that I refer to, more often than not, as my Daddy, I could never truly capture his essence with mere words. You'd have to know him to appreciate how special he is, and many, many of my friends, co-workers and even the mailman have had the pleasure of meeting this guy and it never fails, when anyone leaves after having spent time in his company, they come out with a smile and are better versed in computer technology and probably know more about our family tree and my Dad's vast store of genealogical facts on so many families that belong to people who have sought his guidance in trying to track down a stray branch or two.

In my almost 46 years on this planet (February 6th - yikes!), I can honestly say that, though I have seen him on very rare occasions, quietly annoyed or disappointed, I have never seen him express anything resembling anger. That's a rare thing indeed, when you consider that he was half of the team that parented me! Oh, I'm sure I gave his gentle spirit a run for it's money from time to time, but something always told me that, in the end, to disappoint my Dad, to live with the knowledge that I had let him down, was usually enough to keep me from taking things too far. There are a few special people in this world who you just never want to see unhappy or sad, because seeing them content and at one with the world, seems to bolster the rest of us, challenging us lesser mortals to see if we can take a peek through the lens through which they view life, hoping to catch whatever it is they have that makes being in their company, one of the finest gifts life has to offer. Growing up, the worst punishment, the thing I feared most when I knew I'd done something that wouldn't please my parents, was dealing with the fact that I might have let my Dad or Mom down.

My father's nature isn't the result of some pain-free life where things always went smooth as silk. He lost his Mother to breast cancer when he was just 18 years old and faraway on a ship in the South Pacific. Because he was in the process of changing ships and hadn't read any mail for about six weeks, when he finally got onboard the ship he was assigned to and his mail caught up with him, the first letter he read was from a sister who wrote of the family having just returned from his mother's funeral. There he was, alone on a new ship, bobbing on a vast ocean, knowing absolutely no one on board. My Dad didn't even have a bunk to sleep on because the man he was replacing hadn't taken off. I asked him how he handled such news under such lonely circumstances? He told me he found the ship's chaplain and talked with him for a bit, and then he found a corner, alone with his duffle bag and letters, where he read them again and he cried. Every time I imagine my Dad as that young sailor, I get a lump in my throat and I feel tears threaten.

But he moved forward. His sunny disposition stood him well and he went on to meet my mother and on their third date, he proposed. She accepted and they married a few months later after he was discharged from the Navy. Whatever magic was exchanged between the two of them must have been some powerful stuff because, after over 59 years of being married, they still light up when the other one walks in a room. They dote on each other. They still joke and trade good-natured barbs and sometimes as I'm sitting upstairs working on something, I can hear their voices emanating from their bedroom downstairs and I hear the conversations about people they used to know, or maybe some interesting find my father has dug up on his on-going genealogical search.

Sometimes I wonder, after over 59 years, haven't they said everything that can be said? How do they find new things to talk about and laugh? Ahhhh, perhaps therein lies the secret to their marital success - they still treat one another as if the other one is the most important person on the planet. Their affection isn't merely for show because it happens even when the only people in the house are our four cats and dog. They share each meal together. They hold hands when they bless their food. They have somehow mastered the challenging concept of give and take and resolving any looming conflict before it is tucked away only to fester and become an issue later. Festering isn't just bad for splinters.

I grew up thinking everyones parents behaved this way. My childhood was right out of an episode of "Leave It To Beaver" and my parents could have easily passed for Ward and June Cleaver. It wasn't until after I stepped outside the cozy confines of my own home that I realized that many people don't behave this way. There was never any shouting or yelling or slammed doors in our home. The only time I ever heard a voice raised was when my Mom would call my Dad in from the yard to let him know supper was ready and that he had worked long enough. Of course, this meant that I had to learn all by myself how to fight and scrap and be completely disagreeable at times. They sure never bothered to teach me any of that - but somehow I got a pretty good outside education, because I can be fairly difficult and maybe even a little high maintenance from time to time, attributes that can be assigned to neither of my parents. In all fairness, the negative aspects of my persona were not as a result of their parenting. I should come with a disclaimer stamped on my forehead. I can get a little scrappy sometimes, as Katie, Justin or those in my inner circle will readily attest. It's something I work on and though I don't tease myself into believing I will ever be as pleasant and agreeable as those two old-timers downstairs, it's certainly someting to strive for. Progress...not perfection.

