Friday, September 20, 2013

How a purse snatcher and potato salad help my grief

Published on - HERE's the link
Published in Cross Timbers Gazette - HERE's the link

Mom with all of her children at Dad's funeral.
My favorite story about my mother-in-law took place during a family day trip to Tijuana when my husband Jeff was a teenager.
Among other purchases, his mom haggled with a merchant and paid next to nothing for a leather purse. Jeff's family was in their truck at the end of the day when a merchant approached Jeff’s mom, addressing her through an open window. His animated sales pitch — meant to distract her from seeing him reach in to grab her new purse — didn’t quite work. What happened next is the stuff legends are made of.
First, Jeff’s mom bested the guy in a tug-of-war that ensued after he grabbed her purse. And then, with a formidable right hook that her kids had never before seen, she whacked him square in the face. Stunned at the unexpected and humiliating turn of events, the would-be purse snatcher turned tail and ran.
I never met the heroine of this tale, because she died of bone cancer before I met Jeff. So I know her only through stories. When I joined the family, it struck me that the memories Jeff and his family shared about his mom were almost exclusively upbeat and funny. Some were even poignant, but hardly ever sad. And during the telling, the laughter would always far outnumber the tears — at a ratio of about one hundred to one.
My grief is new, so my current ratio of laughter to tears is the opposite of Jeff's family ratio. I know that my grief will at times be public, at other times be private, and will always be unpredictable. But I also know that it won't always be what it is now.
Jeff’s mom was gone, but her memories were still helping his family smile.
I understood and appreciated the positive approach they took when remembering their mom. But I didn't get why they were so rarely sad. Didn’t they miss her terribly? Where was the heartbreak when she wasn’t around for birthdays, for holidays, for ordinary days?
It wasn’t until a Mother’s Day 13 years into our marriage that I had a partial answer. Since my husband was participating in our church services that Sunday, he sat on the stand facing the congregation. The service included a beautiful song honoring mothers. Moved by the music, I glanced at Jeff and was shocked. We had been married for 13 years, but it was the first time I had ever seen him sob.
It turns out that I had made a false assumption. I had only seen Jeff get misty-eyed when remembering his mom, so I had always assumed that the uncontrolled crying stage of his grief had occurred before I met him.
But I was wrong.
Jeff had grieved in many other ways, but on that Mother’s Day 15 years after her passing, he had truly sobbed for the first time.
I realized then that the only thing I truly understood about grief is that it's unpredictable.
In knowing Jeff’s family, I was able to experience grief from an outsider’s perspective. As of 19 days ago,when my dad passed away from lung cancer, I’m officially an insider.

The day my dad passed away, my family all cried buckets of tears. Sometimes my siblings and my mom and I would cry together, other times we would find a quiet corner to mourn privately.

But our crying needed respite. At one point, a few of us gathered in the kitchen to try and eat something, which reminded us of one of our favorite Dad stories.
The tale is one of a slight miscalculation Dad made during a dinner social. It was held in a yard with a pool that had been covered by a tarp for the off-season. Dad, distracted by the plate of food he was carrying while navigating his way across the yard, somehow forgot about the pool (or at least where it was located).
In one misstep, Dad and his whole plate of food tumbled onto — and then all over — the tarp. Dignity is difficult to maintain while bouncing around a pool tarp covered in potato salad.
One of my brothers mentioned Dad sprawled on the tarp, wearing his food, and we burst out laughing. We knew that if Dad were with us, he would be laughing the loudest. We weren’t done crying for the day, but we needed to laugh.
My grief is new, so my current ratio of laughter to tears is the opposite of Jeff’s family ratio. I know that my grief will at times be public, at other times be private, and will always be unpredictable. But I also know that it won’t always be what it is now. Because, like Jeff’s mom, my Dad led a life that left us with awesome stories — upbeat, funny and poignant. And in the telling of those stories, we will gradually start laughing a little more and crying a little less.
Just yesterday, a gentleman walked into the waiting room where I was sitting. He reminded me of my dad. Without warning, I started to cry. But even through the tears, I thought about Dad, the tarp and the potato salad. And I managed to smile.
Thanks for the memories, Dad. They're still helping us smile.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Book Review - "All But My Life" by Gerda Weissmann Klein


I've read at least my share (if not more than my share) of WWII/Holocaust books, so was surprised that this one wasn't even on my radar. It should have been. Since I've decided to only read one such book per year (these books exact significant emotional drain), I'm glad this year's was "All But My Life."

