The Finest Day


The sun rose quietly on a new day in East Syracuse, New York. There was a birdfeeder suction-cupped to my first-floor bedroom window so each day began with a visit from the birds: Sparrows, chickadees, wrens, titmice, juncos, blue jays. My mother had gotten a paperback book of birds and as she moved around Pennsylvania and New York she noted the time and place of each bird sighting. After her final move, she passed the book on to me and it became a journal of togetherness—where we each had sighted the same bird.

The book rested on the shelves by my bed—four sets of bookshelves made by my father, each constructed to fit under a windowsill—two with tall shelves to hold the old long-playing record albums of my youth and two with short shelves to hold paperback books. The shelves were next to my hospital bed, acquired after I got out of Intensive Care but before I stopped taking “medications,” therefore needed for support when I couldn’t get out of bed but now just a pleasant asset. Everybody should have an electric bed; it is such a civilized way of living.

I would get up and go to the bathroom, brush my hair and teeth, wash my face, and truckle on back to bed to write an essay or two about psychiatry, medical care, transportation or any other aspect of the active life I pursued. I could pop out a prize-winning essay in about an hour. Paul, who had been my therapist back in the days when I needed one, always got crazy about the ease with which I produced written works; he had suffered through a dissertation that he thought would never end.

A thousand words in an hour, and then I would get up and tidy the kitchen and bathroom, put on the decaf coffee, pour the juice, and make breakfast in about five minutes. Because of my diabetes, breakfast was two eggs fried in PAM and an English muffin with a bit of butter or jelly, or a cup of gluten-free cereal, a cup of skim milk and half a cup of chopped fruit.

After breakfast, with the second pint of coffee, I would kick back in the recliner and enter worship time, having been profoundly influenced by someone’s observation that if more people prayed in the morning then fewer people would need to pray at night. After leaving Big Church I set out to learn the commonalities of the major religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam—by reading their sacred texts: Bhagavad Gita, Thich Nhat Hanh (speaking for the Buddhists), the Holy Bible—Old Testament and New Testament, and the Holy Koran. This reading resulted in my creed:

I believe in one Lord above all humankind. I believe the Lord calls us to be humble before him, to care for others, to speak the truth, and to work for justice.

If you can do all this then you have no time left over for minor squabbles. Abortion? Being humble before the Lord covers that. Homosexuality? The admonition to care for others is all you need to know.

The sacred readings would be followed by singing “How Great Thou Art” and then prayer that began with thanks and moved on to apologies for sins committed, then engaged in praying for my loved ones and my enemies (as the two were often indistinguishable). In the end, I would sit quietly with hands open; having spoken, I now listened. Afterward, I would put hymns on the CD player and do exercises—running in place with Elvis Presley singing “The Old Rugged Cross,” touching my toes while Alan Jackson sang “In the Blood,” deep knee bends to Kate Smith singing “Were You There?” and such other challenges as my physical therapists prescribed, and hymns and singers as Pandora provided.

Then it was time to get dressed, make the bed and sit down and work on whatever project needed attention. Medicaid transportation, Centro’s Call-a-Bus paratransit system and HUD’s housing for the disabled occupied a great deal of my time for many years. I had received my call from God via an aide who stood in my kitchen and yelled that if I was having so much trouble with Medicaid/Call-a-Bus/St. David’s Court then so was everyone else but I was strong enough and smart to do something about it, and I must.

All that was needed was a computer linked to the Internet, unlimited long-distance telephone service, a Post Office address, sizeable stacks of legal pads and a bunch of ballpoint pens. All else had been given when God made me smart. Smart is a lonely place, but the place where God put me. Like a gifted basketball player, I didn’t ask to be tall (smart) but I took what I was given, practiced hard, and became something of a player. There was much work to be done to bring justice to people who were old, poor and sick, and God put me in the middle of it. Every time I took up a challenge I thought of it as a class action with me as a member of the class.

God had guaranteed that all my needs would be met by qualifying me for Social Security Disability and other benefits. Most people wouldn’t speak out against the system because it would cost them their job; I had no such constraint. My income was untouchable so I was free to take action. What was required was (a) to become educated about the rules and regulations; (b) to document the ways in which the rules and regulations were being violated; and (c) to file complaints. Simple. Except, of course, that the people committing the violations were pretty evil and didn’t hesitate to hurt me if it would help their cause.

I look back on my finest day and see myself sitting in the office of the executive manager of the bus company. His salary was enormous and I was on Food Stamps, but no matter. (To be continued, probably.)

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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