As most of you already know, I love stories of survival in the face of insurmountable mountain-sized odds or at least those uphill battles when you have to shift into low gear to scale. One man’s mountain is another’s slow upgrade in an old Ford pick-up truck. The height of the mountains we each may be called to climb can be relative. Sometimes it actually has to do with our relatives, as in DNA and health issues and at other times it is simply life throwing a big sticky, chocolate cream pie into our faces. I don’t claim to have any answers about who decides how big the hill, how painful the conditions or the timing of these events, happenings and cataclysms in our lives. I have been through too much in my life to ask “Why?” any longer. No one ever called, texted or screamed the answer to me, therefore I moved onto areas of life that might actually have some answers for me and for others who suffer chronic pain, disease or grave misfortune.
One fact I do know and believe with every force within me is there’s always the possibility to overcome, persevere and survive in one form or another. How we survive these experiences and times is a matter men and women have been pondering since Adam invented the word “nag” and Eve learned how to bake apple pie. Recently I have read about three remarkable individuals through books and articles which all tie together to tell tales of those who overcome, persevere and show remarkable tenacity, courage and grace under fire. Sometimes we are faced with such overwhelming obstacles our very lives and survival are threated; at other junctions we know we need a change or to overcome something in our current circumstances and need extra courage for that change to occur.
One delightful older man I read about is Gary Marquardt who lives in Excelsior, Minnesota. Each morning for the last three years he has risen, gone to his local cemetery, Oak Hill cemetery and searched out the graves of fallen soldiers and plays taps for each, on his trumpet. He was struck a few years ago by the mediocre effort displayed by the recorded, taped playing of taps, at the conclusion of a friend’s soldier father’s funeral. Playing a recording just didn’t seem like enough; enough caring, enough effort or enough respect. It also didn’t sound very good echoing across the graves of the fallen.
During the Vietnam era, as a young man Gary was unable to serve due to a 4-F classification because of a bleeding ulcer. He watched many of his friends go off to serve in Vietnam and around the world; many never returned home. For years he felt a sense of guilt for being relieved he didn’t have to serve when others had to go in the service of their country. While attending that funeral, he felt all the deceased, who had died in the service of their country deserved a live performance of taps played over their graves. He called a national organization that provides bugle players for funerals and asked them where to begin to get certified. They informed him he would have to audition for them. There was a glitch in his plan: Gary didn’t know how to play the trumpet. He had to start by buying a trumpet and began to take lessons and practice, at the age of 68. His wife laughs about how awful the sounds coming his trumpet were at the beginning of his learning and even the neighbors look back in good-natured humor, agree it was pretty ear splitting. He eventually took the audition and passed on the third try.
Gary now plays the taps each morning over the graves of the fallen and also plays at approximately 100 funerals a year, now that he is certified to do so. He is giving back, overcoming his own 40-year-old feelings of guilt and performing a heartwarming service to the fallen. He admits he isn’t always a perfect player but always and most sincerely tries to give his best. In the evening he plays taps from the deck of his lakeside home and is often accompanied by a neighbor who plays the flute. Gary describes his playing as a prayer at the end of the day.
He overcame his remorse, his guilt for not serving and is now serving in another way. He is giving to others, both those alive and those who sacrificed their lives for our country. You can read more about this gentleman by finding information about him online. There are many Gary Marquarts’, and I found him under his name followed by “bugle player.” His is a wonderful story of fulfillment and forgiveness of self for him, blessings for others.
I’ve been reading a wonderful book called THE CHOICE: EMBRACE THE POSSIBLE, by an amazing woman. It is a memoir by Dr. Edith Eva Eger who is one of the few living survivors of Auschwitz. I was introduced to her in a recent article in GUIDEPOSTS magazine, one of my favorite publications of many years. I knew from the excerpt and intro she wrote in that article, I had to read her story.
I’ve had a hard time dragging myself away from her story on my Kindle in order to write this blog but I wanted to share with all of you a small part of her remarkable story of survival and choice. I have planned to share with you my own feelings and beliefs that we each have a choice. We may not be able to choose good health, but we can choose to do all we can to have better health. We may not be freed of our health and disease burdens in this life but we can smile as we carry them. I have found it especially intrigues and confuses physicians when I arrive at an appointment happy instead of gloomy. Each day as we face the reality of our lives we have the choice to accept joy even if it means searching for it or the other door, the one of disillusionment and fear. Perhaps, many of us also suffer the guilt of our diseases based on what we believe our predicament has done to others or ask that “no answer” question, “What did I do to deserve this?” We must remember evil, disease and hardship fall on us all like the rain from the skies. Our families, particularly our spouses face change because of our health. We often cannot do anything about their reaction to these changes but we can do something about our own. Remember what I have chanted for many years, “It’s what lives in your head that counts.”
