When It’s Over, Coping Strategies for a Senior Parent

runningontothefield

My son walked off his high school’s home football field for the last time on Friday. Like 15 of the 16 playoff teams, his team ended their season in defeat. The fact that they were among the final four was little consolation that night, as the seniors shed their Gretna green for the last time.

Years ago, I’d bring him to the high school games at that stadium. He’d sit in the middle school section while my wife, daughter and I sat on the other side of the press box. Like clockwork, he’d show up at our seats at halftime, looking for concession stand money. After the game, he and I would talk about what we saw and about how neat it was going to be to play on that field with his friends in a few years. Those years went quickly.

He started in the first varsity game of his sophomore year and every game since. During the final games of his sophomore and junior seasons, I looked over at the senior parents and tried to imagine what they were feeling. In both cases, we suffered losses in the state quarter-final playoff games. There was no next game or even next year for them. It was over. Selfishly, I was thankful that there was another year for us.

For the past two weeks, I watched seniors on our opponents’ teams play their last down of high school football. For most, it will be the last down ever as a football player. For them, it’s over. If we had lost either game, it would have been over for us too.

When it’s over, it’s hard not to look back with regret, but regret doesn’t get us anywhere. When it’s over, it’s hard not to wish that it wasn’t over, but it’s pointless to wish away an inevitable ending. The end is going to come in almost everything.

These are realities that I will face several times in the next few months, as my oldest child moves through his senior year of high school, and then again in two years, when my youngest does the same.

To help me cope, this is the strategy I’m trying to use:

  1. It’s not about me. I’m a nostalgic guy, and because of that, my perspective is often skewed. Nostalgic people tend to get distracted by their own thoughts, and I’m no different. While my nostalgia is irrepressible, it’s also tied to my child’s experience. As much as possible, I have to let my child’s emotions guide my approach, and remind myself that I’m just support.
  2. Gratitude. A tremendously positive experience is the entire reason that there is sadness when it’s over. If we didn’t enjoy the ride so much, it wouldn’t hurt so much when it grinds to a stop. Instead of the sadness of an ending, I try to remember the positives and be thankful. Pictures, memories and spending time with other parents help with this. Don’t let the screeching of the brakes ruin the thrill of riding a rollercoaster.
  3. The end is part of a transition process. The end is also the start of something new. College doesn’t start until high school ends. A career doesn’t start until college ends. You can’t progress to the next stage until you draw the curtain on the previous stage.

I was mostly successful with these strategies on Friday night, but it wasn’t easy. I had to consciously steer my thoughts away from sadness and regret, and break from my typical post-game routine.

Normally, I rush to the parking lot as soon as the game ends. Not this time. As the final seconds ticked off the clock and the seniors consoled each other under the bright lights, I stood up from the seat I had occupied for three seasons and took a few minutes to burn a picture in my memory. I should have done it earlier, but I was finally able to fully appreciate the moment, right before it was over.

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Looking Up from a Wheelchair

He walked right up to me, shook my hand and welcomed me to the stadium. I was on a recruiting visit with my son at a large nationally ranked football program, and though we had never met him before, the record-setting starting quarterback was extremely friendly and generous with his pre-game time. A couple of his coaches and teammates also stopped by or waved my direction.

I’m sufficiently self-aware to recognize that my wheelchair, rather than my good looks, probably attracted the extra attention. I’m certain that I wasn’t mistaken as a recruit.

There was a time that I was ashamed to use my wheelchair – I can walk, after all – but using the chair has more than the obvious benefits, like moving comfortably and quickly to places that would otherwise be impossible. From that chair, I see incredible kindness in strangers – kindness that few people get to see, like that scene in the stadium.

People rush to open doors, to greet me and to ask if they can help in any way. Strangers have bought me drinks and insisted that I cut in line.

Despite the discord that captures headlines, using a wheelchair has shown me that most people genuinely care about others. Last month, I wrote about an awkward exchange with a stranger in a Las Vegas elevator, but that happens far less than the other side of the spectrum. More often, people go out of their way to be friendly and welcoming to me, and I truly appreciate that.

I’m still not completely comfortable in the chair, and only use it for longer distances or challenging terrain. On short walks, like into the gym or church, I walk unassisted. If it’s unfamiliar terrain, I use my “stick.” (I still can’t bring myself to call it a cane, and it really is a shooting stick that doubles as a walking stick.)

