Remembering My Brother 5 Years Later

This has become an annual ritual for me; something I have felt I owed my brother, but in reality, I probably owe myself. While it becomes more difficult to see the new lessons as time passes, they are still there. Simply put, I am not the woman I was 5 years ago. I don’t really remember who she was. I am better for having had Ralph in my life, and in someways, it was his loss that made me grow in the ways I am most proud. His belief in me was unwavering and it took losing him for me to take the chances on myself that I so desperately needed to take.

At this point, when making the decision of what to write this year, I knew that I wanted to recycle something I had written as a Facebook note about a month after Ralph died. It honors my brother in the purest form and is a lesson is what one man’s words can mean years later…..

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July 25, 2009

The following is a letter my mother received about 3 weeks after my brother’s death. I’m sharing it because in the years since my father’s death (when I was 11) I developed a huge aversion to funerals and viewings. As the years went by, I got to the point, where I could no longer even attend them due to anxiety attacks. On a few occasions, I wrote one of these “letters” to families because even though I couldn’t handle going to the funeral, I wanted the family to know what that person meant to me (even if I didn’t know the family). I think everyone hopes that when they leave this earth, they will have left a mark somehow, someway.

In the days following my brother’s death we were overwhelmed by phone calls, cards, flowers, online condolences and visitors. We comforted grown men as they cried for their friend and that made us cry harder. As the days passed, the funeral came and went and for everyone else, life went back to normal. But for us, it’s not over, its really just beginning. There are moments of intense grief that hit like a huge wave in the midst of trying to go on with your life. And while it felt ok to break down at any given moment a few weeks ago, there is a “unspoken social etiquette” feeling that we need to keep it together now that a little time has passed.

I digress….anyway, so when this letter arrived just as the quiet had settled in, it really reaffirmed the message we were so afraid had been lost in the formality of a funeral. The message that my brother was special and that he had touched people he didn’t even think he had.

July 17th, 2009

Dear Joan:

Ralph obviously meant a lot to different people in many different ways.

Ralph and I were friends during high school, but about twenty years ago we again crossed paths and happened to be working at the same place. It was a difficult time for me, recently divorced and in serious need of lifestyle changes. During one of our many conversations, I told Ralph that I was going to turn my life around. I made him that promise.

I last saw Ralph about ten years ago. He told me that he was proud of me for my success. He told me that I was the one person that followed through on what he had heard so many say. He told me that if I could come back from the depths that I had sunk to, then it was possible for just about anyone, and that I was truly an inspiration to him and a lot of other people.

Throughout all the years of my effort and struggle, no one else had ever bothered to recognize what I considered at the time to be my greatest accomplishment; turning my own life around. I’ve replayed his words over and over in the ensuing years. Ralph said I inspired him, but in the end, it was he who inspired me.

I never got to thank Ralph for that. So I’m thanking you instead.

May God keep you all close and comfort you. You still have each other and we’ll forever have Ralph in our hearts.

Kindest Regards

PS The enclosed check is to help with Ralph’s burial or other expenses. Please use it at your discretion. If it isn’t needed, please donate it to the charity of your choice in Ralph’s name.

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I omitted his name for privacy reasons but left the part in about the money because an amazing thing has happened. Quite a few people have sent money. Those of you who did know my brother knew him as the guy who always carried alot of cash. I used to get so mad when I was bartending and my brother would roll in with a few hundred dollars crumbled up in a variety of pockets for all to see. I often demanded he (who was 12 years older) hand over the cash and I would decide who he could or couldn’t buy drinks for. Anytime anyone had an issue with a car, my brother handled it, even lending his own car to others while theirs were in the shop. This was a source of contention for alot of us in the family who felt Ralph was being used on numerous occasions. And here we are, when its all said and done and people we don’t even know are paying him back. Or I guess you could call it paying it forward.

So next time someone you know passes away, remember a time they impacted your life and write it down. This will sustain us longer than this man even realizes.

5 years later, this still sustains me.

Shining a Spotlight on Logan as She Graduates

Dear Logan,

First, I must tell you that I only reserve my “spotlight” series for a select few in my life that I find worthy of a public shout out (plus none of this would easily fit into a greeting card). But, if anyone deserves this public gushing right now, it is you. Not to mention, it’s always nice to hear this stuff from people other than your parents.

I find it hard to believe that I first met you as an infant, nearly 17 years ago, which means technically, I’ve known you longer than you’ve known me. I am dumbfounded by the fact that this week, you will be handed a diploma and sent off into the real world to find out who you really are.

What I want to say to you is this…unlike most people your age, you are fortunate enough to have laid a solid foundation in the search we all go through to find ourselves. I have watched you from a distance and up close develop strong values (with the occasional slip-up…yes, I know about those too), beliefs and convictions that elude many of us until well into adulthood. Yes, you will continue to question, change and discover who it is you choose to be, but, please understand, you are so ahead of the game in these departments. Take that little tidbit of information as you go out into the world.

