From the time I was a little girl I struggled with perfectionism.
I suppose it started as a result of the attention I got when I did something extraordinarily well. “Wow, that is great! You are really something!” Hearing those accolades gave me a higher sense of self worth.
I remember bringing home one of the few “B” grades I ever got in high school. “What? No straight A’s?” my father said in sarcastic jest; yet to me it was a devastating reminder that I had fallen short of the perfect 4.0 that semester.
Excelling and doing our best becomes perfectionism when the need to achieve becomes compulsive. Over time, I realized doing things perfectly was my dysfunctional coping mechanism for stress, anxiety, and loneliness. Everything became black and white; it was either perfect or not. Because you can’t always be perfect I would become dissatisfied with myself and work harder, do more, over-function like a pro.
My wake up call came when I failed the bar exam the first time I took it, just out of law school. That glaring imperfection, in public for all to see, caused me to feel shame and unworthiness. Because I hadn’t really ever failed before I wasn’t’ sure how to handle it.
As lawyers, failure doesn’t sit well with us. If we lose a trial, or don’t prevail on an appeal, or are unhappy with our performance, we might agonize and rehash the circumstances for days on end. For some of us such failure or imperfection can set us back and cause depression or worse.The anecdote to perfection is that we have to learn to fail, and most importantly to have resiliency, or the ability to bounce back.
Resiliency is a lost art in America. The failure to have healthy bounce back is becoming worse because many of us are raising our children, to get the trophy. In our quest for imparting self esteem we shower our children with indiscriminate praise and tell them that they are special, amazing, extraordinary and well, you know, perfect!
A recent report from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence highlights the fact that today’s teens are unskilled at resiliency. In fact, a 2013 survey of college students shows that more than half suffer from overwhelming anxiety and a third experience intense depression during the school year. Business leaders are concerned this will adversely impact the United States’ ability to compete globally if those students are tomorrow’s leaders. This report and others asks whether we might be emphasizing the wrong things in our kids. At what point do emotional management and non cognitive skills have to be as important as intelligence and being in accelerated academic classes?
Does resiliency seem to be a problem for you or your children? If so, how do you become resilient and teach your children do the same?
Often we are packing shame or disappointment and think that sharing with others is an embarassment or even a burden. Chances are there are people in your circle who would be glad to help you bounce back if given the chance. Staying in your own bubble of negativity and disappointment not only keeps you from having resilience, it can drag down the loved ones who have to live with you in your negative state.
Resilience isn’t easy. But it’s necessary to lead a full and productive life and becomes easier with practice. Since that bar failure over thirty years ago I have gone on to lead a productive and fulfilling life as a lawyer, with many triumphs and other disappointments along the way. I found my life’s passion in serving as a mediator in legal disputes. I wonder what might have happened if I had let that defining moment defeat me.
And remember, nobody’s perfect.
“Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”- James 1:4
I used to be a take-no- prisoners litigator leading families to the arena (court) to shed blood, exploiting every conflict I could to “win” the case. I lived this mindset in my own divorce, spending years in blame and unforgiveness. Both circumstances took a toll on my life and my soul.
Somehow I “woke up.” I chose to forgive the father of my children and myself. I redesigned my law practice and became a peacemaker. I healed my life in mind, body and spirit and wrote a book encouraging other lawyers to do the same.
Now when clients come to my office we set goals for them and for their case. Suffering from betrayal, loss of love and loneliness, clients suggest goals of blame, revenge, hurt and pain. I redirect them, having a frank conversation with them about “the long game.”
The long game recognizes families are entwined for life, raising children post divorce. EVERYTHING THEY DO IN THE DIVORCE SETS A PATH FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES. As their lawyer, I leave a legacy with my intervention. My client is either buoyed for dignity, forgiveness, respect and calmness or left to pick up the rubble of the destruction I leave behind.
Choices in the divorce must be suited for the long game. We discuss future family gatherings with the children and grandchildren such as graduations, weddings, and funerals. We envision the cost of the choice to blame, emphasize petty differences, or disparage their co-parent. Even if we have serious issues (substance abuse, domestic abuse, and other important issues that endanger children) we proceed with transparency, integrity and dignity for all, while firmly and wisely protecting the children. Clients insistent on “going low” are referred to another lawyer. As a result of this choice of practice, I sleep well and see lives transformed in my office every day.
In one case, my sad client whose wife had filed for divorce joined me in discussing the long game.(I represent equal numbers of men and women). He embraced the approach noting that he and the child’s mother were both good people and good parents. They’d both been there for prenatal care, and child’s dental and medical appointments. They’d both transported child to daycare, shared day to day parenting responsibilities and effectively made many joint decisions.
