Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Day To Remember...

March 28, 2012.  Today would have been my oldest sister Carol’s 70th birthday.  Hard to believe she has been gone almost 5 years.

She died way too young at age 65 in April of 2007.  Carol had respiratory  problems as a result of smoking for many years. Sickness got to her that year and she could not recover.  She left behind a story and its important to remember.

Carol had been living next door to us with my mom for several years when she died.  This came about after her husband died and she had to get rid of her house.  The plan was for her to help care for my mom (who was also ill with respiratory problems - damn cigarettes).  It was beneficial for both of them.  Mom could still live somewhat independently because she would have help and Carol needed a place to live.  But soon it was clear that Carol needed almost as much care as my mom.

Thinking of Carol brings so many memories to my mind, many of them painful and sad. Carol was married twice and neither husband treated her well.  She and her wife-beating first husband were a big part of my childhood.  No child should see or be exposed to the things I was witness to.  Seeing Carol’s abuse and chaos shaped and formed much of my world back then and the imprint is still with me to this day.  Even as a kid I knew that what they called “marriage” was whacked.  One year I gave Carol a sympathy card to commemorate her wedding anniversary instead of celebratory card.  I got in a bit of trouble with my mom for that one.  I may have only been 11 years old but I was sure that their relationship was nothing to celebrate.

Her second marriage was no better in my mind.  Her second husband beat her as well and abused her children.  During those years I was busy raising my own family and did not see Carol as often.  But we only lived a couple blocks away from each other and there were many a night she and her girls walked over to my house after Carol suffered a beating.  She and her girls would stay for a few days, he’d call and apologize.  They would talk on the phone for hours.  God how I wanted her to walk away from this marriage as well, but she never did.  She ended up taking care of him till the day he died.

I had the privilege of being Carol’s caretaker till she died.  I was not the “Florence Nightingale” type, I was more the “Nurse Ratched” style.  Of course, my heart was not made of stone as Nurse Ratched’s was.  While on the outside it appeared easy for me to bark out reminders to do her exercises, eat right and not throw her money away, on the inside I was mush.  My heart broke for her over and over again because I knew the wounds of her life.  Caring for her put me smack dab in the middle of her complicated life and personality.  Carol was a very complex individual and dealing with her complexities could stretch you till you were ready to snap.  There was many a day I wanted to throw in the towel with her because she seemed determined to continue on a destructive path. 

But God.  He gave me patience, compassion and determination in dealing with Carol.  Did she know of the many, many tears I cried after some of our conversations?  Not just tears of frustration, but tears of sorrow.  Even though I could get pretty angry at Carol, I was still very aware that while I may have witnessed the abuse, she was the one it happened to.  She bore the mental and physical scars and God made sure He reminded me often.

I was also very aware that Carol had to live with the knowledge that some of the choices she made were selfish. Because of that, others were hurt.  She allowed her children to be in harms way and that is something that I don’t think she ever truly got over. 

We talked many times about these things and as I said, my role was to stay strong and urge her to look ahead.  Be the best she can be now. All my pushing and prodding was to keep her moving and alive.  If I had anything to say about it, her latter years were going to be more stable and safer than her earlier life.

Carol’s life impacted me forever.  She was my big sister and I loved her.   On this day that would have been her 70th birthday I remember her with that love and share the eulogy I wrote for her funeral.

Carolyn Hartz Eulogy  April 2007

A funeral is a time to speak well of the departed, to remember the good times, the stories, the memories. But for me, funerals are more than just remembering someone’s past.  Since it puts in the forefront a life that has ended, it is also a time to look at the life I am living and asking the question “am I living it well?”

But first, we focus on Carolyn.  Even though I grew up calling her Carol, she loved being called Carolyn.  I have to say that I am sure Carol is in heaven now.  She knew God and loved Him I believe.  So, we rejoice that her suffering has ended as her eternity has begun.  She has left behind all that was dark in this world to embrace the love and acceptance of our heavenly Father.

Carol’s life was not an easy one, as it rarely is for any of us.  But hers was especially difficult and wrought with much heartache and struggle.  Some of the struggles were the result of the choices she made, but much of it was at the hands of others who mistreated her.  Finances were never plentiful and at times her relationships with family and children were full of friction.  But, Carol was a survivor.  And if put in the same circumstances she went through, many of us here would have given up long ago or been committed to an asylum.  But Carol kept going, getting up each day to face a world that could be very cruel.  And she did it with a smile.

