Pam Smith – One Choice…and Then More

Here’s Pam Smith with a moving story of family at February’s 2017 theme “Choices.”

You see, for me it all started in isolation.

We’d been married only a few months, back then in 1975. We were still figuring out all those things that newly married people, particularly those young of age, need to navigate. 44-choicesAnd what we thought was stomach flu turned into his call telling me that he was going to the hospital and would be in isolation.

I came home from the hospital that first night, and my mother-in-law, Mildred, came to our home to unburden herself. She brought gifts. Gifts contained in boxes. Gifts of information – photos and letters and words – gifts that she wanted me to have so that she would be relieved of the weight of them. I knew, of course, that Earl had been adopted by Mildred and her husband.

Yet what I was seeing were photos and letters and words of Earl’s birth mother. I was daunted, in over my head. What was I to do with this?

A few days later, Earl came home from the hospital and was healthy again; so I unburdened myself of Mildred’s gifts and offered them over to him. Photos and letters and words. He was daunted. “What am I to do with this?”

One day a few months later, when I was at work Earl came to see me.  He had never done this before. And – the way he was dressed! Sports coat, tie, polished shoes. And the look in his eyes. His whole self was bubbling over. “I did it,” he said.

And he went on to explain that he had re-opened the box with the photos and letters and words, had followed the clues and made his way to a nearby town where Rosemary lived and worked. He met her for the first time and had lunch with her. He could hardly contain himself. “I have four brothers!” (Earl and I both were raised as only children.) And he went on to tell me what he had learned.

As a young woman in 1940, Rosemary was a student at a small Roman Catholic nursing school. And there was that night with that young man and a few weeks later she realized she was pregnant. The shame. Rosemary made a plan – a plan to end her life. And, so that she would leave more for her parents than grief and disgrace, she bought a life insurance policy. She went to the doctor the insurer provided – his name may well have been Marcus Welby, MD.

After the examination he said to her, “I know that you are pregnant,” and the whole story tumbled out of her lips. He dissuaded her from her plan to die and told her about a couple he knew who were hoping to adopt a baby – Mildred and James. It was an open adoption before we even coined that term.

At the end of that lunch that day, as they parted ways, Rosemary said, “there can be no more of this – my husband would not understand.” And so the door closed as quickly as it had opened.

The years passed, more than twenty-five of them. I watched Earl gnaw on this, struggle with this, wonder about this. Is she still alive? What is she like now? And what about my brothers – I so want to meet them.

Year upon year, time upon time. Earl would say, “I just want to know…” And year upon year and time upon time, I urged him to make a choice – do you want to seek this out or do you want to let it be? Either is ok. But, please my love, do not be choked by the wonderings and quandary. Make a choice.

My work took me to places distant from our home in St. Petersburg for extended times. In 2002 when I was on assignment in Chicago, my cell phone rang. Reception was horrible! And I was consulting for a mobile phone company who would NOT want me to say “can you hear me now??” All I heard was my beloved sobbing. He couldn’t speak. I couldn’t hear. My husband, beyond words. He choked, “I’ll call you back” and hung up. My heart darted to all manner of dark places as I waited in worry.

Earl called me back to tell me that he had made a choice. He explained, “I asked Ralph to help me find Rosemary.” Ralph was a friend of ours who was an attorney in the area where Rosemary had lived. Ralph found a phone number for one he thought may have been Earl’s Rosemary and called it and said, “My name is Ralph Howes. I am an attorney and my friend Earl Smith is looking for Rosemary, who may be his birth mother.”  There was a very long pause.

And Rosemary said, “Tell him I am his mother and I pray for him every day.”

Moments later, Ralph called Earl and told him that Rosemary was waiting for his call – a call that, once placed, was filled with tears, tears saved up and pent up over the decades.

And from this first call came an avalanche of others within hours. The second to me and then another between Rosemary and Earl that held talk of her other sons, Earl’s brothers – those four he learned of some twenty-five years earlier. Jim and John and Mike and Dick.

Earl said, “Mom, I would really like to know my brothers.” “Oh my,” was her response. Followed by quiet. And then “I love you’s” and “Talk to you soon.”

Rosemary’s next call was to her youngest son, Dick, to tell him about this long-held life-long secret now coming to light. I can’t imagine her trembling fingers dialing the phone. Then Dick called Jim and Jim called John and John called Mike and Mike was so stunned that he took the next day off.

And on that day off, Mike called Earl and there was another conversation of tears of wonder.

Within just a few days, plans were set for all of the brothers to gather with their mother. On Friday, September 13, 2002, Earl and I drove from my small apartment in Chicago to a nearby small town to pick up Rosemary. Then we drove to John’s house in Indianapolis to meet the family. Not a reunion, exactly, instead a uniting. And not only the brothers, but of their wives, many of their children. Earl and I with two of our sons walked into the family room and saw brothers and brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law and nieces and nephews for the first time!