I called the lawyer on the other side to discuss the case.
“What are the problems with my guy having shared care?” I asked him, beginning to negotiate settlement.
“Nothing” he assured me. “My client is a first time anxious mom, wanting primary care. There is nothing wrong with your guy.”
We were optimistic about settlement when we went to mediation.
“They report nothing that would preclude shared parenting other than mom is anxious,” the mediator said in our private caucus, then adding “mom’s lawyer is strongly advocating against settlement.”
I wondered if the lawyer had abandoned seeking compromise and simply decided they would “earn their keep” by supporting mom’s anxiety based position. We were headed for temporary hearing.
In my jurisdiction temporary matters are decided on sworn affidavits. No testimony, no clients, and 10 minutes to plead the case across the desk to a judge with no court reporter. Affidavits are exchanged a moment before walking in to see the judge making the process “trial by ambush.”
My client and I prepared affidavits that supported our request for shared custody with coparenting from two good parents. My client’s parents signed affidavits supporting both parents and describing a future where the mother would continue to be welcome. We buyoed the long game.
“My wife asked me not to read the affidavits she and her lawyer prepared for the hearing until tomorrow and she is moving in with her parents over the weekend, ” my client stated as we met at the courthouse.
“Search your soul and tell me what you have forgotten until now; what’s the worst thing she can say and be brutally honest,” I asked my client as my anxiety spiked. No porn, no drugs, no mistress, no tax fraud, no domestic abuse. My puzzled client came up empty.
Outside the courtroom I handed opposing counsel our affidavits. “No surprises. High integrity on what we’ve said all along. Two good parents, history of calm waters.” My adversary shoved affidavits in my hand while looking down at his feet and shuffling towards the courtroom door.
Wife’s affidavit magnified every petty disagreement since the child’s conception describing my client as a “bully” giving wife emotional distress. Wife’s mother substantiated with an affidavit saying the same. Wife’s father noticeably did not join in.
My client held back tears. “We took the high road and she attacked despite what they have said all along. I feel betrayed again. I want a pound of flesh! What good did it do me to be high integrity?”
I left my law clerk to calm the client while I went in to argue my 10 minutes. The other attorney animatedly described my client to the judge as a bully, oppressive, mean to his wife. I calmly argued the facts; pre-natal care, child’s doctors appointments, daycare pickup, joint decisions. I pointed out wife’s affidavit was “she saids” while our evidence proved differently.
The judge granted wife primary physical care minimizing dad’s contact. “I will never trust her ever again, as long as I live,” my client said as we left the courthouse.
Thanking me for my work, my client said he had believed in the high road and the long game until he was blown up in battle. We agreed I’d transition him to a gladiator colleague equipped with depositions designed to embarrass his wife, highlight her after-discovered boyfriend (although fault is not relevant under the law), and engage in other aggressive tactics of war to win the final hearing. War that cost thousands of dollars of the child’s college savings money.
For a moment I second guessed my strategy. Did I just get out-lawyered? Did my adversary’s choice to lie about the case and hold back the evidence until the end make him the better lawyer? That lawyer now holds a permanent spot on my “untrustworthy” list where he’ll stay long after we both forget the two clients we represented that day.
When that moment passes I ‘m grateful that I provided my client and his family a chance for healing, dignity and respect. I dream of difficult conversations at the mediation that would have allowed for problem solving without venomous affidavits and court intervention. I pray for the family involved and for my young opposing counsel who may not see the toll such situations leave on the world, on a family and on his own soul over time.
And I ask, who “won?”
“Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”-Philo of Alexandria
In my love affair with perfectly foamed lattes, I’ve spent many happy days at Starbucks. When the children were small, my friend Laura and I would meet there every single day. I would have a latte, usually with nonfat milk, except when I went through my soy phase. Laura would have an Americana with room for cream.
The Phoenix area has a million Starbuck’s, so we would call each other (before texting was available) to coordinate which location was convenient for our meeting, based on our schedules. “I’m picking up the triplets at school early for a dental appointment,” she might say.
“I will be at the church, can we meet half way in between?” I’d respond, and for several years we accommodated each other without the slightest amount of stress.
“I need to go first today,” one of us would say once we sat down with our coffees. We poured out stressors and anxiety becoming each other’s amateur therapists. People are in disbelief that we only missed a handful of days over the course of several years, before I moved back to Iowa.
Our daily meetings grounded me during years where I was lonely because of a traveling husband, unsure how to raise kids, and yearning for my lawyer world during a period as stay at home mom. Laura could validate my feelings, tell me the kid’s coughs needed Robitussin and being a lawyer herself, explore the injustices of the OJ Simpson case based on an analysis of the evidence.