Carol was my oldest sister, so she has always been a part of my life.  There were different seasons of relationship between us.  Sometimes I was just the “kid sister”, other times a friend and peer.  But mostly my purpose in her life was prodder, defender and sometimes rescuer. Early on in my life with Carol, because of the knowledge I had of her life and what went on in it, God put fierceness for her in me.  My Pastor describes it as “booger love” – you just can’t shake it off even if you wanted to.   And believe me, especially in her latter years, I am sure there were times Carol wanted to “shake” me off of her.

Because of her close proximity to my house as a kid, we started sharing things early.  She lived just two doors down from me, and she was the “cool” big sister who let us get away with way too much.  My life with Carol was one of sharing many firsts: first cup of coffee, first cigarette, first real serious thoughts about God.  Carol was raised in the Catholic Church and as a child I attended church with her.  I was mesmerized with many of the rituals she practiced, dipping of the finger in the holy water, kneeling at the pew, the mysterious act of communion.  Much of my early introduction to church and God was through Carol.

Some of you may not know it, but Carol was a bowler in her younger years.  As a child, I remember standing at the bathroom door, looking up at her with wonder as she would transform herself from “at home” Carol to “going out” Carol, while getting ready on her bowling night.  She would stand in front of the bathroom mirror, wearing her bowling shirt, applying makeup and teasing her hair into a “poofy” hill.  There were several steps in this transformation and each one done in a particular order each time.  I knew she was done when she would pick up the big, metal can of hairspray.  With a long, lit cigarette hanging from her freshly painted lips, eyes squinting from the rising smoke, she would apply large quantities of hairspray to keep it all in place.  I was fascinated, and stood close to watch, having no clue of the dangers of mixing aerosols and fire together.

It was one of many “rituals” Carol practiced.  Things having to be done in a particular way at a particular time and to deviate from that could bring much protest on her part.  It was one of the curiosities of Carol; regimented order in a life that at many times was composed of chaos.

Carol liked to have things around her, lots of things, close at hand.  Crochet projects, crafts, suduko books; STUFF.  For the last few years, Carol has lived with my mom in a house next door to mine, so I was in their home often.  Surely one of the things we had issue with between us was her insistence on having her whole existence within arms length – and Carol had a LOT in her existence.   But what I perceived as clutter were things that were important to her, and for some reason she always had to have them close; perhaps to keep them safe, to know they were there and would not be cast aside.  So, I imagine her now, in her heaven with unlimited access to yarn, unopened mail, Avon and puzzle books.

One thing I admired about Carol was that she never tried to hide the fact that she needed people.  She was very social and not afraid to approach someone she didn’t know to greet them and perhaps take the opportunity to “grill” them a bit.  She loved to know about you – it truly interested her and she had a memory like a steel trap and could recall information most people would have overlooked.  And if you discussed something with her and there were facts she did not know, you could be pretty sure in your next conversation Carol would be prepared and have the missing information at hand.

I must confess to you Carol’s assertiveness in her social dealings was not something I always appreciated.  About 8 years ago (1999), I had just begun to date my husband Bill and was bringing him to a family event for the first time.  Being scrutinized by someone’s family can be nerve wracking, and Carol’s aggressiveness could be a little daunting before you got to know her. I knew this guy was quite a catch and did not want to scare him away before we were solid!  So, certain family members were put on “Carol watch”, and were to be ready to intervene and divert Carol’s attention if Bill started to look scared by her “assertiveness”.  As it turns out, I had nothing to fear.  Bill held his own with Carol and they sparred many times on many different subjects.  He loved her and spent weeks renovating the home she shared with my mom.  He never balked at caring for her and welcomed her into our lives.

Carol, while small in frame, was strong in spirit and will.  People could be fooled by her petite looks, thinking that she was timid.  But anyone who had cause to deal with Carol could tell you that she had very strong opinions on a multitude of issues and had no problem telling you that.

As I said before, my role in Carol’s life was not that of a typical sister.  Nice was not my portion with Carol.  Kindness, caring, loyalty, protection, encouragement and of course deep love; but not always nice.  Her loving heart and her need to be loved resulted in not always using the best judgment in making choices for her life.   For some reason, God saw fit to allow me to see into Carol’s heart, to understand her, even if I did not always agree with her.  He gave me the strength to not care if I was not liked by other people (including Carol at times) in going to great lengths to keep her active and helping her make wise decisions.   Tough love it was at times, and I have no doubt she knew that even though it was tough, it was love nonetheless.

