All Youth Are Promising Youth

Her skinny legs wobble as she teeters on the heels she borrowed from her friend for this occasion. She approaches the podium timidly, but her handshake is stronger than you might imagine. Someday she will speak from a podium like this one, but not yet. Today Cory is barely eighteen, and she shakes a bit as she poses for the mandatory photos and clasps the hands that reach to congratulate her. Cory is trying to make her dream happen. Kaye would like that. Kaye would like her—and this moment is for Kaye.

Twenty years ago, my best friend from high school gave up on this life. For two decades Kaye had tried to bear a life of disappointments coupled with chronic depression, but she could no longer manage it.

In high school we called her Star.  She did shine but more than the aura of her light, she had a gift for seeing the world as it was. I understand that more fully now. She told me to date Paul because he was lighthearted and fun. He was. She told me to never let go of my friendship with Freddi because she was genuine. She is. She treasured our friendship with Jim because she noted, “He is a rare find—a truth-speaker.” He is. She told me to write because I could and should. I did.

Kaye’s passion centered on children—promising youth. A creative and gifted young teacher, she took a stand against “teaching to standardized tests.”  This act of courage brought a halt to her early teaching career.  She never talked of this. She tried to be equally silent about the mental illness, the depression, that plagued her family—and would dog her life.

When her early teaching career ran amok, she moved to southern California where she found love. When she had a miscarriage and her love shattered, she made her way up the coast—and stopped returning my calls. But years later, shortly before her death, she wrote a letter to our friend, Jim. In it she thanked him for our friendships, and she even sent her love to me, admitting she let go of her friendships because she was embarrassed by the depression that had knocked her life sidewise. Just recently Jim sent me a copy of this letter.

While the words ripped me open, they also helped.  In the end Kaye found her voice and admitted her truth. Amid her illness she seemed to be shining a light, as only a star can do, on something important. On unresolved depression.

At our recent high school reunion, Paul, Freddi, Jim, Larry, Tim, Pat, CJ—and many others who loved Kaye, came together because we wanted to write a better ending to Kaye’s story. We decided to host a “promising youth” scholarship.

“Thank you for this scholarship,” Cory wrote in her note to me. “I plan to study social work and addiction counseling.  While I am unable to live with my siblings in our home because both my parents suffer from substance addictions, my grandmother is my hero. She has given me a home and taught me to have a dream.”

“My dream,” she wrote, “is to make a positive difference in the lives of others who need our help.” A promising youth, a genuine “star” –I believe Cory will make a difference.

Promising Youth Scholarship

(My high school pals, Paul and Freddi, at the award ceremony with Cory, in the center.)

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

The voice is alto, and it is a voice that has never fully understood its limits. It belts out the first strains of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to the church audience. Three hundred eyes widen. It is not a singing voice. I know this now as I stand and sing a tribute to my mom. But as a child–I did NOT know this. I sang all the time. It started when I was five. My best friend, who lived three houses down the block, suddenly died. To help me understand, my mother coached me to say the word “leukemia” and showed me how to pray. But I asked if I could sing instead, and Mom said that would be a great way to honor my friend and to express my sadness.
As I waded through this first experience with grief, I went to our basement, and I remember walking in circles around that musty room as I sang endless, self-composed ditties–the kind that can only come from a child. At the end of my long concert, my mom hugged me, and said I had done a beautiful job. Her words of praise ignited my passion to sing. I began singing endless nonsense songs daily, not only in our basement, but each night in the tiled shower where my voice could reverberate. While I didn’t know how to carry a tune, Mom encouraged me to keep singing. I did. Just her calm presence made me pretty certain I was a child virtuoso.

At some point in this first journey through grief, Mom played a record for me, and I discovered a song that resonated deeply in my child’s soul. It was her favorite song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I listened endlessly to Judy Garland giving flight to these words. In the weeks that followed, I experienced the inner joys of karaoke, and my drive to imitate a great voice consumed my waking hours. In no time I was convinced I could do a credible imitation of the inimitable Judy Garland.