Physically though, I’m much more comfortable off my feet. When I’m on my feet and moving, my eyes focus on the ground in front of me, as I scan for slick spots or impediments that might knock me over. Because my attention is elsewhere, I can appear aloof and unapproachable when I’m walking, making it hard for me to notice strangers as much more than potential impediments. Most strangers react instinctively to my body language and give me space. The chair changes all of that.

Psychologically, I’m getting more comfortable using the chair when I have to, because I’ve learned that people are far less bothered by the chair than I am.

Ironically, I was more anxious in the chair in front of friends and family than in front of strangers. Walking around with a limp for nearly my entire life has numbed me to the stares of strangers. It was harder for me to succumb to the chair in the presence of people who have known me for years. It’s not like they didn’t know that I had a handicap, but it was important to me to show that I wasn’t that abnormal, especially to people who I have walked beside for years.. Hell, I hunted, skied, golfed and ran beside some of these people before the wear and tear of awkward movement made that impossible. I worried that somehow my relationships would change with the new limitations. Fortunately, using the chair has only improved my relationships.

For the last few years, I would skip games and other outings, because the walking they required made me uncomfortable during them and miserable afterward. I don’t have that problem in the chair, and my friends and family realize that and they are thankful that I was able to set my ego aside and ride. I have even relented and let some people push the chair. That was a big step for me, especially with my childhood friends with whom I used to compete for male dominance. None of have them have shown the discomfort I feared, and they all are eager to help.

Again, I’d much prefer a life without the occasional use of the chair, but that wasn’t the fate I was handed. Accepting that fate with a positive attitude has been rewarded with an enhanced feeling and appreciation of kindness that I otherwise wouldn’t have enjoyed.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be in a wheelchair to enjoy and spread kindness, but you might have to consciously participate. Just slow down and take the time to be kind and appreciate kindness. In short order, you’ll find that kindness requires little investment and pays huge dividends.

 

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Looking Down on a Wheelchair

She looked at my wife, then at me and then at the wall before saying, “I don’t envy you.” We were in an elevator at Bellagio in Las Vegas, headed back to our room after an afternoon spent exploring The Strip. I was in my wheelchair, and Lynda was behind me. It was evident that it was Lynda who she didn’t envy.

Lynda did leave the door open for that comment when she said something to the effect of, “That’s a workout!” in regard to pushing the wheelchair. Still, the stranger’s comment was stunning, so much so that neither of us could manage a response. To her credit, the stranger probably wasn’t trying to insult us – she just let a thought escape her lips.

No man wants to be the source of pity for his wife, but I could understand the reason behind the insensitive comment. Pushing a wheelchair is a lot of work, and I would have much rather been walking side-by-side with my wife, but that wasn’t an option. Ironically, the wheelchair was Lynda’s idea, and the genesis for that idea came in Las Vegas. On our first trip to Las Vegas and for most of the second, Lynda mostly explored the city on her own, as the walking that it required was just too much for my legs. It didn’t bother me all that much to wait in the room while Lynda was out. As my friends and family know, I never want to get in the way.

On that second trip to Las Vegas, Lynda checked with the hotel concierge and discovered that they had a wheelchair for people like me to use. Even when she brought the chair up to the room, I resisted. I had never been in a wheelchair in public, and wasn’t eager to start. My wife is persistent though, and I’m glad that she is. Using a wheelchair allowed me to see Las Vegas in ways that never would have been possible otherwise. We were returning from just such an adventure when we encountered the stranger on the elevator.

I’m not a stranger to pity, and it really doesn’t bother me that much, because I know that genuine pity comes out of concern. People don’t want to see me struggle, and they feel sorry for me that I have to struggle. Plus, they don’t want the struggle for themselves, and are secretly afraid that they couldn’t handle it. I’m certain that the stranger in the elevator felt that way for Lynda and probably for me too. She just said what a lot of other people were thinking.

She had no idea that Lynda insisted on buying me a wheelchair and using it even when I don’t want to. Several times on that trip, I told Lynda that she could leave me in the room, but she always refused. (It’s hard to be stubborn around my wife.) She makes sacrifices like that all of the time, and I appreciate her immensely for it.

The stranger also didn’t know that my hands were blistered and bleeding from propelling the chair myself. There is a reason that experienced wheelchair users wear gloves.

