Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Thanksgiving and the "New Normal"

Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart. Live not one's life as though one had a thousand years, but live each day as the last.- Marcus Aurelius 

It was a long weekend.  A particularly long weekend.  Most of it spent at the wake and funeral of my friend Bobby, and the rest of it thinking about a lesson that has, yet again, been reinforced in my mind and in my heart by tragedy.  There are times and places when this lesson is reinforced, and times and places where it fades from my thoughts like a mirage ... but I want to constantly remain aware of it now- despite learning this lesson only during times that I would rather forget- or honestly, times that I wish had never happened at all.  

However, I am a teacher and storyteller at heart- from birth, so I hope to share it with you, in the hope that you can benefit from my experience.

Bobby LaRoche was 44.  He died from esophageal cancer after a yearlong battle.  He fought hard because he had so many reasons to do so. He fought for his devoted, amazing, force of nature wife Karen who was the love of his life and with whom he had built a life and family around over 17 happy years of marriage.  He fought for his two beautiful children, Emma and Michael. He fought for his family and friends who always surrounded him and basked in the joy and happiness that he brought to every gathering, every conversation, every moment of interaction that he participated in. Bobby was not only the life of the party, he was the party all by himself.

As the priest who delivered the eulogy iterated, Bobby was a huge baseball fan.  He played through high school and college, coached his kids and others, and was an avid fan of the Red Sox.  The interesting thing about baseball is that there is no time clock associated with it. They play nine innings whether it takes an hour and 45 minutes or 6 hours to finish... the game ends when it ends. I can say without question that despite Bobby's life ending far too quickly, he, more than anyone I can think of, managed to get all nine innings in over those 44 years and provide so many people with a highlight reel of good memories and the occasional blooper reel as well that we will reminisce about forever. Bobby was a first ballot Hall of Famer at life.

Seeing his young children grieving instantly brought back memories to me of a similarly horrible experience five years ago that first taught me the lesson I need to share today. It was the Friday before our school's Winter break and I was contacted in the morning by the superintendent, who let me know that the father of two of our school's children, a custodian in one of our elementary schools, had suffered a massive heart attack and died that morning. It was my job to contact people and devise the plan to inform the children and provide whatever help they would require going forward.  This dreadful task was complicated by the fact that the children had lost their mother recently and equally suddenly as well. 

Just two days before Christmas, these children were about to find out that they were now orphans.

The emergency card listed an aunt as the next contact, so I called her up and she came in to help break the news to the kids and provide them support and care. As you might imagine, being there and a part of that conversation was easily among the most tragic moments of my professional career. In the hour or so that followed, I used every skill that I had ever developed as an educator, counselor, parent and coach to try my best to ease the shock, fear, grief and tragic moments that ensued. Unfortunately, that was like trying to hold back a tidal wave with a Dixie cup.  For all of my education, all of my training, all of my experience, there was little I could do to offer comfort, peace or help.

There are times and places where no matter what you want to do, no matter how hard you wish or pray, no matter what you would give for things to be different, you simply can not affect the outcomes. You can't go back in time.  You can't make things go back to how they were before.  It will never be the same.  You are going to live a "new normal" from here on out.

After an hour or so, I had to excuse myself from the room just to breathe.  I told everyone that I would be just outside the door in the waiting area of the guidance office.  The chair I sat in was against the window to the conference room and I could hear every plea, every sob, every bit of sorrow and anger and fear and frustration that was choked out of the people in that room whose lives were never going to be the same.

And then... the bell rang.

Last lunch was over.  Last period of the day- of the calendar year... holidays, parties, presents, candy, cupcakes, smiling, laughing, excited kids ran through the halls, kissing, hugging, smiling, happy. I could see it all in front of me through the window.

For them, it was just another day.  A great one.  One of promise. Joy. Happiness.

Behind me, abject sorrow, fear, anxiety, emptiness. The worst day of those lives.  The worst day that will ever happen in those lives.  Lives that were irrevocably changed forever.

Two worlds.  Two realities.  Separated by 10 feet.  With me as the membrane in the middle between both worlds.  A part of me fully rooted and engaged in both simultaneously. I felt like I was in the center of the universe. Each world completely unaware of what was happening, but fully immersed in their own reality- today was either just another day or the worst day of your life... and a few feet decided your fate.

We really don't appreciate a "normal" day, but we should.  And therein lies the lesson...

A normal day where we go to school/work/whatever we do and then return home safe and sound with our families and go about our evening routines in peace should be celebrated and appreciated.  Unfortunately, it's only when the routines are disrupted and circumstances change forever that we fully appreciate a normal day...

On Martin Luther King day in 2009, my daughter Lily was diagnosed with diabetes.  While she slept peacefully in her hospital bed, I stared out the window at the traffic on the I-Way in Providence and thought about how her life would be affected going forward.  How Lily would never be able to live carefree life that she had always known. How this disease would affect her quality of life and future health.  I thought about how I would give anything to trade places with her or let her have just one more day where she wouldn't have to worry about what she ate, or stick needles into herself, or wake up screaming and incoherent because of hypoglycemia. But today was simply our day to discover a new normal for us. Below me, cars drove by, people lived their own lives, went about their business and probably didn't appreciate the "normal" day that they were in the midst of.

Also in 2009, a student at my alma mater, Pilgrim High School, was killed by a school bus at 7:00 AM at an intersection just a few feet from the school. After the initial shock and sadness of hearing of that tragedy, my thoughts went immediately to her parents and I wondered if the last words they had that morning were "I love you" or something that they might regret now. We always expect that we are going to have a normal day until we don't. We let the little things and annoyances get in the way of our appreciation for what we have.  I am certain that Kimberly's parents knew that they would see her at dinner that night, that everyone would come home safe to another "normal" evening.  Until that peace was shattered. 

How do we make sense of tragedies like that?  We can't.  But we can make sense of our everyday lives and what matters to us. So why don't we do that together going forward?

As we approach Thanksgiving, please be mindful of how fortunate we all are. Be grateful for just another "normal" day, because its very likely that one day in the future the world will revolve around your own personal tragedy and you will find that you would give anything just to have one more "normal" day, even though it might be too late.

Typically only tragedy will teach us this lesson. But maybe I can help avoid that with this post.  

Tell someone today how much you appreciate or love them (and do that every other day too). 

Be kind, be helpful, do good things for others. Make a difference.  Be a force for good.

But don't ever let another "normal" day simply pass you by.

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