Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Inspirational Deborah Lane Whalon

I’d known Debbie for many years, but only really got to know her during the last few. A few of my lifetime friends are her lifetime friends; our paths began to cross with regularity more recently, and enough for me to be forever grateful for that exposure.

The word ‘inspiration’ has been used a lot lately among our friends with regard to Debbie – and it’s true, but in more ways than we think. Even the best words can be inadequate when the full meaning behind them becomes lost in translation by overuse and simplified definitions.

I looked up the meaning of ‘inspiration’ and found a few, with slight differences: “A force or influence that inspires someone. The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something. A divine influence directly and immediately exerted upon the mind or soul.”

The first definition is the most simplified. That is the definition we relate to first when we hear or see something that causes us to smile in surprise or awe; when we are shown the good in the bad, or a light in the darkness. I’m going to take the liberty and combine the last two parts of the definitions for the deeper meaning: Inspiration is the divine influence directly and immediately exerted upon the mind and soul that stimulates one to feel something and act on it in some way.

This is what Debbie did. She brought a tribe together, and she will always be there to hold it together. Everyone around her took action in some way, ostensibly for her, but in actuality for all of us together because we are the ones who will continue to benefit from it from now on. Everything we think we did for Debbie at the time served to bring us out of our own selves and closer with each other. Through Debbie, we are more connected.

We post on social media about what our lives are full of. Debbie’s Facebook posts showed that her life to her was more than just about cancer. She incorporated it into her life because she had to, but only allowed it to take up so much space. She never let it define who she was or consume her.

(I have to take a moment to stand up for Debbie here. She had been accused of exposing her illness on Facebook for attention and sympathy, and it bothered her enough to bring it up a few times. To her accusers, let me remind you of one impact of social media: many of us use it frequently, posting pictures and interacting regularly. This actually imposes an odd responsibility in certain cases; someone who posts frequently would get a lot of attention if they just ‘disappeared’ from it - people would start asking questions and making assumptions publicly. There would also be public commentary if pictures showed drastic changes in a person’s appearance. Debbie’s ‘announcement’ nipped the likelihood of that open speculation and scrutiny in the bud, and she did it matter-of-factly, with class.

And to those that could really make that assumption of another in general: you may want to take a look at your own motivations if you truly believe that someone would want to suffer hardship as a means of gain.)

Debbie spoke her mind. She was one of the few people that could actually surprise me with what came out of her mouth. Even if we disagreed, I loved and appreciated her straightforwardness in her beliefs.

Visiting her in the hospital was eye-opening.

(This part, what I’m trying to say right here, is what I’m having the hardest time writing – the part that has had me sitting in front of my computer for hours today alone, and what has prevented me from writing this sooner because I’m afraid I can’t convey what I want to say to the full extent.)

For all intents and purposes, I was visiting a dear friend in the hospital who was very sick – but that’s not what I encountered when I got there. Yes, she was visibly ill, but if you took away all the trappings and signs of that illness, you had Debbie – or even Debbie 2.0. Even sitting in that hospital bed she was still a presence, a force, who seemed to get more of her life done in those few hours than I do in a day. It was almost like Debbie wasn’t sick; she just had many things to attend to and this was only one of them. There are many sayings about inner strength and what causes it to be revealed, but I saw more than that. Her inner strength wasn’t developed by tragic circumstances - it was more like what happens with diamonds, when the pressure brings out the shine of a divinity (yes, I’m using that word, too) that was already there.

And because I still cannot find words that I am happy with, I will rely on the phrase “awe inspiring”. She shone.

I briefly got to witness her interaction with her husband Scott for a little while (I had never met him before). In that short time I saw so many facets of their relationship, of their togetherness and love and mutual support. We talked about her son Tyler, too. Everything they say about a mother’s love was right there in front of me. Tyler, that kind of love will always be there for you.

Scott and Tyler shared Debbie’s last days here with everyone else. (That generosity will never be forgotten.) Even then, while heavily medicated, she made efforts to acknowledge her visitors. I can’t personally consider those obvious efforts a struggle because it was just more of Debbie’s own determination taking charge. It was … impressive.