I supplied similar support to her as she raised triplets with her busy emergency room physician husband. By the time we finished our coffee and dashed to our respective mom mobiles to get back to our duties we were poised to face life with a fresh approach.
At our favorite Starbucks, Carl was the manager. Because we were regulars, it was like meeting another friend when he was working. When he transferred locations we moved our rendezvous to his new store whenever possible.
When I was divorced from my children’s father, I was in between jobs, having given up my status as VP of a California based mediation firm to try to save a failing marriage. Post-divorce I was left having to regroup to get a job in Scottsdale, and doors were not opening.
One day at coffee, I made a spontaneous inquiry of Carl. “Carl, would you ever hire me?”
Carl was puzzled knowing I was a lawyer, but also knowing Starbucks provided medical health benefits, which I needed. The next thing I knew I was handed a green apron and a post at a new Starbucks Carl was managing in a stylish part of Scottsdale.
The people I worked with had no clue I was a lawyer. I tried to keep that fact underground, partly from embarrassment that I was underemployed, and also to avoid getting asked for legal advice. I was just “Kim,” and I didn’t feel like I was being judged. Secretly I was “Kim, the lawyer who struggles to steam milk.”
My twenty-something coworker Maggie became my guide to the Starbuck’s world. Keeping up with a busy caffeine -seeking crowd, was not easy. Some customers were rude and impatient, some downright hateful, others were pleasant. Those who said hello, asked how I was getting along as the “newbie,” and called me by name were a joy. I was working hard, on my feet, trying to live up to Carl’s rigorous standards for a clean store, going home tired at the end of my shift, particularly on days when it had started at 5 a.m.
If I would gripe to Maggie she never engaged, but instead was always upbeat, expressing gratitude for her job. Maggie would often excuse herself abruptly for a bathroom break. I became curious as to why she would leave her work station so suddenly. Eventually I asked a coworker.
“Maggie has cancer,” he told me. “She is going through chemotherapy and leaves her post to get sick. She has to work to keep the insurance. Poor thing should be home in bed.”
I was shocked. Here I had been a prissy Scottsdale lawyer/mom who had thought I was so noble working at Starbucks. Right beside me was Maggie, struggling to survive. I eventually asked Maggie if there was anything I could do to help her. She seemed disappointed that her secret was out, and basically said “Thanks so much but I am fine. I enjoy working with you.” That was it.
The next morning when it was still dark, as I went in to open the store I saw Maggie getting off the bus. For the first time in my life, I was unable to know what to do to help someone. I decided the best thing I could do to honor her was to watch her humility up close and to learn to do something about my own ego based on her example.
A few mornings later a particularly obnoxious business woman came to the counter enraged, oblivious to the line packed tightly out the door. “You are out of cream!” she squealed. “Perhaps “you people” don’t know what it is like to be a busy executive needing to keep on your schedule! We get delayed by something that you should be taking care of!”
My initial instinct was to lash back saying: “I will have you know I am a lawyer and I doubt YOU are qualified to argue before the Supreme Court!” At the same time, I saw Maggie down the counter from me, smiling and selecting a pastry for a customer.
“I am so sorry ma’am, let me get you that cream right away,” I said instead, grabbing the decanter and filling it up. “I am sorry you were inconvenienced and I hope you have a wonderful day.”
Somehow I was able to channel what I’d learned from Maggie. And strangely, in the turn of a moment, I really did want the woman to have a wonderful day. For all I knew she was in a struggle of her own, unable to handle it with Maggie’s grace.
Eventually I left Starbucks and Arizona, resuming my law and mediation practice in Iowa. Leaving Laura’s friendship was devastating. I visit Arizona often and we always “do coffee” daily while I am there.
I ‘ve gone back to the Starbucks where I worked. It’s been totally remodeled. Carl is gone to stores unknown. Maggie is not there. I wonder if she is even alive.
Now, when I walk into a Starbucks I take a moment to look the barista in the eye, smile, make small talk and even call them by name. I do the same with the clerk at the grocery store and the cashier at the gas station. I know from my work at Starbucks that a little kindness makes all the difference.
And all of our lives, matter.
This post was originally published in 2013. My son Clint, age 23, has started working part time as a barista at Starbucks so it reminded me of this post. Welcome to the barista family son!
“It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace.”
Invested in the grievance stories magnified by their lawyers, family law clients often become repeat customers. Whether through initial actions, modifications or contempt proceedings, family law practice can be steady business for the lawyer, but often leaves festering wounds for the families we represent.
Hard fought family cases can also hurt family lawyers. Our suffering clients call us non stop, email us long diatribes, even show up at our office unannounced and agitated. Fueling the fire by delivering scathing interrogatories or through biting cross-examination can wear on an advocate’s mind, body and spirit.