Edith Eger was taken to Auschwitz, along with her parents and her older sister, when she was sixteen years old. She was in many ways a typical teenager with her first boyfriend. She was trained in ballet and gymnastics. As Jews living in Hungary, they lived with the fear and near certainty of being taken away but the reality of it was something quite different. Yanked awake at gunpoint in the middle of the night by soldiers who gave them little time to pack anything they wished to take. Full of fear of unimaginable quantity and drowsy with sleep, her mother pulled a small, wrapped object from a closet. It was the caul which her younger sister had been born with. A caul is a separate sac which is occasionally around the head of a newborn at birth. Such children are believed to be special in some way. It is an old belief, still practiced and believed today. When I was born with one many years ago it was still believed or at least spoken of in a special telling. I remember my mother saying, the doctor just reached over with a pencil and popped it open over my head at birth. A pencil? How sterile could that be? Well, I digress…Even he believed in their fabled magical powers and told her, “This child will see and do wonders in this world.” I’m still waiting for more wonders for me, but for Edith, her youngest sister was away from home when they were taken away that dark night. For Edith’s mother it was a talisman of luck and belief to protect her and her family therefore it could not be left behind. Edith put on her loveliest dress, although it wouldn’t protect her from the cold. It was one she had worn for her boyfriend and had sweet memories for her.
Herded into a large wagon, her family began their journey which took them to Auschwitz via a large, filthy cattle car. The prisoners, which they had suddenly become, were packed in the train car so tightly they had to sleep sitting up with only one bucket of water for all to drink and one to use as a toilet. Arriving at Auschwitz, exhausted and soiled the daughters were separated from their parents by the vicious, sadistic devil Dr. Mengele. It was his habit to stroll through the female barracks and look for young women to entertain him. The other prisoners told him Edith could dance and he demanded that she do it to the strains of the camp orchestra playing The Blue Danube waltz. It is difficult to imagine a more incongruous setting. It was then she discovered she could escape all the horror around her for that few minutes while she danced. She also chose to look at the beauty when she could find it and not the horror, death, odors and suffering all around her.
Edith and her sister were sent to many death camps, work camps and survived. In 1945 when American soldiers liberated the camps, she was found alive in a pile of corpses. She eventually moved to America, married and had a family. She became a trained psycho-therapist and has treated multitudes of cases of battle or life induced post-traumatic stress disorders. She often speaks to large gatherings of soldiers who are at risk for it. She is in much demand for her courage and her approach to what life throws us into. She had to struggle with survivor’s guilt for many years and only overcame it after a return trip to Auschwitz 35 years after she left there. Now at the age of 89, she is a remarkable example of an individual who overcame, forgave her captors, forgave herself for surviving and went on to influence many other lives. She made choices for survival, recovery and then shared her answers with others. At the conclusion of her speeches she does a skillful high kick with joyful laughter. I urge you to order this book or start reading it today on your devices. It is inspiring, uplifting and life-giving.
The third individual I would like to talk about today is one many of you have heard about, read or seen. Joni Eareckson Tada became a quadriplegic from a diving accident over forty years ago, when a teenager. Her remarkable faith in God and in life itself has been told and retold many times. She even celebrates the anniversary of her accident because of His intervention in her life which allowed her to live. She explains it in one of her many books, A PLACE OF HEALING. The day of her accident she was swimming in the Chesapeake Bay with her sister. As Joni describes that fateful event, she dove in, hit her head on the bottom. In that instant her sister was bitten on the foot by a Chesapeake Bay blue crab. Without her sister yelping about that nip from that crab, Joni would have stayed at the bottom of the water, unable to move. Her sister yelled at her to watch out for the little nippers in the water and noticed Joni was not coming up after her dive. Beneath the water, Joni knew something was terribly wrong when she could not lift her arms or move her legs. Her sister, Kathy swam over to her just in time to pull her to the surface where she gasped for air. Joni describes lying there, seeing her own arm inert, she became nauseous and knew something terrible had occurred. That is why she commemorates the anniversary of her accident by serving and eating Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. Remarkable, isn’t it?
Joni (pronounced Johnny) is a resiliently inspiring example of one who has turned tragedy and chaos into wisdom, a deeper faith and giving to others. She has written several books. If I had to choose I think I would recommend her book JONI AND KEN: AN UNTOLD LOVE STORY. It’s a remarkable book about the love relationship in the face of illness and being handicapped. She and her loving husband have wheeled her all over the world as she has given speech after speech to show her support and understanding for those who are leading lives touched by change, handicaps and yes, pain of every dimension.
For those of you, my friends and readers, who face a crisis in health right now, have had to endure one in the past and continue to adapt to change in your bodies and minds, I hope these stories I found so inspiring will also inspire you. In her remarkable book, Dr. Eger speaks about treating individuals who remain “frozen” in their traumatizing experiences. While in a frozen state of shock, bitterness or disbelief we cannot move on and life stops for us while, in fact, life is going on all around us. Fall leaves are doing their colorful dance of orange and yellow, the ground is soaking up early rain to be fed into rivers and seas and those around us are also changing constantly. Life, however it is for you and for me, is a matter of choice and resilience if we choose to let it be.