Hold on to your friendships, your family and your faith when you walk out that door and know that everyone is rooting for you and the success you are destined to receive. You deserve all that is good in this world. You haven’t settled for less than that yet. Don’t settle for anything less in the future. Know your worth. It will guide you to great things. It already has.

And to your parents…..I can’t say enough. It has truly been a pleasure to watch them raise such incredible kids. Melissa, you have kept me grounded in my own parenting moments, reassuring me that a little “mom crazy” does not equal permanent psychological damage to the childhood psyche. In fact, it helps build beautiful, inspiring kids.

So Logan, I will continue to watch, cheer and hope for your continued success. Don’t unfriend me on Facebook or Instagram when you run off to college. We know where you are and I’m always up for a road trip to accompany your mother on a fact finding mission if things go awry and we need to do an intervention.

Since I’m a sappy sucker for quotes, I’ll leave you with this one:

Don’t live down to expectations. Go out there and do something remarkable. ~Wendy Wasserstein

I have all the faith in the world that remarkable things will come your way. They already have.

Happy Graduation Logan!!!!

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Confessions of an Anti-Helicopter Parent

As you can guess by the title, I am not a helicopter parent. I do not hover. Even though society says I should.

I was born into a large Irish-Italian family, the 5th of 6 kids. My parents were born at the tail end of the Greatest Generation, during the Depression and instilled a strong work ethic. It was not an easy life. My siblings span through the Baby Boom into Generation X (I’m an X-er). The socio-cultural impact of when each of us were born, combined with the influence of our own parent’s authoritarian style of childrearing heavily influenced how each of us parent today.

According to today’s social standards, I’m expected to be authoritative in the way I parent my 11 year old son. I’m supposed to run my house as a democracy since the research tells me this is the best way to protect my son from the pitfalls of life; drug and alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety, as well as low self-esteem. My son should feel special because he is Max. He should avoid being held responsible for his own actions because, let’s face it, the world is a scary place. I should shield him from disappointment and heartache. I should agree with him when he tells me that his teacher is mean, his friends are bullies and that life is unfair. I should edit his homework, have a home cooked meal on the table every night and insert myself into all aspects of his life. And I should feel guilty when I fail to do these things. Because, if I fail to follow the rules, I could ruin him for the rest of his life. (I’m here to tell you, that outside of the fact that my son is special because he is Max, I pretty much fail at all of these things).

I am a 43 year old single mother who struggles with this guilt every day.  A few weeks ago, early one morning, while sitting alone, a thought popped in my head. “You are a terrible mother”, it screamed at me. It was such a profound moment because it came out of nowhere. Nothing had happened. My ever smiling, ever laughing, straight A, introspective, thoughtful, happy go lucky son was the same child he had always been. And yet, in that moment, I was a failure.

Because I am trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I quickly went into damage control mode and made a mental list as to why I am not a terrible mother.

  1. Max is one of the happiest people I have ever met.
  2. Max is one of the most sensitive, introspective, thoughtful people I know.
  3. Max is one of the most well adjusted kids I have ever met despite his father and I splitting up 6 years ago, and enduring having to watch me lose both my brother and mother in a 1 ½ year span. Not to mention, he experienced those losses also.
  4. Max excels both socially and academically. His teachers love him and his friends want to be around him.
  5. Max confides in me. He still believes I’m the safe place to fall.
  6. Max puts up with my shit.

So, why given all of this evidence to the contrary, did a voice deep inside of me tell me I am a terrible mother? Outside of the internal psychological processes that go on individually inside all of us, we cannot deny we live in a world that judges every little thing we do when it comes to our children. And that world didn’t exist when we were being raised. The general social attitude towards parenting prior to 1980 was one that placed a certain level of responsibility on the children themselves to make good decisions, be independent, learn that life isn’t fair and that if you want to succeed, you will need to work hard for everything you get. Your parents didn’t show up unannounced at the school to demand to talk to the teacher if you got a bad grade. They asked you what you did to deserve that grade. They didn’t get mad at the coach when you didn’t make the team. They told you there were better kids that tried out. And they loved you anyway. They didn’t call your friend’s parents when you had a fight. They told you to go back out there and work it out. Someone, anyone, tell me…..what is wrong with that? 

It’s hard not to be a helicopter parent in a world that tells you that you are failing to protect your child. I see it as quite the opposite. I have learned that the only way to get what you want is through hard work and perseverance. Of course, I have looked to others for support, but at the end of the day, every decision was my own.  It was a hard lesson. It still is a hard lesson. But I believe that my anti-hovering position will create a more self-reliant, appreciative human being. It already has. And for that I am thankful.