But God balanced my wrath with others who came along side with amazing grace and I want to say thank you to some people that I know made an impact on Carol’s life.  I am sure there are many more that I don’t know about, but these are the ones on my heart.

My sister Patty was actually a combination of both fierceness and grace for Carol.  Because this is a funeral, and a eulogy, some stories of Carol’s life are best told over a cup of coffee, or perhaps a stiff drink, so I won’t give all the details of the story, but just enough for you to get the point.  When we were kids, there was an incident at Carol’s house.  A madman broke into Carol’s home and, while I had run and hid in a closet with her young daughters Cathy and Mary, my sister Patty, a young teenager, stood holding only a broom as a weapon between Carol and this intruder.  I will never forget the image as I peered out of the closet I was cowering in, seeing Patty’s 5 foot frame facing this 6 ft plus man.  I could see the fierce look in her eyes and knew if he had taken a step closer, Patty would have defended Carol to the death.  But 40 years later, this same woman came as an angel helping Carol face yet another giant in her life, when Carol had to move out of the house she had lived in for over 20 years.  As it has been mentioned, Carol had lots of stuff.   She was moving into an apartment and had to downsize drastically.  I was losing patience in the sorting process because Carol was reluctant to get rid of most things for one reason or another, and I was ready to just throw everything out!  But then suddenly, Patty the angel appeared and as I, along with my daughter Shay and sister Jackie, worked at throwing things out in one room, Patty graciously listened to Carol’s stories about each possession and who gave it to her, the story behind it and what it meant to her, as they decided whether to keep it or give it away.  Because it was important to Carol, it was important to you Patty, and that is true love.

Then there is my Mom:  A mother always, caring for her child, always wanting the best for her.  At all times generous with your children, you gave above and beyond with Carol.  At an age when most parents are only thinking of their own retirement and Florida condos, you made sure the last years of Carol’s life were not a struggle and put her needs above your own.  That is the unselfish love of motherhood – that is the love of God.

Catherine:  Taking care of her in the most intimate way possible, bathing her, looking out for her, alerting me with health concerns.  You guys fought over housekeeping, but you know she loved it.  Your spunkiness gave her a reason to get up every morning.

Her Church.  Carol loved this church and it’s people.  It was a lifeline to her and gave her strength and community.

Many of my memories of Carol have the picture of a cigarette hanging from her mouth.  In the end, this would come back to haunt her and slowly, but surely steal something we take for granted everyday - the ability to breathe.  I have been asked not to preach on the evils of smoking; so I will not say all that I would like to on this subject; but I will say this:  I hear many excuses of why people can’t quit - stress in their life, I have been smoking so long, on and on, and having been a smoker at one time myself, sympathize.  But I must point out that Carol, after over 30 years of smoking and at one of the most stressful times in her life, while facing cancer, chose to quit.  Even though others around her chose to keep smoking, which as any smoker will tell you is one of the hardest roadblocks in quitting, she still managed to rid herself of cigarettes.

Carol’s life had purpose and meaning.  While not always the dream life I am sure she had hoped for, she still kept hoping, kept going in the best way she could.  She left behind many memories and shared much of herself with so many.  Without her in my life, I would not be who I am – and I LIKE who I am, and am a better person for having known her.  I have witnessed abounding grace to a depth I did not know was possible, I have learned that loving someone is not always easy and does not always include the word “nice”.  I have seen the power of God at work over and over in places that seemed hopeless; I have learned patience and compassion far beyond what was possible in my own flesh.

So, in closing, I go back to the beginning of my eulogy and ask, “am I living my life well?”  Have I fulfilled the purpose God put me on this earth to fulfill?  Am I at peace with myself and those around me?  What lives have I touched? Tomorrow is not promised to us and if this was my last day on earth, would I be able to say, “I’m ready to go”.  If I left this earth realm today, would I be pleased with what I have left behind?  Is God pleased with what I left behind?

As I ask these things, I not only think of myself, but I think of her children.  My mantra to your mom in regards to you was always this:  The best thing you can do for your kids is to get healthy and stay healthy.  Not just in body, but in mind and soul.  Be an example to them of a life lived well.  Put behind the past and live today; today be the best mom you can be.  The best thing you can do for your children is to be an example.  The example your mom left you is that she fought; she did not always triumph in the ways we would think a victory should look, but she did fight.  So, cry your tears of grief, but let them cleanse and refresh you - tears without purpose are just waterworks.  The best way to honor your mom is to live well, to live a life that is full of loving and giving.  That will bring a smile to her face.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spring Has Sprung...