In response, family lawyers are starting to expand their practices to focus on peacemaking. What makes a lawyer a peacemaker?
1. They practice law with connection and authenticity. Peacemakers don’t think it makes them less of a lawyer because they refuse to heap more hurt on hurting people, especially when children are involved. They genuinely care about the well being of their clients, their colleagues and themselves and believe that peaceful problem solving approaches are healthier for everyone.
2. They use proactive early intervention. Peacemakers recognize that the parties will still have to work together even after the legal intervention, so they set a tone of healing instead of aggression from the outset of a case. Whether through mediation, collaborative law, or simply meeting with the other lawyer to discuss the case, peacemakers agree to customize a strategy that works for both clients. They look for ways to streamline the legal process instead of letting it be driven only by court deadlines.
3. They use an interdisciplinary approach to conflict. Family lawyers are expected to be lawyer, counselor, financial advisor, parenting coach, communication expert, real estate analyzer and retirement guru. Peacemakers recognize the best use of the lawyers’ time is for legal advice, drafting and interfacing with the judge. They involve specialists including therapists, child development experts, financial advisors, realtors, and social workers to assist in developing a comprehensive plan for the family. Adding these experts mean the family has a highly specialized team often providing lower overall cost for comprehensive decision making. Lawyers focus on what they do best, and minimize the stress of trying to solve all the client’s problems themselves.
4. They encourage clients to “do the right thing.” Peacemakers don’t consider it a “win” to have someone pay as little child support as possible, if it means children aren’t financially supported at the other parent’s house. They don’t automatically fight to minimize a healthy and loving parent’s time with their children, at the request of a heartbroken client. These lawyers use words like “healing” and “forgiveness” and may set up infrastructures to improve trust and teamwork between parents. They help clients write a new forward focused story of life transformation that identifies the client as the hero, not the victim of the story.
5. They model emotional intelligence. Active listening, compassion and empathy are key skills used by peacemaking lawyers. “Patience is the greatest attribute of a peacemaker,” says Dick Calkins, a longtime advocate of peacemaking law. These lawyers don’t thrive on depositions with blistering accusatory questions so their clients can see their lawyer hurt their partner. Instead, they work together respectfully and cooperatively, modeling behavior families will need in order to heal. That may include producing documents voluntarily upon request and using calm reasoned discussion instead of threats.
6. They take the long view and encourage clients to do the same. Author of the ABA bestselling book “Lawyers as Peacemakers” J. Kim Wright puts it this way: “The upheaval of divorce can be very emotional and uncomfortable. It is easy to succumb to the emotions of the moment and strike out, do some damage, hurt you because you hurt me. Reacting provides short-term satisfaction and guarantees long-term conflict.
Peacemaking focuses on the long view, aligning with long-term values and goals. What relationship do these parents want to have in five, ten, twenty years? Who goes to the first day of school? Who will celebrate the team championship with your daughter? Will you dance at your son’s wedding or boycott because your ex will be there? The long view isn’t easy, but it is the path that focuses on the well-being of your child, not the emotions of the moment.”
7. They are creative in their approach to conflict. Each case is viewed as a unique set of circumstances requiring a customized approach of creative problem solving. Lawyers are creative people, but in traditional practice they aren’t encouraged to “think outside the box.” Peacemakers unleash creative thinking without feeling intimidated in putting forth a unique idea that isn’t borrowed from the standard stipulation template.
Often, the biggest impediment for peacemaking lawyers is the other lawyer. If opposing counsel makes aggressive moves or promotes themes of “fight to win,” or “let’s let the judge decide,” it frustrates peacemaking opportunities. Being a peacemaker doesn’t mean you sing kum-by-ah and get eaten alive in litigation. It means you see the peacemaking approach as a higher calling because it results in much healthier outcomes and is more satisfying to your clients and your own soul.
A baby lawyer fully trained in peacemaking skills recently told me, “I hope for the day when a client calls asking to destroy the other side in litigation and a lawyer says, “I’m sorry, I don’t engage in that type of law, it’s not healthy for families.”
And then, they call the next person on the list and that lawyer says, “I’m sorry I don’t engage in that type of law it’s not healthy for families.” And then each lawyer down the list says the same thing so that clients understand that peacemaking and healing families is what it means to be a family lawyer.”
I may not see that total shift in the practice of family law during my lifetime. But I truly believe he will.
At Stamatelos & Tollakson, we love the way our law and mediation office is decorated, and one item in particular carries a special meaning. A butterfly net is perched on my fourth floor windowsill. It represents the fact that as compassionate peacemaking attorneys we are story catchers.
