I never had a pet.
Well, except for that one childhood day when my family was given a poodle, and I instantly fell in love with him and named him George, and I took him outside and we played gleefully in the sunlight, and my Mom had an allergic reaction by evening, and we gave him back that night. So I really have no experience with the whole question of what you can or can’t teach an old dog.
I do, however, have experience with tricks. My Dad was an accomplished magician. He went by the stage name of “the Amazing Arnoldo”. He could do all kinds of magic – cards, ropes, coins, cups and balls, making things appear and disappear. He started a Magic School and taught these skills to young wanna-be magicians. Sometimes he taught my sister and me, but mostly he enjoyed mystifying us and keeping us guessing about how he did what he did.
It’s a juicy juxtaposition – knowing there is a trick to the tricks, and still delighting in the magic of the magic.
Several seasons ago, marvelous magic was revived, and I was completely awed, amazed, and astounded. Following my Dad’s reading of the last piece I wrote, we had a profound interaction – markedly different than our typical “nonversations”. He said he understood, from the writing, that he does not listen. I acknowledged that it must be hard for him to talk with me when his interests and experiences are so different than mine. I spoke with an open heart about wishing he and I could find a way to connect with each other, stating that I knew it would take work from both of us to make that happen. And I told him how much it would mean to me if he knew about my life. I specified that the most important thing right now is working toward recovery. I told him there is a process I am supposed to be doing every day, and that it would be wonderfully helpful if he would check in and encourage me to keep doing it. I had told him that many times before, but this time was different. He listened. He heard me. He remembered.
A bit of background:
Almost two years ago, I participated in a neuro-rehabilitation program that is said to help people recover from MCS, along with a variety of other conditions including fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and depression. It is based on the concept of self-directed neuroplasticity, and the idea that faulty circuitry in the brain’s limbic system can be re-wired, ultimately eliminating symptoms. The process requires a complete commitment, and at least one hour daily of a specific practice (broken into 4 “rounds”). After completing the training, I initially felt incredibly inspired and hopeful. I returned home energized and enthusiastic, fully committed to my recovery. As life became increasingly challenging, I gradually lost my motivation and stopped doing what would likely have helped me negotiate those challenges. In a state of passivity and pessimism, I felt like it didn’t matter what I did or did not do. Through the lens of my loopy limbic system, the practice seemed pointless, and I didn’t push myself to continue. But a spark of hope remained, and that spark is what inspired me to ask my Dad for encouragement.
To comprehend the monumental shift that was about to take place, I believe it is necessary to convey the nature of our interactions (“nonversations”) prior to that point.
The typical phone calls for the past decade have gone something like this:
Dad: What’s good on TV tonight?
Me: Well, Dad, I really don’t know because I don’t watch TV.
Dad: Who do you think will win the game tomorrow?
Me: Well, Dad, I really don’t know because I don’t pay attention to sports.
Dad: Did I ever tell you about the time I…( any number of stories that have been told and re-told, always somehow as if he never heard himself tell them before).
Me: [after allowing him to talk for up to an hour, usually putting the phone down at some point while he’s talking and coming back to find that he hasn’t noticed my absence]
Gotta go now, Dad. I love you. Have a good night.
Dad: Good night, Jude. It’s always good talking to you. I have no-one else to talk to any more.
And just when it seemed that nothing could possibly shift – it did. We did. It began with that heartfelt request for connection. In a remarkable transformation, my Dad started actually talking with me, not at me. He acknowledged that he cannot possibly understand my illness, and that he really does not understand the limbic system rewiring process. He realized that he does, however, understand the discipline required to follow through on a commitment to practice something. He related it to the daily running he had done in his younger years – having pushed himself to go out every day, with no exceptions.
And the Amazing Arnoldo miraculously morphed into the coach and one-man cheering team I had been so deeply longing for. He started to ask me every day about how many practice rounds I had done. Initially, I was doing one per day. He lovingly encouraged me to increase it to two, and then to three. And somehow his encouragement was the one thing that broke through the barrier that had been blocking me. He stunningly sparked my motivation to pick up the practice again. It mattered deeply to him, and so it started to matter deeply to me. I wanted to be able to tell him every day that I followed through. And when he brilliantly recommended just thinking about doing the 4th one each day – with no pressure to actually do it yet – it worked! I started thinking about it, and then one day I actually did it! And my Dad was beside himself with joy and pride. He cheered and cheered, telling me how proud he was, and reminding me to continue.
Almost 49 years old, I began experiencing – for what seemed the first time – what it is like to rely on my father for needed strength and support. Almost 89 years old, he got to be the Dad I imagine he has always wanted to be, guiding and supporting me. We both blossomed as we grew closer in our connection. We actually began talking about things that mattered to us both. I was humbled and softened in a whole new way.
And just as I started getting the hang of leaning on my Dad, he developed some new medical complications. His legs swelled severely and suddenly, with accompanying physical distress. My sister called to tell me that she had sent him to the emergency room, due to concern about his heart. My own heart sank at the news – crying for the looming loss of what we had just begun to find. As I anxiously awaited an update, he called from the ER to check that I had done my practice rounds for the day.
With tears of gratitude, I joyfully told him that I had, and he told me he could now rest easy for the night. Amazing Arnoldo indeed.
Soon thereafter, the unraveling began. Medical emergency has a way of undoing the trajectory you have been on, and indeed we were both a bit undone. He thankfully got through the cardiac crisis incredibly well, and was able to eventually go back home. All questions and interests in my life vanished as quickly as they had appeared, and he no longer asked about my recovery process. I soon lost my motivation again, and stopped doing the practice. We both returned to our regular routinized ruts, and the nonversations once again became the norm.
It requires such diligence to develop and strengthen new neural pathways, to establish new behavioral norms, to go again and again beyond the familiar and to inhabit new possibilities.
I seem to have taken a break from teaching new tricks to myself, as well as to my Dad. Still, I know that change is possible at any point. I know that love is what inspires the necessary persistence. I know that we are never too old to learn. I know that in my own time, I will indeed return to the practices that promote peace and positivity.
I will never ever stop believing in Magic.
Whether I hear the words again or not, I will always know that my Dad is cheering for me with every forward step I take.
And if ever I cross paths with a hypoallergenic dog and we agree to co-habitate, I will name him George and will likely spend my days trying to teach him how to vacuum my apartment.