Most of all, the stranger didn’t realize that people with ample experience facing adversity don’t pity themselves and certainly don’t want pity from others. In fact, we’re often happier than people without adversity, because we appreciate small things that a lot of other people take for granted. Pity doesn’t usually cross our minds, unless someone else brings it up, like what happened on that elevator.

Coincidentally, I read the book Tough as They Come by Travis Mills during that trip. SSG Mills is a quadruple amputee due to injuries he suffered while defending our country in Afghanistan. Like me, he has an incredible wife who adapted to a marriage that requires more from her than lesser women could handle. Initially, when facing his new reality and its limitations, SSG Mills thought of his wife Kelsey and what his injuries would mean to her. I’m sure that the stranger on the elevator wouldn’t envy her either, because that was SSG Mills’ initial feeling too. However, once he crushed self-pity, he found a new purpose that he could share with his wife, the Travis Mills Foundation.

I write all of this not to make you feel guilty for pitying other people, but to ask you to use pity as a prompt for kindness. When you feel the very natural feeling of pity, say or do something nice. You might surprised by the beauty you find in adversity, just like we are.

Tough as They Come

Next Month: It’s not all bad! Far from it! Hear about the good things in people I get to see from my wheelchair.

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Real Olympic Magic

pingpong

To find the magic around us, we often have to challenge our preconceptions and look below the surface. The Olympics and a conversation I had about them reminded me of that recently.

“Table tennis? You’re really watching table tennis?” I asked my son last weekend when I found him with remote in hand, glued to the screen of the TV. “Why would you watch that?” In my cynical eyes, I saw a simple game that you might play in your grandparents’ basement, not a serious sport worthy of the Olympics.

“Because it’s a teenage kid who has worked his tail off to compete at the highest level,” he told me. “I can identify with it.” Yep, another humbling moment for Dad. Just when I think I’m starting to figure things out, I’m reminded that I have a lot to learn.

The Olympics is not about spectator entertainment, it’s about the passion and dedication of the athletes who are competing. It’s about their four-year journey and the sacrifices they make. It’s about nurturing a dream while toiling in relative obscurity. It’s about the power of the human spirit.

For the most part, Olympic athletes are not household names. Even those who succeed enjoy a relatively short time in the limelight. Very few make even an acceptable income from their efforts. In fact, they often delay their career and family goals while they pursue their dreams. Many aspiring Olympic athletes, despite their dedication and sacrifice, won’t even qualify for the competition, forcing them to decide if they can spend another four years in preparation. We don’t see any of that when we scoff at a game of table tennis.

We don’t see the ten years that Kanak Jha, the 16-year-old table tennis phenom, spent in preparation for the Olympic stage. Last year, while most of his contemporaries were headed to high school, Jha traveled from his California home to Sweden to train with the world’s best table tennis players, splitting time between training and taking online high school classes. He sacrificed a normal high school experience to pursue his dreams.

While I learned that, yes, it is possible to make a nice living playing table tennis, even most Olympic-level table tennis players won’t get there. Like many athletes, that doesn’t keep them from trying.

There is a 20-year-old woman in my neighborhood who has been religiously training to be an Olympic weight-lifter for the past few years. Like Jha, she splits her time between academics and training, making sacrifices that few are aware of and even fewer are capable of. Again, it’s not money or fame that drives her. She is driven by a desire to be the very best at what she loves to do.

Imagine if we could apply passion like that to our professional lives – if we could sacrifice comfort and convenience for multiple years in a quest to be the very best at what we do.

I’m reminded of the 10,000 hour rule which I first encountered when reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. The theory of this rule is that it takes 10,000 hours of “dedicated practice” to become world class at something, and it’s applicable to many areas. For example, the average professional works 50 40-hour weeks or 2000 hours per year. At this pace, it takes them five years to become world-class at their profession. Of course, they can shorten this by working more hours, like a 50 hour-per-week pace for 51 weeks. In that case, they can achieve world-class status in one less year. Coincidentally, it’s four years between Olympics.

While might not ever be Olympic athletes, we can certainly learn something from their dedication and perseverance, and through that, an appreciation for what they do – even table tennis.

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Visuals Are the Guideposts of Dreams

bucketlist

After my sophomore year of college, I set a goal to graduate magna cum laude. I had done the math, and figured out that I could make it if I did everything right. To remind myself of that goal, I created a big sign saying “MAGNA CUM LAUDE” and hung it over my desk. When I was tempted to take a shortcut or not work as hard as I should, the sign reminded me of my goal.

