Tag Archives: resilience

A New Pair of Specs

On January 19, 1986 I got a new pair of specs.  Things have never looked the same since.

The almost seventeen years of my life leading up to this day could hardly be described as normal, and yet our family had achieved its own unique brand of normal.  With my dad’s forever compromised health, there were ample and regular doses of worry and angst.  Even so, like any family we laughed, we fought, we played and we laughed some more.  We kind of had it figured out, in our own weird way.  It worked.

Then seemingly out of nowhere, what started out as an annoying cough for my mom was then diagnosed as bronchitis, then pneumonia and finally mesothelioma – a deadly and rapid growing cancer from exposure to asbestos.  Three days from this diagnosis to her departure – that was all we had.  Three days!  In what felt like the blink of an eye, Mom was gone.  Poof.  Just like that.

The thing was, no one – and I mean no one – could wrap their head around this turn of events.  At just 43 years old, Mom had been healthy, vibrant, fierce, strong.  She was the one thing our family could reliably count on.  It was Dad’s health that was tenuous, not hers.  Like a faithful sherpa who was devoid of complaints, Mom did all the heavy lifting for our family.  It was hard to imagine life could be any other way. Now it would have to be.

So it was on that cold January day when I got this new pair of specs.  I didn’t even know I needed them, and I most definitely didn’t want them.  But they were mine forevermore, permanently affixed to my head.  I’ve always said that my life, simplified, has only two relevant parts:  1)  Before Mom died, and 2)  After Mom died.  Her untimely death created a tectonic shift in my life, a shift ensuring that things would never, could never be the same.  “My name is Jen, and when I was sixteen my mom died.”  The words spill out of me sometimes when I’m not even expecting them.  It is one of the most important ways I define myself.

Clinging to me like moss on a sturdy oak, Mom’s death is a life imperfection that has been simultaneously tragic and beautiful.  It took a while – a good, long painstaking whatthefuckthistotallysucks while – but eventually my new pair of specs helped me see things more clearly. What I could see was this:

Life doesn’t have a single guarantee.

Since I can’t control how much time I get in life, I will surely control the quality.

I, and only I, am in charge of my own happiness.

I will always surround myself with people who believe in me and cast all the others gently aside.

There is no such thing as too generous.

Laughter is the most important measure of my personal success.

Forgiveness of those who have wronged me is always necessary.

Forgiveness of myself is harder, but even more important.

It is wise to say no often.

It is wiser to say I love you often.

Years before my mom died, my dad was in the intensive care unit of the University of Iowa hospitals, clinging onto his own fragile life.  Mom spent her days faithfully at his side until his health was restored.  One day, she took a break in the family waiting room and found a piece of paper someone had left behind that said this:  “The clouds that appear darkest in the distance are the ones the wind blows away.”  So moved by the lesson these words offered her in a moment of deep despair, Mom later embroidered them on a tapestry and hung it inside our front door.  Hauntingly prophetic, it has been a motto for my life.

Twenty-eight years have passed, and a whole lot of things have changed.  A few things have not changed, one of which is that pair of specs I got in 1986.  Do I ever resent them?  Sure, I suppose so.  I am human after all.  But what I know for sure is that without them, I’d be less wise, less loving, less me.  I think I’ll keep them.

Billy Joe

In short, he was the coolest cat I ever met, and while most of his family called him “Billy Joe,” I was lucky enough to call him Dad. There are so many things I admire about him, that I am not sure I can put them all to paper. He was funny and patient and tolerant of the most trying of circumstances–far beyond anyone’s comprehension.

Born on October 1, 1941 to Harold and Kathryn Swearingen, Billy Joe was the baby of his family. (One of his all-time favorite jokes: “They named me Bill because I came on the first of the month.”) There is something about being the baby of the family that lends to a special brand of charm, and he had oodles of it. He just had an easy way about him, and was always the life of the party. Need a spot-on impression of one of the locals in our small Iowa town? Bill was your man. Want to feel better about your own circumstances, compliments of some serious self-deprecation? There he was again. (“How tall are you?” someone once asked. “Depends,” said Dad, “if I am on my good leg or my bad leg. I am either 5’10 or 6’0.”) His life was tragic, and charmed, and as far as I can tell, truly one-of-a-kind.

In 1971 just months before his 30th birthday, my dad was diagnosed with kidney failure and was given two weeks to live. But here’s where I developed a sense that there indeed is a plan out there greater than ourselves: Bill’s brother Alan was completing his medical residency at the University of Iowa hospitals who just happened to be some of the pioneers in the field of nephrology. So in a race against the clock, my family packed up and moved from New Mexico to Iowa so that Dad could get what was then state of the art treatment.

From there, and for many years to follow, my dad and our family experienced a whole lot of medical ups and downs. I look back, and I realize that all of my formative years were shrouded with worry of losing this most remarkable man. But here comes lesson number two, compliments of Dad: All the worrying in the world doesn’t change a thing. And, in fact, it just might make things worse. He showed us.

Dad went through a couple transplants that didn’t last long, but he spent most of the rest of his life on dialysis. Twenty-five years, to be exact, which put him in something like the top one thousandth of one percentile of life expectancy of people on dialysis. He had a point to prove.

If his onslaught of medical problems wore on his nerves, he surely never showed it. Every night for many years, we played Nerf basketball in the kitchen while Mom cooked dinner–sometimes to her chagrin and more often to her delight. Every night sometime after dinner, Dad would grab the guitar and sing his silly made-up songs. He thought and planned and dreamed about ways he could improve our little hobby farm for the quarter horses he so passionately raised on it. Maybe it was because he had the keen sense that life is short, but Dad really knew how to live.

When Dad’s body finally gave out on him fourteen years ago, clearly long before his will dared to do so, my sister and I were there with him. I have always felt it was a privilege to share this most amazing moment with him as he danced on the delicate line from one world to the other. And though he had been in a coma-like state for two days prior, he awoke on his last day and was as lively and as funny as I could ever remember him being. And you know what he said? He said the most astounding thing, considering that he was in the last hours of his life. He looked us in the eye and said, “I am not going to lose levity today.” There came lesson number three out of a gazillion that I got from him. I thought it every day he was alive, and I have thought it every day since: I am lucky to have known this man.

Life has all kinds of twists and turns. Nobody is guaranteed anything, and if you think you are then I say you’re a fool. Just ask Billy Joe: Our charge, if we can, is to live. Not just to breathe, but to live. Find your passion, surround yourself with quality people, seize every opportunity to try something new, make a new friend or for God’s sake, laugh.

Happy Father’s Day, my sweet dad. Thanks for shaping me and above all else, for letting me live in your light. Wherever you are, I will meet you again someday, and when I get there I know one thing that I can count on for sure: We won’t lose our levity.