Each family has a story, an emotionally laden narrative, unleashed once we’ve invited a client into the sacred, safe space of our inner office. Catching the story is our most important job whether the story is rich with detail or spewing with venom; whether spilling out unfettered once the storyteller opens their lips or coaxed out in slow, staccato pieces through the guidance of our gentle questions.
As we listen, we are figuratively sitting in the dark using our mental butterfly net to sweep in grief, shame, fear, guilt and the details that created them, ultimately dumping out the contents of the net on the conference table for deep examination. Side by side with the client we dissect the narrative, looking for nuggets of understanding and clues for what we might do to move them through divorce using creative problem solving to begin healing their lives and families.
After listening to thousands of stories and navigating the legal system to keep families out of court, here’s what we know about the stories we hear.
1.Divorcing people must choose a compassionate listener. Lawyers are busy people and they are constantly carrying lots of information in their heads. Unless they are intentional and focused, they may not be mindfully present during the story delivery. Compassionate lawyers are easily recognizable. They are the ones that make eye contact, listen with only limited and thoughtful interruption, and empathize with a client’s story. They aren’t the ones that listen sporadically, write down lots of notes and then respond to a story by quoting fees.
2. Failing to get out the entire story short circuits healing, and courtrooms are unhealthy places to tell one’s divorce story. Judges are scrutinizing the stories determining whom and what to believe. Lawyers are listening with an objection in mind, pouncing on pieces of the story that shed a bad light on their client. A judge’s ruling can keep one or more parties stuck in the old story, with more wounding added to an already devastating circumstance.
In mediation or at a collaborative divorce table, alongside their compassionate peacemaking lawyer, clients comfortably share their stories while having empathy, intensive listening and empowerment applied as first aid. This provides our clients relief from their suffering, allowing them to see the possibility of opening to a new post-divorce story.
3. Divorcing parties must let go of pieces of the story that no longer serve them. Divorce client’s stories have common underlying themes: betrayal, struggle, disconnection, abandonment, loss, and grief. Each party is often actively choosing to be the victim or victor in their stories, often identifying the other party as the sole perpetrator. When clients stay “stuck” in their victim story it becomes a tape on automatic replay in their head fueling their heart sickness and sadness. Victim stories and attacking the other spouse can play well in court, where the stories are memorialized in a legal transcript that marks the victim indelibly in perpetuity.
Good lawyers know that clients who stay stuck in their grievance story block pillars of healing like forgiveness and letting go of blame. We are not the heroes of the story, riding in to “fix” our clients’ problems. Instead we are the wise and caring guides who walk alongside them pointing out the path to the future with one hand, our other arm around their shoulders supporting and empowering them when they become weak on the journey. Along the way we are offering them peaceful methods of resolving the divorce and healing their lives.
4. Children of divorce have their stories written by hurting parents. Is it really fair to ask a child to choose one parent over another? As a parent, is “winning” custody of a child making a better story for that child? Most children love and crave time with both parents. Compassionate lawyers unearth the source of fear and worry about a child’s time in the other parent’s care. Through calm and non-accusatory dialogue, expectations can be clarified and communication skills can be strengthened.
5. Clients’ stories are interwoven into other divorce stories. Plot twists happen to our clients when new paramours come on the scene, co-mingling pieces of their own divorce stories. Each adult and each child brings their own wounds or healing from the divorce to the new family dynamic. If brought in early, problem solving lawyers can coach clients before blended family conflict escalates to the point of courtroom intervention. These lawyers can also be resources for therapists, coaches and other professionals to assist families with the complicated transitions.
6. The client is the hero of the story. Peacemaking processes for divorce such as mediation and collaborative law allow the client to write a healthier closing chapter of their marriage. In these processes parties don’t ever see a courtroom, typically spend less money and use specially trained lawyers who are committed to peace for families. Instead of telling the story, the client can live the story, not letting the divorce be the crescendo of their existence. Living intentionally, the client can choose a life of significance and wholeness post divorce, making the most of who they are and what they have, and making a difference in their lives and those of their children, day by day.
Waking up at 4AM without an alarm has become second nature and today is no exception. I move into the kitchen to brew a strong cup of dark coffee, adding just a tad of half and half, and ultimately find my way to the bar table in my small kitchen. There I switch on the “happy light,” a full spectrum light box that wakes me up and wards off the winter blues.
With the light in my eyes I open my bible , finding today’s passage. As I take the first delicious sip of steaming coffee, I think of Tich Nat Hanh’s directive: “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”
Today’s Bible reading is a good one; lots of juicy quotes from Jesus that are controvertial at first blush, and that warrant my popping up the laptop to clarify through online commentaries. I smile as I read them rapidly and zero in on the basic teaching point: “Just love, and then love some more.”
