Layoff with a positive spin

They told me I was a great asset and it was nothing to do with me or my work, and then they laid me off. It was a big blow to my self-esteem. It’s real hard to view something as impersonal when it concerns yourself.  

I was also scared. It was the 1990s and jobs weren’t growing on trees. I was getting older—mid-forties—and I felt undesirable in the workplace compared to younger people. On top of that, writing and graphic design were becoming computerized fast, and I wasn’t. Training to get up to date was expensive, not to mention the cost of a computer.

I had trouble getting up the motivation and gumption to look for work. I hid at home. I was depressed.

So I was drawing unemployment and floundering…and then I casually picked up a brochure one day in the unemployment office about the State of California’s retraining program. I perked up as I read. Miraculously I qualified because I was, as I found out, what they called a displaced worker. I had done writing and graphic design for years but all manually, and I was displaced by growing computer publications technology. It was racing along and leaving me in the dust.

I completed the course at a state-approved school that had great instructors, and leading-edge computers for students to use. I got $5,000 worth of training free. I could go in outside of class hours and use any computer that was free and practice with exercise books I bought.  

After graduating I started over in my career, at the bottom because I was new, not at graphic design but at computer graphic design. Soon I found a better job and then a better one yet. And pretty soon I was doing well, working in biotechnology communications with a good salary, to-die-for benefits, stock options, and great work environment. 

What did I learn? That what seems like an end can be a new beginning.  

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Grace shows up in clever disguises.

Trees are cherished friends. They shade us, produce oxygen, shelter tender baby birds. Their green beauty relaxes us. Our grapefruit tree went above and beyond to help me. It saved my ear.

I was picking up fallen grapefruit from under our big beautiful tree one morning. When I was done and stood up from my crouching position, my head bumped a branch and I caught my ear on a nasty thorn. There was a lot of blood. I never knew how large a grapefruit tree thorn is until I looked at it after it attacked me. Huge! And nasty.

I washed, disinfected and bandaged the wound. A few days later I removed the bandage and it seemed fine. But over time I noticed little spots of blood on my bath towel after drying myself. Then it started seeping and I went to see my dermatologist. The doctor couldn’t take a biopsy of the sore because it was too contaminated with blood and ooze. (Sorry for the gore.) I was very careful not to wet or touch it for a few days and it dried out.

The doctor then did a biopsy, and it turned out that the source of the blood was a basal cell cancer growing under the skin where the thorn pricked me, tucked into and following the curve of my outside ear rim. It wasn’t yet visible to the naked eye.

Two weeks later a surgeon removed the cancer. He put it in a jar and showed it to me. It was more or less the size and shape of a medium-size garlic clove, although it was longer and more slender which was why it hadn’t been obvious. 

If that thorn hadn’t snagged and wounded my ear, the cancer might have gone undetected until it grew large enough to be noticed. And then I would have been in trouble. A large part of my ear might have had to be removed.

In noble beauty, that tree has graced our backyard for 30 years. It has serenaded us when the wind rustles through its leaves, and yielded the lovely gift of its fruit to us. Now it has saved my ear from being ravaged by cancer.

I am deeply grateful. I thank the tree, I thank the thorn, I thank God, and I wear a hat and sunscreen when I’m outside.  

Believe

One day my minister saw his beloved Maine Coon cat, Marcus, staring out the window intently. Wildlife sometimes wanders close to their apartment building, at the foot of a range of hills.  Marcus was meowing and agitated. Dr. Jay went over to look out the window and saw a feral cat in the process of patiently moving four kittens, one at a time, that were hidden under shrubbery. She returned after moving the second one and then left the yard with the third one in her mouth. She never came back.

Straightaway, Dr. Jay went downstairs to the bushes from his second-story apartment, and carefully picked up the tiny kitten. Mewing, eyes still closed and ears still folded, it fit in the palm of his hand. Holding it gently, he started up the stairs.

