COPING SKILLS: TWO WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE WORLD
I almost lost my mother last month - for the fourth time. So, I suppose I should have been getting used to it. But as she's been my best friend, outside of my husband, for 40 or so years, I suppose one never does "get used to it."
My mother keeps surprising me with her strength of character, her fortitude and, frankly, her fighting spirit. Certainly not admire her patience. Because she doesn't have any. Like Britain when the V-2s were pounding London, she gets mad, fights back and refuses to give in. She kick-boxes, does what she has to do - but with a measured common sense that says "no" to radical therapies and outlandish measures that has greatly compromised the quality of life of others and, she reasons, has stripped away that determination that keeps her going.
To date, she has broken her thigh in four places, which required a variety of permanent hardware; had a brain aneurism that affected her speech center, until she corrected it herself; suffered a ruptured appendix and gall bladder, with resulting gangrene; been mugged; and smashed her wrist. And then last month, a major tumor. Through all this, she has not only survived, but thrived. To look at her, no one would ever know what she's been through. She speaks perfectly and animatedly. She walks the dog three times a day. Once, I even saw her running down the street wearing higher heels than I could wear!
She has come home from hospitals with tubes still half in, half out; braved blood clots, for which all existing medications caused severe allergic reactions. She got her life together again after the mugging - to become president of a public relations firm.
She will be 82 at Christmas.
God! I thought. How I contrast by comparison! How does one accomplish things like that?
Well, over the five weeks I spent with her during this past August and September, I think I found some of the answers.
First you get mad. Then you fight back.
Yes, that's right. Although mental health specialists and educators are loath to admit it, there actually appears to be a place for anger in this world. Teachers and school psychiatrists all teach young pupils (as well as their parents) that there is no place for anger, as if our Creator somehow goofed when He endowed humankind with such feelings. They instruct their young charges in "alternative behaviors," also called "coping skills," to manage their difficulties, dilemmas and outright disasters. But appropriately activated, anger just may be the instrument of recovery, defense and longevity.
My mother didn't actually start out saying this. We sort of mutually learned it playing the games Yahtzee and Scrabble. For these were about the only consuming pastimes we could engage in, given my mother's situation. Books and TV were too passive; one's mind tends to wander into negative territory even if the subject matter is exciting. So we played games. We've always been big game-players. Indeed, hardly anyone else will play with us, because we just about beat the socks off everyone who tries it.
In the course of things, we've eventually had to give up Scrabble. We were spending something like six hours just on one game. "Cutthroat Scrabble," we called it.
This time, our game led to a conversation in which we realized we played too much alike, and that that was the problem. We both thought three turns ahead; we blocked each others potential moves so neither player could land on a double or triple square. We saved our high-value letters for higher-scoring slots.
Neither of us wanted to just play; we expected to win.
My mother joked that most of her acquaintances are happy simply to find a move. "If most players have any combination of letters to put down at all, they don't even look that they might be setting me up for an easy triple score," my mother complained.
"Ha!" I chimed in. "I don't even play Monopoly with most people because they don't even try to get a complete set of properties; they're content to just collect $18 rents all night and never chuck the incomplete properties for ones they can put houses or hotels on to win the game!"
"You think that's bad," offered Mother. "You know where Yahtzee requires a four-of-a-kind and a three-of-a-kind? Well, I've played with people who'll settle for rolling 3's instead of 6's! Four times 4 is only 16 and they could be getting 24 instead!"
On and on we talked, comparing notes.
But at length, you know what we decided?
The people who settled for the lesser scores are probably happier and better adjusted folks than us. They accommodate, are always pleasant, never raise their voices, never "get their knickers in a twist," to use the colloquial expression.
But when disaster strikes, they're almost inevitably down and out by the end of Round One. Their accommodating, patient personalities turn into liabilities that put them permanently in wheelchairs, nursing homes, and assisted-living arrangements when, perhaps, it could have been otherwise.
My mother regaled me with story after story of people she had known and lost to what she called "resigned thinking."
