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A girl who rose from the ashes...and now is trying to make sense of this complicated world through her writing.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Bananas Are All the Rage

When I was 16, I fell madly, deeply, cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs in love with a guy who had been one of my best friends for some time, and I made a complete and total irreparable mess of the relationship within about four months.  A couple years later I fell hard for a guy who was still ridiculously preoccupied with his last girlfriend.  In college, I dated the same guy for four years who was more of a best friend than anything.  When I was 23, I met and eventually married a man who - I hope you are sitting down for this - didn't really think I was all that funny.  It's no surprise we are not still together - clearly he had issues.  I say all of this so as to point out that I have had some complicated relationships in my day.  But none has been more complicated than my relationship with the ordinary yellow banana.

The thing about bananas is, I want to like them.  Really, I do.  And sometimes, for maybe a day at a time, I find them tolerable.  The problem is, I have a very small window of opportunity with bananas.  I can look at a banana sitting in my fruit bowl and think to myself, "I am going to eat that banana for breakfast.  But first, let me shower."  I am telling you, by the time I get out of that shower things might have changed.  The window of opportunity may have slammed shut, as a few brown spots may have appeared.  In the time it took me to lather, rinse and repeat the banana lost its appeal.  Get it - appeal?  Because bananas have peels?  Damn, I am funny.  Told ya.

Bananas, to me, are the fruit equivalent of whiny little bitches.  "Oh, hi.  I'm a banana.  Please don't touch me or look at me or even think about me, because if you do I might bruise."  My friend Colleen said it best - bananas do not travel well.  You can take a banana from your house, gently place it on the cushion of your car seat, and by the time you get to work it will be all battered and bruised like Mike Tyson just had his way with it.  Whatever, bananas!  You know what I think?  I think you need to shut your pie hole.  Get it?  Pie hole.  Somebody stop me, please.

My sister revealed to me that her solution to this nonsense is a banana carrying case.  Really?  This is what it has come to?  We have to buy luggage for our bananas?  The banana by design has its own carrying case, but I guess that's not good enough. A banana carrying case may be the ultimate response to a first world problem.  What is next?  The banana is going to give me a list of his or her demands before agreeing to come to my house?  I mean really, come on.  This has gone too far.

Even in light of all of these petty annoyances, I still try to convince myself each and every week at the grocery store that I like bananas.  My inner turmoil sounds something like this:  "Bananas are good for you, Jen.  On paper, they meet a lot of your needs.  Everybody else likes bananas - you should too.  Even if you don't like bananas, you know your parents would approve of them.  Just give the poor banana a chance. You can do this."  Eventually, I acquiesce to the chatter in my head.  Every. Damn. Time.

Week after week there is the same result.  I buy two or three very green bananas and take them home.  I manage to eat one of them in the 12 minute window of opportunity I have to enjoy a perfect banana.  Then I have to find a way to discard the remaining one or two bananas, which, in the blink of an eye, have become spotted, brown, rotten, sugary, mushy, repositories for ready-to-hatch-fruit flies.

Since there is only so much banana bread you can make, I had to find a new solution.  I actually hired someone who would take my "past the Jen Wittwer expiration date" bananas.  Now granted, this person has a lot of skills to add to the team, but one of her most important functions is to take any banana from me, any time, no questions asked.  While I might make it seem like I am doing her a favor by giving her bananas on a weekly basis, the truth is she has become my banana savior.  And - wait for it, wait for it - I am so relieved I don't have to monkey around with those rotten bananas anymore.  Get it?  I said monkey.  

I'm here all week, folks.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A New Pair of Specs

On January 19, 1986 I got a new pair of specs.  Things have never looked the same since.

The almost seventeen years of my life leading up to this day could hardly be described as normal, and yet our family had achieved its own unique brand of normal.  With my dad's forever compromised health, there were ample and regular doses of worry and angst.  Even so, like any family we laughed, we fought, we played and we laughed some more.  We kind of had it figured out, in our own weird way.  It worked.