Throughout the 59 plus years of my parents union, they have made many moves. I am sure they were born with just a bit of gypsy blood coursing through their veins, because we moved so many times during my childhood - Dad would get settled in a job and then the phone would ring and a better offer would be put on the table, more money, a company car, from a competing coal company and before you could say "But I like it here!", the moving van would be pulling up out front and away we would go. I did seem to inherit that facet of their personality and have taken the tradition to new heights and several different states.

My parents have lived through the loss of my sister, who died unexpectedly in 1973 at the very young age of 23. They mourned, along with her husband, when they lost their oldest daughter. They celebrated a couple of years later, as their son-in-law took a new wife and they graciously welcomed Mary Jane into the fold and let me know in no uncertain terms that she was to be treated with kindness and as a member of our family, because that's how my sister would have wanted it. What an amazing example they were to me - as they have been so many times and they taught me the most important lessons by example, rather than lecture. They lived what they believed and that's pretty powerful.

My parents were there for me when I got married, gave birth to my daughter, Katie and my son, Justin, and when my father retired in 1986 from Hawk's Nest Mining Company, they pulled up stakes and moved to Amarillo, Texas. Why Amarillo? Because that's where their grandchildren were growing up and they weren't about to miss any of that. They followed along to San Antonio, San Angelo, Cleveland, El Paso, Fort Lauderdale, Charleston, SC, back to Amarillo and finally here, to Wilmington. That's a lot of moves in retirement, but they never missed a birthday, a special school function or just the day-to-day stuff that go with raising kids and being doting grandparents.

They saw me through a marriage that started unraveling, and they were right there for me when the final thread was pulled and the divorce was final. They didn't allow me to take time off to feel sorry for myself - they convinced me that my life was anything but over and that I had kids who needed me and I'd better suit up and show up because kids don't take time off from growing up until their parents decide they have it all together. My parents loaned me some of their strength and grit, until I could recover my own.

And just like everything else, they were right there for me when my alcoholism reared its nasty head. As with every other bump and challenge, they loved me right through that and they told me they knew I would be successful with a conviction and sincerity that it helped me believe that I really would be OK. I can't imagine how I could have gotten through those scary first few weeks without their love and support and encouragement. My Dad even attended a few AA meetings with me in those early months and we had to laugh - but then I got a little worried. Most AA meetings are held in churches and my father has a long-running history of falling asleep in church. I could just see him nodding off and maybe even falling forward and then trying to convince the group that he really wasn't the one that needed to be there!

My parents seem to hold to the belief that things will eventually resolve if you just let the person going through the tough spots know that you care and will be there for them, no matter what. Before joining AA, I thought that was a bit too simplistic and their methods never appeared in any of my advanced psychology classes or textbooks. After dealing with my own challenges of divorce, recovery, periods of fear and always second-guessing myself, I have come to realize that their ideas and belief systems work better than the most expensive psychotherapy or latest psychological modalities for treating high anxiety and stress. My parents seem to intrinsically know that generous amounts of love, can see almost anyone through almost anything. Everything is possible if there is love.

I'm almost 46 and still to this day, the thought of disappointing or doing anything to hurt my Mom and Dad is something I want to avoid at all cost. I've seen their track record and I know their advice is 99.9% on target. They've just proven themselves right way too many times for me to question their judgment or advice. They are always my first and second opinion and what they offer always makes the most sense and, of course, it works.

I am such a blessed woman. I still have these two amazing people in my life and I can't imagine landing with better parents. God most certainly was looking out for me when he placed me with them - though he must have had a sense of humor to make such a selection for them in the form of me.

