Monthly Archives: November 2016

My Friend Marc

 

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He was easy to spot. In a room full of frail, elderly people, Marc and his motorized wheelchair loomed large. His six foot four-inch thin frame rested on the chair, his head on the headrest, and his face inches away from the straw-like device that, through his breathing, powered him around the Daughters of Sarah, a nursing home in Albany, New York. 

I had come to Daughters that afternoon to visit Rose, a 99-year old friend. But she had decided to attend a lecture, and I was waiting for her in the community room. So I used my free time to strike up a conversation with the young man, a rarity among the ancient. I found out that he had lived at Daughters for eight years, he was  thirty-four years old, and he maneuvered his chair around the building chatting with young staff members for companionship—the only people in the facility close to his age. I asked him if I could visit him every week before my time with Rose, and he said, “Sure!”

Maybe because he was just two months older than my son Adam. Maybe because he is just a genuinely nice person. No matter, we just clicked. Over the next few weeks, I learned more about his situation. He had become a quadriplegic in a freak motorcycle accident when he was 16—yes, he was wearing a helmet! “Since the accident,” Marc told me later, “I really feel I haven’t had much choice in anything in life other than give up or carry on.”

His parents have been there for him since they got the life-changing  phone call that their son had been in a terrible accident. “It was my strong-willed father who especially pushed me to improve my situation,” Marc said. “He posted a sign on my computer that read, ‘What can I do today to make myself more independent?’

For the first ten years, Marc had lived with his parents in their home near Sacadaga Lake. Finding good home health care to meet his needs became more problematic, and he and the family decided that Daughters was a better option for him. 

Marc never exhibited any bitterness about his situation, and he rarely complained even when he was uncomfortable from his kidney stones or he struggled with breathing. He loved his family and Westerns and fishing and stock car racing. I picked up 101 Things You Should Know About NASCAR from the library and studied the book so I could talk intelligently with him about the sport. To my husband Larry’s amusement, I even started following the results in the newspaper and caught some of the races on the television.

Marc also liked McDonalds, so I often stopped on my way to the nursing home in one the franchise’s restaurant a mile from Daughters. The bag of burger and fries left a tantalizing trail of non-kosher, or what Jews know as ‘treif’—aromas down the hallway. It took a few times for us to find a rhythm as I fed him: two bites of the Big Mac, two fries, and two sips of soda. Repeat. He loved chocolate, so I usually brought him brownies or chocolate chip cookies, which he saved for later.

Marc owned a fully equipped handicap accessible van, which was kept in the nursing home parking lot. It took me a while to get the courage to take him for outings. One beautiful fall day, however, I asked Marc if he wanted to go for a ride. “Sure!” he said with a huge smile. He guided me through the process of opening up the back door, pushing him up the ramp, pulling his chair back to compensate for his height, and locking the mechanism in place. 

We drove up the Northway and across the Twin Bridges. We got an ice cream cone at the Country Drive-In and then sat in a small park near the Mohawk River. The autumn foliage was at its peak, and the sky was a brilliant blue. We had a little scare when the battery light on his van went on. But I managed to deliver him and his vehicle safely back to Daughters.

Over the next three years, I visited Marc on a regular basis, even after Rose passed away. Weather permitting, we would take a field trip—a Chinese restaurant, Five Guys, Wal-Mart, a local mall. Our excursions taught me much about what Marc endures. Adults watched us furtively as I fed him wonton soup; children gawked and asked their parents loud questions as the two of us browsed an aisle in the Christmas Tree Shop. When we stopped in a hair salon, the beautician first directed her questions to me until I said emphatically, “Marc is perfectly capable of telling you how he wants his hair cut.”

There were many weeks I could not visit Marc—Larry and I  were traveling, either Marc or I  was sick, or bad weather prevented me from driving the sixteen miles down the Northway. But no matter, I treasured each of those visits with him. 

When Larry and I decided to relocate to Florida, telling Marc about our impending move was one of the hardest conversations I had during that transition. Visits from other friends and family were—to me—too few and far between, and Daughters’ staff could not drive Marc in his van due to liability issues. 

As Larry and I packed up our house, we needed to find a home for four photo collages that we had created from our trips. We brought them to Marc, and he had them hung up on the wall next to his family pictures and a digital photo album we had gotten him the previous Christmas.

On the last visit before we left, Marc and I decided to keep in touch through e-mails. I also promised him that I would mail him a postcard every Monday. On my last visit, I gave him a hug and cried as I made my way across the parking lot past his big blue van to my car. 