Then seemingly out of nowhere, what started out as an annoying cough for my mom was then diagnosed as bronchitis, then pneumonia and finally mesothelioma - a deadly and rapid growing cancer from exposure to asbestos.  Three days from this diagnosis to her departure - that was all we had.  Three days!  In what felt like the blink of an eye, Mom was gone.  Poof.  Just like that.

The thing was, no one - and I mean no one - could wrap their head around this turn of events.  At just 43 years old, Mom had been healthy, vibrant, fierce, strong.  She was the one thing our family could reliably count on.  It was Dad's health that was tenuous, not hers.  Like a faithful sherpa who was devoid of complaints, Mom did all the heavy lifting for our family.  It was hard to imagine life could be any other way. Now it would have to be.

So it was on that cold January day when I got this new pair of specs.  I didn't even know I needed them, and I most definitely didn't want them.  But they were mine forevermore, permanently affixed to my head.  I've always said that my life, simplified, has only two relevant parts:  1)  Before Mom died, and 2)  After Mom died.  Her untimely death created a tectonic shift in my life, a shift ensuring that things would never, could never be the same.  "My name is Jen, and when I was sixteen my mom died."  The words spill out of me sometimes when I'm not even expecting them.  It is one of the most important ways I define myself.

Clinging to me like moss on a sturdy oak, Mom's death is a life imperfection that has been simultaneously tragic and beautiful.  It took a while - a good, long painstaking whatthefuckthistotallysucks while - but eventually my new pair of specs helped me see things more clearly. What I could see was this:

Life doesn't have a single guarantee.

Since I can't control how much time I get in life, I will surely control the quality.

I, and only I, am in charge of my own happiness.

I will always surround myself with people who believe in me and cast all the others gently aside.

There is no such thing as too generous.

Laughter is the most important measure of my personal success.

Forgiveness of those who have wronged me is always necessary.

Forgiveness of myself is harder, but even more important.

It is wise to say no often.

It is wiser to say I love you often.

Years before my mom died, my dad was in the intensive care unit of the University of Iowa hospitals, clinging onto his own fragile life.  Mom spent her days faithfully at his side until his health was restored.  One day, she took a break in the family waiting room and found a piece of paper someone had left behind that said this:  "The clouds that appear darkest in the distance are the ones the wind blows away."  So moved by the lesson these words offered her in a moment of deep despair, Mom later embroidered them on a tapestry and hung it inside our front door.  Hauntingly prophetic, it has been a motto for my life.

Twenty-eight years have passed, and a whole lot of things have changed.  A few things have not changed, one of which is that pair of specs I got in 1986.  Do I ever resent them?  Sure, I suppose so.  I am human after all.  But what I know for sure is that without them, I'd be less wise, less loving, less me.  I think I'll keep them.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

It's Never Too Late

It was an unfortunate set of circumstances that led to me doing some of the best social work I have ever done.  As the director of a large program serving adults with mental illness, I always carried a small caseload.  It gave me my "fix" of client contact (a key ingredient to my professional happiness) and kept my clinical skills sharp. No matter how busy my director duties kept me, it was something I insisted on doing.

"Nancy" was one of the clients on my caseload, but she was not our typical client.  She arrived precisely on time every Thursday morning at 10:00 a.m. and her punctuality was so sharp I am pretty sure you could set the atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado by her arrival.  She would wait for me in the waiting room, her hair perfectly coiffed, lipstick carefully applied, hands patiently folded in her lap.  When I would go to retrieve her, the look of recognition on her face offered only a distant warmth.

Nancy never really required much from me or from anyone, really.  She was remarkably self-reliant and only stayed in mental health services to ensure she never repeated the horrors of her distant past.  She would sit with me and independently set up her medication tray for the next week.  She would indulge me by reassuring me that she was happy with her housing, she had followed through on all of her necessary medical and dental appointments, and that she had swallowed every pill prescribed to her in the preceding week.  She would take a quick social detour to talk about movies with me - a common hobby we shared - and tell me what movie she planned to see that upcoming weekend.  Every Saturday afternoon, rain or shine, she saw a matinee.  This was part of the routine, a routine that never allowed for deviation.  After our quick and perfunctory visit, Nancy would leave and make her way to the local clubhouse - another thing she did each and every day.

