“How is it goin’, Dad?” I inquired via long-distance telephone.
“Super!” he responded automatically. There was an awkward pause. I didn’t know what to say. Is my father finally losing it? Is he that much in denial? I wondered. But, then he corrected his original, force-of-habit response. “Well, not really, I’m having kind of a tough time.”
Norm Bishop is the ultimate optimist. Now approaching his mid 80s, having weathered 20 years of balancing on a precarious financial tightrope and an equivalent period of major health challenges—from multiple by-passes, to prostate surgery, to more heart surgery, to several rope-a-dope rounds absorbing the body blows of pneumonia—he remains an indomitable survivor. Norm always seems to find a positive angle from which to evaluate any situation. Just a week ago, he and his best pal, Jean—my octogenarian mother, Norm’s wife of 61 years—were on their daily, morning, rain-or-shine trek along the Oregon coastline, when Dad lost his footing and pitched face-first into the frigid waters of a rushing creek. “I was really lucky,” he shared with my wife, Stacey, on the phone, “that there wasn’t a rock where I landed.” The man was beat up, yet up beat. He had surely been frightened, had suffered some pain and cold. Maybe for a moment or more, he had even felt useless, stupid, emasculated, and way over the hill. Yet, by the end of that traumatic day, he had located the silver lining in what had been a thunderheaded experience. I can’t help but admire Dad for that. It’s in his DNA, and he’s practiced that rosy outlook all of his life.
So, when I called Dad the day my brother (his second son), Bart’s heart stopped so unexpectedly, and I asked “How’s it goin’, Dad?” his first knee-jerk response was, “Super!” But, it wasn’t even close to the truth, was it? Those two syllables were masking a pain I can only imagine. After all, I was devastated, writhing in agony, prone to weeping at the drop of a hat. I found no good explanation for this tragic loss. It was a reality that I couldn’t face, yet it kept lurking around every corner. A second later, the man admitted, “Well, not really. I’m having kind of a tough time.” It’s not often that Norm confesses that he’s struggling. But, he certainly had every right to come right out and fess up on that day.
I used to love that beer ad where the old-timer walks into a hardscrabble, New Jersey or Philly bar, to be greeted with the obligatory, “How ya doin’?” The geezer actually thinks the regular patrons are interested, so he naively goes on in detail about his life, kids, yada, yada, yada, while the townies roll their eyes at each other, looking askance. Why is that funny? Because we all know that “How ya doin’?” doesn’t mean “How ya doin’?” We have no idea how to be honest with each other, how to communicate our genuine emotions. We expect short-and-sweet, meaningless, superficial responses to empty questions. “Super!” would surely be over the top. “Not bad” might even be a little exuberant. “Fine” is the most vapid answer of all. But, no one wants to hear, “I’m a freakin’ mess.” That would only oblige a next question, one that digs deeper into the pain, confusion, the sadness.
Here’s the truth: we don’t know how to be sad. There is shame in sadness. And, yet sadness is one, absolutely certain dynamic as we make the human journey. Life is, in fact, sad at times. One would think it would be important for us to look Emmett Kelly in the face and figure out a way to give ourselves permission to frown, to cry, to hurt. When “Super!” doesn’t cut it; when a word meaning quite the opposite is the appropriate and truthful response; when the slog is excruciating with every breath, what do we do?
Grief, disappointment, disillusionment, receiving an out-of-the-blue slap upside the heart; all of these are one form or another of dashed expectations, aren’t they? It’s not supposed to be like this, we say to ourselves. Why me? Why her? Why him? Why us? Why them? We are helpless to readjust our vantage point to make that view look any nicer, any tidier, any more acceptable. No matter how much we long for a better past, we can’t see anything positive in the immediate future either. And, regardless of the empathy we may receive from our closest friends and family, our therapists and counselors, or even from absolute strangers, we still feel guilty dumping our woe on a fellow traveler. Who am I to burden another person by takin’ off my smiley-face mask and revealing this broken-hearted glower lurking underneath? It’s just not done. Everybody has a cross or two to bear. How is mine any heavier than yours? “How ya doin’?” In fact, that’s the last thing anybody really wants to know—unless, of course, the real best answer is “Super!” Is there any other question we ask routinely, and then pray silently to ourselves that we don’t hear a truthful response? We don’t ask a friend, “When are you comin’ to pick me up?” and then hope they’ll lie or throw out some innocuous, ill-considered guestimate.