He had no idea what he was going to do with it. He had never taken care of a newborn kitten. He mentally took inventory. He had some milk in the apartment, and possibly a dropper around, somewhere, to feed it with. He wondered how he could get the kitten fed often enough. He remembered vaguely, from some conversation somewhere, a schedule of every two hours. It would be a challenge with his busy life. But those were details. He knew he would figure it all out.

Then he saw a young couple who lived a few doors from his apartment coming down the stairs. “What have you got?” the young woman asked. Dr. Jay told her the story and held the kitten up closer to her. 

“Oh,” she exclaimed, delighted. “Can we have it? We know what to do, we’ve taken care of feral kittens for shelters. We have all the supplies.”

“Sure,” Dr. Jay said. They tenderly exchanged the precious cargo and the young couple turned around to go back home and begin caring for their little lump of new life. Dr. Jay returned, alone, to Marcus.

My friends and I think this story is incredible. What an amazing and miraculous coincidence, we all agree. But Dr. Jay doesn’t see anything unusual about it at all. He has the most confident, unshakable faith I’ve ever witnessed.

He simply knows that if you expect good to happen, it will.

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Story of a foundling cat

There was no hope. Hope was lost—our cat Hope. Our loving and lovable foundling cat leaped over the back fence one morning like she always did when I let her out. But she didn’t come home.

We were heartbroken. My daughter had found Hope outside of a friend’s house. Leaving a party, Michele heard faint, tiny peeps and followed them to a bush. Underneath was a little pile of fur no larger around than a hamburger bun, peeping like a baby bird. Michele took it in the house, they fixed up a shoebox for it, and she brought it home.

We named her Hope because she was near death when Michele found her. White gunk oozed from her eyes so I took her to the vet, who said it was from a bad respiratory infection. We went home with antibiotics and kitten formula. Michele and I fed her with a bottle for a few weeks, until she bit the nipple off one morning.

She got cuter and cuter.

We all fell deeply in love with her, her tenderness and sweetness and her love for us. She loved to snuggle under my husband’s chin and suck on his beard. It must have reminded her of her mother. We cheered and clapped when she appropriately used the tiny containers of kitty litter we put out for her.

When she was old and big enough, I let her out in the backyard every morning. She usually stayed close by and always came back by early evening. Until the evening that she didn’t. I called and called that night. I went out and called some more early next morning, when all of a sudden it began to pour, a very, very cold rain. I began to sob uncontrollably, thinking of sweet, tender Hope out there in the bitter cold.

She didn’t come home the next day or the next. We walked the neighborhood, called her, put up posters, passed them out door to door.   

Hope was nowhere.

Then, after a week, a woman around the corner called. She had our poster. “I think your cat is under our house,” she said. Frank and I rushed over. She led us to a room where the removable floor board to her crawl space was laid aside, and saw two vivid yellow eyes staring up at us from the darkness. Hope! The woman had noticed her dog acting strangely outside, in front of an unscreened vent, and she peered in and saw Hope and called us. Something must have startled Hope, maybe the same dog, to make her leap through the open vent to under the house. But she couldn’t get back out.

It was a joyous homecoming. Hope walked around everywhere, with her tail as tight and straight as a flagpole and vibrating so fast you could almost hear it. She ravenously gobbled her wet food, she rubbed up against us.  

I know now that not everything that seems negative is negative. That cold rain that made me burst out crying very possibly helped Hope survive. She was under that house for a solid week, yet when we found her she was plump and healthy. I believe the rain that flowed through the vent to Hope’s dark cave kept her hydrated. It might have saved her health, if not her life.

Remember, even when things look relentlessly bleak…there’s always Hope.

Heavenly Help in Disguise

Hernias are not usually thought of as being from heaven. They’re usually thought of as coming from the other place. But my husband’s was different. It saved his life.