This true story of a young Jewish girl living in Poland whose life is forever altered by the war is heart wrenching on many levels, yet manages to convey hope. Gerda's naive faith in basic human goodness is almost entirely shattered by cruelty, but is somehow kept alive by rare - yet powerful - acts of compassion from her enemies. 

The writing is fairly straightforward, not necessarily eloquent or compelling. Initially, I was somewhat critical of this. But as I became more engrossed in Gerda's story, I would be deeply moved by a simple phrase or even a single word. In the case of the words in this book, I often found less to be much, much more.

I highly recommend this book, which has earned a place on my Holocaust literature bookshelf.


All But My Life is the unforgettable story of Gerda Weissmann Klein's six-year ordeal as a victim of Nazi cruelty. From her comfortable home in Bielitz (present-day Bielsko) in Poland to her miraculous survival and her liberation by American troops--including the man who was to become her husband--in Volary, Czechoslovakia, in 1945, Gerda takes the reader on a terrifying journey. 

Gerda's serene and idyllic childhood is shattered when Nazis march into Poland on September 3, 1939. Although the Weissmanns were permitted to live for a while in the basement of their home, they were eventually separated and sent to German labor camps. Over the next few years Gerda experienced the slow, inexorable stripping away of "all but her life." By the end of the war she had lost her parents, brother, home, possessions, and community; even the dear friends she made in the labor camps, with whom she had shared so many hardships, were dead. 

Despite her horrifying experiences, Klein conveys great strength of spirit and faith in humanity. In the darkness of the camps, Gerda and her young friends manage to create a community of friendship and love. Although stripped of the essence of life, they were able to survive the barbarity of their captors. Gerda's beautifully written story gives an invaluable message to everyone. It introduces them to last century's terrible history of devastation and prejudice, yet offers them hope that the effects of hatred can be overcome. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Robert Daniel Boyce - In Loving Memory

Robert Daniel Boyce
14 May 1942 – 1 September 2013

My 7-year-old son Caleb generally keeps his own counsel when it comes to matters of the heart. But his beloved Grandpa Boyce’s passing has been especially tough on him.  A few nights ago, Caleb said his bedtime prayer, sincerely requesting that Grandpa have a “nice time” at his own funeral.  He then paused and said to me in a quiet voice, “Mom, Grandpa’s stuck in my head.”

“Mine too, buddy,” I replied, “Mine too.”

I completely understood what he was saying, because Bob Boyce stuck in so many of our heads – and in our hearts.  So the task of writing his eulogy was daunting.  How could I even begin to encapsulate his life in a few minutes?  As luck would have it, Dad was a prolific writer and had already done a lot of it.  So I will share many of his own words, some of my memories, and tributes of him that have come pouring in since his passing.

As is often the case, Dad was greatly influenced by his parents’ examples.  Here’s how he described his mom:

She loved to laugh and be with people.

She was highly intelligent but didn’t fully realize it.

She was the hardest worker I have ever known.

She felt deeply.  She loved literature and the video equivalent: movies.

She was very compassionate and caring – always doing things to comfort those in turmoil.

She was easy for me to talk to.

She loved me.

What’s interesting to me about these descriptions of my grandmother is that every single one of them also describes my dad.  Every one.

Here’s one of his descriptions of his dad:
"He set a tremendous example of faithfulness and  steadfastness."  Again, those two words describe my dad, very well. 

Dad wasn’t always smart, even though he excelled in school.  Quote:

I was 6.  Mom said, “Bobby, go see if the waffle iron is hot.”  I set my hand down on the grid.  It was.  My hand looked like a waffle for almost a month.

Dad wasn’t always perfectly behaved at home.  Quote:

I didn’t like my sister coming into my room without my permission.  That didn’t deter her at all.  One day when I was in my room, I heard her in the next room.  Somehow I knew that she didn’t know I was in my room, and I sensed that she was about to come in.  I hid under the bed.  Sure enough, in she saunters.  When she got right by the bed, I reached out and grabbed her ankle.  She got sick she was so scared.

Nor was he perfectly behaved at school.  Quote:

7th grade.  We had the crabbiest substitute teacher.  We’d had her before.  She had on a red and white circle pattern dress.  She kept standing by my desk and yelling at my friends.  I succeeded in getting a few faces drawn in the circles in her dress with my fountain pen without her feeling it.  I never did get caught.  My friends treated me like a conquering hero.

