On My Mother….

By Mark E. Smith

When my mother died – was it 10 years ago? – I was giving a tour of my company. My sister valiantly sat by her bedside for days. I did not.

My sister called me on my cell phone. I knew what the call was about. I’d expected it based on previous updates from her.

“I’m sorry,” I said, surrounded by people. “Are you okay?”

With that, I went on with the tour – and my life.

My relationship with my mother was long strained by the time of her death. She was a profound alcoholic while I grew up, placing my brother, sister, and me in situations that no children should be in. While in my 20s, I made every attempt to both care for her and get her treatment. By my 30s, I was burnt out, resentful, and bitter. I wanted nothing to do with her, and she, still drinking, seemingly, wanted nothing to do with me. My sister moved her to our town, and although my mother lived five minutes from me, I virtually never saw her unless she was at my sister’s by coincidence when I stopped by.

I now realize that it’s impossible to have empathy while caught up in your own pain. I had no empathy for my mother, and I literally had a lifetime of pain regarding her.

What I also understand now but didn’t comprehend then is that people like my mother typically don’t just go down such a bleak path. There’s a causation. I’ll never know the entire causation of her alcoholism, but the clues were there. She often had vocal night terrors, in which she was being violently raped. My sister and I listened to them, not knowing what to do. We asked our mother about it and she shared that they were blocked out memories, but it was likely her grandfather, a despicable man by all accounts, and possibly other men, which was quite plausible given that her mother was a heroine addict, with presumed “Johns” coming and going from the apartment. Even though I knew all of this, I never possessed the empathy to connect these horrific events to her alcoholic behavior. I was simply caught in my own hurt, then anger.

My wife and I recently went to a liquor store to buy a bottle of wine. I waited in our van. A woman came out carrying a semi-transparent bag. She appeared in her 50s, rutty complexion, with a quivering bottom lip, shakiness, and careful steps. In the bag were two, liter bottles of vodka. I recognized the bottles of vodka and the woman’s demeanor as emblematic of my mother. I shared this with my wife and she shared that the woman also had difficulty working the debit card machine. The image of the woman stuck with me.

The following day, my wife and I were at the medical center. We passed a row of those with cancer. As I rolled passed, “Margaret” was called. That was my mother’s name. Out of the corner of my eye, a woman stood up, having a dark complexion, wearing a bob wig. For a moment, in my mind, it was my mother.
I was initially just spooked by the two experiences. However, then my wife and I were at lunch and on the way out, she went to the restroom. As I waited with my own thoughts, my eyes welled up. We made it to our van before I completely fell apart, as they say.

My wife asked what was going on, and I explained that I was finally grieving the loss of my mother – with a lot of personal regret.

I’ve long said that my parents died from alcoholism. Out of hurt and anger, I believed that. However, while my father absolutely died from alcoholism, my mother ultimately did not. She, in fact, had cancer twice, and at age 59, she died of ovarian cancer. It was an eight-month struggle. And, I was not there.

The subject remains complex and different for everyone. Psychologists say that distancing yourself from an addict is vital, that codependency will destroy you. As an unknowing codependent with my mother growing up and in my 20s, I can tell you that it’s true, which is among the reasons I pulled away. Yet, psychologists don’t have it completely right. Love isn’t, nor should be all, or nothing. There’s a gray area that even applies to addicts like my mom, where, above all else, there are times when empathy trumps all. I followed the traditional psychology script and made my role in her life nothing, and in my mother’s final days, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there.

They say that with age comes wisdom. In my case, it has also brought shame, regret, and alas, grieving.

When Nectarines Appear

By Mark E. Smith

The way John drove his power chair still amazes me. It was as if he was merely an occupant as the power chair raced around by itself. Maybe it was the way his body jostled as a result of a lack of muscle strength due to quadriplegia? Or, maybe it was the way his curled hand didn’t appear to fully grasp the joystick. Whatever the case, John, in his power chair, flew down Portland’s sidewalks at 6 MPH with a careless whimsy I’ve never seen elsewhere, where one would think, Man, that power chair is going to kill that guy! And, it did toss him out a time or two – no harm done.