When Larry and I came back the Albany for Thanksgiving five months later, our second stop with our rental car was Daughters. The first was a stop at Panera Bread for a brownie to bring to Marc. “We were in the neighborhood and thought you could use some chocolate,” I said, as we surprised him in his room. On the wall were the photo collages and all the the postcards that I had sent him from Florida and Colorado and California.

Marc continues to reside in Daughters of Sarah. He has had a couple of surgeries and more than a few health scares. His postcard collection grows, some I purchased during our travels and some given to me by friends and members of our community’s travel club.

In February, Marc celebrated his thirty-ninth birthday. He continues to carry on, to remain positive.

“I have some bad days when I am in pain or can’t breathe,” Marc told me. “But every day I get up and put a smile on my face. I try to make the best out of each day because I believe that someone always has it worse than I do.”

And every day, I am grateful that Marc is my friend.

Are You Listening? Really?

When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new. Dalai Lama XIV

So many stories if we just listen. Sitting next to someone on a plane, we often stick earbuds in our ears to make sure they don’t prattle on about nothing.  But sometimes there is much to be learned from hearing—and really listening—to what others have to say.

Some of us are experts at listening. Lou, a friend and former co-worker, not only hears what the person is saying but engages his entire body: he leans forward, plants his chin in his hands and his elbows on his knees,  and looks the speaker in the eye. He nods in agreement. You know he cares about what is being said.

I think of Lou, and I want to emulate him. I am as guilty as anyone, often not really paying attention.

How many times have I sat through a rabbi’s dracha —sermon— and spent too much of my time checking my watch? Even when I have signed up for a lecture sponsored by my community’s book circle, I often find myself thinking about what I need to do later that day rather than focusing on the topic being discussed. I have missed much by being not more mindful.

Our failure to focus often carries into our daily conversations. We often are not listening to what the person is saying but rather waiting for the moment to express our own “pearls of wisdom.” And, what is worse,  what we want to say takes the conversation in a different direction. “That’s great,” we comment. “That reminds me of the time I…..” Note the emphasis is on the word “I.” To quote John Wayne, we are “short on ears and long on mouth.”

We can learn from Lou and other good listeners. Young adult author Sarah Desson describes them well: “They don’t jump in on your sentences, saving you from actually finishing them, or talk over you, allowing what you do manage to get out to be lost or altered in transit. Instead, they wait, so you have to keep going.”

How much richer our lives can be if we allow the speaker to continue talking.

Larry and I recently spent time with a group of friends in in Key West, Florida.  Before the trip, Larry had played pickleball with several people in the group, and we both had shared time around the pool and eaten lunch together. But being together for a week gave us more time to learn about each other.

Stories abounded. One woman had contracted polio when she was six, just months before the polio vaccine had come out. A very attractive woman who was visiting from England had become an actress in her sixties and is a regular on a Welch soap opera. A couple’s son had left his career as a graphic designer behind and became a tattoo artist. Several in the group had served in the military and regaled us with their stories about their experiences in basic training, in fighter planes, in submarines. Again and again, I thought to myself, “Who knew?”

Four days into our trip, Larry said to me, “I love hearing everyone’s stories!” And so did I. So many stories, so much to learn. And as my friend Lynn tells me about her own life, “You can’t make this stuff up!”

In the months ahead, I will be sharing people’s stories with you.  My friend’s son, who we have known since childhood, is now a rabbi in New Orleans. A friend in our 55-plus active adult community has turned his lifelong interest in the Titanic into a post-retirement career, as he travels the world giving lectures on the infamous boat and its many passengers. A friend of mine, a thirty-eight year old resident Daughters of Sarah Nursing Home, was paralyzed from the neck down in a freak motorcycle accident when he was sixteen. Each has a story to tell, and we all can learn by listening.

At one of the recent meetings of my writer’s group, one of the members shared a poignant story she had written about woman she had met twenty years earlier on a train stuck outside of Washington, D.C.  The writer—who was not wearing earbuds to block out conversations with strangers—learned that the woman was recently married to her childhood sweetheart. A month before the wedding, he was in a terrible accident and had suffered traumatic brain injury. Despite warnings from friends and family to back out of the wedding, the young woman realized her vow to love one another through sickness and health was sealed before the ceremony. By the time she finished reading her story, many of us were in tears. “How did you learn so much about a complete stranger?” we asked. “I don’t know,” she answered. “She talked, I listened, and I remembered.” Good advice for all of us.

I Can See Clearly Now……

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A lifetime of eye care is getting recycled!!

“Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who opens the eyes of the blind.” Morning Blessings, Shacharit

As our congregation recited the prayer this Rosh Hashanah, this line of the traditional morning prayers took on much more meaning. After struggling with extremely poor vision since elementary school, I will no longer have to rely on corrective lenses. As Johnny Nash sang, “I can see clearly now. “

No one was surprised when I needed glasses when I was six years old. Near-sightedness was rampant in my family, and my parents and two older siblings were already wearing glasses. My vision, however, was complicated by amblyopia, a condition when the vision in one of the eyes is reduced because the eye and the brain are not working together properly. In my case, the right eye wandered towards the extreme right. In 1956, surgery was not an option. Instead, I was given a black patch to wear on my left eye to force the “lazy eye” to get stronger.

I wish my parents had been more persistent, but I was embarrassed and defiant and refused to wear the patch. The vision in my right eye continued to deteriorate, and my left eye also was very near-sighted. By the time I was in junior high school, my glasses were noticeably  thick, only adding to the self-consciousness of  teenager who also suffered from acne and what I perceived as a Jewish nose. When I was sixteen, I was fitted for a pair of glasses by an ophthalmologist who told me my vision was too bad for contact lens and predicted I would be blind by my twenties. When I brought the glasses home, they were so thick they looked like coke-bottles. I threw them across the room and cried myself to sleep.

By the time I was a senior in high school, I was able to get another pair of glasses with lighter material that were not as ugly. But in my yearbook picture, the thickness of the lenses were the dominant feature.

When I arrived at University at Albany, I was very self-conscious of my glasses,  and they proved to be a source of embarrassment. One time, my roommates thought it would be funny to hide my glasses when I was in the shower. I burst into tears and begged them to help me find them, as I didn’t have the sight to search for them. I hit my lowest moment was when my girlfriend’s cute  but clueless boyfriend didn’t respond to me when I was talking to him. “Gene,” Linda said, “ Marilyn asked you a question.” “How was I supposed to know?” he answered. “Her glasses are so thick you can’t see her eyes.”

At the end of my freshman year, I was experiencing very bad headaches. Doctors at the  University at Albany health center referred me to a local ophthalmologist. “You are extremely near-sighted,” the wonderful doctor stated. “Have you ever considered contact lenses?” I wasn’t going blind. I was a candidate for contacts!  I was measured, fitted, and scheduled to pick them up the first week of summer break.

I will never forget the day I first put those tiny hard lenses in my eyes. I walked outside and saw the leaves on the trees in all their beauty. For the first time in my life, my eyes were causing tears of joy.

The lenses not only improved my vision but also my self-confidence. Behind those coke bottles were my family’s “Pearlman-blue” eyes, eyes the deepest color blue. Helped a little by the blue tint on my lenses, my eyes became my best feature. “Has anyone ever told you that you have the most beautiful blue eyes?” strangers would tell me. “Yes, they have!” I would reply,””but you can tell me again.”

For the next fifty years, contact lens were an integral part of my life. I popped them in the minute I woke up in the morning, and I popped them out just before I went to sleep. I was literally blind without them, but the world was a bright, sharp 20/20 with them. I used eye glasses only when absolutely necessary. Regular eye appointments kept me on track.  “Lasik” surgery was not an option for many years because of the severity of my myopia. When the surgery was perfected, my doctor suggested I wait.  My family history, which had predicted corrective lenses, also predicted a high chance of the development of cataracts, a common eye problem seen in over fifty percent of the population by the age of eighty.

When I moved to Florida, I immediately established myself with a local eye doctor. Last fall, he told me that I had the beginning of cataracts. By this spring, the one in my right eye, which had been deemed as “insignificant” only months before, was growing fast and significantly impacting my vision. As soon as my husband Larry and I returned from our summer travels, I scheduled the surgery for the last week of September.

By Rosh Hashanah services less than a week later, I was able to greet fellow congregants, see the rabbi on the bima, and follow the entire service in our prayerbooks with no corrective lens in my right eye and my faithful contact lens in my left. The follow-up appointment has confirmed that my right eye is a nearly-perfect 20/25.  After surgery for the cataract in my left eye is completed, I will be free of corrective lenses for the first time in sixty years.

Because of my poor vision, I have  never felt confident climbing up the steps to the huge slides at water parks   As soon as I have medical clearance, however, a  friend and I are heading to Wet ’n Wild in Orlando.  Who knows what’s next? Sky diving?  Why not? I can see clearly now. Wheeeee!