Over that fall of 2002, we became family, fell in love with each other, learned some of each other’s peculiarities, and began navigating this new way of being  — together.

And then in February of 2003 fewer than five months after the family uniting, on one evening, the emails began flying and the phones began ringing. Rosemary had suffered a stroke and was being taken to a hospital closer to me than to any of the others.

I went. They came. Earl flew. We all gathered around Rosemary’s bedside, this love-encompassed bedside. And on February 12, 2003 Rosemary died.

Choices of distant years. Choices of more recent times.

Choices wrapped in love.

Rachel Gladstone – The Last Laugh


Here is Rachel Gladstone’s humorous story from February 2017’s theme “Choices.”

I have never been a pill-popper. I’m more of a good glass of wine, hit on a joint kind of girl. You see I can’t understand the thrill of the pill because for me, there is no thrill. There’s only sleep. And it’s not a restful, dreamy kind of sleep; it’s more like the slee44-choicesp of the dead from which I awake hung over, my hair standing on end like the Bride of Frankenstein with a long, crusty trail of drool, once liquid, caked to the side of my face.

Half a Valium renders me unconscious for a good 12 hours. And despite the fact that Benadryl should be innocuous, since it’s over-the-counter and everything, for me, this little pink pill is the legal doppelganger of the Quaalude which, by the way, I’ve never tried, because unlike the song, I wouldn’t be partying like it was 1999, I’d be partying like I was 99.

So there I was, living life as a pill-free woman who didn’t wake up every morning looking like she’d survived a sandstorm in the Sahara. But then it started: the pain. Torturous, constant, debilitating pain began screaming from my knees 24/7. And for the next 10 years, I limped along, icing my joints, overdosing on Aleve and turning a deaf ear to the double knee replacement surgery that was calling my name. Then one day, I caught a glimpse of myself walking towards a full-length mirror and my reflection literally stopped me in my tracks. I was so bowlegged and bent I looked like a gymnast caught in a perpetually bad dismount. I looked like a cross between my Jewish Grandmother and a Leprechaun or maybe Roy Rogers after a long trail ride. It was in that moment that I realized I had two choices: get the surgery or buy a green suit and get a gig selling Lucky Charms.

The thought of surgery was frightening. I knew I’d be in for a world of hurt and a world of little white pills and honestly, I couldn’t decide which I dreaded more. So I tried to look at the impending surgery, and the two weeks following that I’d spend stoned out of my mind in rehab, as a vacation with pain.

They’d be calling in the big guns. Your Percocets, your Vicodins, your OxyContins. The bad news was, I’d be comatose for at least six weeks. The good news was I wouldn’t feel a thing. Not the mind-numbing pain that would come with the territory of having my bones sawed in half and retrofitted with bionic parts. Nor the unbearable torture that would ensue at the incision sights and plow through my muscles like a monster truck at a demolition derby.

The meds would wrap my mind in a soft, velvety cocoon and everything would be all right. At least that’s what everybody told me. But I’m here to tell you: everybody was frigging wrong!

The cocoon that I got was anything but velvety. It was more like a sticky spider web that strangled every happy, peaceful feeling out of me. Not only could I still feel the pain, but my brain was about as useful as a bowl of partly-congealed Jell-O salad. And I found that things that had once been easy, like the ability to form complete, coherent sentences, were lost to me, as the opiates I was on held the launch codes of communication just out of reach, and I was helpless to do anything about it.

On a couple of occasions during my second week of recovery, I made the mistake of trying to change things up, by altering the “stay ahead of the pain” plan my doctor had dictated. But I found that if I delayed taking my meds, even for 20 minutes, the pain would become so bad, so quickly, that I wanted to strangle myself with the negative 450 thread count sheets that barely covered the plastic mattress on my bed.

More than anything, I wanted to be keeping a journal of this nightmare. After all, it’s what I do. I regularly chronicle the highlights of the low points that run through my life. I am what you might call a sharer; maybe even an over-sharer. Given half a chance, I’ll tell you that I’m wearing my underwear inside out because I haven’t had time to do laundry. And whether I tell all in print or in real life to some random woman in the ladies room, I feel the need to behave like the human equivalent of Mt. Vesuvius.

So here I was in the midst of recovering from double knee replacement surgery, full-to-bursting with the funny takes on what most people would probably view as the worst moments of their life. And more than anything, I wanted to jot down every horrifying second of it to file away for future laughs. There was the horrible food that looked like it came straight out of a 1980’s prison movie. And the frighteningly bright, Demerol-induced, 3D, Technicolor dreams that transformed my eyelids into an Imax movie screen night after night. One night I dreamt I was on tour with the Rolling Stones which was great until their tour bus was stolen from my driveway, and I had to run through a strange city barefoot in the dead of night trying to recover it. This was the night I woke up in a cold sweat at 3:00 am and afraid to go back to sleep, began to watch QVC for the first time in my life. It only took five minutes before I was hooked and I called the number on my screen and ordered a complete set of bake ware for just four easy payments of 29.99. And then, after refusing the operator’s kind invitation to say hello to the on-air host, due to the fact that I was cacked out of my mind on Demerol, I quickly hung up the phone.