When my mother came home with metal screws and plates in her leg and in a wheel chair, she also ordered a bicycle and some weights. She kept them in her bedroom where she would have to look at them. She didn't just wait to go to the physical therapist week after week; she practiced every day. She told me she would scream through the pain: "I don't deserve this, and I'm not going to put up with it! I don't deserve this, and I'm not going to put up with it," constantly for 25 minutes, twice a day, and then she'd start with the weights. She would wheel herself to the closet and get out her best high heels and place them by the door to remind herself what she would be giving up if she didn't do these exercises. Did she want to live like that?
When her speech came out jumbled after the brain aneurism, she decided she was unhappy with the "juvenile" therapies the speech therapist was giving her ("Can you draw a house? Can you say 'house'?"). So she checked herself out of the rehabilitation facility next to the hospital and insisted that I write down every tongue twister I could think of. For weeks, she repeated these over and over into a tape recorder and watched in a mirror until she was able to say them properly and carry on a rousing conversation.
I remembered all this while my mother was doubled over in agony last month, and as I cried myself to sleep, seemingly helpless to relieve her suffering.
I renewed my determination to help her "switch gears." I got swatches of paint and carpet in preparation for overhauling her apartment. I cleaned out all the kitchen cabinets and drawers, replaced the dishwasher, organized shelves in the bathroom and bookcases.
She didn't deserve this, and I wasn't going to put up with it….
I know there are many who would say that my mother's approach - and mine - is high-risk, that it could be damaging rather than helpful. But risk-taking is an integral part of the desire to win - and thrive. Those who have no stomach for it, including leaders on the world stage, we both decided, inevitably wind up being doormats. If one is satisfied merely to meet requirements - either in a game or in foreign policy or in the business of life itself - they are not people who play to win or who intend to keep what they already have.
Predictably, our discussion turned political, as we watched the Party Conventions. And it occurred to us, almost at the same time, that liberal leaders (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton come to mind) of the post-war years, and even a few conservatives, have seemed incapable of making the tough decisions that are in the national interest - either foreign policy or anything else. They do not themselves have any apparent sense of strategy; they leave that to their "handlers" and pollsters.
Yes, the liberal candidates may want to be President, or Senator, or Representative, or Governor - but they have no aim, no burning desire to do a particular thing differently, no approach that is original, courageous or imaginative. So they smear opponents, "invent" damaging documents, name-call, and throw slogans around. But there exists no plan, no overarching goal, no "fire in the belly."
Ironically, on September 13, two days after the third anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, my mother wore her lipstick and new hairdo like a badge of honor to the same doctor's office where she had been told, just eight weeks earlier, that she would probably lose her life. She had already shoved aside the walker and the cane proffered at her bedroom door, and walked proudly down the hall to the elevator and out the front door of the apartment building to the astonishment of valets and doormen who knew she had been seriously ill. They assisted her gingerly into the waiting taxi that would take us to the surgeon who had operated on her.
Imagine the good doctor's surprise when his patient, barely four weeks after major surgery and a near-death-sentence, walked through the office door, shoulders back, head high, and without assistance.
"Well," he asked, eyebrows encroaching on his hairline, "do you have any questions?"
"Yes," replied my mother. "When can I have
© 2004 Beverly Eakman - All Rights
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Beverly Eakman is an Educator, 9 years: 1968-1974, 1979-1981. Specialties: English and Literature.
Science Editor, Technical Writer and Editor-in-Chief of official newspaper, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1974-1979. Technical piece, "David, the Bubble Baby," picked up by popular press and turned into a movie starring John Travolta.
Chief speech writer, National Council for Better Education, 1984-1986; for the late Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Commission on the Bicentennial of the US Constitution, 1986-1987; for the Voice of America Director, 1987-1989; and for U.S. Department of Justice, Gerald R. Regier, 1991-1993.
Author: 3 books on education and data-trafficking
since 1991, including the internationally acclaimed Cloning
of the American Mind: Eradicating Morality Through Education. Executive
Director, National Education Consortium. Website: BeverlyE.com
My mother keeps surprising me with her strength of character, her fortitude and, frankly, her fighting spirit. Certainly not admire her patience. Because she doesn't have any. Like Britain when the V-2s were pounding London, she gets mad, fights back and refuses to give in.