Hurrying to put on my gym clothes, I notice in the mirror my morning “look” is rather frightening. But my 5AM tribe at the gym is used to it by now and they each have their own morning persona as well.
At the gym I greet the “towel guy” Preston. “Good morning sunshine!” I say to him in our usual ritual and he smiles and hands me a towel. We exchange brief updates on our lives as I head into the darkened mirrored room for cycling class. Befriending Preston makes me feel good. I’m connected to someone I wouldn’t otherwise know and I have an accountability partner who admonishes me if I don’t show up on a weekday morning.
Inside the darkened spinning room the usuals take their usual bikes, making the necessary functional adjustments so they can spin to their heart’s content. Our favorite teacher is on deck today and we begin with some raucous music as we all wake up our cycle legs and settle in.
The usuals are all accounted for: front row man who adoringly watches his spinning form in the mirror throughout the class oblivious to the instructions of our leader; the guy who is suited up in bike regalia as though today’s class is really the first leg of the Tour de France; the woman who spins with reckless abandon breathing hard until her face is beet red making me worry she will stroke out; and the three in the back who chat through some of class annoying the rest of us.
Today, at the 7 minutes mark an interloper appears on the scene. A millennial man in long sweat pants with a long sleeve shirt under a bright orange t-shirt endorsing a race of some sort, with an undeicpherable hashtag on the back. He has three towels, obviously expecting to “sweat it out” and he hops on the bike right next to me disrupting my usual cycling vibe.
Millennial man spins his legs quickly and once he is with the groove he starts to sing. To every song. He is a regular karaoke affiicanado seemingly knowing the words to every song of the instructor’s playlist, including songs from my generation, which is a good thirty years earlier than his.Soon he begins to play air drums all over the bike handles, and up in the air shaking his head in beat to the bass. I ‘m annoyed but then I remember “just love and then love some more” so I relax and welcome this disruptor of my continuum.
At once my annoyance turns to amusement. I began to enjoy his performance, delighted in the fact he’s infusing new energy into the spin class, and giving me a chance to just love and then love some more. Just as the endorphins peak, the playlist offers up a spiritual song in perfect tempo “and not a tear is wasted, in time you’ll understand, I’m painting beauty with the ashes, your life is in my hands….”
The millennial stops playing the drums and sings the song softly, with great tenderness. “you’re not alone stop holding on and just be held….”
I’m shocked. I’m amazed. I get the message. I just love and then love some more that this millennial man has come into my cycling class today shining a light into the dark spinning room. And he is my brother.
The song ends and so does the moment, and Pink starts wailing about raising a glass. The instructor shouts something about lactic acid and we spin like we’re expecting the bikes to fly into the sky, the millennial breaking into full blown song and air guitar accompaniment. Class ends, and I offer him a fist bump: “It was great to spin next to you today man!” He fist bumps me back, “I’m going to keep riding till they kick me out of here!” and for all I know he is still spinning.
I change out of my bike shoes and don my sweatshirt and coat as Preston comes up to tell me about the high school basketball game from our mutual alma mater. I soon walk out into the cold dark morning, pausing to look at the sky thinking about the rest of the world just now waking up. Gratitude overwhelms me. I have a faith, a healthy body, a genuine caring for people, and a full day awaiting me with chances to just love and then love some more.
I grew up as the only girl in the family, the oldest, with two younger brothers rounding out the sibling lineup. Dan was born 18 months after me and Jon two years later. We grew up outside of town on an acre of land, and my brothers had built in playmates while I largely sat in my room and read books.
The boys would wrestle and Dan was the instigator. Jon would cry and run to mom and to this day he remains a mama’s boy. Dan was rough and tumble, always getting into mischief, handsome, blue eyed and blonde, an aberration in the otherwise olive skinned family.
In Greek families the oldest boy is the prize. My dad embraced Dan’s birthright and the two were symbiotically connected. Dad was a prominent lawyer and his skills came in handy as Dan got into minor legal scuffles, including a few stints with jail time. Once, my dad told Dan he had arranged through his connections to have Dan do time on a weekend, which happened to be Dan’s birthday.
“I called the bailiff and the jail is overbooked that day; you will go in and get out right away due to overcrowding,” he’d told my brother. Instead, Dan arrived to find “plenty of room at the inn.” “I figured if you served time on your birthday it might have an impact on you, and keep you from getting in trouble again,” Dad had announced when justifying the bait and switch.