I’m not the type of person to go to a cemetery to visit someone who’s passed; I visit them whenever I think of them. After the first anniversary of a loved one’s death I ‘forget’ the date and only celebrate their date of birth; this helps to ensure that my memories are happy and my heart is grateful. For me, to dwell on the saddest part of someone’s life does both of us a disservice. A life is full of so much more than what happens at the end. It is human tendency to avoid thinking about what makes us sad; by keeping my thoughts and memories on the happy, I keep them at the forefront of my thoughts – and keep those people with me, all the time. The pictures I save and display are usually of those people in their prime and at the peak of health so that I always think of them that way.

I have pictures of me and Debbie, both before and during her illness. In an unusual turn for me, my favorites are the ones of us together when she was presumably at her worst - pictures taken in the hospital, when she’s not wearing makeup or a hat to cover the hair loss of chemotherapy - because what I felt when I was with her then … what see in her eyes and her smile in those pictures … is Debbie at her most beautiful, her most divine.

And that is truly inspiring.

During my last visit to Debbie while she was in the hospital, she had asked me if I would write her story with her. She mentioned a few things that she wanted me to write about (again, more than just illness), and we set up a plan for how to go about it. That was barely three weeks ago, and two weeks later she was gone … but I am not writing this without her, nor will this be the last piece she influenced – or, rather, inspired.

Thank you Debbie, for the ‘more’ you showed me .

Deborah Lane Whalon
May 31, 1966 - August 7, 2017

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Friends of a Lifetime

I have some very special friends. This year most of us are turning 50 and, as with any milestone birthday, this year comes with a lot of reflection.

Tomorrow, Maryann is taking the plunge. I met Maryann when we were just turning 14, our freshman year of high school in 1981. She sat in front of me in Mr. DeJesus’ Portuguese class, and we were in choir together. I lived vicariously through Maryann – she was so much more ‘worldly’ than I was at that age. After high school we worked together at Sears Surplus; I loved it because we were older and my ‘leash’ was longer once I moved away from home, and I did things with her. She is one solid friend. I think that’s the word that I keep thinking of. When I think about all the things she had to listen to from me … and she still talks to me. She was also the biggest supporter of me following my dreams and writing, even when I pushed it aside.

Next week, Stephanie is jumping into the next decade. I met Stephanie through my first ex in 1992, and was fortunate enough to win her in the divorce. She thinks I’m a nerd and calls me “Adrian” after Talia Shire’s character in Rocky. I like to think it’s just because of the glasses, but she says it’s more than that. Despite that, she knows that she and I are a lot alike. And she still likes me.

I’ll be next, in October (I’ve talked about that enough already, and will do more talking about that later).

Then, in November, it’s Donna’s turn. Donna has been with me since 1973 – I’ve said a lot about her here already, and still haven’t said enough. And she’s pretty much stuck with me (I know too much).

TWENTY YEARS AGO (I love saying that!) we tried to all get together for our 30th birthdays. We smoked cigars to mark the occasion. Donna wasn’t able to make it, but our friend Kim was.

Three friends, from three different periods of my life. All here with me now.

Have you ever ‘mixed’ your friends like that? Do you know how really fun it is to see your friends meet your friends? And how amazing an opportunity it is?

These girls are lifetime friends of mine.

I think about my daughters and their friends, watching who comes and goes and who stays. I hear the same angst in their conversations that I had when I was younger, but now with all this time passed I’m not worried about them and can only reassure them that it will get better as they get older. It takes the age and experience to begin to see the bigger picture about what really matters, and who. Friendships aren’t planned; they happen, and sometimes you don’t even see the beginning until you’re well into it.

I am well ‘into it’ now. And I can look around me and see the wonderful group of people I’m surrounded by. At this age (I love saying that, too!), there are new friends in the picture, too – but they’re not really ‘new’ because I’ve known them for a long time. We built a history together without even realizing it, just by being there, even with the ins and outs and sideways turns of life. Our paths keep crossing.

Whether or not I get to see them a lot, or only a little, I have years’ worth of reminders that make me think of them – probably more regularly than they think. As a part of my history, they are a part of me (the good parts).

Maryann, someday I hope to show you fully how much you mean to me, because I don’t feel that I have adequately. You are still my date for the Oscars when I win Best Screenplay (even if it’s not for my sequel of Mary Poppins).

Stephanie, there’s so much I can’t (and won’t) say here. You know I love you.


Happy 50th Birthday, my lifetime friends.