Good things often happen when you're looking the other way.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Hurting people hurt other people

It has been said that when you pray for someone, you cannot resent them at the same time. When your intentions for someone are pure, then what rises out of prayer is a deep sense of compassion and empathy for the person you are praying for. 

It is while in prayer that you contemplate more fully the person. You begin to view them as fellow travelers on the same life journey you are on. Because of this, you become kindred spirits because you share common ground.

When you achieve this level of understanding, you also begin to feel compassion and empathy not only for the person but for yourself. A realization comes to you that everyone on Planet Earth is journeying through life, just as you are. Everyone alive is making mistakes, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and doing things that hurt others. It's simply human nature.

Developing compassion and empathy for someone who has hurt you does not come easy. It takes a great deal of maturity to rise above what has happened that has driven a wedge between you. But it can be done if you understand something basic: Hurting people hurt other people.

That said, whoever has hurt you -- a son or daughter -- is also hurting. His or her hurts most likely have come out of unmet needs or expectations. Somewhere along the line, they have suffered and may still be suffering, just as you are.

It's natural and human to feel compassion for those who hurt, so it stands to reason that compassion can develop and be extended to those who have hurt you. 

Imagine for a moment a child who was raised in a home in which there was no predictability. On Monday everyone would seem to be happy, but by the end of the week no one would be speaking for one reason or another. From all outward appearances, the child in this family seems to be okay, but appearances can be deceiving. The child may have deep hurts over the way a parent or both parents have behaved. He or she may have been asked to take sides, or they may have been encouraged to reject a parent. Both are detrimental to children.

These hurts can follow children into adulthood and when they begin to sort out in their heads what took place, anger can arise and estrangement often takes place.

Parents who are wise will let go with love until their estranged child is ready to reconnect. But in the meantime, parents can pray for their children and ask God to protect them from further harm. It is in the act of praying that compassion for them will rise to the surface. Compassion, when it arises from prayer, does make a difference.

Studies have been done on people who are suffering various illnesses. Researchers have split people into two groups -- those who are prayed for and those who are not. Guess which ones overcame their illnesses? If you say "the ones who were prayed for," you're right.

Compassion and prayer go a long way. It has been said that all of life runs on some kind of invisible electric current. If this is true, and I believe it is, then the positive, healing thoughts we send along this continuum are bound to reach the children we loved in the past, continue to love now and will continue to love in the future.

It is written in the book of James that "the prayers of a righteous man produce good results," (summarized).

Tonight I offer a prayer for estranged children everywhere:

May your burdens be light, as a wisp of cotton is light; but may the love that surrounds you be heavy, as a woolen cloak is heavy. May you have protection from Almighty God from anything that may bring harm, and may your heart soften toward those who have hurt you. May you then find it in your heart to forgive and begin anew.

And a prayer for estranged parents everywhere:

May you search your heart and acknowledge your imperfections. May you hold your lost children in the light so it will reflect in your heart. May God bring you comfort and healing and soften your heart toward those who have hurt you. May you then open your heart to receive your child, to forgive and move on and begin anew.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The heartbreak of sexual abuse

In today's edition of The Boston Globe a story was published about a sexual abuse bill that's been put on the Massachusetts governor's desk for signature. The bill concerns the statute of limitations for those who have been sexually abused. Instead of 21 being the cut-off age for filing a claim against a perpetrator, the age will be 53. The bill, the writer said, will bring potential justice to victims who have not claimed sexual abuse before. There is also potential for the floodgates to open. People who have been abused in childhood this way will likely file lawsuits against their parents, though they will not be able to sue institutions or organizations that oversaw their care at the time of abuse. A day care center or some kind of youth club comes to mind. If the measure is signed, I know two grown daughters who could file suit. 

In 1999, when my grief was fresh over the loss of my daughter I made the acquaintance of a woman whose daughter had been sexually abused by her father. Around the same time I renewed the acquaintance of another woman whose daughter had also suffered in the same way. The two women told me very different stories about their daughters' experiences but both ended with a lengthy estrangement.

The first woman came to a support group I had formed 15 years ago called PEACE (Parents of Estranged Adult Children Exchange). The meetings were held in a conference room at my place of work and drew about 35 people each week. One woman came to grieve the loss of one daughter through estrangement and the loss of her other daughter through death. The daughter who lived approached her mother in adulthood and told her that her father had sexually abused her for about eight years, from about age three to age 11. "How could you not have known?" the daughter demanded of her mother. "Mothers always know." 