It was a sad and shocking Wednesday when I got a call from the staff at Nancy's clubhouse that Nancy had passed away.  She had not shown up there for a day, and then two, when they called her landlord to do a wellness check.  Sure enough, she had passed away peacefully in her sleep.  They were calling to give me the information for the medical examiner and to ask for my help with funeral plans.  It wasn't the first time I ever had to do this, sadly, as for many of our clients we are the family making the arrangements.  I knew what to do.

In the days that followed, however, I learned that I had my work cut out for me.  I went straight to the funeral home I had used for years.  They were situated in a neighborhood familiar to many of the people we serve, and as a small, independent funeral home they had a lot of heart and compassion.  I worked with the staff to make the difficult decisions without any input - this was one of the many things Nancy and I had never thought to discuss.  The staff at the funeral home and I bonded, and on the way out the door the director gave me his business card.  It was a card that on the front had the funeral home logo, and on the back said "Thank You for Smoking."  I needed that laugh.

The complicating factor was that Nancy had a fair amount of money saved up in her bank account.  Of course she did; I am telling you this woman had her life put together better than most people I know.  This money was going to be needed to proceed with the funeral arrangements, but the bank told me it could not be accessed without a signature from her next of kin.  This, I knew, was going to be no small feat.  And no small feat it was, indeed.

Nancy had been estranged from her family for decades.  She, of course, was far too guarded to share the details of the story.  But my guess is that like many of the people we serve, her symptoms and her illness got in the way of her relationships.  I had to do some digging, but I did find her brother's name buried deep in some old records.  I took a deep breath and I picked up the phone.  When her brother answered, I stumbled through trying to explain who I was.  There was no remorse at the other end of the line, no sadness for the news of a loss.  There was, instead, anger.  Lots and lots of anger.  Anger that this person he once fiercely loved in his youth had not been in his family's life for years upon years.  Anger about the things that had transpired and had led to the relationship's demise.  Anger that now he was supposed to do something, however small, to help.

It took several hours of conversation over a couple of days to get the brother to come around.  He needed validation - the one thing that almost every angry person ever needs - and he got a lot of it.  He was validated that his experience, heart-breaking as it was, was not all that uncommon.  He was validated that mental illness is cruel and sometimes takes no prisoners.  He was validated that it was okay he was mad, for most people in his circumstance would be.  And slowly, ever so slowly, he came around.  He agreed to go to the bank, "but that's all I'm doing."  Fair enough.

It was really all I needed, because I had a funeral to plan and that had been the only thing holding me back.  The day of the funeral arrived, and the funeral home was packed with all of Nancy's friends and colleagues from the clubhouse.  It was quite moving, actually, to juxtapose this scene with the images I had formed over the past few days of her family estrangement.  Shortly before the services started, I saw a man standing at the back of the room.  It's funny how sometimes a face perfectly matches a voice, and I knew in an instant who it was - it was Nancy's brother.  I gingerly approached and introduced myself to this curmudgeonly man who seemed to have found some love in that heart of his.  He thanked me for reaching out and quickly set his limits again.  "I'm not staying."  I assured him it was beautiful that he showed up at all.  What I could see in his eyes was a little bit of mourning and a little bit of peace.  What he had lost over the years with his sister, clearly a lot of other people had found.

The service was lovely and included all kinds of funny stories that few people knew about our private, guarded Nancy.  I left that day and I thought I had finally been able to do something for Nancy - if nothing else, I gave her a good send off.  This was good enough for me.

A couple months later, I was at my desk when my phone rang.  I recognized the voice, but it took me a couple of minutes to orient to who it was.  It was Nancy's brother, this time reaching out to me.  There was a warmth in his voice that I hadn't heard before.  He told me that he wanted to call and thank me for doing what he would have not been able to do by planning Nancy's funeral, and I assured him it was my privilege and honor.  But mostly, he said, he was calling to let me know that he had taken Nancy's ashes a few days prior and placed them in his family's mausoleum.  After decades of being on her own, Nancy was right back where she belonged - with her family.  I hung up the phone, and wiped away some tears.  It's never too late, I thought, and the world felt a little more right in that moment.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Top Ten of Jen - 2013

