Saturday, June 16, 2012

Writing Your Life

I just wanted to get away from her. I quickened my pace in the hallway that snakes through the retirement community where I work.

Just don’t talk to me, I thought. Please, don’t talk to me.

She’d been a drain on our time, her family’s time, on the time of other residents. Sleeping past noon, skipping meals, answering the door without any clothing, wandering the hallways dazed and confused, misplacing her keys and cell phone, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, begging people to drive her to the market to buy more wine, growing agitated without provocation.

“So how long have you worked here?” she asked.

I was tempted to say, “Sorry, rushing off to a meeting.” But I couldn’t. So I answered.

“What did you do before?” she persisted.

“I worked at a funeral home,” I said.

“Really?” she asked.


“Why did you start working here?” she asked.

“It was right after my wife’s cancer had come back,” I said. “It was better to work so close to home. I live a mile away.”

“And how is your wife?”

“She died in 2010.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said, narrowing the gap between us. “You know, we don’t get to write the script of our life.”

Profound words from a woman, who did walk across the country twenty-eight years ago, but is now somewhat demented, her brain battered by years of alcohol abuse.

I inhaled and considered my words carefully before saying them. “You’re right,” I said, “we don’t. But we do get to choose how to respond to life.”

Not that I felt I had or wanted a choice after Verna died. I just put my head down and did what I had to do: cared for the kids and myself. I wasn’t a martyr and I didn’t do it alone (I had and still have a village of people supporting me). But I never saw my life going any other way; I certainly didn’t imagine myself curled into a fetal ball, helpless, agonized, unable to live or parent. I didn’t rise to any challenge or muster up some hidden reserves.

I kept on living.

And for me that included being the best parent possible, showing up for work each day, and finding moments to celebrate, be grateful, grieve.

Several days later I was sitting in the woman’s apartment, after she’d been found again in another hallway, undressed and unable to find her way, after she’d gone through a two-day treatment program for her dependency, and after her doctor said any more alcohol might kill her.

“I just want to let you know that we’re here for you,” I said.

“Thank you so much,” she said, stringy hair spilling across her face, a floppy beach hat atop her head. “I do have problems.”

“Do you remember when we spoke a couple of weeks ago?” I started. “You asked me about working here and I told you how my wife had died? And you said, ‘We don’t get to write the script of our lives.’ And I responded by saying that we do get to choose how to live that life, though?”

She nodded.

“Well, my response was for me and for you,” I said. “I was acknowledging to myself how I’d responded back then, but I was also sending you a message. How you can be in control of your life. And we are here for you.”

Part of me wanted to shake her and rail about wasting and destroying one’s life. How she’d ambled across the country, the entire country, with her only her dog and some serious fortitude. How life was for living, how I’d seized moments big and small over the past two years and chosen life. And I’ve been rewarded by those decisions with abundant blessings: travel with the kids, deeper friendships, falling in love again.

Not that I expected to jolt her into a sudden epiphany, some kind of magical made-for-TV moment where she rises and says, “You are right and I have been saved,” for I am fully aware that the success rate for conquering alcoholism among elders, even with a treatment program, is under 10%.

In the end, though, I chose not to lecture her (I’ll save my alleged wisdom for my teenager). I opted to repeat that we would support her, just let her know that she had her own team—village—caring for her.

Will my words sink in? Will she heed her doctors and her sons? Will she straighten up and fly right? I truly don’t know. We don’t get to completely script our lives. But we do get to choose our reactions to life and living.

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