I’ve stopped believing in the finality of death, not in the sense of the departed, but for the living. This has come up for me most recently due to being reminded of John’s life and death, as a bio-pic of his life has made headlines. Another part of it is my own age and disability, having to face my own mortality. It’s all causing me to deeply ponder what death really means for the surviving loved ones? What remains of us when we pass?

The answer I’ve realized is, most of us remains, especially in the lives of those we impacted the most. My mother, father, and stepfather remain in my thoughts and dreams years after their deaths – some fond, some difficult. I’ve been inclined lately toward the fond. My wife and I were grocery shopping and she showed me the most perfect nectarine. I don’t recall seeing one since I was a child, my mother often feeding them to me. For a moment, my mother was there. My father and I didn’t speak much over my life, but we did for a span in my 20s, and he’d say the same words whenever I answered his calls: “Hey, what are ya doing?” I inexplicably find myself saying that to my oldest daughter when I call, and catch myself, for a moment flashing back to my father calling me. Every once in a while, I enter our empty kitchen in the morning and imagine my stepfather happily making coffee as among the reasons that I was onboard with buying our farmhouse is that he would have loved it. And, as for my disability contemporaries who’ve passed, I occasionally pull up YouTube or Facebook, and there they are, the same. John is alive, eight years after his passing, singing, playing the harmonica.

When we were children, we were most likely taught the finality of death. When someone died, we were told that they were gone forever, never coming back. Sometimes we were told that bluntly; other times, more softly, that they went to Heaven, watching over us. Yet, as one who’s experienced loss, I now know that what we were taught was wrong. There’s little finality to death for the living. Those passed remain with us, alive in so many ways. This realization, based on my experience, has brought me tremendous comfort, both toward those I’ve had pass and toward those who will one day experience my passing.

If you’ve had others pass in your life, I’m sure that you can relate to this paradox: They’re physically not present, but remain in our lives in so many ways, appearing often, as simply as via a nectarine.

This isn’t to say that grief, loss, and sadness – all debilitating at times – don’t exist. Of course they do. The loss of anyone close in our lives is devastating. Yet, again, so much still exists, not just via memories and remembrances, but in the seemingly tangible – a nectarine. In this way, the physicality of body is gone, but the person always remains with us.

My wife and I saw the trailer for the John Callahan bio-pic. There’s a clip of Joaquin Phoenix, who plays John, driving down the sidewalk in a power chair. My wife noted that every movement appeared exactly as john. And, I thought, It is John.

When Nectarines Appear

By Mark E. Smith

The way John drove his power chair still amazes me. It was as if he was merely an occupant as the power chair raced around by itself. Maybe it was the way his body jostled as a result of a lack of muscle strength due to quadriplegia? Or, maybe it was the way his curled hand didn’t appear to fully grasp the joystick. Whatever the case, John, in his power chair, flew down Portland’s sidewalks at 6 MPH with a careless whimsy I’ve never seen elsewhere, where one would think, Man, that power chair is going to kill that guy! And, it did toss him out a time or two – no harm done.

I’ve stopped believing in the finality of death, not in the sense of the departed, but for the living. This has come up for me most recently due to being reminded of John’s life and death, as a bio-pic of his life has made headlines. Another part of it is my own age and disability, having to face my own mortality. It’s all causing me to deeply ponder what death really means for the surviving loved ones? What remains of us when we pass?

The answer I’ve realized is, most of us remains, especially in the lives of those we impacted the most. My mother, father, and stepfather remain in my thoughts and dreams years after their deaths – some fond, some difficult. I’ve been inclined lately toward the fond. My wife and I were grocery shopping and she showed me the most perfect nectarine. I don’t recall seeing one since I was a child, my mother often feeding them to me. For a moment, my mother was there. My father and I didn’t speak much over my life, but we did for a span in my 20s, and he’d say the same words whenever I answered his calls: “Hey, what are ya doing?” I inexplicably find myself saying that to my oldest daughter when I call, and catch myself, for a moment flashing back to my father calling me. Every once in a while, I enter our empty kitchen in the morning and imagine my stepfather happily making coffee as among the reasons that I was onboard with buying our farmhouse is that he would have loved it. And, as for my disability contemporaries who’ve passed, I occasionally pull up YouTube or Facebook, and there they are, the same. John is alive, eight years after his passing, singing, playing the harmonica.