Neither Dan nor Dad took care of their health. They were both heavy smokers, both liked to gamble, both ate lots of junk food and sugar and neither had any workout routine or ever set foot in a gym. Dan had been the country club junior golf champion in high school and it landed him a college scholarship to the University of New Orleans where he drank his way down Bourbon Street, ultimately terminating his college path. He dabbled in assorted drugs and alcohol and identified himself once as the “72 step man” having done 6 separate 12 step programs.
As Dan became the focus of our family, I faded into the background diligently studying, being a “good girl,” graduating at the top of my class and ultimately getting a law degree. I married and had three children and moved to Scottsdale, Arizona drifting apart from both of my brothers largely due to our lack of commonalities and the distance, although I always felt a strong affection especially for Dan.
When my children were small my dad came to visit us in Arizona with a cold that he couldn’t seem to shake. A friend who was an ER doc snuck him past the line at a busy Phoenix hospital and did a chest X-ray. I got a call that day telling me my dad was in dire straits physically and it was likely he had a terminal lung disease that had progressed extensively.
Things became a whirlwind. My mother shut down and was unable to cope and as the family rock I did what I do best. I took charge and mobilized, making a room for dad in our home and I partnered with hospice to care for him. My kids gathered around “Papou” and we made him as comfortable as possible.
Dan was devastated and for a long time stayed in Iowa saying he could not face visiting knowing of dad’s impending death. Soon he came out and spent time with Dad, even mustering up enough energy for the two of them to go to the casino with Dad in a wheelchair and full oxygen mask gear. I shuddered to think that a random casino cigarette smoker might blow up Dad and his sidekick with a booze laden flick of an ash but they lived through the ordeal. Dan left one night and went to a Phoenix tattoo parlor where he had the artist draw a heart that was in the midst of breaking and then brand it on his shoulder.
Dad died and we flew him back to Iowa for the funeral. Dan came to the funeral with a limp and a hand that hung abnormally. The scuttle butt was that he had gotten drunk and fallen asleep on his limb and didn’t wake before the circulation was cut off. He had been living in his car and was getting by with odd jobs. A doctor friend of my parents who observed Dan at the funeral came up to my mom and suggested that Dan be tested for Lou Gherig’s disease. My mother was devastated.
I flew back to Arizona after the funeral to get my kids situated and then flew back to Iowa to help figure out Dan’s situation. He’d been diagnosed with MS and the lawyer in me again took charge getting him the social security disability he needed, helping him get Section 8 housing, buying him a decent mattress and organizing other medical and social service benefits. Once he was situated, again, I spent very little time with him focusing instead on raising three children of my own and trying to deal with my emotionally fragile mother.
Ultimately I divorced, and moved back to Iowa where I would occasionally see Dan at Thanksgiving when I would cook for everyone and he would come. His MS worsened and he limped badly, finally using a walker. Autoimmune diseases lead to other autoimmune diseases and he soon had psoriasis all over his face and body, and had developed Type 2 diabetes. His physical condition worsened each time I saw him.
About a month ago I got a phone call. Dan’s physical therapist had noticed a strange lump in his neck. Further testing revealed the worst: Dan had cancer of the tongue that had spread into his lymph nodes. All the autoimmune complications made his case all the more difficult so he decided be treated at the Iowa City hospital, a teaching institution at the University of Iowa two hours away.
It was like déjà vu of my dad.
My mother went into high anxiety that makes her catatonic and histrionic all at once. Dan is single, having divorced years before from his waitress wife, and his adult son lives out of state and has a new baby of his own. I looked at Dan’s face which is the same face of my dad, and saw in his eyes the same fear I’d dealt with fourteen years earlier with a man that was at the time just ten years older than Dan is now. And I did what I always do. I took charge.
For the past few weeks Dan and I have been on the road back and forth to Iowa City. I cancelled clients and mediations, rearranged and juggled calendars and other obligations. I have become his medical overseer attending meetings with each specialist: internal medicine, otolaryngology, radiation, chemotherapy, neurology, and on and on. Meetings involve Dan describing symptoms and answering questions and his lawyer sister hunkering down with doctors to dissect medical terms and protocol. I take copious notes, ask intelligent questions, and then translate for Dan and field phone calls from my hysterical mother asking in anxiety and anguish “Is Dan going to die?!”
The hospital is a finely tuned machine and they identified the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes so they immediately mobilized for two surgeries: one on the lymph nodes and one on the tongue. Before they would treat the tongue cancer however they examined his teeth to be sure there was no risk of infection or other complications. Dan had not been to a dentist in at least 15 years and 7 teeth had to be extracted, gums had to be drilled down and periodontal disease eradicated. Surgery #1 would be complicated oral surgery.
