Wednesday, December 28, 2016

You gotta take a chance on change

By Monica Vest Wheeler

Have you ever heard the saying to the effect of, the only constant is change?

Ain't that the truth!

I like Andy Warhol's take: "They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself."

And Carol Burnett says: "Only I can change my life. No one can do it for me."

Yes, the king of weird art and the queen of comedy are correct, but I've also learned that while you must make change from within, you really can't do it alone.

We were not placed upon this planet to operate solo. We were given other people to learn from, to teach, to love, to be loved, to care for, to be cared for, and to create a better world. We achieve much together, we make mistakes together.

We can also be blind to and stubborn about each other.

In all my interactions with individuals and families affected by brain-related injuries, illnesses and diseases, one of the most predictable and painful statements I hear is about abandonment by family and friends.

Especially the adult children of the person affected. Adult children who don't like who their parents WERE and hold it against them forever, no matter the crisis they face now.

I remember the heartbreaking tears of a wife, caregiver to her stroke survivor husband, who talked about the lack of contact with their adult children. She constantly asks herself, "Was he that bad of a person?" He made a lot of mistakes, she admits, but he's a different man now, not the father he was many years ago.

The stroke changed him, she says, but their kids won't even get to know him.

Many, many people change over the course of their lives, for whatever reason. A few never do. I recently gave someone out of my past one last chance to see if they had changed. It was the right thing for ME to do. But I quickly discovered that this person has never gotten "it" and never will. I released them from my life for good, and it was freeing because I had offered that last chance.

At the same time, I gave another person out of my past a second look, and I love what I see and hear. With this individual, we're making up for lost time.

And I continue to reflect deeply upon my lifelong relationship with my dad. My parents divorced when I was 23, but he and I weren't close emotionally for many years because we simply didn't know what to say to each other. My "bonus" mom (I hate the word "step") made us sit down one day and talk and listen.

Now, if I hadn't learned to look at my dad through the eyes of an adult and not as a child, I would have missed some of the best moments in my life. He wasn't just my dad: he was a human being who had dealt with many struggles in HIS life, many of which I finally discovered because we learned how to talk and listen. I couldn't have understood that as a kid. My admiration for him grew because he was a survivor in so many ways. He changed so much and in so many beautiful ways, with the help of others.

What a fine, fine man he was.

Yes, if I hadn't taken a chance on change, I would have missed getting to know my dad, my daddy, and loving him.

I lost that precious man just two weeks ago. I have no regrets, though of course, I wish I had made the drive over to see him more often.

If there's someone in your life you have brushed aside without taking a chance on change, give it a try. Or if you see two people who just need a little help to get that conversation going, you can be an agent AND angel of change.

Make the choice to live without regret.

Healing is much better than hurting …

People change and forget to tell each other. Lillian Hellman
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People change and forget to tell each other. Lillian Hellman
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Only I can change my life. No one can do it for me. Carol Burnett
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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

I like to think I healed my dad’s heart and soul

By Monica Vest Wheeler

I'm never giving another eulogy. Offer me a million dollars and I wouldn't do it.

No, I'm a storyteller, not a "eulogizer," and this is a short version of the story of my Dad, the REAL Bill Vest.

I’ve always heard that after the loss of a parent, life will forever change or how the world is different. But the world did not change. I have changed and evolved in this moment.

I'm the product of two people who were denied childhoods and families filled with the true meaning of love, who learned the hard way to work, exist and get by. Other people, especially my late mom-in-law, taught me the joy of a full loving family. Yes, these were lessons my parents could not teach me because they didn't know how. I can never blame THEM.

Your parents may never be able to teach you everything you need, and that’s why you must be open to life lessons that come along when you least expect. And never turn down the opportunity to be a teacher. Many of you have been MY teachers.

I think of all the things my dad gave me, including my last name, a lifetime spelling V-E-S-T.

“Is that Best?”
“No, Vest as in a vest you wear.”
“No, it's V as in virgin.” (One day, I got tired of saying “V as in Victor” …)
“Oh …”

I'm Monica VEST Wheeler and don't you ever forget that.

However, when I was a kid, I didn't want to grow up to be like my father. He was weird. I’d certainly never marry anyone like him. What do I do? I marry an engineer like my dad.

Oh, but thank God I became and learned to appreciate the best of my father. Yes, God is much much wiser than me.

God overheard some of the most important conversations of my life between Dad and me that HAD to happen to bring us to this day …

The Christmas of 1991 …

I was afraid I'd lose my job because I couldn't please my boss anymore. I was so lost. I had given up. I tried to explain, but Dad just didn't get it. “Why can't you just go to the office and do your job?” It wasn’t that easy. My bonus mom Diane ordered us to sit down to TALK and LISTEN. It was something like, "You two need to stop avoiding feelings. You're both in pain because you don't really know each other."