When we were children, we were most likely taught the finality of death. When someone died, we were told that they were gone forever, never coming back. Sometimes we were told that bluntly; other times, more softly, that they went to Heaven, watching over us. Yet, as one who’s experienced loss, I now know that what we were taught was wrong. There’s little finality to death for the living. Those passed remain with us, alive in so many ways. This realization, based on my experience, has brought me tremendous comfort, both toward those I’ve had pass and toward those who will one day experience my passing.

If you’ve had others pass in your life, I’m sure that you can relate to this paradox: They’re physically not present, but remain in our lives in so many ways, appearing often, as simply as via a nectarine.

This isn’t to say that grief, loss, and sadness – all debilitating at times – don’t exist. Of course they do. The loss of anyone close in our lives is devastating. Yet, again, so much still exists, not just via memories and remembrances, but in the seemingly tangible – a nectarine. In this way, the physicality of body is gone, but the person always remains with us.

My wife and I saw the trailer for the John Callahan bio-pic. There’s a clip of Joaquin Phoenix, who plays John, driving down the sidewalk in a power chair. My wife noted that every movement appeared exactly as john. And, I thought, It is John.

Bullies, Critics, and Haters

By Mark E. Smith

I’m very fortunate to publish both this written blog and a YouTube video Vlog every week. The content has never overlapped until now, so I saw it fitting this week to post a video as both my blog and Vlog – on a poignant topic that, unfortunately, many of us can relate to….

The Kids Already Have it Right

By Mark E. Smith

I recently presented a disability awareness program in front of 50 or so children. They were young, between the ages of five and 10. It was a Boys and Girls Club summer camp, and in between all of the fun activities that kids typically do at summer camp, the director sought to enlighten them with lessons in diversity. In my case, the diversity that is a disability.

As adults, we can presume the dynamic. Able-bodied children unsure what to make of someone like me: my power wheelchair, muscle spasms, slurred speech, all emblematic of a term they’ve never heard, cerebral palsy. We could also speculate that the children may be initially put off, unsure, maybe even fearful upon meeting me. After all, formal psychology teaches that we naturally fear the unknown, those who are different from us. In fact, I once read a fascinating study that asserted that the reason why strangers may speak to an able-bodied companion instead of directly to one with a disability – a situation my wife and I sometimes experience – is because most gravitate instinctively to the known, avoiding the unknown. So, it would be understandable for the children interacting with me for the first time to have all of these very real emotions.

Yet, this presentation went exactly as the many I’ve given over almost three decades. That is, the children were totally comfortable and accepting of me, of my differences, from the first moment. I mean, surely there must have been a few apprehensive kids, as within any group. However, in whole, I’ve seen children respond to the unknowns of my diversity in a way different from some adults: they immediately embrace it, unencumbered by preconceived notions, seeing people as… well… people.

During my presentations, I give the kids the opportunity to ask me anything. Virtually everyone raises a hand. As I call upon children, one-by-one, the questions are so genuine, it’s a life lesson for all of us. See, while I receive the occasional practical question – how do I sleep or shower? – the majority are ones of commonality seen by the children. What’s my favorite color? What’s my favorite flavor of cupcake? Do I like dinosaurs? They’re not dwelling on differences, but focusing on similarities.

It’s long made me think, where did we, as adults, turn the corner away from such genuine acceptance of others who are seemingly different? When and why did many of us lose such an innate trait as seeing only the commonalities in others, not differences? I’m guilty of it. I, too, note differences when I see them in others, and while I strive to be accepting and open-minded, I can fall into that trap of preconceived notions projected unjustly onto others. Yet, when I think back to my childhood, I didn’t have them then, and I remember being perplexed at times as to why some adults had them toward me as a child with a disability?