The woman was shocked for two reasons: (a) That her daughter had been the subject of this type of abuse and (b) that her daughter thought her mother so scatterbrained that she would not notice if something was amiss. Mothers don't always know, nor do wives.

The heartbreak of her story is that not only did she lose this daughter to estrangement, but her older daughter -- who did not claim any type of abuse -- was sick with a chronic disease, and it ended up killing her not long after the younger daughter made her claim and exit from the family.

The woman and I talked privately about this, and she insisted she had no idea what was going on in her own household. I believe her because wives and mothers are often the last to know about a lot of things (like not knowing about infidelity). We do our best, but we cannot police everything that goes on in our homes. The woman thought that if this behavior had been going on, it must have happened while she was grocery shopping or working her part-time job. She carries a load of guilt for not being astute enough to know what her husband was up to. Since then, I've researched the topic and have learned that abusers develop clever ways to keep others, including mothers, from knowing what is happening. They threaten. They lie. They plead with the children to not tell mommy because daddy will end up in jail.

The second woman to tell me a similar story was actually the mother of a little girl who was my daughter's playmate in elementary school. She was a frequent visitor to our home, and I never suspected a thing. She was a good and sweet little girl who never once exhibited any behaviors that would suggest trouble at home. She was extremely good at hiding her pain, too. Eventually, she disclosed the truth to her mother and made her exit. She now lives out of state and is not in touch with either of her parents. She, too, insists that her mother should have known. She has never married because men turn her off. The same is true for the other young woman who suffered abuse.

My question to both of these daughters is this: How would your mother know if you didn't tell her? From what your mothers say, you seemed perfectly normal while growing up. You did not act out in a sexual manner the way most sexually abused children do. You both seemed to have good relationships with your fathers. There may have been clues that were missed but would never have attributed to sexual abuse of a child. 

Women have a tendency to think the best of the people in their families, and most women would not be able to stay with a partner who was abusing their child. A few women might have an inkling something is off due to strange bedroom behavior but most women shrug it off -- possibly as a defense mechanism. The knowledge that their children have been betrayed in such a way would be horrifying to ponder, let alone accept.

I hope both of these young women are in therapy so they can try to heal the past. Sexual abuse, I have read, is difficult to get over. Various behaviors can result in adulthood, from hoarding to carrying on the sexual abuse in their own families. One woman wrote a book on the subject -- Laura Davis ("I Thought We'd Never Speak Again"). Laura told her mother about being abused as a child, and her mother dismissed it, accusing Laura of having a "false memory." Laura swears the sexual abuse did happen and because her mother was so convinced Laura was lying, Laura gave her mother the heave-ho. Eventually, the two reconciled with an agreement to "agree to disagree."

It'll be interesting to see what happens when the new bill is signed into law. We could be reading quite a few news stories about adult children filing lawsuits against their parents or other caretakers.

And what will be gained? The only thing I can think of is that justice has been served and knowing that the abuser will not be able to hurt anyone ever again. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A beautiful gift from God

In general, people tend to think of gifts from God in terms of new babies, new jobs with high paying salaries or homes on the waterfront. While these probably are gifts straight from heaven, I wonder how many people give thought to the little gifts we receive every day.

This Father's Day morning my day was pretty much mapped out the moment I opened my eyes and stepped out of bed. The plan was to wish Tony a happy Father's Day and give him a kiss, enjoy a cup of coffee while reading the headlines, put away the laundry, toss out our old bed pillows and put cases on the ones I bought at Marshalls yesterday, shower and dress, go to church, come home, sit in the sun, write a blog entry and go to a violin recital at 2 p.m. Dinner at my stepdaughter's house to honor her father would follow. It's how I have to plan out my days -- very organized and packed to get everything in -- because during the week I'm consumed by my job.

I considered skipping breakfast so I would not be late for church, but decided against it since skipping breakfast is to skip the most important meal of the day, according to doctors and nutritionists. So I poured myself a small bowl of granola, oats and raisins with a little milk on top and ate.

A few minutes later I brushed my teeth and off to church I went. No sooner did I put my key in the ignition then turn over the engine than I heard familiar strains coming from a classical music station I listen to. As I continued to listen, I looked at the digital readout above the radio controls and saw the word "Meditation." Sure enough, it was my very favorite composition for violin "Meditation" from "Thais," written by Jules Massenet in the 1800s. His genre was opera and one was titled "Thais," and "Meditation" was featured in his work.

