Recently, I had a birthday, but I didn’t have a lot of time to dwell on being a year older because my calendar was so full of “special” birthday events. Besides attaining another year of age, I’m sure I gained five pounds during the celebrations! What was important to me during what became my birthday month, were the friends and family members who wanted to share it with me. Each lunch, dinner, cupcake with a candle, was delightful, but three things put it all in perspective for me: receiving the Mildred Bell Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Girl Scouts of North Central Alabama, an engagement party for my youngest daughter, and the unexpected death of a friend the day after he was part of a small, but joyful, birthday dinner party for me.
Three days before my birthday, I spoke the following words before almost four hundred people as I accepted the Mildred Bell Johnson award:
When Mildred Bell Johnson founded the first Girl Scout troop for African – American girls in Alabama and then worked diligently as a civil right activist, educator, Girl Scout district director, and assistant moderator of the United Church of Christ, she never dreamed that there would be an award named for her. She was doing what she believed was right for her community and for young women.
Today, I am humbled receiving the award named for Mildred Bell Johnson not only because of its namesake, but because of my admiration for the women who have received this award before me. They are a class of women whom I deeply respect for their integrity and their willingness to often forsake recognition while bringing others together to make a difference – or as Girl Scouts say – to leave a place better than we found it.
As a brownie, Girl Scout, and leader, I was taught and taught others to believe that we have a responsibility to be involved in any way we can contribute. I also learned that none of us do it alone – no matter how hard we work.
To digress for a moment, when my son, Stephen, was just beginning to learn how to print, he did something wrong and apologized by leaving a note on my pillow that he signed your little angle as he couldn’t spell angel.
I am honored and grateful today to accept this award, but it really is a reflection of the accomplishments and efforts for our community and its members by most of you in this room.
I thank the Girl Scouts of North-Central Alabama for singling me out today; I thank my friends who listen and help me connect the dots whenever I get a hairbrained idea, and I thank my family – especially my husband, Joel, who for thirty years has supported me in anything I try to do and our four wonderful children, three of whom are here today. They, and all of you, are the angles that combine to make me whole. Thank you again.
At that moment, I was a little worried that receiving a lifetime achievement award at this age was premature, but I was excited to be joining a class of women I deeply respect. It was a perfect day.
A few days after my birthday, five couples got together for a “special” birthday dinner. We laughed as we shared good food, friendship, and an evening where work and pressures were forgotten as we enjoyed each other’s company. It was a weekday work night, but we ignored that fact and stayed longer than any of us meant to. As we compared notes the next day, everyone who had been there agreed, it was a time good memories were made.
We flew to Houston two days after the dinner to attend a shower for my daughter and her future husband given by friends of his parents. When we landed in Houston and I turned on my phone, I saw I had voicemails, texts, and e-mails asking me to immediately call two people. We all know that when messages say urgent, but don’t say why, it isn’t good. It wasn’t. One of our dear friends who had been at the birthday dinner had had a stroke and died. He hadn’t been ill. He wasn’t old. My husband and I stood in the airport shocked remembering humorous exchanges with him during the birthday dinner, plans he had made to go to a basketball game next season with my husband, and realizing that in a matter of hours the love of his life was now a widow. We walked to the car waiting for us in disbelief. As my husband made small talk with the father of my daughter’s fiancé, I called our friend’s wife and other friends and shared a moment of shock, sorrow, and “what can we do to help” with them. Then, my husband and I had to put on our game faces to enjoy the weekend with our daughter.
I have blogged before about my reaction to my daughter being in love (My Daughter is in Love – 9/23/12) and once again, I felt excitement and joy seeing how happy she is. Her happiness brought me flashbacks of when I fell in love and got engaged. As the weekend progressed, I couldn’t help but think about our friends who also had a perfect love that now had ended as I watched this young couple just beginning their lives together. Aloud, I wished them joy and happiness, but in my heart I prayed for them. It was a prayer that comes from knowing how important the angles are that make us whole and how fragile keeping them together is.