She’s so bossy.

For the first time, Dad shared a childhood without love, parents who weren't satisfied with his accomplishments, how things just didn’t work between him and Mom, how he never knew what to say to me.

I confessed that I never knew what to say to him. I talked about how small and stupid I felt when he complained about my high school math grades, "Why can't you get this? It's easy!" That December day, I finally said, "Yeah, it's easy for you, an engineer. I'm a writer! I AIN'T no engineer!"

I was re-introduced to my dad many times since that cold day in 1991 and our hearts never stopped warming up to each other.

For many years, Dad thought I was lazy because I didn't like physical work, yet I'd spend hours writing. What kind of REAL WORK was that?

He finally got IT the Christmas of 1994, when I handed him my first history book. He finally saw the value of MY kind of work. Every book since then that I placed in his hands, he held it close and marveled at it in silence. I saw in his eyes what his trembling lips had trouble expressing.

Yep, my daddy was proud of me.

And in 2001 …

When I succumbed to the depths of depression and had to finally get some much-needed medicine and therapy, I remember trying to explain it to Dad as we sat in the sunroom. I cried that my brain had some "issues," and that more days than not, I didn't care if I woke up the next morning. I realized in that moment that he could not fathom not wanting to wake up tomorrow. No matter what the world threw at him, he still wanted to take it on tomorrow if he didn't finish it today. He always saw a tomorrow. He always planned for the future.

And in 2011, when I cared for my father-in-law the last 11 days of his life, Dad was one of the few people who didn't say, "I don't know how you did it." He said, "You're a good daughter."

My dad gave me the gift of attention to detail and quality. He mastered the roots of precision engineering and 2x4's. I learned the fine art of wordsmithing and photography. Talk about opposites!

He was neat and I was cluttered.

I couldn't keep an organized house … but I could write books.

I couldn't herd all my dust bunnies … but I could take photographs.

I couldn't fix things around the house … but I could heal wounded hearts and souls with my unique blend of laughter and tears.

I like to think I healed my dad’s heart and soul. They were so battered.

We’re all enrolled in the School of Life. There are no shortcuts to graduation. I believe my grandmother wrote weekly checks to churches and so-called religious charities to get into heaven. When she had no more money to give, they abandoned her.

My dad took the true, yet hard, route by living a meaningful life.

This isn't a condemnation of my grandparents. This is a testimony of how my dad was a survivor in every sense of the word. However, it took him many years to discover that he didn't have to do it on his own. He took one of the biggest risks of his life by falling in love with Diane. He had been unlucky in love, but he tried one more time.

People can change, but not alone. My dad today is not the man I grew up with. I love him even more because Diane and her family changed my dad in a miraculous way.

We put a Bill in the change machine, and we hit the jackpot with a man who had a golden heart. It’s no surprise that his heart was the last organ to finally let go of earthly bonds.

Now I believe more than ever that Christmas is a season of miracles.

There is no tree big enough in the universe that could accommodate what my dad gave me for Christmas THIS year … so many priceless gifts in his passing, including reuniting me with my uncle, his brother. He had been sitting on the shelf for many years where I had placed him, unused and unloved.

We are witnessing a miracle today, and you are at the core of this amazing event.

I was disappointed not to hear from someone after Dad passed. The phone rang. It was that person. They hadn't communicated earlier because they didn't know what to say. Someone gave them the courage and the phone. And then we cried together.

If you don't know what to say, just say “hi.” “Hi” would have instantly cleared all the ice covering central Indiana on Saturday, and it would have been okay to splash in the puddles left behind.

We’ll discover more puddles for the rest of our lives. My dad left an impression so deep it can never be erased. Love can never be dissolved. It may be misplaced at times, but as God told us, love endures.

Love endures, Dad endures, stronger than the wood he shaped into the gifts that warmed and enriched our lives.

A tree falls and cannot pick itself up, but my dad fell time and time again and learned how to pick himself up with confidence, conviction and compassion … and finally allowing others to lend a hand.

Love will ALWAYS extend its hand to lift you. Take each other’s hands and share a little love right now …

Thank you for indulging me. My daddy gave me everything I wanted, including you …

Monday, December 19, 2016

Writing a letter of comfort to myself

By Monica Vest Wheeler

Has your world ever taken an unexpected tumble that left you scrambling for answers that will never be fully answered? Or caught you so off guard that you're not even sure what questions to ask?