Happy Birthday Daddy. Thank you for sharing so much with us over the years. Thank you for always being there for your family in every way possible. You are one of the coolest 81 year olds on the planet and it's no wonder that women are still trying to take you from my Mom. You can't really blame them, but thank God you are wise enough to know that no one could take care of you, as she does all of us, as well as Mom. Every person in this house is better off because you are always ready with a smile, a joke, a laugh and every now and then, a smart-ass remark or two.

We love you both.

Susie, Katie & Justin

23 January 2006

Two Years And Too Many Blessings To Count...

"Well, what is essential about you? And who are those who helped you to become the person that you are? We just don't get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others..." ~ Fred Rogers, Dartmouth College Commencement Speech, May 2003.

On January 12, 2004, I was what is typically referred to as a "bottom". At the time, I was so sure it was the worst place I could ever imagine finding myself. No question, I was at a place that was miserable and unhappy and the landscape looked pretty damn desolate. The good news is that the only place I felt my life could go was up because I couldn't see how things could go much deeper.

I didn't want to be where I found myself. Alcohol had slapped me around and I was at that point where you hoist the white flag and admit you've been licked. As bad as it was, I couldn't have been in a better spot. Normally, admitting defeat isn't something any of us strive for, but there are those rare occasions when admitting you just simply weren't going to win over an opponent isn't a bad thing at all. It can save time and, in my case, it can save live(s).

There's no shame in such an admission of defeat. The shame would be to continue trying to fight something that is bigger, more powerful and deadly than anything you have in your arsenal. The wise thing is to recognize that your ass has been kicked, but good. I made that admission, and I gave up...which shouldn't necessarily be confused with giving in. I didn't give in to alcohol, I gave in to finding a way to get better - The answer, for me, was at the beginning of the alphabet and it began and ended with an "A". While I'm sure there are other routes to sobriety, I'd stake my life on Alcoholics Anonymous, because it saved my life and it continues to make things better.

On January 12, 2004 I had to admit to my parents, my daughter, Katie, my son, Justin and hardest of all, myself, that I was an alcoholic. It was such a painful, embarrassing thing to have to do, but it was also essential. I can't speak for what any of them were thinking at the time, because I was too overwhelmed trying to deal with what was in my head, much less what was running through their minds. I think we were all sort of shell-shocked. At least, I know I was.

My then 17 year old son, Justin, took me to my first AA meeting and I was beyond scared to death. I didn't want to go but something told me I couldn't afford not to and I was compelled to give it a try. I had no idea what to expect. The conversation between us on the drive to the meeting was very stilted. I mean, how awkward can it be to have to take your Mom to an AA meeting? How awkward it was to have to ask your son for a ride! I felt so heavy on the way to the church where I attended my first meeting - like everything was weighing so heavy on my shoulders and I just couldn't see a silver lining in anything. I was doing well to deal with the moment I was in and I wasn't dealing all that well with just one minute. I know that inside I was trembling as I got out of his car.

One hour later, I felt like the weight of everything I had been carrying while, not quite taken off my shoulders, was certainly much more manageable and I had something I hadn't felt in the longest time - I felt hope, and it didn't come from a bottle of expensive wine.

I can look back on that first meeting and smile because I know where it lead me and continues to take me and I know it's safe to believe in what the twelve steps can do if we follow a few small suggestions. The results can be nothing less than miraculous and I do feel like a living, breathing, smiling, laughing, blessed miracle.

The first few meetings were a little foreign to me, but my gosh I was astonished at the many people I was meeting with 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 30 years PLUS of sobriety under their belts. In AA, they say, "Stick with the winners!", and I saw lots of winners.