According to a Harvard study, while our brain is hardwired to recognize differences, seeing differences in others aren’t heavily engrained in us until around age 10. At that point, we become highly impressionable by societal views and this is how our “prejudices” form. The good news is that we are also capable of receiving positive impressions, as well as unlearn negative ones. It’s ultimately up to us whether we retain the open heart of a child.

For me, I’ve come to understand that my disability awareness talks to children aren’t about them at all – they already see people correctly, where diversity isn’t yet a word that they need to know. Rather, the real lesson is for some of us adults in the room: there’s truly no diversity among us, just our common humanity.

Nights Like the Minetta Tavern

By Mark E. Smith

When I was a child, my stepfather could do no wrong in my eyes. I idolized him, not just as a father figure, but as who a man should be.

Yet, as I overlooked then but realized as I grew older, he was deeply flawed. He was an alcoholic and his relationship with my mother was as mutually as unhealthy as it gets – constant drinking, domestic violence, suicide threats and attempts, drunk driving, and on and on.

However, much as when I was a child, I now, in mid-life, deeply value who he was in the best ways, what he gave me, and most of all, what he taught me.

I recently had dinner at the Minetta Tavern in Greenwich Village. It opened in the 1930s and has since been where men like Paul have gone for decades to celebrate life. The mahogany bar, white tablecloths, and red upholstered booths are timeless. It’s easy to imagine its famous past patrons hanging out there – Earnest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, and e. e. cummings, to name a few – drinking, smoking, and eating, boisterous.

As I sat with my family and friends at a table in the middle of the Tavern, I drifted off from our own decadent meal and storytelling to thinking of Paul. I gazed at the signed, black-and-white pictures of old-time prizefighters on the walls, and was reminded of growing up watching boxing with Paul. Then, there was the Hemingway connection, who, in many ways, Paul embodied – bearded, smoking pipes and unfiltered cigarettes, playing dice at bars, drinking straight whiskey by the glass full, while discussing larger-than-life adventures.

Paul raised me in that spirit, creating larger-than-life memories. He took me to a bullfight in Mexico, offshore fishing in California, game hunting in Nevada. Then there were our trips to Hawaii and Spain. It was all spectacular and, in looking back, always hinged on the cusp of disaster, often fueled by alcohol – that’s how men like Hemingway and Paul lived. And, I, as a boy with severe cerebral palsy, was along for the wild ride.

I was infatuated with it all – not just in the adventurous life, but in Paul embracing me fully as his son, profoundly affecting me after having been all but abandoned by my biological father.

But, there still was that dark side. When you grow up with a Hemingway or a Paul as a father, you witness that which no child should witness: the insanity of a drunk. As I grew into my 20s and 30s, this juxtaposition became increasingly evident. Is a great man who’s deeply flawed truly great? I struggled with this question into early adulthood.

Eventually, Paul lost virtually everything, and he moved into my house, sleeping on our couch. He came home drunk night after night, and I was torn between him, as the father I’d always loved, and the health of my young family being negatively impacted by his behavior. I saw the amazing man I’d grown up with also be that man with my toddler daughter – that is, an amazing grandfather. But, the drinking was then beyond unacceptable to me.

The dilemma was seemingly solved when I moved across the country and we agreed to let Paul remain in our old house for at least a year, till I sold it, my brother watching over him to a degree. That distance gave me time and space to understand Paul’s complexities and the complexities of my emotions.

Paul later visited us annually, and although he still drank and his potential was forever faded, he never stopped loving me or gushing with pride in who I’d become, right till his death. And, my love for him likewise never wavered. There’s no better gift a father can give his son than acceptance, and that remains life-inspiring for me.

I returned to the conversation at our table, looking at my wife and youngest daughter – both of whom radiated the energy of the room – and I realized that what Paul taught me was that we don’t need to be perfect to make a profound difference in the lives of those we love. We just need to love, and that can be enough.

I finished my single glass of wine, admitting that I can’t hold my liquor like Paul, but in other ways, I’m every bit the man he raised me to be: I, with my family, making memories at the Minetta Tavern.