I may be a day (or two, or three) late in getting to my annual Top Ten of Jen blog post, but I promise you I am not a dollar short.  As is true every year, this past year had some very remarkable events.  And if someone would be so kind as to offer a drum roll, here they are in my favorite order - which is no particular order at all:

1)  Reminded myself that reading is fundamental.  My friend Alex had been poking, prodding, and pleading for me to join her book club for awhile.  While the book club sounded like a fun group of gals, the prospect of having to read a book sounded unappealing.  I feared it would feel like homework, and I would resent it and blah blah blah.  But after about a year of coaxing, I decided to join in.  What a great decision!  The books have been fantastic, the book club nights have been a blast, and most importantly, this has gotten me to read again.  Not just the book club books, but all kinds of books now.  My new favorite thing?  A Sunday with no obligations, a pot of soup simmering on the stove and a full day of reading.  Yaaay, me!  My brain is no longer turning to mush.

2)  Got sun-kissed in Florida.  I've been to Florida many, many times.  The big draw, in addition to some sun and warmth as a break from the dreary 414 winter months, is that I have free lodging there with my aunt and uncle who treat me like one of their own children and are two of my favorite people.  That, and the best banana cream pie on the planet.  This year, I waited until April to go and I spent a full week there.  Aunt Lois doted on me while Uncle Wayne pretty much read a bunch of books and took us out to dinner every night.  I lazed around in the sun every day.  I went searching for manatees several times unsuccessfully.  I read two books.  I had some thoughtful debates and heart to heart talks with Aunt Lois.  I got to see Uncle Wayne tell some family stories that made him belly laugh so hard he could hardly catch his breath.  The last evening there, I saw a pod of twenty or more dolphins.  I wasn't sure how I felt about going to Florida alone, but this was truly a great trip.  I'll happily do it again.

3)  Reconciled my past.  The full story behind this is much too long for this blog post.  But here is the Cliff's Notes version:  In February, my step-mom passed away.  I heard about this through extended family, because to be honest we hadn't had but maybe two or three instances of contact since my dad passed away seventeen years ago.  The days that followed were a roller coaster of emotion and decision-making. Ultimately, my sister and I decided to go to the funeral.  As difficult as this decision was, it was equal parts right.  Something washed over me, as we stood out in the brisk February wind in her family's old country graveyard.  I think it's called forgiveness; maybe it is understanding, too.  Understanding that everyone on this planet is a mix of good and bad, a cocktail of rights and wrongs.  I have often traveled the high road, and this day was no exception.  This time, more than any other, I am surely glad that I did.

4)  Made a life changing decision.  This is a big one, folks.  I changed out all of my socks to be only Gold Toe brand socks.  I was tired of wearing socks that would fall down incessantly throughout the day or wear thin too soon or annoy me for any reason, any time.  Life, I decided, is too short to wear bad socks.  Boom.  Just like that - I got rid of all the bad socks and replaced them all with Gold Toes.  The quality of my life has since improved significantly, and there is no turning back.

5)  Co-hosted Cousin-palooza in Milwaukee.  For years the Swearingen cousins have descended upon Spooner, Wisconsin (which always prompts a "Spooner?  I hardly even know her!" response) for Cousins Weekend.  This year, we decided to mix it up and gather in Milwaukee.  Many of our cousins, and our lovely Aunt Lois and Uncle Wayne, made their way from the Twin Cities to Milwaukee.  My sister and I did our best to roll out the red carpet for them, because we were so honored they would drive all the way to Milwaukee just to see little old us.  We made incredible dinners that still have people talking.  We took them on a magical mystery tour of our great city.  We sat around and looked at pictures, told stories, and laughed our behinds off.  We even arranged for the Twins to beat the Brewers at the game we attended on Memorial Day.  It was a great weekend, which is no surprise.  No surprise at all, since we have the greatest family ever.