Another night terror came in the form of a passive-aggressive nurse who looked like a female version of the Pillsbury Dough Boy come to life dressed in a skin tight, white pantsuit. Nothing jiggled on this woman; she was like a solid block of moving flesh. Her cloyingly-sweet perfume, which I suspect she wore in an attempt to mask her ripe body odor, would hit me the second she pushed open the door. This made me want to lose my cookies. But because she was there to dispense my pain meds I learned how to ignore my nausea, hold my breath and swallow at the same time, a talent that’s sure to come in handy the next time I have a third date.

The thing I hated most about the pills was that they made me barf on a bi-hourly basis which was no picnic. The nausea got worse as the day wore on and the only thing that would ease it was smoking pot. So every night, I’d persuade a different friend to come for a visit and push me out to the parking lot in my wheel chair where I’d smoke one of the joints I’d smuggled in. Then they’d wheel me back to my room, calm, happy and trailing a sweet smelling perfume of my very own.

There was definitely humor in all of this. But because the part of my brain that was totally getting the joke couldn’t connect to the part of my brain that remembered how to tell it, I felt like a fly on the wall of my own life, viewing everything through the specs of a beady-eyed insect who likes to eat dog shit.

I felt like a toothless woman trying to eat corn on the cob. And oh, how I longed to get all up inside the sensation of that hot, buttery corn bursting between my teeth. I found myself starting to panic: Would I ever be able to write again? Were these drugs going to have the last laugh; and was the joke on me?

It took eight weeks living life as a junkie with a legal prescription before I was able to ease off the pills a bit and begin to alter my med schedule from popping a pill every four hours to every five; then six, then seven, then eight. Some days the pain was so intolerable that I’d volley back and forth through these medication time zones, yet always with an eye towards quitting the stuff that was making it impossible for me to be me. But even though I was taking fewer pills I found that the fuzz factor was just as great as ever, and I realized the only way to stop the madness was to stop the pill-to-mouth connection all together. I knew there would be pain, but I knew I had no choice.

Going cold turkey wasn’t half as bad as I’d imagined. Aleve and I had a reunion of epic proportions and the stuff that had been so funny in my head, but couldn’t translate to the page, returned with a vengeance. I felt like Tom Hanks in that movie where he’s shipwrecked and finally, against all odds, makes it back to civilization. I had been one deflated volley ball away from madness and yet, I’d found my way home.

It’s been several months since I was sliced and diced and put back together, and everything in my world feels right again. The only thing I’m overindulging in these days is my penchant for oversharing, which I’m sure is entertaining the hell out of strangers in the ladies room. Those little white pills might have held the jokester in me hostage for a while, but I finally broke free. And I’m happy to report that I’m the one who’s having the last laugh.





Choices – The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s understory from February 2017’s theme “Choices.” 

Tonight, Nashville, we faced choices.

We moped around the campus like Eeyore and faced a choice between a future cleaning up Pepto-Bismol gravy at DQ or graduating as a Muhlenberg Mule. We chose wisely—with a smile on our face.

We faced a choice to pursue the past or44-choices leave it behind. And after decades of pent up wondering, we met our family and surrounded the bedside with love.

We had to choose whether to say “yes” to the invitation to ask about her story. She was “kind of married” and we were really tired, and we don’t want to care…but we do.

We chose to return to an old favorite hangout where we held memories of three meals at a one-stop shop and coffee in bed—but it wasn’t the same. The beans were different…and so are we.

The pain in our knees led us from being a leprechaun-like grandma to a jello-brained junkie…till we chose to go cold turkey. But we still enjoy telling the highlights of our low points.

We made the fateful choice to invite a sweaty prophet to our black magic voodoo service. And he declared war in the Weeds—and cast out demons some of us wished he’d leave alone!

We were shocked by a phone call that turned hypothetical conversations into a disturbing reality—and we had to choose whether to forgive our monster.

We hid beneath bleach-blonde hair, behind a Baywatch body, till we faced the truth that were a dream girl—and chose to escape the doll house as the lies hit the salon floor.

We Instagram-stalked an ex’s significant other while still on the same phone bill, till we were betrayed by a picture of a clouded leopard at our zoo, and chose to embarrass him in front a row of letters—or so we like to fantasize!

These were our choices.

Thanks to all our tellers–Christy, Kyla, Rob, David, Rachel, Kate, Erin, Pam, and Jeannie. A fantastic night. Join us for our next regular night of storytelling on March 27th for the theme “School Days.” If you have a story from your time in school, let us know here!