Allowing Time for the Seasons of Life

Mark E. Smith

We all know the merits of time management in our daily lives. But, what about in our emotional lives? How skilled are we at managing that time?

If you’re like me, you’ve been impatient at points in your life, where you’ve wanted what you’ve wished, now! Yet, life rarely unfolds at the speed we wish. After all, most of us have an idealized version for our lives in our mind, but it never comes together fast enough, does it? At best, it can seem like all takes forever to come to fruition, and at worst, it seems like nothing will ever happen for us.

What I’ve learned is to give ourselves the time it takes for life to reveal its paths. I’ve been there at different points, wanting career, love, happiness, health, and on and on – to happen immediately. I never wanted to wait for it; I wanted it now!

However, I’ve realized that life has its way of delivering the right opportunity at the right time. It’s not to be forced. This isn’t to say that we should just sit and wait. We must pursue what we wish through action. Nothing worthwhile ever simply appears. However, it’s important not to put a time frame on many of our hopes and dreams, as it will merely frustrate us. Farmers don’t merely harvest. Rather, they plant seeds, tend their crops, and trust in Mother Nature’s delivery.

Life has its own timing, and if we strive toward what we want, with faith that life will deliver it when we’re truly ready, that’s a far easier road than dwelling in the doubt or frustration that’s fueled by impatience.

To every thing, there is a season, and a time to every purpose….

At other points in life, we may even feel lost, especially during or after a major life change, wondering, When will life feel normal again? It’s vital that we allow ourselves the time needed to find our way again. Feeling this way is normal and time does heal most. But, we must recognize that time is needed to learn, grow, or heal.

In these ways, when it comes to emotional time management, the only managing we should do is allow ourselves time – no matter how much time that takes.

Stopping the Spiral

By Mark E. Smith

It’s that murky area, the one where a bad day turns into a bad week, maybe a bad month, and we can’t find our way out. These are the scary, dangerous times for many.

I recently had one of those weeks, all emotionally spiraling out of control. A series of deaths around me triggered my own anxiety around mortality – fears of leaving my wife and daughters behind upon my passing – created by a not-so-long-ago health crisis. The anxiety and fear piled on and I felt a confusion, a disassociation, a fear that my life, too, was destined to end sooner than later.

As the week went on, I found myself feeling more and more isolated, even though my everyday life didn’t change. I was surrounded by people – my work, my family, my community – but still felt alone. My wife recognized my behavior, wondering if I was “back there” again? It’s something she’s seen come and go, especially since my health crisis.

I remember sitting alone at our kitchen table one eve, irrationally thinking that all around me was temporary, that this might be the last time that I looked out the windows at the early-summer, green-carpeted hills that surround our home. Just as this lush season will fade, might life, itself?

I grabbed my cell phone and sent a text to my lifelong best friend, asking if he could talk? I knew he could, as whenever either of us reach out, the other understands the importance of answering. And, so for an hour, we talked about what I was feeling, and when I hung up the phone, the spiral was neutralized.

If we are thinking, feeling, introspective individuals, we’re going to experience difficult times in life. At those moments, it’s crucial that we’re self-aware enough to reach out to someone for support, clarity, validation of feelings. We need to be self-aware enough to say, I need help stopping this emotional merry-go-round I’m stuck on.

For some of us, a partner, family member, or friend can offer the grounding perspective we need. For others, where the issues are more clinically based, professional help is needed. In either case, our reaching out is key to our survival.

Now, I know that reaching out is hard and scary. It’s difficult to share that we’re struggling, if not impossible for some. At the very least, by reaching out, we’re exposing our deepest vulnerabilities and extending trust. It can seem harrowing.

However, no one can help us if they’re unaware that we’re struggling. So often we wait for others to come to us out of concern. But, if we’re not showing signs, they can’t be expected to. This can be compounded by the fact that many who are struggling master the art of hiding it — again, showing vulnerabilities is extremely difficult for many. Therefore, it’s vital that we, ourselves, reach out, that we push past our apprehension and fear in our own best interests.