Frank’s hernia showed up last year. He was 78. The hernia wasn’t very big and it wasn’t painful. The doctor said it might remain relatively harmless and that if Frank preferred, he could leave it be and they’d just keep an eye on it. But of course he could have it surgically repaired if he wanted.

Frank had never had surgery and found the prospect unpleasant. He was inclined to leave well enough alone. But the doctor went on to tell him if he did remove it he could do it laparoscopically, with a recovery time of only 1-2 weeks and much less pain than with open surgery. It’s all done with a thin scope and instruments inserted through very small incisions.  

That made Frank was a lot more interested. He opted for the laparopscopic surgery.

Good thing. He had no idea then what an important decision that was. 

Routine pre-surgery blood tests were done, and a high white blood cell count was discovered. So different tests were done to find out what was causing the abnormality and eventually they did a CT scan.

That’s when they saw the spot on Frank’s pancreas. It was biopsied and turned out to be very early-stage cancer. Three-quarters of pancreatic cancer patients die within a year of diagnosis. But because his cancer was small and confined to the head of the pancreas, Frank was among the small minority of patients eligible for a complex procedure to remove the tumor. It’s called a Whipple surgery.

The Whipple surgeon said the cancer was early-stage enough that Frank could have his hernia repaired first, so he did. It was a piece of cake. He recovered fully in about a week. Shortly after that, he had his Whipple surgery. That was not a piece of cake. It was a long operation—about seven hours—and a lengthy, difficult and painful recovery. But it was worth it. It beat the alternative, no contest. The outcome was very successful, because the cancer had not spread to surrounding vital arteries or organs. The prognosis looks good for Frank to have a good number of quality years ahead of him.

It would be quite a different story if Frank hadn’t had that hernia, and if he hadn’t opted for the hernia surgery with its pre-surgery tests.

Life is mysterious. So many times, things happen that seem negative but when you look back on them you see that they were actually gifts. Precious gifts. In Frank’s case, the gift of years of life. And all from a lousy hernia, imagine. That has to be one of God’s cleverest disguises for a gift, ever.

Life knows what it’s doing.

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Relax.


It was 1981. I was 35 weeks pregnant, at home enjoying a fun episode of The Love Boat. Suddenly I felt powerful contractions, while the ship’s bartender was belting out a song trying to court a talent scout. My enjoyment turned to foreboding. I had an undeniable feeling in my gut that the baby was coming, very soon. But it wasn’t time.  

I had never even considered the possibility of not going full-term to 40 weeks. Everything until then had been going along so smoothly. I was frightened. Even though 35 weeks is not extremely early, I had a sense of foreboding. In fact, by the time we got to the hospital and they were pushing me down the maternity ward corridor in a wheelchair I was crying. “Something’s wrong,” I sobbed, “Something’s wrong. It’s not time!”

Michele, our beautiful baby girl, was born that night with “multiple congenital anomalies.” They included her smallness—she weighed just over three pounds, very small for a 35-week baby; a bent nose, twisting to the left; and tiny ears. Some other anomalies and issues such as hearing impairment would be addressed as time went on. A team of doctors came and put her onto a gurney loaded with monitors and wires and rushed her to intensive care. The team leader came to my room later and, in a voice filled with compassion, told me and Michele’s father they weren’t sure she would live through the night. We were frightened, hoping desperately that she would. We already loved her deeply.  

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If Michele had been born at the “right” time, things might have been tragic.

I didn’t see Michele until more than 24 hours after she was born, because specialists were in and out of her IC room all that time, filing in and out, examining her intently.

It turned out I was mistaken to be upset about the earliness of Michele’s birth. I’m convinced she had reached an instinctual decision in my womb to come out early. And that was exactly the right thing. It turned out that she had cranial synostosis: her skull plates had fused prematurely in my womb. They’re supposed to be detached from each other for a few years after birth, to allow the brain and features to expand as the baby grows. The neurosurgeon told us later that if she hadn’t had corrective surgery by the time she was 38 in-womb weeks (two weeks “early”) there would almost certainly have been severe brain damage. Being born at 35 weeks gave her three weeks of beneficial out-of-womb nutrition and growth before the surgery. If she had been born at the “right” time, at 40 weeks by conventional medical wisdom, she would have been brain-damaged.

