Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Good Start - Ellen, 68

“Good morning, Martha,” I say to begin our day. 

 “How are you, today, Ellen?” follows. The day is off to a cherished, predictable start.

Every morning at 7 AM, the phone at my house rings to Martha’s wonderful voice. It is wonderful to me because she is my early morning, phone soul mate. Martha would disagree with me about her voice’s being wonderful because she has an essential tremor, a neurological problem that is displayed in her vocal cords as well as the rest of her body. She also has spasmodic dysphonia, which changes the quality of her voice. She is very sensitive to the fact that her voice no longer has the full, rich sound it once had. But, to me, her morning voice is just a treasured way to start the day.

We blah, blah, blah for an hour or more every morning, somehow always having something to talk about.  

Our morning conversations began in May of 2011 when Martha retired as a college professor in educational leadership and communications at Carlow University. We initially knew each other as colleagues and Shadyside buddies prior to retirement. I had retired a year earlier from the education program at Carlow. Now, with retirement, Martha was free to engage in this daily conversation.  We just fell into this pattern.
Because I was reading ravenously at the time, we began discussing books.  I was reading Sara Lawrence-Lighfoot’s, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years after Fifty. It was a passionate book examining the retirement of passionate people. It was a perfect springboard for discussing our respective retirements. Both of us were searching for ways to make meaning of life after a fulfilling life of being an outstanding, dedicated college professor. The book was a qualitative study using portraiture through interviews—right up our research alleys!

We also discussed Hilary Rodham Clinton’s memoir, Living History, of her life through Bill’s White House years and to her becoming the senator from New York.  We discussed her great intelligence, her independence, her gutsiness, and her passion for fighting for what she believed in like universal health care.  She was our kind of woman and politician.

Most importantly, any intellectual interest that either of us had that was open for lengthy discussion. Martha brought up her search for “a need for a sense of purpose” in what she did in retirement. I lived on a more basic level and looked for fun!  I enrolled in lifelong learning courses at the University of Pittsburgh—I loved learning and being in the classroom. Martha would have none of this. We wrestled with this topic in terms of my love of being a student and her having enough of that role. We talked on, daily.

Then, Martha’s disease reared its ugly head reminding her, and us, that, while it had stepped aside for a moment to give her a breather, her illness was a constant part of her life. While Martha does not complain about the pain, generally, it becomes excruciating at times.

 Martha got sick with an autoimmune disease, Sjorgrens Disease, ten years earlier, but she has been a fighter over the years. She continued to teach as long as she could even though in great discomfort. She will go out to dinner every chance she gets if that is at all possible. Sometimes she is vulnerable to picking up viruses and infections and thus could go out. Several years ago, she received a few doses of chemotherapy. They worked. Martha was in a holding pattern where things are not as bad with her illness! We—her family and her good friends—celebrated!

But the disease recurred, and Martha became preoccupied with it. Who wouldn’t?  Martha was also struggling with her own mortality issues. We continued with our conversations. I mostly listened. In a relationship, in a close friendship, things are rarely reciprocal in the immediate. Over time, things balance out. My job as a good friend was to listen for an hour or so daily as Martha processed her life with her illness. I just knew that when I needed it, she would do the same for me.  That’s what friends do. It was not always easy, and I could not always be the best friend that I wished I could be. At these times, I would change the subject of our phone conversation to a topic other than her health. Martha understood and accommodated my needs too. After many, many months, Martha’s illness went into stable and holding again, and our discussions moved on to other topics.

Sometimes the conversations dealt with the weather in Atlanta, Milwaukee and New Hampshire—places where Martha’s children or grandchildren lived. Sometimes the weather of Florida or Colorado was of interest because we knew my sister, her sister and my friend were living there. Sometimes the snow storms were simply in the news and worth discussing.  Light conversation counted too for keeping this phone friendship alive too.

We were known to disagree from time to time. Martha was the rhetorician by trade and loved a good argument. I avoided arguments when I could, did them badly and felt great anxiety throughout—and anger too. One day, I told Martha,  “My friend, Dick, was very sad because he sent a notice to a friend of 60  years and the friend never replied. Dick feels as if it shows that his so-called friend did not approve of a gay marriage.”

Martha began, “Maybe he never got the email. . . .” She gave about 15 possible reasons why he may not have responded. To me, Dick needed a supportive friend. End of story. To Martha, all avenues need to be examined. I changed the phone conversation quickly because of my anger, annoyance and discomfort, but that is my need not necessarily hers. Oh, well . . . . Friendships can be complex. 

Then it was my time to face a crisis, and Martha responded as the phone soul mate that she is.  I had become involved in a highly stressful writing workshop and was being challenged to the limit with my emotional health issues. She respected my feelings. I was falling apart emotionally. She frequently stated, “I find it unbelievable that the leader was so careless about the participants’ feelings. He was hired to exhibit his ability in writing and is a highly skillful writer, but he was so uninformed about psychological space and psychological safety in the workshop.”  Martha was supportive as she told me. “I am so sorry that you went through this. You had no idea what you were getting into. You entered into this activity in good faith.” Martha’s wisdom and insights, as well as her empathy, helped get me through this most severe emotional crisis I have experienced in 25 years.

Martha and I proceeded to use this workshop as a springboard for a discussion of teaching, our passion. “This makes me think of the traits of training through a workshop format, being a facilitative teacher, and providing for a safe space psychologically in the classroom as we developed skill-building,” Martha commented.  Our conversation began.  Martha and I were both excellent at moving from stressful conversations to ego-building conversations and talking about teaching did this. We were familiar, at home and happy as we conversed about teaching. Martha helped me grow strong again over the days and weeks of conversation.

It’s only 6:30 AM as I find myself completing this essay on my telephone soul mate of two and one half years. Soon it will be 7 AM, and I will hear the phone ringing. Martha and I are more than the sum of our diseases. We are friends, the lynch pin of a human community.

“Good morning, Martha.” our day will begin.

 “How are you, today, Ellen?” will follow. The day will be off to a cherished, predictable start.

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