The Courage to Listen

As you can see, I have neglected this blog, though not my writing in general, as other types of writing have consumed my time.  That academic time consumption is a part of this entry – though it may not be visible to the reader – it led to a diverting of attention. That mental and physical focus is in need of alignment so that it might fall closer to the mid line between professional and personal. Today’s post is an attempt to reconnect to things of value.

As celebratory times come upon us, the bitter-sweetness of missing beloveds is most acute. I sat recently in the audience of a speech delivered by my oldest child. As she began, my anxiety was high. It was as if she stood on the verge of a busy road and I was too far away to judge the traffic flow or put my arm out to block her from stepping into its path.  I was forced to trust that her instincts and experience would keep her safe, hopefully even drive her success. Ironically, it was this idea of trust with which she began her talk. From her perspective, I had revealed my trust in her by outwardly supporting her decision to leave a coveted college slot when her inner voice compelled her to do so:

That fall, as I moved into my dorm…, I immediately knew something was
wrong — I wasn’t in the right place. My parents, bless them, trusted that I
would make the right decision, even though I know they were probably
terrified I was ruining my life by giving up a scholarship and countless other
opportunities…. I won’t belabor the point, but I did listen to
my gut, and I did leave, before orientation…had even ended — and
it was the right decision….

I settled in to listen, no longer anxious of her well-being, but marveling at her ability to tap into just what her audience seemed to need from her:

As a child and arguably still as an adult, I am naturally a very introverted,
and even shy, person….If I could…, I would be a forever student….So, naturally, I went straight into graduate school…. I was nervous to begin…, and that natural feeling of uncertainty poked at me— all of those other people are so successful! how can I ever compare! … As I navigated what to do after graduate school, I felt stuck— moorless, even. Who am I if I’m not a student? What do I do now?

As she continued, my pride grew, but so did a creeping melancholy. I was relieved that my husband was taking photos, as I sat mesmerized by the conflicting emotions filling my heart. Pride – for I’d had a hand in producing this human who connected to the world with integrity and passion. Love – for I glimpsed the little girl I remembered embedded in this woman. Respect – for I admired the fearlessness of her self-revelation. Sadness – for I knew that there were others, missing, who would have reveled in this moment with me.

My mother, dead these past five years, saw this potential from the moment of her first grandchild’s birth and I would have given much to have seen her face at this verification of her vision. The void where her joy and pride would have been, crashed into me and the wave threatened to sweep me right out of the happy present. But then the words broke through:

…enjoy where you are right now, in this moment. Be excited about your future, but also enjoy your present. Even if things don’t go the way you envisioned at first…You will be just fine.

And I let my child teach me; I returned to the moment and embraced all of the emotions as right, and worthy, and true. It was, after all, part of her message that the trials of life were where growth began:

…remember to stay curious. Don’t be afraid to not know something…knowledge truly begins at the moment you realize how much you don’t know.

And it made sense – or at least, several hours later, it did. Even five years on, I am still learning how to reconcile the discordant emotions of joy and sadness. Just keep moving forward; Mom wasn’t missing the moment; she was living within it. A part of every delivered word. I heard her voice from her granddaughter’s mouth when she encouraged the audience to “read voraciously” and “express a genuine interest in people.” And most of all in her exhortation on “the importance of a well-crafted…written correspondence,” and to “please be kind to each another.”

Though it is difficult not to turn to Mom and enjoy these glorious moments in the corporeal sense, it is deeply satisfying to know that I can feel her presence if I am just able to acknowledge it.

Thanks, daughter, for the wondrous gifts you continue to bestow. I strive to be courageous and worthy enough to receive them.



The World is a Dimmer Place

My family is close geographically and emotionally. I live in the town I grew up in and am accustomed to speaking with family, particularly my mother, every few days. It’s been 365 days now, since Mom and I spoke. A year ago, she sat, agitated, in her hospital bed waiting for her nicotine patch, a private room, and relief from the breathing difficulties that had worsened over Christmas. The kids and I were trying to take her mind off of her discomfort and chat a little before they returned to school and work the next day, but, she was too distracted to follow the conversation and eventually told us to go; not to waste all of our time together hanging around at the hospital.

So we went to dinner, promising to return shortly – we were gone for less than an hour. During that time Mom had a stroke and/or heart attack, and though she did not die for 9 more days, she never opened her eyes or spoke to us again.

I, who pride myself on communication skill, am haunted that I did not give or receive the vital information my mother needed that last conscious night among us. I conveyed no important parting words beyond that we loved her and would be right back. The only significant communication was Mom’s. She absolved me of the responsibility to stay and attend to her, telling me to go and take care of myself and her (grown) grandchildren. Typical – my mother’s final act was in keeping with her life – thinking of others and acting for them with no expectation for herself.

I aspire to such nobleness, but fall far short. And it is too late to be sorry.

In memory of our final day together and in tribute to her, I include the eulogy I wrote the day after Mom died and delivered at her funeral on January 10, 2014.

