Friday, May 16, 2014

Forgotten but not gone

I attended my 25th high school reunion in Boston last weekend. High school for me did not involve pep rallies, parties, sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. Alas no, I attended an uber-academic, all-girls, 8-year prep school. I don't even try to describe to Alaskans the bizarre over-education I got, with highlights like mandatory declamations (that's speeches to you mere mortals) in Latin on Exelano Day. That would be March 4 -- a homophone for "march forth," or exelano in Latin. Of course.

The reunion was intimate and inspiring. There was no scramble to compare notes about money and accomplishments, to flirt or one-up each other. I felt instead genuine warmth and openness in the vignettes and insights my classmates shared in our too-brief time together.

One told me she felt lucky her husband turned out to be such a great match for her because she married him for all the wrong reasons -- she liked his smell and how hot he looked in his beach-style attire. One told me about the devastating pain of her divorce, that she was an empty vessel, and had since truly come into herself. One told me about her father's death, how close he and her husband had been, how much she misses his presence.

One told me she and her family recently moved in with her widowed mother and that while it was meant to be a short-term arrangement, it's bringing her mom and her kids -- and likewise her husband and herself -- so much love and joy. One told me that when she asked a friend -- a married guy with a child -- to consider being her sperm donor, his wife told him, "Of course you'll do it!" and they remain lovingly involved with her now four-year-old child. 

I was our class speaker at the reunion. I talked about loss and love, in that order, and while only the Winsor School Class of 1989 will get the humor, I hope there is something in the message that will resonate with the rest of you. With that I take a deep breath and share it... Please note that it's not a perfect transcript as I ad-libbed a little.


Hello friends. It truly is an honor to address such an interesting and accomplished group of women. It’s also a little intimidating, so I thought I’d take you down a notch with a pop quiz. No consulting with your neighbors – keep your answers in your head.  

1.      Define ablative absolute.
2.      Who was Oliver Cromwell?
3.      Summarize in one sentence the plot of The Tempest.
4.      Write 4697 in Roman numerals.
5.      Count to ten in base 2.
6.      What is a telomere’s role in cell division?
7.      Briefly state Avogadro’s hypothesis.

Please, tell me you flunked this as badly as I did. Over the past few weeks as I’ve thought about Winsor, I’ve marveled at how much I managed to learn and how completely it’s been wiped from my brain. I came to wonder, did I retain anything from eight years at Winsor? Do I owe my parents a big apology and a really big check for all that tuition?  

Hold that thought while I tell a little story.

As some of you know, in October 2010 my husband John died in an accident. In the weeks and months that followed, people would often tell me they felt his spirit. They saw John smiling in a dream and offering his characteristic hug; they looked at his picture on their fridge and felt his warm encouragement; they went skiing and could feel his joy suffuse their own.

Once when someone told me such a story, my bitterness eked out and I said: “Well, I’m glad for you. All I see and feel is his anguish at making the ultimate screw-up.”

John went for a run while we were on vacation with our kids, who were then 8 and 2. He misjudged what was on the other side of a low cement barrier, which he vaulted, only to see too late that the running path he was trying to reach was behind a gap. He fell, and died before the medics arrived. 

I was in our hotel room with the kids, so I didn’t see the accident, and I really didn’t understand what happened until nine months later, when I visited the site and met with witnesses.

During those nine months, I was haunted by John’s last moments. My imagination filled in the blanks, envisioning for him the deepest regret the soul can conceive. When I thought of John’s spirit, I pictured him dope-slapping himself for all eternity – and perpetually apologizing to me for all the diapers and early mornings and dishes and cat litter he’d saddled me with.

The day before the first anniversary of his death, I went for a run with a friend. The kids and I were visiting the east coast from Alaska. I had packed in my suitcase a small wooden box with a few tablespoons of John’s cremains. (Yes, I used a tablespoon.)

I wondered if we should do something with the little travel box of ashes on the first anniversary of his death. Should we pick a beach he liked and scatter the ashes? What if the wind kicked up and blew them back at us? Should we pour them in a puddle at the golf course behind our condo where he liked to sneak with the kids to play? Or was that crude?

I ruminated about all this to my running companion, who happened to be a piano teacher and self-described spiritual counselor.

Without missing a beat she said to me, “Have you asked him?”

Um … who?

“Ask John what he wants you to do with the ashes,” she said.

Hm. I’m not really the type who communes with the dead. But after our run I got into the car, gripped the steering wheel and said out loud, “John, what do you want me to do with your ashes?”

He answered immediately, with one of his favorite mantras about statistics and life (he was a statistician). He said: “Keep it simple, stupid. You got ashes in Juneau, you got ashes in Minnesota. Keep the ashes with you. I want to be wherever my family is.”