I wish I could say that I achieved that goal, but an over-ambitious 21-credit-hour semester knocked me off track. I earned six A’s and one C+ that semester. Damned poetry class! I still remember the disheartening experience of calculating my maximum GPA after that semester and learning that magna cum laude was mathematically impossible, even if I earned A’s in my remaining classes. However, instead of giving up, I took the sign down and used a pair of scissors to create a sign that said “CUM LAUDE.”

* Magna cum laude was a GPA of 3.7-3.8. Cum laude was 3.6-3.7.

My daughter’s bulletin board, pictured above, reminded me of that sign and how visuals motivate the efforts necessary to achieve goals. Seeing our goals on paper flips a switch in our brains that paints a picture of the goal and a path to it. Through this mental exercise, we actually project ourselves to the place we want to be, and because we were there once in our minds, we know where we’re going. That’s why it’s easier to drive to familiar locations than it is to go some place new to us.

In an oft-cited study, Dr. Gail Matthews, a professor of psychology at Dominican University in California, found that goal-seekers are 42 percent more likely to achieve their goals when they write them down. You don’t have to create a sign, like my daughter and I did; you just need to put pen to paper.

Writing your goals makes them much more tangible than just thinking about them. While it’s still important to mentally visualize your goals; physically seeing them reinforces that visual. Goals kept in solitary mental confinement can get lost in everyday clutter, like worry and doubt. When goals are isolated in our thoughts, issues, both pressing and otherwise, can shove their way past the goal, until it is simply forgotten or conscientiously abandoned. That’s usually how many New Year’s resolutions die. We want to drop those extra 15 pounds, but paying the bills takes precedence over diet and exercise.

When a goal is in your head AND in front of your eyes, it’s much more difficult to neglect or ignore than when it’s kept secretly in your mind, but writing it down is just the first step. Place the written goal in a spot that can’t be ignored, like the corner of your computer monitor or on the mirror you stare into at the beginning and end of each day. The more times you see that goal, the stronger the image your mind creates around it.

You can also take it a step further by sharing your goals with other people, creating an accountability contingent that will ask you about your progress. Before long, you’ll become known as the guy who wants to run a marathon or the girl who wants to own a restaurant. It takes some guts to put yourself out there like that, but courage is an important part of successful goal pursuit, and it’s helpful to have others supporting you.

I did graduate cum laude, though it came down to the very end, and I barely made it. I was so close that I am convinced that, without that sign, as altered as it might have been, I wouldn’t have achieved my goal.

Try writing down a goal that is important to you. If it’s that important, it’s worth writing down. Even if you have to get out the scissors and modify it later, you’ll be closer than you would have been otherwise.

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Listen and Look for Opportunities

dice

Executive recruiters contact more than 50 people per day, and often, experience rejection almost as many times. Most rejections are legitimate – the position doesn’t fit their professional goals or the timing and geography are off. We can accept that. It’s more difficult to accept rejections from people who don’t properly consider the opportunity before rejecting it.

That happened just this past week. I had recently contacted a professional who I have known for quite a while and told him about an opportunity that I thought would be good for him. Without really listening, he told me that he was busy and asked me to call him in a couple of weeks. During those two weeks, we filled the position. When he called me this week to ask about the position, I told him that it was no longer available. He acknowledged that it would have been a great career move for him, and was disappointed and regretful that he didn’t take the time to explore it.

Regret over missed opportunities happens way too often, and it’s not always related to a professional move. Maybe we have an opportunity to buy a better home or car, but instead of taking the time to explore it, we convince ourselves to remain with the status quo. Maybe we have an opportunity to experience a unique event or trip, but don’t want the hassle of introducing something new to our lives. When we realize that we missed an opportunity, regret sneaks into our lives.

Sometimes, we get lucky, and opportunity doesn’t pass us by. One of my gym friends recently made a career move that he had been contemplating for over a year. His only regret – that he didn’t make the move much earlier. He was one of the lucky ones. His opportunity waited around for him.

That doesn’t happen often. More commonly, opportunities appear only briefly, and they are rarely under a spotlight screaming “Take Me!” You have to be aware enough to recognize the opportunity when it appears.