Dan and I traveled to Iowa City the night before the oral surgery where I took him to the most expensive steakhouse in town. We ordered everything on the menu that required abundant chewing as a dental rite of passage; crunchy calamari appetizers, big juicy steaks, crispy salads, lobster tail and I savored a perfectly chilled gin martini. We talked and talked and laughed about our mutual upbringing and life travels. Dan kept saying, “This bill is going to be really expensive Sis are you sure you want to do this?” I felt ashamed that I often dine at fine restaurants and the bill would not be out of the ordinary for me on any given weekend.
Why hadn’t I been closer to Dan all these years? Despite our stark differences in life choices and paths we share the one gift we both got from our father. We are both loving, kind, compassionate people with big hearts. And God specifically chose us to be siblings in his perfect design for our lives.
The next morning I took him for his oral surgery, dutifully wheeling him in the wheelchair as I had done for prior visits during our intensive time there. The nurse took him inside and I sat waiting in the waiting room, returning client phone calls never letting on that their lawyer was handling their case while she sat in deep grief with strains of post traumatic stress, intermittently praying to the God she is connected to so deeply, while her brother began his cancer medical journey.
Some hours later I was called in to find Dan in his wheelchair with blood soaked gauze in his mouth, moaning softly. I am grateful that somehow I am made of “tough stock” and could calmly focus and mobilize. “In one hour take out the gauze, get him a milkshake and give him another pain pill. If you don’t get these pain pills on board it will be hell,” the nurse advised.
I wheeled him to the car, put him inside and buckled him down, silently praying for an angel escort and began the two hour drive to Des Moines with a moaning bleeding brother riding shotgun.
The drive from Iowa City is uneventful with just a few reasonably populated towns along the way. I passed one decent sized city that I knew would be milkshake laden but glanced at my watch and it was only 40 minutes in. Because I am a “rule follower” I kept going, trusting that in 20 more minutes I would hit another town even though at that time I had lost all sense of direction and couldn’t even tell you where I was.
At the 60 minute mark I saw a mile marker with a miniscule sign that said “FOOD” and I pulled off the interstate to come upon a non-descript mini truck stop convenience store. Dan moaned as I told him I was going in for a milkshake and he was so delirious I’ m sure he didn’t hear me. I locked the car door and hurried inside, shaking mildly.
As I walked in, an overweight woman was uncannily walking right towards me with a big smile and her nametag displaying that she was Angie. Angie asked me, “Can I help you?” and immediately I burst into tears sobbing uncontrollably letting out all the stress and anxiety that I ‘d been holding in for weeks. Angie put her arms around me as I blubbered about my brother and spilled a stream of consciousness that was largely based on the theme “why can one person have so many things go wrong in his life when mine is so blessed?” a sort of survivor’s guilt manifesto.
“And I need a chocolate milkshake!”
Angie turned me around and low and behold there was a homemade milkshake machine like I have NEVER seen in a truckstop convenience store. She took me to the machine and began to mix the milkshake telling me that she had cared for an ill relative, that her kids came out perfect even though she was an inadequate mother and her sister’s kids were all deviants even though her sister was perfect.
“You and your brother are each other’s teachers. You don’t have to know what it’s all about while you are on this side. Just don’t miss it.”
I hugged her again tightly and didn’t want to let go. I wanted Angie to take me home and make me milkshakes and tell me all about the meaning of life instead of getting back in the car and driving to Des Moines for what would be the first leg of a lonely and dark road with my brother.
Angie took me to the counter where I paid and she reminded me to get some water for myself. “What is your name and your brother’s name?” she asked.
“I am Kim and he is Dan,” I said and she walked me to a secluded corner of the store passing a wide array of beef jerky sticks, chips and processed foods.
There, tucked away on a shelf, was a brightly decorated mini Christmas tree with many mini decorations. Angie pulled off a decoration that resembled a rectangle pill box and she wrote the name Dan and Kim on a sheet of paper tucking the names inside the pillbox and shutting it tightly. Then she showed me the front of the box. “Prayers” it said, and she put it back on the tree.
“Now go take care of your brother.”
I went to the car, found a delirious Dan, removed the bloody gauze and slopped the milkshake down his throat with a big fat pain pill hidden inside one of the gulps. I tried to quickly organize my space, clean up spilled blood and then I got in the car and drove home to begin the recovery before his next surgery.
The next surgeries are coming up and there will be many back and forths to the hospital for them, and the radiation and chemo after that. I wonder if I could find the truck stop convenience store if I looked for it. I wonder if it even exists, and if it does, if Angie is there. A part of me imagines if I found the place and asked for Angie they would say “there is no Angie that works here.”
And I promise you her name was Angie. It’s short for Angel. God reminded me that He has this handled, and that I am not alone.