Seconds later it dawned on me that this was a gift from God's heart to mine. It didn't take long for me to figure out why. First, today is Father's Day, and my father has not been alive since 1982 so other than to reflect on his life and hope that his soul lies safely in the arms of God, I have not honored him in any particular way. Second, my father played violin.

A poor boy who lived on the back shore of Nova Scotia, my father was born to play and he got hold of a violin when he was about ten years old. A friend on the road where he lived had one, and my father had a jackknife. A trade was made, and from that point on my father struggled to learn on his own. And one day he mastered those strings.

It occurred to me as I listened to "Meditation" from "Thais" that had I skipped breakfast I never would have heard this heart-wrenching piece because I would have been in church. Truly, the rise and fall of the notes, the building crescendo, the dramatic finish still cause shivers to run up and down my arms whenever I hear it. The work is so beautiful that tears build in the corners of my eyes.

It occurred to me, also, that this particular Father's Day is all about violins because 45 minutes from now I will be seated inside a church in my town where students of Dr. Caroline Lieber will perform for their recital. I will be there not only to enjoy the music but to take photographs for the newspaper where I work.

I feel God's closeness and, by extension, my father's. I may be overly sentimental and romanticizing things, but who cares? The point is that though my father is no longer with us, his music remains. Whether there is a deeper message, one from God, is irrelevant. It's what I feel inside that counts.

Today, many fathers are joyous to know that their children value them enough to honor them in meaningful ways. But just as many fathers are in misery because the children they love are not in touch.

What I would like to say to these fathers is this: You may have made mistakes, some even that seem beyond forgiveness. But if you've tried to reach out to make amends and have been rejected, take heart. Not all is lost because in reaching out you touched God's heart. He knows us, knows our needs, our yearnings, our faults and our virtues. Let Him take the lead. Let Him bring your children home in His time. And if they never come home? Well, it's not okay but it's something you'll have to endure, just as Christ had to endure the cross.

Eventually, we will understand the why's of estrangement, maybe not in this lifetime, but certainly the next.

A peaceful Father's Day to all.

P.S. Though I listened to the entire "Meditation" this morning, I still managed to get to church on time.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


There stood my close and dear friend, separated for a long time from her dying husband, at the foot of his hospital bed. The reason for their separation is a story countless women could tell because they’ve lived it themselves. He was an educated, professional man in his prime, one who might have retired a millionaire. Instead, he chose to leave his lucrative job and start a business of his own. This, in spite of his wife’s protests. She knew her husband, knew that he would not be able to hold it together, knew that he needed structure and someone to answer to other than himself. In spite of her being the voice of reason, he forged ahead into unknown waters, only to sink their home, their savings, their neighborhood.
All through this horrible life trial, my friend received encouragement from all of her friends. I stood by as she separated herself from the chaos and rebuilt her life one tiny step at a time. I don’t know how she did it, but she found a way to help all four of her children through college. She found a way to continue working full-time even through radiation treatments for breast cancer. She found a way to cram herself and her children into a small apartment on the other side of town. One by one the children left the nest for college. They went to state schools mostly and took out student loans. And finally, she had a chance to move back to the neighborhood she loved. We became like sisters, and we held each other accountable for doing our absolute best no matter what trials we faced. She persevered and took my advice to not say a word against her children’s father in front of them. Save that for me, I told her. Instead of telling your children about his faults, keep them out of it. Let them learn on their own.
The anatomy of a marriage is a curious thing. Peel away the epidermis and you begin to see the truth. But usually there’s so much more. Peel the next layer away and you begin to see other, less obvious truths. Go all the way to the bone…now you’re getting somewhere. What is wrong between a couple is often very noticeable to outsiders to the point of being predictable that they will eventually separate. But below the surface there’s usually more to the story, truths that you would never share with your children.
My friend was a wise parent. She told her children, just as I did, that she loved their father but could no longer live with him. She pointed out his good attributes because he was not a bad man. He simply had issues he would not address. Because her children were young adults, they needed to view their father as a paragon of virtue. If not, their feelings about him would have been negative and intolerable.
For some reason neither my friend nor I can fathom, her husband not only caused the financial implosion of the family but his own health as well. Diagnosed with a serious illness several years ago, he refused to take the required steps to control it. Instead, he ate and drank whatever he desired and allowed himself to spiral down into a bottomless rabbit hole. My friend and I have often wondered if he had a death wish.
He died yesterday at age 69, about the same age as when my own father died. In hospice for ten days, he was being treated with care and comfort. And his entire family, including my friend, kept vigil. Two nights before his death, she and I talked on the phone. His death is imminent, she said. The two girls are doing the best they can, and the younger one considerably so, since she has more on her plate right now what with a new baby due in three weeks in addition to having a busy two-year-old and full-time job. And yet, there she was, at the hospital every day, spending time with her father as he moved in and out of consciousness. Her sister, of course, pitched in and stood vigil, too. The youngest son went with his mother over the weekend to a funeral home to pick out a casket and make other preparations. He is 27 years old, way too young to have to take on so much responsibility. But he has always tried to help his father because one thing my friend pounded into her children’s heads when they were young was to have compassion for those in need. And his father was certainly in need. His older brother was right there beside him, helping wherever and whenever he could.
The view of most people would be that my friend’s children would have had every right to estrange themselves from their father for causing the family’s financial downfall. But what would that accomplish? Nothing, except to serve themselves a huge plate full of guilt. No. Better for them to do the right thing and let their father know that they loved him and forgave him in spite of everything.
Their individual and collective actions accomplished two things. First, their father died in peace by having his entire family around him, including my friend. Second, he died knowing that his children’s mother was strong enough to stand with them and that she had taught them a valuable lesson they would carry with them their entire lives – that in spite of their father’s weaknesses, he was a human being, a good man, someone worthy of keeping vigil for. What she demonstrated was compassion and love in its highest form.
My friend – a woman I’ve known for 33 years – let the tears fall as we spoke on the phone about his death. It’s so sad, she said. Sad for him and sad for the kids. And for me, too, she added.
How my friend handled this difficult trial set an example for her children as well as all of us and illustrated just how much of an exemplary person she is, one who understands and accepts the twists and turns of life, even the ugly ones. One who understands fully what love is all about. A less compassionate and empathic woman might have turned a blind eye to her children’s needs as well as their father’s.
Her children are blessed to have my friend for a mother. Actually, she is more than my friend. She is also my teacher, my sister in Christ.

