Faye Rapoport DesPres

Life is what’s happening when…

I was going to begin this blog post by quoting John Lennon, whose song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” includes the words:

Before you cross the street,
Take my hand,
Life is just what happens to you,
While you’re busy making other plans

But curiosity got the best of me, and I did a little research to determine if John Lennon, who is so often credited with those last two lines, originated that famous sentiment. According to “QuoteInvestigator.com,” the first known appearance of this general expression occurred in Reader’s Digest in 1957, when it was attributed to a man named Allen Saunders (likely referencing the author of a comic strip called “Steve Roper”).

Maybe what I’ve been teaching my students in College Writing and Broadcast Journalism is wearing off– I find myself investigating and verifying a lot of information these days.

In the end, it is the sentiment itself that was weighing on my mind as I sat down to write this post. Although what I’ve experienced lately isn’t so much that life hasn’t followed a pre-determined path…it’s just that while one aspect of my life—the publication of my first book—has been moving forward in an orderly way, other events have been swirling around me, creating a challenging kind of chaos.

Last week my publisher revealed the cover art for my book, and I was warmed by the tremendous amount of interest and support. Friends, family members, writing colleagues, and even strangers sent notes of congratulations and expressed their appreciation of the cover. Buddhapuss Ink did an absolutely beautiful job choosing the artwork, font, and arrangement of the cover, and it was exciting to experience that first step in the publication process. The book is now available for pre-order on Amazon.com, and slowly it is all beginning to feel real.

Of course, there’s still a lot of work to do. My publisher is working on some revisions and editing, and I will soon have to review each suggested change in the manuscript. Thankfully, I have faith in MaryChris Bradley, the woman at the helm of Buddhapuss Ink. So far everything she has done toward the publication of MESSAGE FROM A BLUE JAY has been fantastic. In fact, I feel happier every day that I am working with a small, independent publishing house. Buddhapuss is showing me with every step that they are pleased to be my publisher and are truly invested in the success of my book. There are advantages and disadvantage to every option for publication, but at this stage it’s hard to imagine that I would have felt as happy with any other path for BLUE JAY.

What I didn’t plan on happening during this exciting time in my writing life was that my 83-year-old father would be hospitalized. My father has been battling health problems for several years, including Parkinson’s Disease. The Parkinson’s has now become debilitating. Once a powerful human being in every sense of the word—intellectually, emotionally, and physically to name a few—my father now has difficulty handling basic tasks each day or sleeping through even one night. For a long time he was able to manage on his own, but in recent weeks it has become difficult for him to either stand or walk. Thankfully, his mind and personality are intact, including his sense of humor and his fatalist mentality—as a Holocaust survivor, he has never been either surprised or conquered by misfortune. But there is no escaping that these latest developments are taking their toll. He has bounced back from episodes of weakness before, and we are hoping he will recover again to the point where he will be able to walk and enjoy his life. But each time the recovery seems to take longer, and each time we wonder if this will be the moment when my father’s life will change dramatically, and for good.

I live two hours away from my parents, so Jean-Paul and I drove back two weekends in a row to help out in any way we could. It is difficult to balance professional and other responsibilities in Boston with the desire to be available and to help. But we have no choice—jobs, pets, a household, and monthly bills don’t take a break when you wish they would. I have a brother who lives a half-hour’s drive from my parents’ home, and a sister who lives in California. My brother is helping more than either my sister or I can manage, and I struggle with the fact that I can’t do more.

This past Saturday was my birthday. Once again I felt humbled to receive dozens of well wishes on Facebook and by phone. I enjoyed opening birthday cards and several lovely gifts. After checking in the morning to make sure my father was all right, Jean-Paul and I drove north to New Hampshire to enjoy the autumn color in the mountains. My father had told me he was feeling much better. He and my mother sang “Happy Birthday” over the phone.

We intended to drive to the southern edge of the White Mountains, but the traffic on 93 north got heavy just south of Concord. We made a last-minute decision to go west on 89 and head toward the Sunapee region. Instead of hiking up Mt. Sunapee, which we have done before, we decided to try to find Mt. Kearsarge. Using an old paper road map (remember those?), we slowly made our way through a small town called Warner, and then turned toward Rollins State Park on a remote country road. When we arrived at the park, we discovered that the side of the mountain where we’d inadvertently landed features a paved road that climbs to a parking area just a half-mile from the summit. You walk the rest of the way up. The half-mile to the top was rocky and steep, but it was not the lengthy hike we had planned. We decided that was fine; neither Jean-Paul nor I felt a desperate need to do a more challenging hike that day.

More unexpected turns of events were in store. As we drove toward the summit on the narrow paved road, we realized that the mountain was enveloped in fog. We could barely see a few feet in front of the windshield. After we parked and found the trail, we laughed every time we approached a spot that was meant to be a scenic overlook. We could see nothing but thick fog in every direction, and the tops of pine trees poking eerily through the mist.

Still, the air was filled with the scent of pine needles and damp leaves, and we were hiking outdoors. I was determined to enjoy every minute. But when we found ourselves at the smooth, rocky summit of the mountain, we came across a woman standing worriedly over her teenage son, who was lying motionless on one of the rocks. He was an overweight boy, and his mother told us with regret that “he made it all the way to the top, he did more than he believed he could, and then he tripped and hurt his ankle.” She’d been able to call the ranger station with her cell phone, and they told her that some park rangers were on their way to help. But she’d been waiting for a while.

We rooted around in the backpack Jean-Paul was carrying and found the old first aid kit I’d remembered to toss into it just before we left our house. We handed the woman some water and our emergency cold pack, which I activated for her, and two cliff bars we’d brought along as snacks. She accepted everything gratefully and handed the cold pack to her son, who pressed it hopefully onto his ankle. Unable to do more and knowing help was on the way, we headed back down the trail toward the parking area. On the way down, we passed a ranger who was hiking up to offer aid.

“Life is just what happens to you, while you’re busy making other plans.” If we had made it to the White Mountains, we wouldn’t have been on Mt. Kearsarge to offer support and a cold pack to a mother and son in need.

The next morning I woke up and checked my email. A note from my brother was waiting: my father had been admitted to the hospital the night before. I made some calls and prepared to drive to my parents’ home, but my mother felt there wasn’t anything I could do if I made the trip. She asked me to wait; she might need me the following week.

My father is home now, but we’re not sure whether a switch in medication will set him on a path toward recovery.

So it’s all been rolled together: the cover reveal and the support for my book, my birthday, the drive north on a cloudy, drizzly day, the fog at the summit of Mt. Kearsarge, the teenager with a sprained ankle lying on the rock waiting for help, the news that my father was back in the hospital. And soon, the manuscript revisions will be here.

Yes, John Lennon and Allen Saunders were right: Life is what’s happening when you’re making other plans. But sometimes, to me, it feels like life is what is happening both inside and around you, all at once: the joy, the grief, the easy, the hard, the accomplishment, the failure, the hope, the disappointment, the constant changes of direction in both small and big moments that lead to dead ends, discovery, or both.

And I stand in the middle, at least that’s how I feel, tossing balls or bottles or sticks of fire in the air, catching them, missing them, keeping them moving in circles, and sometimes, when I get tired, I just sit down on the ground and watch them fall down around me.

And then, when I’m ready, I gather up all the balls, toss them back in the air, and keep going.