And, then there’s depression, another insidious sadness that comes to call regardless of, or even in spite of circumstance. You don’t even have to suffer an accident, or death of a loved one, or get a scary diagnosis, or lose a job, or even have a tough day to know this kind of sadness. It just is. So, how do you answer “How ya doin’?” from there? You can’t. Maybe that’s why those of us who suffer this devil sometimes curl up in fetal position, under the bed covers, hiding away until the bastard vacates our bloodstreams. We don’t want to hear the question for which there is no appropriate response. Despair, malaise, melancholy, hopelessness; we have no way of dealing with these very real, yet shameful and shunned emotions. You’re sad? Well, you better have a good reason, pal.
“Nothing happened! I just feel like crap. I can’t get up the gumption to fix a bowl of cereal. I can’t muster the strength to cry.” Nobody wants to hear that. And, even if they did, you know they wouldn’t understand. We are unprepared to share our darkness. From our earliest days, we start learning to fake it. It’s a big part of that thing we call “maturity,” of “being adult”—facing the unpleasantness of life without showing a speck of attitude about it.
“I’ll give you something to cry about!”
“No really, Mom, you don’t have to. I’ve got plenty to keep the tears flowing for decades.” But, we dare not say that, do we? Your heart aches. Fine. Just keep it to yourself. Bump your head; get a big, fat blister on your toe; fracture your pinky; that’s when you can go ahead and cry your eyes out. Get it out of your system. Buck up, and move on. Physical pain is fine; it’s visible, bloody even. Emotional pain? Sorry, that’s a private matter. (Unless it’s joy. Win a Gold Medal or an Oscar, and you can ball your head off.) We prefer not to acknowledge that sad stuff. Keep swallowing hard and put a grin on that kisser. We don’t wanna see no sad sacks ’round here. Go feel sorry for yourself somewhere else. Yer bummin’ me out, man!
Yet, life continues to dish out those bitter pills; and, we’re supposed to choke ’em down without complaint. Let’s say Matt and Polly have a wonderful vocal duo. They’ve been developing their act for years: writing songs, recording, doing showcases, all the while paying studio and back-up musicians, honing their repertoire, sharpening their image, and steadily building their brand and a faithful following. They’ve financed this endeavor by working every job they could find. Matt has tended bar, painted houses, and sang hundreds of demos. Polly has worked retail, shot photos for other artists; she, too, sang harmonies in the studio. For weeks at a time, they’ve survived on only a few hours of sleep. But, those jobs weren’t enough. They’ve maxed out a couple of high-interest credit cards, too, hoping against hope that the reward for their unique talents and dedication will arrive with the turning of the next calendar page. Yet they keep buying new calendars, and they’re still battling for a chance.
Finally, the music industry begins to take notice. The duo gets an offer from an upstart, indie record label. The kids are exuberant, thinking that the door to Wonderland they’ve been banging on so persistently for so long is now is opening. After signing a contract, posing for trade pix, receiving a respectful advance (big enough to pay off a hunk of credit card debt) and spending three months in the recording studio making a debut album, they’re ready to do the holy pilgrimage across the country to introduce themselves to program directors and disc jockeys in support of their first single (a radio tour). The career they’ve dreamed of and worked toward is finally underway.
However, the Dow Jones takes a massive nosedive. The record company’s investors are suddenly in no mood to take on the risk of the music biz. They suddenly pull their money out, and the label is forced to lay off its promotion staff. The duo’s single can’t compete in the marketplace without the muscle of the label. Stations resist adding the song. Then, because the label is not succeeding, its president gets fired. A month later, the label no longer exists. Matt and Polly are buying yet another calendar. Their best songs are on an unreleased CD tied up in corporate bankruptcy. Matt has to go back to tending bar and Polly to working in a gift shop. Do these kids have a right to feel a little deflated over these circumstances? You bet they do. They did everything right, working hard, being patient and perseverant, keeping a positive attitude, investing in themselves. Succeeding as a performer in the music biz requires that there be no evident chips on shoulders. If Matt and Polly expect to give it another go, they’re gonna have to figure out a way to do it with smiles on their pusses. How?