Back in college, I had the opportunity to ask a rather remarkable young coed on a date to a fraternity party. The timing wasn’t great. She was transferring to a university in another state the next month, and she already had a boyfriend. I had reasons not to take the risk, but I did it anyway, and it opened the door to 21 years and counting of marriage. I often think of what might have happened had I let Lynda leave Lincoln for North Carolina without ever asking her on a date, and am thankful for the lesson that risk is often rewarded.

Big and small opportunities appear almost daily. Sometimes, they are loud and overt – like a recruiter’s call. Other times, they are quiet and subtle – like a friend offering to introduce you to someone new. The best way not to miss these opportunities is to listen and look.

Listen to everything around you. When a friend makes a suggestion, consider it. After a lunch or a chance conversation at a party, review the conversation. I can’t tell you how many times my friends casually mentioned something that later led me to success. Many times, it took review and follow-up on that conversation, but listening started the process. Likewise, listen to the media surrounding you. Granted, not everything is positive and useful, but it’s your job to shift through the chaff for valuable kernels. It’s worth the effort.

Look for opportunity. Use your brain’s reticular activating system by programming yourself to notice opportunity. When your brain knows that you’re looking for opportunity, it will steer your attention toward it. It’s like those pesky ads that appear on Web sites after you use your computer to shop for something. Advertisers know what you’re looking for. So does your brain. Let your brain direct your attention to that.

Opportunity is a great gift. It opens doors and improves lives. Don’t let it pass you by.

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Limit Hope, Shield Yourself from Disappointment?

persistence

One of my recruiters told me that he shields himself from disappointment by not getting his hopes up. He rationalizes that if he doesn’t get his hopes up, he doesn’t get disappointed when things don’t work out. If he finds success, he’s happy, because he didn’t expect it. When he fails, he’s already prepared for it.

I thought about him the other day as I spent yet another day hunting wild turkeys without success. Because of my history of unsuccessful turkey hunts, as I crawled into the blind, doubt dominated my thoughts, though I had reason for hope. My dad and son had already filled their tags, and the setup was perfect, but so too were many of the setups from which I’ve hunted in the past 16 years. I loaded my gun from the only box of turkey ammunition I ever bought, when I still lived in North Carolina. The brass on those shells is tarnished and dented from being loaded and unloaded countless times over the years. I’ve fired exactly two shells from that box at the only turkey I’ve taken, and that was more than 10 years ago.

As the hours slipped by, my limited hope became buried under doubt. Finally, I unloaded my gun and called for the truck to come pick me up. I wasn’t upset – it was a beautiful day to be in nature – but my enthusiasm for turkey hunting took yet another beating, as it would next week too.

Would the result have been easier to accept if I expected failure? I considered that as I watched the truck approach. Maybe I was expecting failure and actually attracting it through the law of attraction? I didn’t want to acknowledge that, but it’s very likely true.

Being positive takes considerable effort, especially when you have a history of failure, like I do with turkey hunting. Though they aren’t easy to get and keep, positivity and its younger brother persistence are very often keys to success.

Want proof? Read this article about Jeremy Hazelbaker who now plays baseball in the major leagues for the St.  Louis Cardinals. The 28-year-old rookie spent the past seven-plus years playing minor league baseball, watching some of his teammates get called up to the major leagues, but watching far more of them quit the game after being cut. He himself was cut last spring, and after not getting any other offers, began to consider life after the game. Though the future looked grim, he didn’t give up and continued his workouts.

Less than a year after being cut, he got hits in all four of his plate appearances in his very first major league game at the Cardinals’ stadium. He was the first Cardinal in history to achieve that feat.

Hazelbaker still isn’t a starter on the team, and his early success hasn’t carried over into the rest of the season, but he is doing what would have been impossible had he lost positivity and persistence. During those seven minor league seasons and 751 minor league games, I imagine that he occasionally felt like I have felt during my turkey hunting career. He probably still worries about the next call to the coach’s office and trip home, but he isn’t letting that rob him of happiness.

To achieve our major league dreams, we have to quit expecting failure and work to retain our positivity and persistence, even when things don’t go our way. That’s where things get tough. When faced with the familiarity of our earlier failures, we’re tempted to anticipate them. We run for shelter at the slightest rumble of thunder, when we should be looking for blue sky. Yes, we might get a little wet, but it also might just be the time that the skies clear and our goals appear.

Living that way, anticipating success, is a much better way of living than trying to shield yourself from disappointment by expecting it.

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