6)  Celebrated my 44th birthday in style.  For years I had thought that my 44th birthday would be kind of a big deal, because my mom never made it to 44.  The day arrived and I really just felt happy.  I worked that day, and my co-workers did all kinds of things to make it an extra special day.  That evening, I went out to dinner with a group of a whole bunch of my favorite people.  I picked a newer restaurant in town that is an upscale Wisconsin Supper Club.  It was a Tuesday, so we were afforded the luxury of our own private room.  We had a server who was sassy and spot-on.  We had food - lots of it- that was incredible.  But more than that, we had a lot of love in that room.  When I went home that night, my stomach was full, but my heart was certainly fuller.

7)  Lost a special friend.  In the last couple of years, I forged a new friendship with a wonderful man by the name of Henry.  Henry was different, and there was something really special about him.  He exuded warmth and humility.  He was bright and exceptionally articulate.  When he wanted to get something done, like self-publish his own incredible children's book, he just did it.  We quickly became kindred spirits, and had our own little Mutual Admiration Society.  One Friday in August, Henry worked all day and then headed out for dinner with his family.  At dinner, he collapsed and in an instant he was gone.  Just like that, at 38 years old, it was over.  The whole experience rattled me to my core and made me face my own mortality.  But the real story is, I miss my friend and I am sad that we didn't have more years to develop what was undoubtedly going to be a long-lasting fantastic friendship.  I hope he is at peace.  I think about him every day.

8)  Wrote a damn letter.  For years, a local journalist has written stories about the mental health system in Milwaukee.  She has an agenda, and it's clear she won't stop anytime soon.  As someone who works in the public mental health system, the articles can be taxing on my spirit.  My solution?  I try not to read them.  Mostly because they are repetitive and have a lot of inaccuracies and also because it is an unnecessary distraction from the important work I have to do.  But every once in a while, I put myself through the torture of reading a new series. The new series this year really got to me, and I kind of felt like I had to stand up for what I believe to be the truth - that the people who work in this field, especially the direct caregivers, deserve some respect.  I spent an entire evening at home crafting a letter to the editor.  I worked hard to not sound defensive, and did my best to set the record straight.  The main point I was making was that for anything to change, there must be a balance of discomfort and hope, and that while discomfort is aplenty, hope has all but vanished.  Mostly I wrote the letter because it was cathartic for my spirit.  But then, a week later, much to my surprise it was published.  There was an outpouring of emails saying "thank you" and "finally" and "this is so long over due" and a few people even hugged me tearfully when they saw me. It felt good to stand up for the little guy and everything I hold true about my work.

9)  Ordered some salad and some breadsticks.  My friend Matt and I have a confession.  We love the Olive Garden.  Don't judge us!  And if you do, we don't care!  Matt and I are part of a fantastic group of friends who get together regularly.  But about once every six weeks or so, Matt and I sneak off to the Olive Garden with our $4 coupon in tow.  We've learned a lot about the Olive Garden, like that the wait staff are only allowed to put one of every vegetable in the salad for each person at the table.  Hence, we were only getting two olives in our salad and this was very disappointing.  But we further learned that if you ask real nice, the waiter will sneak you a whole bunch of extra vegetables.  On a more serious note, Matt and I also learned a lot about each other, and love having this excuse to spend some quality time together.  The advertisements aren't all entirely inaccurate.  When we are at the Olive Garden, we feel like family.

10)  Celebrated Thanksgivukkah.  I love Thanksgiving - it is absolutely my favorite holiday.  This year, Thanksgiving coincided with Hanukkah, which was truly a once in a lifetime event.  I think it won't happen again for something like 70,000 years.  My brother-in-law's family is Jewish, so we made the most of this momentous occasion.  My sister decorated her table beautifully with a Hanukkah tablescape.  The whole family spent the day together cooking, and we added in some special treats like matzo ball soup, sweet potato latkes and challah bread stuffing.  I loved, loved, loved this entire day, and it is a Thanksgiving I am sure that none of us will ever forget.

It amazes me every year when I reflect back what a fun and layered life I have.  My days are filled with love, friendship, work I am passionate about, a little bit of heartache and a whole lot of joy.  This year, as is true every year, the Top Ten of Jen reminds me that it is good to be me.  Happy New Year to each and every one of you...I can't wait to see what 2014 has in store!