I experienced that Friday, December 16, 2016, with the passing of my dad, Bill Vest. He was the healthiest 81-year-old man you would ever meet. Still mowing the yard multiple times a week, working on the ground in his garden, and the ultimate handyman, what could be better than still doing all the things you love and at that age? Nothing I know of!

Early Thursday morning, Dad suffered a massive deep brain aneurysm that left him in a coma and defined as "brain dead." Our family pulled together at his bedside and was with him when he passed away Friday evening. It was an unimaginable nightmare, but an experience I wouldn't have missed for anything.

As I sort through the many emotions of losing a parent, I reflect back on words of comfort I extended to others who have experienced a similar loss, praying I had offered hope and a unique perspective to ease their pain.

And as I prepare for my dad's funeral Tuesday, I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and prayers and empathy. In this time before dawn, I woke up and decided I also needed to send a letter of comfort to myself …

Dear Monica,

I was stunned to learn of the passing of your dad, so suddenly and right before the holidays. I can't imagine that moment for you.

Many professionals tell us that we'll pass through the "formal" stages of grief. 

Forget that crap and listen instead to your own heart, mind and soul. It may be, oh heck, it's gonna be downright impossible at times to hear the whispers of comfort those three parts of you will offer … over the sound of your own sobs.

Your heart is breaking with an invisible, yet brutal, fracture that will physically hurt at times. When it feels crushing in these initial days and weeks, you HAVE to stop and take a deep breath. Why? Because I said so! You have to relax the intense crunching of muscles or you're gonna get sick or worse yet, join your dad in heaven far sooner than scheduled. And if you thought he got mad at you for the stupid things you did as a kid, oh, just wait for the lecture you'll get this time!

Your mind is reeling with an endless list of what if's. What if this, that, this, that, this, that … Stop it!! No one, not even YOU, Super Monica, could have changed the outcome. 

Based on what we humans know and what the medical machines told us, he most likely didn't even know what hit him as the aneurysm was swift, exact and deadly. And his vitals in the ICU were not showing any signs of physical or emotional distress or pain. His brain was "dead," even though his strong heart kept going for nearly 36 more hours. There are no what if's. There is what is. And if he had to leave you, what better way to go without weeks or months of lingering.

Your soul is churning with regrets, some real but most imagined as our thoughts tend to go a bit wacky during a loss and try to influence and disrupt the soul. I shoulda, shoulda, shoulda … Shut up!!! You were your father's daughter, his little girl who grew up into a woman that gave him so many proud moments, that a calculator can't tally that high. 

Together, you and your carpenter dad built some of the strongest emotional bridges in the last 30 years, especially the last couple of years. You may have not heard too many "I love you's" as a child, but he certainly had a million of 'em for you recently. Remember, this is NOT the man you grew up with. He changed BIG time, and he became the one who said it first every time you said goodbye. So na na na na na!! Admit it! You CAN teach an old dad new tricks! You did!

Monica, I know you will cope with this loss with humor and unexpected and unique insight. That's who YOU are. You are supposed to learn from this and help heal other hurting hearts across this world. Who says? I say so! Your dad says so! Your family and friends say so! God says so! So there! You gotta put your butt in the seat and write. Just imagine you're sitting at the built-in desk your dad made for you as a kid, looking out the window at the backyard. He expected you to put it to good use and make something of yourself because he knew you could.

You have many essays of a lifetime yet to write because you have to maximize this gift of life, thanks to God and your dad's contributions. No more dilly dallying. No more "I can't do this." No more creative excuses. No more ridiculous self-doubts. 

Your daddy helped give you life. Now make the most of it. That will be his greatest legacy. YOU are his greatest gift to the world. So unwrap YOUR gifts and get to it.

I say this with great love because you are worth it. And your daddy is watching and cheering you with those angels on high.

Love, Monica

Monday, December 12, 2016

How to get in touch with real life … and yourself

By Monica Vest Wheeler

Have you ever felt so connected with the world — thanks to technology — but feel so isolated?

Yes, the Internet and all those cat videos are an amazing phenomenon to behold and indulge in, but do they truly connect you to "real life"?

We are sooooooooo craving social interaction — which we think is happening in our corner of the universe or coffee shop or home computer. We're seeking validation — which we think is happening when we click "like" or add a comment or agree with someone in social media.

Remember the "old" Yellow Pages slogan, "Let your fingers do the walking"? With our smartphones, tablets and computers, we're walkin' all over the world to meet and greet others electronically … while at the same time walking away from real human contact.

In the last dozen years, I've learned much about the power of touch … how it eases all kinds of pain, visible and invisible … Nearly all the folks I've encountered, especially those affected by brain-related injuries, illnesses and disease — AND their caregivers — need touch more than ever.