Now there was no stopping me. I offered to sing my rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to my first-grade class. Soon I was performing the song solo in all the elementary choir classes. I was lauded by fellow six-year-olds and frequently told I could grow up to be Disney’s next Annette Funicello. Even now I recall that magical sense that something significant was unfolding in me. Of course, it was.

But it was not my talent for singing. It would be several years before I realized that I did not have a singing voice and that eyes often widened when I sang loudly and off-key. But by then, the dream of being a pop song star had faded. By then, I had something far more important than a singing voice—I had a strong human voice. I had been gently nudged forward by my mom. She believed in me and she ushered me down a path that would help me find an authentic and confident personal voice. My own words. Mom never stopped encouraging me to find them and share them. She always cheered me forward–even when I sang too loudly or off-key.

To this day I still make up crazy ditties and sing loudly in a tiled shower. But it is only recently, when my mom left this physical earth, that I realized what a gift it is to have had a woman in your life who believes in you, and one who has helped your voice to take flight. Thank you, Mom.

Chief Inspirational Officer

A two-pound bag of Hershey miniature chocolate bars is stowed safely by my mom’s Lazy Boy where she sits during the day and sleeps at night. She says with conviction that she never eats them. But I can see by the shrinking size of the bag that someone certainly does. As mom’s caretaker, I fret over her how she eats. Should I steal the bag? I worry about it.

An author friend calls herself a CIO. A few months ago, I adopted this job title for me as well:  Chief Inspirational Officer. I suspect it has been my life-long calling–teaching, writing, and caring for others. It works as I navigate mom’s struggles and continue my work with cancer patients, veterans, and writers. Like my writing, this work helps lift me like a kite on a wind-swept beach when I need a boost.

Three weeks ago, Mom was ill, and I placed her in hospice. It was a hard decision. A couple of days afterwards I tossed clothes in a suitcase and headed to Tucson to speak at a Survive Well Conference to cancer survivors. I was stressed and underprepared—and that is not my style. But the “parent of a parent” is first and foremost a caretaker. I make mom’s decisions and struggle with my choices. It is the hardest job I have ever had. I love her like a best friend, and I am losing her. A gracious, kind, and caring woman she remembers little about me.

As I climbed the steep stairs to the stage at the conference, I wondered if I would trip in the tangle of cords on the floor and somersault forward into the audience like a rock concert routine by Queen. But after years of performing daily for my high school students, my brain is wired to make an easy shift into the joy of speaking. I embrace these moments.

And as I looked out over the sea of eyes—six hundred eyes—I was stunned into a moment of silence. These are the eyes of cancer survivors. These are the eyes of courage. And I embraced their shared aura. “Wow!” I began. “Look at you. I feel your courage.” And they did something I did not expect. They applauded wildly. I shared a few stories, but I have forgotten which ones. What I remember vividly is that I had been asked to inspire this crowd, but I parted from these survivors with tears in my eyes. I was uplifted by them.

As the sun set later that day, I returned to Chandler and to my mom. She was snoring gently when I entered her room. Somehow a new full bag of Hershey chocolates had appeared, snuggled up to her Lazy Boy. Mom took a rattled breath and smiled warmly at me as she awoke. “You are going away today,” she said as she looked at me confused. I took her hand. She saw me eyeing her chocolates. “I don’t eat them,” she paused. “I give them away. I promise.” Then she did something I had not seen her do for many years. She winked at me, a mischievous wink. “Please have some chocolate.”

I hugged her, and she smiled again before her eyes fluttered lightly and she slipped back to sleep. As I nibbled a chocolate, I visualized my day. The cancer survivors. My mom, with her wink and her Hershey chocolates. They are true Chief Inspirational Officers. As we wander and sometimes struggle down our paths, perhaps this is a job title we are all trying to hold. I know I am–and perhaps you are, too.