But eventually, Dad started to grow up.  After what he termed a “spiritual crisis,” Dad decided to serve a mission for the Mormon Church.  Those 2 ½ years he spent in Peru, teaching and serving other people, changed and shaped his life in countless ways. 

It was on his mission that Dad started to develop empathy.  Quote:

Other people’s needs and feelings did not consistently register with me until I was on a mission.

It was on his mission that Dad decided on his career path.  Quote:   

My first major was political science.  I had a great civics teacher my senior year in high school who helped me realize I could think.  My secret ambition as a result of that class was to someday be a U.S. Senator, so I chose a major that I felt would help me realize that dream.

The major I graduated in [teaching] came about this way:  I taught Sunday school for a while in the mission field.  A church member started paying tithing as a result, he said, of one of my lessons.   The teenage daughter of the branch president, who had refused to be baptized up until then, came up to me after a Sunday school lesson I had given on baptism and invited me to her baptism.  She thanked me for helping her understand it for the first time. 

The Lord, through experiences like these, helped me realize I could teach: that was my gift. 

And thus my dad started on a path that would bless hundreds of lives.  One of his former students said of him, “Brother Boyce was the greatest seminary teacher on this earth.  I actually enjoyed getting up early and going to seminary because of him.”

Dad kept maturing, and we’re all grateful that he was smart enough to ask my mom on a date when he met her.  Dad said that spring has always been his favorite time of year, because it was during the spring that he and mom fell in love.

Life changed forever when he became a dad. Here’s how he described it.  Quote:  

Being a dad left me more awestruck, amazed, and thrilled than I have ever been. It was awesome.

And that’s where I came into the picture.  When I was young, I didn’t know or care too much about his history or his profession.  He was just my dad.  He was around sometimes, sometimes he traveled. He did what dads did.  He loved me, and I loved him.  So when people told me what a great man he was, I’d think, “Of course he is.”  It was simply a given.

In fourth grade, I fancied myself an excellent speller because I had won my class spelling bee.  I remember coming home one day, chock full of how smart I was, and asking Dad to spell the hardest word I knew: simultaneous.  I knew it would be too hard for him.  He spelled it without even looking up from the evening paper.  That did it:  Dad was officially the smartest person I ever knew (and I didn’t even fully understand what it meant to have a doctorate, which he had).   

And then I turned 12, at which point something strange happened: Dad started to become annoying.

There was the time he got super frustrated at my mom for handing him a wrench the wrong way, when it was clear to everyone else in the family that he was simply too proud to admit that he couldn’t fix the washing machine to save his life.

In my teenage superiority, I rolled my eyes and told myself I would never react that way when I became a parent.

Another time, Dad couldn’t find his nail clippers I had asked to borrow. He thought he had safely hidden them in a small box on his dresser, but one of his eight pesky children had found and absconded with them.  When Dad discovered this, he went completely ballistic.

Again, eye roll and firm resolution on my part.

Or when he’d say something that embarrassed me in front of my friends.   That was, like, the worst.  Plus, there was the fact that he traveled and wasn't always around; as a result, I didn't always feel a strong connection with him.

So when I was a teenager and people told me what a great man he was, I’d think, “Well, maybe.  But you don’t really know how annoying or embarrassing he is.  And that he doesn't really understand me.  Nor I him.”

But, eventually -- and very slowly -- I started to grow up.

After my own spiritual crisis, I also decided to serve a mission for the Mormon Church.  The 18 months I spent in Austria, teaching and serving other people, changed and shaped my life in countless ways.  And I understood my dad a little better.

After my mission, I was smart enough to ask Jeff on a date when I met him.  We fell in love during the winter. 

After our first baby was born, Dad drove from Arkansas to Baltimore, where we lived, to spend time with us.  I was a brand-new mom, completely overwhelmed by my feelings of love for my daughter Kirsten.  I tried to articulate those feelings to Dad.  Dad looked me in the eye and said, “Everything you’re feeling right now towards Kirsten is exactly how I’ve felt about you since the day you were born.”  For the first time in my life, I fully understood the depth of his love for me.  And I understood him a little better.

A year or two later came the inevitable.  One day, my husband had the audacity to get really, really irritated at me while I was only trying to help him fix the toilet.  Let’s just say he’s not a plumber, but is a little proud to admit it.  I remembered my dad’s attempts at home repairs - and understood him a little better.