Over the course of the next two years, I have been through more changes than there is room to write in this small space. I've had to explore how I got to that low point that brought me into the rooms of AA, and I had to go back and revisit some very painful things in order to make peace with my past. Such a process is known as a "Fourth Step" and it's one of the most talked about, dreaded and delayed steps of the twelve. I know I put my fourth step off for a time - but eventually, with the gentle encouragement of a good sponsor and the right direction, you find your way there and you do the work that will take you to the other side and the other side is worth the work necessary to take you there.

I did my Fifth Step, which is deeply connected to a Fourth Step, at a restaurant downtown (Yes, it really was named "Hell's Kitchen!"). On a warm, summer evening in July, my sponsor listened as I went through my past and owned my part of all the things that I could remember that were instrumental in my evolution as an alcoholic. This involved a lot of writing, a lot of honesty and the rose-colored glasses had to be tossed out. I'd dreaded this step for the longest time, but my very wise sponsor knew it was essential that I get this out of the way sooner rather than later. She was so very right.

Like so many other people who spoke of fretting and dreading their fourth and fifth step, and then spoke of the peace in finally going through the process, once again, I realized first-hand that it was true. Good things come from hard work and honest introspection and apparently it's true that "Confession is good for the soul", because, as stated in the Fifth Step, "Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs".

Each step seamlessly paves the way for the next one and some how, some way, it all works if you work it. I don't believe in magic. I do believe in divine inspiration and I am one of those who do believe that AA is a divinely inspired program - for me, there's no other plausible explanation for it. I continue to believe in it, to work the steps and the steps continue to work.

Huge changes followed my joining the club. It was, by no means, easy street because most of it has been hard work, but the rewards have been mighty and numerous.

As I mentioned, January 12, 2004, I had to sit before my son and daughter and admit to them that I was an alcoholic. My son was initially compassionate. My daughter couldn't make eye-contact with me for several weeks and then there was a level of anger and resentment that both she and I had to work through on our own and, at times, collectively. I felt like a failure - as a daughter, a mother and a former wife. Katie felt that I deserved to feel like that and I know, though she never verbalized it, she couldn't have been proud to have me for a Mom in those early months of 2004.

It took a while for things to work out - there was no instant fix and all of the credibility, respect and trust I once enjoyed, didn't automatically return simply because I was suddenly attending AA meetings and falling asleep with a Big Book in my hands every night. It took work. It took time. It took love. It took God. But eventually, it really did start to return. I had to give my family something to believe in and that meant staying the course and apparently changes were happening inside of me that even I didn't notice but, after a while, my family started noticing them. I changed from the inside out and that takes longer to process than peroxide.

This past January 12, 2006, I attended my Thursday Night meeting at what is now my "home group". The first time I walked into that meeting two years ago, I felt like a stranger in a strange land and I was both. Now when I walk in that room, and many others, I see friends and smiles are exchanged, jokes are shared, laughter is easy and it is like walking into the living room of a warm and inviting home where I feel loved and I know that I am welcome. I am among my AA family who are, in many ways, as much a part of my life as my biological family is.

As I sat there this past Thursday, I couldn't help but remember the events that had taken place two years ago to the hour and how, at just about the same time as this meeting was about to begin, I was facing my son and daughter and telling them that basically their mother was an alcoholic. I could barely say the word back then. I was ashamed of it and I hated making that admission. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever saying it now - and I'm not in the least bit ashamed of saying I'm an alcoholic.

A few minutes after the meeting began, I looked up to see none other than Katie and Justin. My heart absolutely soared and I felt so happy. You have to understand that an AA meeting might feel like home to me, and while I now enjoy an enormous measure of support and kindness from both of my kids, sitting through an hour long AA meeting just isn't their "normal" scene. But there they were - my ducks, my ducks were all in a row; Justin sitting beside Katie sitting just one seat away from me. I felt goosebumps - only this time, the really good, happy kind.