So, right from the get-go, Michele was wiser than I was. She knew things I didn’t. I shouldn’t have been afraid about her birth being early, I should have been reassured. I shouldn’t have been crying in my wheelchair about something being wrong, I should have been cheering—yelling “You go girl!”

Michele’s time of arrival in the world was miraculously right. Since then she’s had her share of challenges, undergoing many surgeries since that first one in early infancy until she was 20. Much has been corrected, aesthetically and otherwise. Today she’s married, a college graduate, a lover of life, independent, intelligent, compassionate, creative, energetic, beautiful…and, I might add, punctual. She’s never late.  I could go on singing her praises but I’ll stop here.

I’ve come to realize it’s silly to worry about her, because she knows what she wants and she knows what to do to get it. Just like she knew, nestled in my womb, exactly when to be born so she could have her surgery on time. 


rose-1403530_640The power of faith: As you do not understand the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the maker of all things. ~Ecclesiastes 11:5

 

chocolate-183543_640The power of chocolate: If God gives you chocolate, you open your mouth, no? ~Alejandro Jodorowski

Mike’s long road home

mikeMy brother Mike could never remember exactly how he made the biggest mistake of his life. It knocked him off-course and altered his destiny. All he recalls is hitchhiking to L.A. Somehow he missed the mark and ended up 500 miles from there, in Tucson.

Turns out it wasn’t a mistake at all. It was a miracle.

Maybe he was just standing on the wrong side of the highway. Chances are he was high and not thinking clearly: Mike was a heroin addict. There were lots of events and long stretches of his life that he couldn’t recall. He was high on smack most of the time for almost 20 years running.

Mike was two years older than me. Our father was mentally ill, and by the time I was born Daddy couldn’t handle a job or any other responsibility. Our mother, only 20 when she married, not realizing Daddy was ill, did the best she could but was not equipped to deal with something like schizophrenia. Who is? Mom’s own mother had been a homemaker and her father worked at the Navy Yard near Seattle and brought home the bacon every single day. Everything seemed picture-perfect, right down to the bridge club and the county fair flower judging and the black metal lunchbox Grandma filled up for Grandpa every workday.

I think Mom expected a life like that, but hers didn’t even come close. There was a deep stigma of shame attached to mental illness back in the 1940s. In order to get help Mom would have had to tell someone about Daddy’s schizophrenia, which for her was not an option. So she had no one to share her burden with. She had only a high school education, and worked at low-paying jobs to support all of us. Life was hard.

Mike started experimenting with drugs when he was 12, stealing cough syrups containing codeine that were sold over-the-counter back then. He soon moved on to stronger stuff. He was first incarcerated when he was 13. We were all eating dinner in our apartment when the doorbell rang. I opened the door. “I’m looking for Michael Torello,” a policeman said, looking down at me from where he stood on our porch. Mike had already gotten up from the table, and he walked out the door and drove away with the policemen. I didn’t see him for six months. He had stolen a car, I later learned. After that he was in trouble constantly.

He started disappearing more often and for longer stretches, incarcerated or just drifting in a drug haze. He broke into people’s houses and stole things to sell, or took money if it was there, to buy his drugs with. Mom never talked about him. There was an unspoken rule not to mention him. I had a lot of grief about him I never expressed, and in my thirties I sought out counseling. Talking to compassionate experts helped. I wish Mom could have done the same, but she never got past the shame of her generation over mental and emotional problems in the family. She suffered in silence.    