I’ve learned that in my toughest times, reaching out has never failed me. When I’ve reached out, I’ve found the most profound human experience: an embrace.

We all struggle at some point in life, the causes of which are unique to each of us. When we find ourselves there, let us not be ashamed or question ourselves or, worst of all, isolate and hide our struggles. Rather, let us serve ourselves by reaching out to those around us – and experience the power of common human experience. We never need to be alone, nor are we.

Arguing Against Arguing

By Mark E. Smith

Have you ever argued with your spouse or partner, maybe someone not so close, maybe even a stranger in public? Did you ever stop to truly consider what the arguments became about?

I have done all of the above, and while there’s no argument I’m proud of – they all left me feeling ashamed of my own behavior – I deeply value what I’ve learned from such taxing experiences.

See, while arguments always start out with a causation, even if it’s unwarranted or irrational, they quickly spiral to the singular intention of both people trying to simply prove that they are right and the other is wrong. You’re likely thinking, Mark, that’s the very definition of an argument – duh!

Actually, no. The definition of an argument is persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong. What we tend to do, however, is devolve that intention away from the original topic and it becomes I’m right, you’re wrong, period, by both people and the original topic is lost. Put simply, arguments typically shift from that to you.

A lot of us can relate to this by thinking back to an argument where we genuinely forgot what started the argument – but we were furious at the other person, no less. We may chuckle about it later in realizing the absurdity, but it’s hard to stop the slippery slope when we’re on it – in an argument, that is.

The key is to recognize the nature of it all – and strive to avoid the pitfalls. The fact is, if we follow the course of a typical argument, both people are simply wrong in the end. No one wins; everyone loses. A solution becomes impossible, destruction assured.

This isn’t saying that there’s no place for disagreement or that relationships and interactions with others are always harmonious. Of course disagreements arise in our lives. However, let us address them in constructive ways rather than engaging in the destructive. Let us solve problems rather than escalating them. Let us not fall into the trap of arguing, but into the humility of discussing.

If we know this universal truth – that there’s an intrinsic nature of arguments devolving to a damaging degree, and avoiding it – we’re not just closer to actually solving the true issue at hand, but, more importantly, preserving the dignity of all. Maybe we all should argue against arguing.

From the Maternal to the Eternal

By Mark E. Smith

It’s a simple truth: When it comes to empathy, compassion, devotion, and unconditional love, we men have a lot to learn from the women in our lives.

I love my male counterparts, but the women in my life have taught me more as a man than… well… any man has ever taught me. In fact, women like my wife, daughters, and sister have made me the man who I am. And, I know that holds true for many of my gender.

We can talk about the most remarkable aspects of humanity – empathy, compassion, devotion, and unconditional love – but to truly know them, we must witness them, experience them. Of course men can possess these heartfelt traits. However, I’ve never seen them more exemplified than through a mother to her children, a daughter toward her parents. It’s so natural, so intrinsic, effortless, selfless. I watch my wife comfort our youngest daughter in the toughest childhood moments. I watch her listen without judgment to our oldest daughter as she explores young adulthood. And, I watch as my wife gives me her all in too many ways to ever list. She embodies an emotional intelligence that’s awe-inspiring.

Why do men seem to be less expressive – dare I say, less intuitive? – in this area? Is it cultural or social norms? Is it the way the genders are hardwired?

I hate to break it to my fellow men, but neuroscience has the answers. Empathy, for example, functions very differently between women and men. Empathy occurs in a part of the brain called the insula. When we sense another’s emotions, the insula mimics those emotions and allows us to relate to them as if our own. That’s empathy.

What’s fascinating is that neuroscience proves that while women stay in a state of empathy, men typically quickly leave it and the brain shifts to problem solving. Problem solving is a great trait, but not very nurturing or present in the moment. This is where we see the remarkable capacities that women possess.

Despite the science, we, as men, do have the ability to learn and grow, and the women in my life continue teaching me that such vital emotional intelligence doesn’t have to be gender-specific, but that they can be human-specific.

On Mother’s Day, when I take to heart the women in my life, I realize that their love isn’t just maternal, but eternal.