After the discussion part of the meeting was over, it was time to hand out chips and my very special, wonderful sponsor took over. "Is anyone celebrating 30 days of sobriety? 60 days? 3 months? six months? One year? How about 3 - 7 years? 7 - 20 years? 20 - 70 years?" She purposefully skipped over 2 years - she said some very lovely things and I got up and accepted my 2 year medallion to warm claps, clasps and a big hug from my sponsor. As she was hugging me, I looked over her shoulder and I caught the eye of both Katie and Justin, who were smiling and clapping and I was so grateful to share this golden moment with these two precious kids of mine. I had tears in my eyes - the joyful kind - the grateful tears of someone who was given a second chance, a lot of love, tons of support and the Grace of a very loving, generous God.

Before I left for my meeting that same night, my parents called me into their room. I joked and asked them if I were grounded because they looked very serious! My Daddy, who has kept a diary of every single day of the past almost 46 years, opened his 2004 diary up to January 12, and he read from his diary about what a difficult day it had been on me and our family - and how worried both he and my mother were about me.

He looked at me and said, "You know, two years ago, you thought it was the end of the world, didn't you?". Indeed I did. That's exactly what I felt like. Bleak, dark and pretty much hopeless. He told me of how hard it was for he and my mom to see me at such a low place and, being a parent, I can only imagine how they felt because I know how I feel if something, anything, makes Katie or Justin sad and scared. I felt both of those things that day. I wasn't simply Katie and Justin's mother - I was Barbe & Maxine's daughter. They were so very worried and concerned. Alcoholism truly is a "family" disease and yes, sadly, the family can sometimes suffer as much, if not more, than the patient.

"But it wasn't the end of the world, was it? Your Mom and I want you to know how very proud we are of you and how far you have come. You have done so well and we love you very much.". And with that, he handed me the keys to his 2005 minivan which had less than 8,000 miles on it and told me not to even think about arguing the point. He had been to the dealership and bought a white 2006 Chrysler Town & Country moonbeam - an almost identical replica of the one they just gave me. "Don't argue with us! We both want you to have it - you're all we've got, we love you and we are going to do this. Period. End of discussion. Now get out of here, you'll be late for your meeting.".

I was stunned. I was beyond stunned. And yes indeed, I am blessed.

Thank you Katie, Justin, Mom, and Dad I love each and every one of you with all of my sober heart.

And a special thanks to Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob, for giving people like me, a place and a way to grow and get better. Most of all thanks to God, for making them both such hopeless drunks that they had no place else to turn except toward a Higher Power.

The Big Book said that things would get better. The Big Book was right, and so was Fred Rogers when he observed that we don't get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others". My kids, my parents, and yes, even my former husband Tim, my sponsor, and so many wonderful friends present and past who, through the years, took a chance and "invested" in me. I'm going to try very hard and work diligently to give each of them more things to be proud of and less reasons to cringe. I want them to have a high return on their investments in me. I want to make them proud and serve as well as I am capable.

Katie, thank you so much for this card and this challenge - to "do one thing every day that scares you.". I've had a few experiences of doing just that. Remember when Christopher Robin said to Winnie The Pooh, "Promise me you'll always remember: You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem and smarter than you think." That is so brilliantly simple and stunningly true. Most of the time, the hardest, most frightening part of all, is believing it..fortunately, that doesn't make it any less true.

04 January 2006

We Interrupt This Blog For The All-Important WORD OF THE DAY!

What's life without a lot of interesting words and isn't it convenient that the English Language has so many fantastic choices?

Though English can't be categorized as one of the "romantic languages", I love it all the same. While it may not be as provocative as French, or as sensuous as Portuguese, I'd still stack our American Brand of English against just about every other contender save the French and those crazy Brazilians.

Maybe I'm just prejudice, but I love all of our choices, our regional accents and eccentricities and how lucky we are to share the same core of language within our vast country, yet still have the ability to infuse a bit of regional touches and tags. I'm not terribly fond of what I hear coming out of New Joisey, but the rest of New England, including the zany, loopy properties of a proper LooongIsland . It always makes me smile as do many natives of that tiny strip of island bearing the same name.