Monday, June 9, 2014

New theater blog

To my readers who live in the Greater Boston area: 

I have just launched a new blog titled "Stage Whispers — Greater Boston" where I will write reviews of current theatrical productions being performed in the area. 

I plan also to launch a travel blog, which will take readers farther afield. 

Over the years that I've worked as a journalist, I've had the pleasure and privilege of writing restaurant, arts and entertainment and travel features for various publications. It is my hope that stagewhispers-greaterboston (found at and the travel blog will both entertain and inform readers with an eye toward helping them get the most for their money.

In the future, I plan to write another blog concerning consumer issues. Please stay tuned. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Rite of passage, rite of spring

My daughter was a junior in high school when she was invited to her first prom. For the occasion, we found a boutique in a nearby town that offered one-of-a-kind gowns and fancy dresses. We found one in fuchsia, a cross between pink and red. The dress was strapless, had flounces and fell below the knee. 

My daughter looked gorgeous in it with her dark hair and olive complexion giving off stunning contrast to the color of her dress.

I don't recall who her date was, but I'm pretty sure he was a senior boy and thought my daughter pretty and sweet enough to invite to his prom. She went off that night with a group of friends inside a limousine.

I didn't worry that she would drink alcohol or get into any other kind of trouble. Except for her occasional sassy mouth, which most teens acquire  to prove they have minds of their own — she was a good kid and never caused me any worries. (I hope she is finding parenting as sweet as I did.)

Last night I had the joy of going to our local high school's Grand March, a pre-prom event held on our town green where prom-goers walk the circumference of the Common several times so that family and friends can take pictures to commemorate the event. I was there because the newspaper I work for needed a photographer and my editor asked if I would be willing to go.

Parents today have much more to worry about than when my daughter was growing up. While I know that drugs were around in those days, family values were still in vogue and many of the mothers of my daughter's friends did not work outside the home full time. Now, in order to survive financially, both parents need to be earning a pay check to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead. 

The dresses worn back when my daughter was a teen were demure compared to what girls wear to their proms today. I asked one girl where she bought her dress because it was something straight out of Hollywood — lots of sequins, cut so low in the back if she bent over she'd crack a plumber's smile and cut so low in the front that the top of her breasts bulged out of the fabric. She answered, "Glitterati." (Later, I checked Glitterati's website and found that prices hovered between $350 and $500 per dress. Add in shoes, jewelry, purse and hair styling and the bill could easily exceed $1,000 for one night.)