Am I saying that we should all act like a bunch of victims? No way. Should we look at ourselves as helpless leaves blowing on the mean breezes of life, continually moaning and regretting our sorry fates? I don’t think so. I’m just saying that sometimes we’ve got good reason to be sad. There are periods when sadness is the only right emotion, when “getting over it” seems as insurmountable as skipping from Tucson to Denver in a blinding blizzard, wearing a backpack filled with Wayne Dyer and Tony Roberts hardbacks. The question is this: How are we supposed to handle that stuff? Where’s the guide book that tells you how to handle flunking out of college, or getting fired six months short of your pension, or, after working your kiesters off for years, seeing your record company file chapter 11 and close its doors. How do we just go with that flow? Shouldn’t we be allowed to go through our own stages of grief and recovery?
Maybe we should wear colored armbands representing our emotional state, so that when that proverbial question “How ya doin’?” comes ’round we can be a little more honest, without being branded as malcontented whiners. “I’ve passed through sad (brown); did a couple of weeks of bitter (lime green); now I’m dealing with this toxic anger (scarlet).”
There’s a Paul Simon lyric from the phenominal album Graceland to which I often refer. It goes something like this: “I was talkin’ to a friend of mine who said she was goin’ through a bit of a break down. I said, ‘What are you gonna do about it? That’s what I wanna know.’” I received a phone call on the morning of October 19th last. My brother Theo informed me that our brother Bart, three and a half years my junior, had passed away. A vibrant, kinetic, positive, creative, energetic, loving man laid down and never got back up off his couch. It was the last thing I expected to hear. Yet, I had to deal with this new reality. A year and two weeks before that horrible day, I sat on the floor of a veterinary examination room stroking the soft, blond fur of my terminally ill, three-legged dog, Chaka, as her heart succumbed to the poison the doctor had just injected into her one remaining hind flank. These were incredibly sad events, unexplainable, beyond my comprehension. Paul Simon’s question resounded in my head: What am I gonna do about it? That’s what I wanna know.
After Bart died, my friend, Caroline—who had herself, earlier that same year, suffered the loss of two family members—insisted that I put down whatever I was reading and pick up a copy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Thank you, Caroline. On those pages, I discovered some newly familiar, common emotional ground: how grief plays mind tricks on you. I had never experienced authentic grief before. It’s been alien territory. I’ve had to learn a new internal language. Depression, yes. I had dipped deep into that well of sadness. But now, five months since Bart departed this physical plain, I don’t know which color armband I should be wearing. I just know I’m not near over losing my bro. The sadness remains, as does the anger, the helplessness, and the confusion. Grief flashes light on every other dire circumstance, reveals every other internal conflict, and questions everything I thought I knew about myself. I have good days; and, I have bad weeks. What am I gonna do about it? That’s what I wanna know. I can’t just answer “How ya doin’?” with “Super!” I don’t have that in me. I can’t just duck my head under my covers and wait till sundown—as tempting as that “solution” might be. Certainly, I welcome happy hour when it rolls around—some days, earlier than usual. That first sip of vodka and grapefruit juice is glorious in its forgiveness, as it ingeniously twists the Rubik’s Cube of my outlook, re-aligns my brain cells, and makes everything look just a little bit rosier. “Ah! I made it to six of the clock one more time. Thank you, God.”
After decades of re-programming my thoughts to only think positively; after tens of thousands of empowering statements and affirmative prayers; after accepting total responsibility for my own life experience; after realizing my own power, my own beauty, my own uniqueness, my own self worth, and believing in my heart of hearts that I deserve abundance, good health, love, and fulfillment, I have now come to a new impasse: How am I supposed to be sad? Life is indeed joyful, inspiring, and very, very worthwhile. Life also offers challenges. And, sometimes, life is undeniably sad.
“How’s it goin’, Dad?”
“I’ve been better.”
“I guess that means you’ve been worse, too.”
“I guess so.”