Later, after spending months reiterating to my young teenage daughter that my makeup was to stay in my bathroom, and even after buying her very own makeup for her so that mine would stay put, there came a morning when my makeup was nowhere to be found. At which point I went completely ballistic.  I thought about my dad and the nail clipper incident – and understood him a little better.

My kids grew.  Mom & Dad moved to our neck of the woods.  Dad made it a point to go on lunch dates with my kids, take them fishing, shoot hoops with them, attend their games and performances.  He made it a point to go on lunch dates with me.  Dad traveled so he could be with other kids and grandkids for their special occasions.  By that point, I knew what it means to try and juggle more things than you think possible, and that prioritizing family time takes real effort.  I appreciated and understood Dad a little better.

Retirement didn’t slow Dad down, although he did pick up golfing again.  Allegedly, there was a point early in my parents’ marriage when Mom gave Dad an ultimatum. “It’s me or golf,” she had said to him, “You choose.” 

He chose wisely.  However, his golf scores never fully recovered.

But mostly, Dad spent time with family, taught part-time and worked in the temple -- all while counting down the days until he and Mom would serve a mission.  More than anything, he wanted to continue making a difference in people’s lives and was so very excited when it was finally time to go.

Part of the paperwork submission process for missionary service requires thorough health exams.  It was a result of these exams that we found out about the cancer.

Dad was devastated that he couldn’t serve another mission.  In fact, the hardest thing about losing energy and capacity to cancer was that he felt he could no longer make a difference, no longer teach, no longer serve.

Except that he continued to make a tremendous difference in our lives.  His courage and optimism throughout a truly terrible ordeal taught us more than any lesson ever could.  Bob’s kids, grandkids, relatives and friends will all remember him when things get tough. If Bob Boyce can do something that’s very, very hard – with a smile on his face most of the time -- so can we.  So can we, Dad.  We thank you for that.

And, Dad continued to serve.  Me, for example.  In January, I suffered a severe concussion in an accident.  It took months for my brain to recover (it still hasn’t completely, in fact) and was very difficult.  My dad, who was himself recovering from a recent round of chemotherapy, called me one day to say he was taking me out to lunch.   One of the side effects of chemotherapy is what the doctors call a “brain fog,” where it’s difficult to think clearly at times.  Concussions, as you may know, have similar side effects. 

We were quite a pair that day, my dad and I, especially when we got lost on the way to the restaurant.  My phone’s battery was dead, and Dad (of course) didn't want to ask for directions, so we had only our certifiably unreliable brains to rely on.  The good part?  This gave us about 30 extra minutes in the car to talk before we finally arrived at the restaurant. After lunch was over, we managed to find our way back to my house.  

I walked into my house and wept.  I understood what a sacrifice that had been for him, but he did it because he loved me and wanted to serve me.  And I understood him a little better.

I hope my dad knows how many people’s lives he affected for good.  Years ago, while one of my cousins was serving a Mormon mission in Taiwan, he met a 26-year-old fellow missionary.  My cousin asked him why he had chosen to serve a mission, and the missionary started talking about an institute teacher who had changed his life.  The name of that man?  Bob Boyce.  This is just one of hundreds of stories.

Dad served his Heavenly Father and fellow man every day of his life.  His life was his mission.

Another cousin wrote the following tribute to my dad:

Whenever I think of the “abundant life” I will always think of Uncle Bob. He died richer than anyone I've ever known: an amazing family culture and happy relationships with a wife and 8 children, a bounteous teaching career with so many appreciative and transformed students, and a true minister of Jesus Christ who never tired in offering the good word of God to uplift and comfort others. . . I could feel the spirit of love he had for others as he exuded joy about doing just every-day things with those he loved most: going to a grandson's baseball game, serving in the temple, having dinner with old friends, attending a baby blessing or baptism.

They say you reap what you sow. Thanks for modeling how to garden, Uncle Bob.

Dad, you will always be stuck in our heads, and in our hearts, and we’ll miss you every day.  But at the same time, I’m so happy for you, because I have a pretty good idea of what probably happened once you passed over to the other side.  After your reunion with your parents and other loved ones, my guess is that you found whoever was in charge and asked these questions:

Who can I teach?  How can I serve?  Who can I love?

I invite all of us to honor the remarkable legacy of my dad, Robert Daniel Boyce, by following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ -- in whom he had deep, abiding faith -- by regularly asking ourselves these three questions:

Who can I teach?  How can I serve?  Who can I love?

These thoughts of honor, love and remembrance I leave with you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Chirst, into whose loving embrace my father has now entered, Amen.