So I have decided to start 2006 with one of my most favorite websites - and it delivers...literally! Everyday in my E-mail box, I get an E-mail from "Dictionary.com" with, what else, The Word Of The Day! It's like a gift to start off my day with and even though I have seen or heard most of the offerings, I always learn new applications and derivations that I was completely unaware of. I make it a point to use it a few times, either in conversation or writing, and before you know it, I have a new word in my growing collection of words that I love to use and mostly understand.

Check it out - WORD OF THE DAY. By the end of the year, your vocabulary could be 365 words more powerful than it is right now. You can use all of these new words in proper context to impress your friends, dazzle your dogs, confuse your cats!

Oh, I have much to write, but I have to write for a while and it doesn't involve a blog. I have so much to share and I miss my blog - but I intend to uncover some discipline in the next few days and write of all of the events of the past few days - a complete overhaul and reorganization at work, my son's new pool table and how it may be impeding his search for a new job, trying to understand how one of my coworkers, in reading his bio, seems unable to write or spell past a third grade level and wondering how he's made it through life without knowing how to type or understanding the magic of spell check. I also need to write about our New Year's Eve in Charleston, South Carolina and why the Rutledge House Bed and Breakfast somehow lost a bit of its charm since the last time we stayed there...personally, I think it's Norm. Norm is about as people friendly and interesting as a very sour, dour, piece of cheese that even the French wouldn't find appealing. I want to write of the recent WV Mine Disaster and the rollercoaster ride those families rode as they waited to greet their family members following unexpected news of a rescue of survivors, only to have their hopes completely dashed, save for one. I want to write about what a classy gentleman Homer Hickam truly is and how proud he makes me feel to be a fellow West Virginian, even though most of the time I generally outright lie and pretend that I'm really from West Texas. Listening to Homer Hickam's wise commentary and observations throughout this horrible mine explosion debacle, has made me feel a sense of pride in being a mountaineer that I wouldn't have believed possible.

I want to write about what it feels like to be a mere week away from collecting my two year sobriety chip. I want to express how much it will mean to have my kids in attendance as I collect that blue plastic chip that looks so inconsequential but marks a two-year sea change in my sober, albeit small, life. I want to make my kids finally feel maybe a little proud to have me for their Mom - I'd settle for one-eighth of the pride I feel to have them as my children - my very grown-up children.

Mostly, I want to write. I simply want to write. My day job is impeding my inspiration and sometimes I feel as if my desire to focus on what I love doing best, waning and, along with it, any talent I might have once thought I possessed. I come home from work and I feel so completely spent and depleted that the last thing I want to do is spend time in front of my computer wondering exactly when my mind started evolving into mush. Years ago I used to believe it was continuous episodes of watching "Sesame Street" when I noticed one day that I turned the program on and my pre-school kids were out of the house. It never bothered me to find myself tuning into "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" on days the kids were involved in other activities because I always felt better for being in the presence of Fred Rogers. It was true when I was 12 and it's still true at the age of 45.

No, it wasn't "Sesame Street" that turned my mind to mush. Personally, I think it's either the CFC's that fly out with the hair spray, or maybe it's that smelly perm solution. I haven't truly pinned it down just yet. Maybe, I'm just tired. Maybe I need some hope. Maybe I am nursing some regrets - wistfully looking back on all the time I wasted when I could stay home and hone my craft and wishing I had the chance to do it all again.

I wonder if regret honestly serves any purpose with positive results? Should I be regretting that I sometimes have regrets?

Maybe I need to find something to hang onto that will allow me to believe that my present situation won't evolve into my "forever". I don't think it will, but there are days when I get a little scared. I'm human. It happens.

I could use some inspiration and, for as much as one can find on the Internet, I think inspiration is borne from other sources and most of them probably spring from within.

And yes, I want to write about spring. I need some spring.

Right now, I probably need some rest.

More later. There's so much more.