I asked other girls, just out of curiosity and because I could since I was also on assignment to write a story about the event, and some answered, "Macy's," "JC Penney," "online" and "a consignment shop."

There were a few police officers on detail last night, and I chatted with them while waiting for the Grand March to begin. "I'm going to be my daughter's date," said one. "She won't be going with any boy. Not if she's wearing a dress cut down to there." He was joking, of course, but then added, "First of all, I wouldn't allow a low-cut dress and neither would my wife." The other officer standing there with him agreed. 

"These girls don't look 16 or even 18," he said. "They look like they're in their twenties."

Both men were right. The girls these days don't look like teenagers. Many have part-time jobs and have the money to spend on expensive makeup and gowns mostly seen at the Academy Awards.

As I watched the couples promenading around the Common, I thought the prettiest gowns were also the least revealing (as in, less is more). One girl stood out with her pixie-style haircut and modest pink gown. She reminded me of Audrey Hepburn. 

I watched, too, their parents and grandparents as they captured on their memory cards pictures they would look at again and again, now and in the future. I noticed a few tears sliding down the older generation's faces as the teens continued their walk.

At one point, I stopped working long enough to offer a prayer for their continued family cohesiveness. 

In a few months these same young people will leave home for college or career. What happens after that is still an unknown.

On the day my daughter graduated from college, the dean of her college advised the young women in her class to "stay close to family for their love and support."

She didn't heed that advice, but I hope the young people coming up now do because once those ties  unravel and break, it can take years to undo the damage. 

The pictures of my daughter in her fuchsia prom dress bring me back to her own prom night when she put her arms around me and said, "I love my dress, Mum. And I love you for buying it."

I treasure that memory and her words. They sustain me now. They are my comfort.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A son returns but is still estranged

Susan, a friend of mine, became estranged from her son when he was in his early twenties. She said he married a young woman who was aligned with a religion Susan described as a cult.

"I blame my ex-husband," she said. "I had no idea he was studying the tenets of this religion behind closed doors. He was taking college courses that would meet master's degree requirements at the time, but I think he was concentrating more on his newfound interest in this religion than he was in earning his master's degree."

As Susan's husband became more and more steeped in this religion, the marriage changed and not for the better. He did his best to get Susan to join, but she held firmly to her own faith. Even so. he did manage to recruit their son and as time passed and his involvement in the church grew, there came a point when she no longer recognized her husband or their son.

"It was like their brains were scooped out and replaced with something else," she said.

Susan's son eventually married a woman in the church, and they moved to another country to become missionaries. They were gone for several years before moving back to New England.

"My son grew up in what I thought was a normal home," she said. "My husband and I rarely disagreed about anything and I thought we closely resembled Ozzie and Harriet — not in looks, of course — but we were the all-American family. All that changed when the church took over their sensibilities."

What often happens when a husband and wife go down different and extreme paths happened to Susan and her husband. They ended up divorced.

Susan remains close with her two daughters and she has reconnected with her son, but he is essentially a stranger to her.

"We all want the best for our children," she said, "but sometimes they fall under influences that are out of our control. I miss my son, the one I raised. I don't know this son, the one who entered this religious sect.

"My son used to be so strong and full of adventure. He was so much fun," said Susan. "He was the son every mother hoped for. But now? He's become weak and is completely governed by what this church teaches. I'm not one to knock anyone's religion, but what they teach is certainly not what he was taught as a child."

Susan went on to say that it often happens in estrangement that a third party or even a group of people take control of young adults and convince them that what they learned as children is completely wrong. 

"It's dangerous, and it's real," she said. "We all need to be careful of the people our children take up with when they're very young and impressionable, and most parents are diligent about that. But when they become young adults, we lose some of that ability to guide them. They become their own people, and though we, as parents, hope they continue down the path we set for them, that does not always happen.

"I think at times I'd be better off not knowing what's happening with my son," she said recently. "I listen to him when he visits, but his total focus is on his church and what they preach. I love my son and always will, but he's not the same person I knew while he was growing up. I believe he's been brainwashed to the point where this church has destroyed his personality. The sad truth is, we're still estranged."

Susan's situation is, in some respects, just as tragic as a situation where an adult child is completely estranged. 

Susan's story makes me wonder. Are parents better off with precious memories of the children they loved and raised, though they are not in touch with them? Or, is it better to be connected to them than not at all, even though their personalities are no longer recognizable.

It's a topic for debate, one that might have no answer. Susan knows one form of estrangement, while I know another. The one thing we have in common is that we both wish that the children we once knew and loved would come back.