When Mike was 20, his right arm got caught in a meat grinder in a pizza parlor, where he was working while high on drugs, most likely heroin. Moments after it got caught in the terrible blades someone tried to turn the grinder off, but the external off button was not working. Someone finally unplugged it. The arm was lost up to the elbow. After a long stay in the hospital Mike went to live with our father, long-divorced from Mom and living with his mother.

After a few months Mike disappeared again. Daddy committed suicide shortly afterward. I lost track of Mike for years.

In my late thirties I was surprised to get a letter from Tucson. It was from Mike. He had tracked me down. “I woke up in a Tucson jail one morning and wondered what the hell I was doing there,” he wrote, “especially since as far as I knew I lived in California, and didn’t remember leaving it on purpose.” When he woke up in the jail he had an eerie feeling that his life was about to change into something he wouldn’t recognize. The feeling was right on.  

Mike was tried and convicted of burglary. Except for the fact that it happened in Arizona instead of California, it seemed like a familiar story in Mike’s life. Need drugs, commit crime, get caught, go to jail.

But this time, a compassionate judge sentenced him to a residential halfway house, Casa Amigo, instead of jail. At Casa there was counseling and job training, basic living skills like cooking and cleaning, virtually nonstop Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings, and other resources. Not to mention friendship and bonding. Mike needed all those things. 

After Mike and I wrote letters for a few months, I flew to spend a week with him in his little bungalow, in an old barrio of Tucson.

“How in the world did you end up in a city in the Sonoran desert?” I asked him over coffee.

“I just remember hitchhiking, and everything else is blacked out until I woke up in jail,” he told me. “I asked a guy in the cell and he told me I was in Tucson.”

Mike didn’t know how he got there, but he knew Tucson was the right place for him to end up. From his first day in the halfway house, when he was forty, until he died ten years later he was clean and sober. He had been addicted to one drug or another continuously for nearly twenty-five years.

Mike was a high school dropout, but he completed two years of community college and then earned a civil engineering degree from the University of Arizona. Job hunting afterwards, he had a lot of anxiety about the felonies he had to disclose on job applications, which would scare off employers. But someone at the Arizona Highway Department read between the lines of his resume and saw his amazing turnaround after so many years of drug abuse and crime. The department gave him a chance, and he was a civil engineer there until he died.

He met his girlfriend Susan in Narcotics Anonymous. She and Mike lived together, with their formerly stray neighborhood cat Petey, until Mike’s death.

Mike had no self-pity over his missing arm. He was grateful he still had his elbow joint. “It gives me a lot more functionality,” he told me. He drove, ironed, cooked, bowled, did everything else people with two arms do.

He didn’t even feel sorry for himself over his rapidly spreading lung cancer. I learned it was already late stage when I arrived. He was thin and gaunt and fragile-looking. His cheeks were hollow. But he was peaceful and calm. Happy.  

My last night there, Mike and I talked and talked until the mountains in the window and the moon hanging over them disappeared, and a faint salmon glow lit the sky. “The last ten years have been fuller than I ever dreamed life could be,” he told me. He had remained in NA and sponsored and mentored many newcomers. He was loved and respected by his extended family of recovering addicts throughout Tucson. He and Susan had a loving relationship. Petey was a joy. “I have no regrets,” he said. Not even about dying.

We never saw each other after that visit. He died soon after I got back to San Jose. His memorial was held in the halfway house, where his healing had begun. Mike’s many friends gathered from all over Tucson and shared their stories about him, and their love and respect for him. Afterwards his ashes were scattered in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains east of Tucson. Mike wanted to be in the winds near his beloved home where he had found peace and meaning, and service to his fellow addicts, in his last years. It was there that he finally got treatment instead of punishment, and found healing, friendship, work and love.

I never dreamed that one day I would call Mike my teacher, but he was. He taught me that it’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to recover from addiction, even from one with as vicious a grip as heroin, and even if the addiction has lasted decades. It’s never too late to find love and adopt a cat and make a home and go to school, even after a life of crime and incarceration. It’s never too late for a miracle.