When I turned 50, it was like a switch flipped and caused my knees to ache, my cholesterol to go sky high, and my upper arms to get a flabby chicken look. My kids gave me a bored look of sympathy, but my friends got it. No matter that we say 50 is the new 30, and that we are more dynamic, community involved, and athletically inclined than our mothers at this age, we realize we have become them right down to the last detail of kvetching over our aches and pains. We also understand, even as we avoid the subject, that the mortality issues we thought belonged to our mothers’ generation are now ours.
Like most of my friends, when I heard about somebody diagnosed with cancer or a debilitating disease, I was sorry, but relieved that it wasn’t me or someone I was close to. I might send a card, donation, or food for the family, but I really didn’t know and didn’t want to know what to do or say. Those were the kind of things and exchanges of my parents and their friends, not my crowd.
When my friend Susan’s husband was diagnosed with lung cancer in July and was dead by September, I thought it s an anomaly. Jack was older than we were. People our age weren’t getting sick and dying. After his death, for the first year, her friends, me included, tried to be available for dinners, movies, or taking a walk, but when she settled into a routine focused on attending church and playing tennis, we let our efforts fall off.
Then, my best friend, Caryn, was diagnosed with a recurrence of the breast cancer she thought she had beaten 12 years earlier. I wanted to hug her; tell her she would be all right, and reassure her that she would be part of many lifecycle events still to come in her children’s lives, but I was so lame about it. The best I could do was provide her with detailed research on her disease stage and available treatments, try to make a bargain with God that it would go away, and cry on my husband’s shoulder.
In the three years since then, I’ve tried to be a sounding board, a cheerleader, and too often a critical voice of reason when I see her reach a point of extreme pain and exhaustion because she wants to do everything she always has, and more, rather than let the cancer get the best of her. During this time period, it has seemed that bad things keep happening to good people our age: throat cancer diagnosed in a woman who never smoked, a brain hemorrhage in a community volunteer whose only symptom was a bad headache, death from metastasized cancer of the 58-year-old mother of one of my 20-year-old daughter’s friends, and finding out my criminal law professor, who was just a few years older than the students who comprised one of his first classes, is terminal and has left teaching to spend his remaining time with his family. Yesterday, we learned the husband of the couple we laughed with over dinner last Saturday night has a mass. Surgery is Wednesday. Oh, I almost forgot, two years ago, on the same day, two friends my age lost their respective battles against pancreatic cancer and HIV.
Not only do I feel helpless and inept to help these people through the difficult journey they face, but as I’ve discussed with friends, I’m scared. They are too. None of us want to admit that the “D” word is creeping into our lives. We are afraid of becoming ill or just learning who might be next. It isn’t paranoia, depression, or obsession about death, but dealing with the reality that the joy of life has an unpredictable ending. We stress making the most of our golden years, but then get bogged down in everyday minutia. At work, we notice we no longer are on the fast track; our kids are. Laughing, we wonder how long our houses will seem cleaner since we threw away so much clutter when we downsized. Bottom line — we keep busy moving forward knowing there is nothing we can do to avoid our eventual fate.
Like my friends, I can intellectually accept the concept of death, but I want to run away from it. There are times when I see someone who is ill, or worse, will be the person left behind, and I want to hug them, but being touchy-feely doesn’t come naturally. Sometimes I just want to ask “how are you doing?” or I get the urge to call up to chatter, but I’ve never been good at small talk, especially now. Besides, I really hate the telephone. In fact, I hate the telephone almost as much as I despise the fear that has colored our futures since we turned 50.
Subconsciously, I believe that if I don’t talk about death, avoid hugging, and ignore the phone, everything will stay as it is. The reality is that despite silence, life changes each year. So, unless I resolve to give those hugs or pick up the phone to listen or crack jokes, I will miss the very things that will shape and define the remainder of my life.
—-Debra H. Goldstein is the author of several short mystery stories including “Legal Magic” and “Malicious Mischief.” Her debut mystery novel, Maze in Blue, was published by Chalet Publishers in 2011. “Maybe I Should Hug You” won a 2009 Alabama Writers Conclave Nonfiction Award. A revised version was published online as “More Hugs, Less Fear” by MORE Magazine in April 2010. “Maybe I Should Hug You” is being posted as today’s blog at the request of a special friend and because, when it comes to DHG’s Blog, “It’s Not Always a Mystery.”