It wasn’t like I heard him speak to me from the heavens or materialize in a haze of white light. I heard his voice from within myself.

A few days later, after an ugly parenting scene – I’ll spare you the details – I was running on a treadmill at the Y. Thump, thump, thump. There was a guy on the treadmill next to me, so this time, I asked John silently for some parenting input.  

Again his response was immediate, and his advice was spot on. My eyes got hot and wet. I cried because he was gone, I cried because I had found him again. I increased my speed and tried to play it off like a lot of sweat on my face.

As I began to call on this alter-ego to guide me, I moved past the vision of John in perpetual mourning for his own death. I began to picture him smiling, juggling apples, riding his bike and waving at everyone on the street, cracking jokes no one else gets. I realized he was a source of strength and love that I would always carry within me. When someone asked me if he came to me from above I said no, it was more like I ate him – it was like I digested him. 

So, back to Winsor. I’ve come to understand that even though I can’t tell Archimedes from Aristotle, I can’t factor a polynomial, and I’ve forgotten how to conjugate verbs in three different languages, Winsor will always be with me. I have digested the key lessons of Winsor. Such as:

1. When your brain needs a break, go to The Hole for a warm bagel and some tunes. Don’t forget to get some M&Ms on your way out.

2. Don’t walk through Pervert Park -- morning, noon or night. Just don’t do it.

3. If you come up with a good enough argument and the whole class bands together, you can convince your English teacher to let you put on a play instead of take a final exam.

4. When you’re stressed, sit on a quiet bench in the courtyard and breathe in the smell of the lilacs.

5. Teenage girls can smell every bit as bad as teenage boys.

6. In Lower School, your big sister makes you feel safe and known and special. Pass on the kindness to your little sister when you get to Upper School.  

7. Just pull your hair into a ponytail and voila! You can play the part of a guy.

8. On warm days, climb out the window and have class outside.

9. You should always be willing to stand up and speak out, even if you are speaking in a dead language and no one understands a word of it.

10. People will pay 50 cents to wear their own pants, if you make wearing them a privilege.

These lessons have permeated my being. But there’s an overarching lesson that Winsor has imprinted on my soul. It’s harder to define and I think the closest word I can come up with is love.

I have come to feel that Winsor imbued in me, and I hope in all of us, a deep sense of love. There is some irony here, because without a doubt, Winsor kicked my butt, stressed me out, and battered my ego -- relentlessly. It was definitely a form of tough-love that Winsor doled out.

But it was love. When our English teachers met with each of us individually for 20 minutes every other week, they were saying, You are worthy of my time and caring.

When we sat around a large oval table discussing The Odyssey, it wasn’t really about Odysseus. Our teachers and classmates were telling us that our ideas mattered.

When Mr. Meyers and Mrs. Bailey and Mr. Powers buried us under math homework, they were telling us we were smart enough and determined enough to do it.

When we sang hymns at Tuesday morning assemblies we weren’t so much praising the lord as praising the power of music and the power of our communal voice.

And so, fundamentally, I have come to believe what we learned at Winsor was love. Love of ideas, love of community, love of integrity, self-love, love of learning, love of life.

I may have forgotten how to calculate a derivative, but Winsor and all that we experienced here remain a source of strength and love that is part and parcel of my being. Winsor is with me as a sort of alter-ego reminding me of the important lessons in life. Thank you for being a part of that experience that is so much a part of me. I feel love for all of you, love for our shared past and all that we’ve learned and forgotten together.

Rebecca Braun

May 9, 2014

Photos... I did a poor job taking pics in Boston. Here are some from Bainbridge.

Yesterday's fun. Pediatric dentistry has come a long way.
Brian's cousin Cory joined us for beer-battered halibut and apple pie for Brian's bday. Fortunately he enjoys Legos.

On one of our evening beach walks. Photo by Brian.

Heron and Mt. Rainier. Photo by Brian Hild.

Not the most photogenic soup but I love it and it's easy to make. Recipe from my dear friend Terri, who fed it to me from her fridge before driving me to Logan Airport last June after my whirlwind 2nd opinion. Ming Tsai's Three-Bean Chili: Saute in oil: 1.5 cups diced red onion, 2 T minced garlic, 2 diced serrano or jalapeno chilis, 1 bunch sliced scallions (save green for garnish). Deglaze with 1/4 cup tamari. Add 4 cups stock, 2 cups chopped tomatoes (canned ok), 1 15-oz can white beans, 2 15-oz cans black beans, 2 cups edamame, juice and zest of a lemon. Season with salt and pepper and simmer 45-60 mins.