Spring has sprung in South Bend, Indiana. Or is it summer?

Its only March, yet the thermometer climbs to the 80s and at night I am running the fan because I am so hot!  Where am I?

The trees are budded for leaves, the magnolias are in bloom, crocus' are up, robins are nesting and the grass is green.  It seems like it was winter one day and spring the next, not the normal segue.

Now mind you, I am not complaining about it.  I live for spring and summer, as the winters in the Midwest absolutely exhaust me.  I have written before about how it seems the older I get the harder it is to get through the cold and snow.  But this winter was so mild it was hardly a blip on my screen.  I may have worn boots a few times and sure I had my winter gloves out, but I think my fall jacket got me through, never really needing to break out the heavy stuff.  We had a couple of storms, but one of them was while we were spending the holidays in San Diego, so we missed it completely.  Thank you Jesus.

Because of the "early" spring, we are a bit unprepared.  Our outdoor furniture remains in the garage, as does the grill.  In the back of our minds is the thought there has just got to be one more snow storm on the way, so we have waited.  I am thinking we should just take the plunge and haul it all out.  It will be able to take a beating or two in case our fears pan out.

Which brings me to my thought for today - being ready.  Ready for what you might say...well, ready for anything.  Not just ready, but willing and able.

As this warm weather hit, one of our first responses was to sit outside, especially if we were out to eat.  We go to our favorite local place, Fiddlers Hearth, and sit on their patio. We went to our regular wine tasting and sat outside with good friends Don and Kathy last week.  We watched the sunset, enjoy the bird songs.  Its lovely.  But we are amazed that no one else is joining us.  Really?  Its March and its almost 80 degrees!  You are content to stay inside?

I am a freak about eating outside anyway.  It "got" me years and years ago in Newport, RI.  I was there with my sister-in-law Billie for my brother Greg's "Officer Training School" graduation.  We had traveled from Indiana with their two young children one spring.  The weather was mild and many of the restaurants had outside seating.  The coolest ones were places where the whole front of the restaurant opened up, bringing the outdoors in.  I was hooked.  I never wanted to eat indoors again, especially if it was by a body of water!

I even have plans for one day having an indoor/outdoor kitchen.  I have seen beautiful pictures of kitchens that open to the outdoors not just for eating, but for cooking as well.  Not just grills, but stoves and ovens too.  Now, thats what I am dreaming of.

So, my love for eating outdoors is clear.  And I don't expect everybody to share that love.  However, in a part of the country where good weather is limited, I do expect people to embrace the gift we are experiencing right now. 

I have really been thinking about this, as it has happened several times since this warm weather hit. (I am working full time right now and not cooking much, so we go out often of late) Its just one of those silly everyday experiences that God uses to get my attention and teach me something.

Whats He saying now?  Be ready.  Things can change when you least expect it and you need to be ready.  Ready for what?  Well, ready to take advantage of whatever opportunity that change is presenting.  The change before you may not last very long, so enjoy it while its here.

See, I think thats one reason people aren't taking advantage of this warm weather.  They think its not going to last (like us not getting our patio set up).  Why get your hopes up for something that is fleeting?  Well, because you may experience something in that short time that will change your life, or someone else's.  Then a fleeting moment becomes an eternity moment.  But you have to be ready and willing.

Not taking advantage of this weather means you are missing some beautiful sunsets, bird dances and early blooms.  Of course, its not just the weather that is changing, but other things in our lives as well.  Are we embracing the changes or do we still have our winter gear on, shielding us from any fluctuation in our circumstances?  Are we staunchly looking at the calendar and saying "its not that time" or are we willing to bend and be open to something out of the ordinary?

My prayer is that God will help me to see those openings- the "worm holes" that will take me to another dimension to experience something unusual.  I am certainly out of my "normal" comfort zone lately with this working thing.  There are some things I love about it and some things I hate. But its gotten me to start paying better attention to a lot of things.  Its taught me that even though I have been "out of the mix" for quite a while, I still "got it" and I can run with the young dogs.  I am not too old to learn, not too impatient to teach and I still have lots of ideas yet to bring to reality.