You can't begin to imagine the number of people in this world — no matter their ordinary or extra-ordinary challenges — who have and could emotionally heal, find physical strength, discover mental courage, be reunited with their spiritual self, and simply be comforted … all though the touch of hands.

Reach out to someone and simply rest your hand on theirs.

Don't pull back immediately or even after a few seconds.

Let your skin absorb the texture of theirs … the similarities and differences … the rough and weathered and the smooth and firm …

Be empowered by this unique bond and feel that person's life force merge with yours. It happens, it really does!

That connection WILL transform your emotional well-being … and may, in fact, give you some super "well-being" you need so much.

And you know what? You may simply cry. The tears may fall unexpectedly … or a genuine sob may erupt … because you need to release them. Stop trying to hide them. You could saturate a single-ply or overflow a bucket. There's no minimum or limit …

You just need to admit you're human, especially when it seems like the world expects you to be so much more … and true feelings are the clearest path to and the greatest validation of that glorious state …

Monday, December 5, 2016

How to pick your family when the branches seem bare

By Monica Vest Wheeler

Have you ever looked across the many branches of your family tree and stared at one or two and wonder, "How can I be related to them?"

As the saying goes, you can't pick your relatives.

However, you can pick your family.

Attending so many traumatic brain injury camps and Retreat & Refresh Stroke Camps across this country and working with families affected by Alzheimer's and dementia, I've witnessed about every combination of survivor-caregiver relationships … parent-child, spouses, siblings, in-laws, best friends, and a few more that escape me.

I've learned much about family structure and dynamics and heard about nearly every scenario from deep devotion to painful abandonment. I've laughed at some tales and wept at others. Many caregivers describe loneliness as relatives seem to vanish over time or refuse to believe the true everyday challenges of caring for someone with a brain disorder.

In the last dozen years, I've discovered that many people and society in general don't understand brain-related injuries, illnesses or diseases. They often equate the changes brought on by such a medical issue as mental illness or craziness. The misinformation and stereotypes are horrendous and disheartening. Many survivors have shared the deep sadness they experience when family members and friends don't want to be around them anymore because they're "different" even when their heart and soul have not changed.

What I have also discovered is that many survivors and caregivers are creating unique families of their own, built upon true friendship, commonality and love, which can be even more binding than blood.

One survivor told me, "My family left me. My friends left me. I have new friends. I’m dealing with something they’re dealing with, too. They are my family."

Yes, we can't pick our relatives who abandon us … and we can't even "pick" their brain to find out why they're behaving the way they are!

We think we know how we'll react in a family crisis, but no one really knows until they're "tested." We've all encountered surprise when someone we thought we could always lean on is not there to support us in our hour of need. At the same time, we've all been startled to discover folks come to our rescue that we never expected to see standing by us.

There are miracles even when the light of hope seems to flicker precariously. 

I am touched by the story of an estranged couple who reunited after the husband's stroke and fell in love again.

I am lifted by the story of a sister who dropped everything to come back home to care for her brother after his stroke.

I am warmed by the story of a big sister who keeps close contact with her baby sister who has a brain injury, despite the thousands of miles between them.

I am overjoyed when two stroke survivors become best friends and learn to lend a helping hand when each has the use of only one, from shopping to fastening each other's seat belts.

No matter your life challenge — and we all have struggles at times — you can always built a family tree with as many branches as you want …  as high as you like … as inviting as you want to attract as many songbirds as you desire … to bring more harmony in your life.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

How to break through a caregiver's hidden pain

By Monica Vest Wheeler

Admit it, we've all put on a mask at one time or another … to hide our pain, our sorrow, our disappointment. That mask can be a pretty heavy accessory to tote around.

In nearly a dozen years of interacting with caregivers, I've learned many things, especially this: they can put on Academy Award winning performances, hiding tears and fears, pain and strain. As they care for a loved one, many will attempt to conceal every emotion churning within.

As a result, many will pay a heavy price: damage to their emotional, physical and spiritual health. Or even worse … some die far too soon.

I remember the classic Three Dog Night song with the haunting line, "One is the loneliest number." Caregiving is rapidly becoming the largest solo "occupation" in the world, either by choice or no choice.

In hundreds of conversations with caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer's, dementia, stroke, brain injuries and other life challenges, I've learned two great secrets about breaking through a caregiver's hidden pain:

Eye contact and listening.

Those two connections can crack the most rigid walls. Those two skills, which nearly all of us are capable of, can save someone in more ways than one.

Caregivers need at least one special someone with whom they can feel safe and trust. They need someone who will just be there to care for them, whether it's for a five-minute or five-hour break.

Go to them with open eyes.

Go to them with open ears.

Be the miracle gift that can last longer than the holidays. 

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