Mom - Christmas 2009

Mom – Christmas 2009

Betty Jean Hodges Stoneman

August 10, 1939 – January 6, 2014

“Time to Rise and Shine”

These are the words my sister and I often awoke to in our childhood – Mom calling us to get ready for the day – usually earlier than we liked and with less enthusiasm than she had.

I find a much deeper meaning now; a particularly poignant one on this day after Mom’s passing.


Rise to meet the challenge of the day – a feat Mom accomplished many times over 74 years.

She survived infancy, though her mother succumbed to illness. She grew strong in the loving home of her grandmother though they faced many hardships. She built a close relationship with her only sister though they spent many of their childhood years apart. She worked hard at her job, but never put her family and friends second to it.

She was the bedrock to my sister, Hannah, Nick and me even as ill health pursued her.

I share 2 tales, 50 years apart:

Mom told the story that her father came to visit one day when I was very small. He found Mom sitting with me in the floor amid the Saturday morning clutter of a working mother’s home, playing paper dolls. He chastised her for doing nothing with so much housework waiting. She told him that she was doing something – she was playing dolls with Lisa – and the work would always be there, but Lisa would only play paper dolls for a little while.

Almost two weeks ago, Mom came to our house for Christmas Day dinner. She was so weak she could barely get from the car to the house, but she was festively dressed and loaded with gifts and food. She had looked forward to seeing Hannah and Nick and refused to allow her obvious frailty to impede the family gathering. And Christmas Day was spent as usual.


Shine with the passion of your convictions.

As Hannah wrote in Mom’s obituary – the world is a dimmer place without her. From the depths of Mom’s soul, her light shone with love, honesty, and fidelity. The unconditional love she bestowed on her family and friends is something we will carry with us all our lives, making us better people for having known her. Her truthful nature allowed complete trust in her motives and actions, for they were never false.

Once you belonged to her, she was always on your side – faithful – standing and fighting with you against any challenge.

I have so many anecdotes to illustrate this point that I couldn’t choose just one or two. Instead I will share a poem that captures the depths of Mom’s sacrifices and reflects my small attempt to Rise and Shine to her standard:

“The Giving Tree,” by Shel Silverstien

Once there was a tree….
and she loved a little boy.
And everyday the boy would come
and he would gather her leaves
and make them into crowns
and play king of the forest.
He would climb up her trunk
and swing from her branches
and eat apples.
And they would play hide-and-go-seek.
And when he was tired,
he would sleep in her shade.
And the boy loved the tree….
very much.
And the tree was happy.
But time went by.
And the boy grew older.
And the tree was often alone.
Then one day the boy came to the tree
and the tree said, “Come, Boy, come and
climb up my trunk and swing from my
branches and eat apples and play in my
shade and be happy.”
“I am too big to climb and play” said
the boy.
“I want to buy things and have fun.
I want some money?”
“I’m sorry,” said the tree, “but I
have no money.
I have only leaves and apples.
Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in
the city. Then you will have money and
you will be happy.”
And so the boy climbed up the
tree and gathered her apples
and carried them away.
And the tree was happy.
But the boy stayed away for a long time….
and the tree was sad.
And then one day the boy came back
and the tree shook with joy
and she said, “Come, Boy, climb up my trunk
and swing from my branches and be happy.”
“I am too busy to climb trees,” said the boy.
“I want a house to keep me warm,” he said.
“I want a wife and I want children,
and so I need a house.
Can you give me a house ?”
” I have no house,” said the tree.
“The forest is my house,
but you may cut off
my branches and build a
house. Then you will be happy.”

And so the boy cut off her branches
and carried them away
to build his house.
And the tree was happy.
But the boy stayed away for a long time.
And when he came back,
the tree was so happy
she could hardly speak.
“Come, Boy,” she whispered,
“come and play.”
“I am too old and sad to play,”
said the boy.
“I want a boat that will
take me far away from here.
Can you give me a boat?”
“Cut down my trunk
and make a boat,” said the tree.
“Then you can sail away…
and be happy.”
And so the boy cut down her trunk
and made a boat and sailed away.
And the tree was happy
… but not really.

And after a long time
the boy came back again.
“I am sorry, Boy,”
said the tree,” but I have nothing
left to give you –
My apples are gone.”
“My teeth are too weak
for apples,” said the boy.
“My branches are gone,”
said the tree. ” You
cannot swing on them – ”
“I am too old to swing
on branches,” said the boy.
“My trunk is gone, ” said the tree.
“You cannot climb – ”
“I am too tired to climb” said the boy.
“I am sorry,” sighed the tree.
“I wish that I could give you something….
but I have nothing left.
I am just an old stump.
I am sorry….”
“I don’t need very much now,” said the boy.
“just a quiet place to sit and rest.
I am very tired.”
“Well,” said the tree, straightening
herself up as much as she could,
“well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting
Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.”
And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.