Eleanor’s daughter’s voice strained with worry and desperation as she implored my help: “I am so worried about my mom can you help in any way . . .”
“Lyn, tell me what is happening with her?”
“Ever since Mom was forced to retire she seems to have lost the will to live or do anything. She used to garden in the summer, but for the past two years she just sits in her front room and watches TV. She hasn’t developed any new friends or activities and my brother Jeff and I live hours away from her and can’t check in on her. It just seems as if she is fading away. When I call her and ask her what she has been doing she says, ‘oh nothing, please come and visit.’”
Lyn had already done four sessions with me and was doing great in her own life. She begged me to do a session with her mom and offered to pay for it. I told her I would be happy to do an intro session with her mother and to experience the truth about what is going on if she could get her mom to come the two hours by train into London for an appointment.
Eleanor walked into the office, a very trim, slightly grayed, and very conservatively dressed proper British woman of 74 years old. Her energy was minimal and she seem resigned to complying with her daughter’s wish to see me. She was cool at first but began to open up slightly and share a very abbreviated story of her life. She started by telling me how devastating it was for her when she had been forced to retire at age 72 from her position as a high school administrator. During the next hour and a half she filled me in on her life’s experiences. She married her high school sweetheart and shortly after he was whisked off to WWII, she realized she was already with child (as it was delicately whispered in those days). She moved back in with her parents and had the baby as she continued to pursue her teaching credentials. Many of the women in her village bonded together while their men were off to fight the war. She had not heard from her husband in months and then just as suddenly he was at the front door and she was so thrilled to see him again. But, he was only home for a short time on leave and by the time he was re-commissioned she had another baby on the way. It was easy for her to get a teaching position and she loved teaching and learning and looked forward to every day of her life. She never heard from her husband again as he had gone missing in the war. She felt blessed to have a career that she loved to much and a way to support her two children. At 40, when her own children were now graduated from the small high school, she became the administrator and that became her whole life for the next 32 years. She never dated again, she never thought of any social life outside the school activities. It was her entire life and she was devoted to it an every child in the school.
To retire was like a death for Eleanor. A death of the life she knew, of her purpose in life, of her passion, and of her reason to get up in the morning and use her energy to make a difference in the world. She had no idea what to do next but wait for death.
Whew, I was almost speechless. No wonder her daughter was so distressed and concerned. She had reason to be worried. This woman completely admitted that she had no reason to live. I took a deep breath and said a quiet prayer asking for guidance with Eleanor.
I was completing my coaching training and to become certified I had to successfully guide 20 people to improved lives. Eleanor was my fifth client and I didn’t want to loose her to her choice of a quiet, quick death.
I took a deep, stalling breath and asked if there was anything that she wished she would have been able to do in her childhood, something that there just wasn’t the time or money for (remember they were just coming out of WWI in Brittan). She lamented that she went to a one-room school and that there was never time for art or money for supplies. (This was a glimmer of something I could build on.) “Eleanor, have you ever considered taking an art class?” She responded that she never had time because her life was so filled with school activities.
“Would you be able to find out if the school in your town offered any adult or night classes or if there was an artist who taught privately?” She mentioned that there was an artist who she really admired but had never thought to ask. I gave Eleanor her first assignment: To ask the artist about lessons.
We continued to look at all eight areas of Eleanor’s life, which came as a complete surprise to her because she had never evaluated her own life as having these distinct areas. We set some more goals, including paying all her bills. She did have quite a nice pension but she had avoided even opening her bills as she was sure she would die soon and wouldn’t have to be bothered paying them.
Her next assignment was to get a notebook and make a list of all of her bills and accounts and to bring it to the next session.
Eleanor thought me quite bold when I questioned her as to why she had never dated another man. She looked shocked that I would even ask that question. She was, after all, the school administrator and her life had to be completely above reproach. There was no room in her life for an interloper to her devotion to the school and her children. (Oops, excuse me . . . being raised an American I had little sense of such British protocols!) I learned to be sensitive and to not make any judgements about her situation, but to ask questions about what was appropriate behavior for a woman of her status. What a learning experience this was for me.
It seemed like we’d made some headway and we were able to laugh a bit about the differences of our perspectives on life and I asked her if she would like to come back in two weeks to show me what she had accomplished with her goals. She agreed.
Two weeks later I observed a woman who had some sparkle in her eyes. She was excited that the artist did indeed have a class and invited her to join. She was loving the classes each week and was feeling pretty happy with some water color pieces she had created. Follow-up assignment: Bring her art work to the next session.
Eleanor was also very diligent about attending to her finances—organizing and then paying all of her bills. Then, when she really looked at the pension that came each month she realized that there was a nice sum of money leftover that she could use on having some fun.
Now we were beginning to roll. I challenged her next: “Have you ever taken a dance lesson?” Oh my! That nearly stopped her in her tracks.
In England there are many places to ballroom dance. It is a social exchange and there are, naturally, certain protocols! Unlike American nightclubs where a primary intention seems to be going out dancing to get laid, in these proper ballroom dancing settings, the intention is to go out dancing to enjoy social exchange and laughter and music and get exercise. A man asks a woman to dance—and you never turn down the first dance. You dance at least one dance and then he returns you to your chair. If he likes you he will return after a few songs and ask again. There is a lovely social elegance about ballroom behavior. If she dances with a few other men in between, he will return to ask her again. If she liked dancing with him she will agree and maybe they will have two dances in a row this time around before he returns her to her chair. And so it goes for the entire evening. If he really likes a woman, the man will ask her if she will come back again next week and if he could have another dance.
After this little chat—because I am a ballroom dancer and I love the elegance and politeness of the European and British mannerisms in the ballrooms—Eleanor’s next assignment: Find out where there were she could take some ballroom dance lessons.
Then we talked about her dowdy teacher dressing. I encouraged her to have a fun day out in London with her daughter and purchase two new dresses she could go out dancing in.
The next question was about the state of her house. Many depressed people let clutter pile up around them, even failing to discard newspapers and magazines. Eleanor admitted to some debris. The assignment in this area: To make a plan for her daughter to come for a weekend to help rearrange and clear out the house—and maybe even consider some painting and other home refreshments.
That was enough for this session, and Eleanor admitted that she was enjoying my fresh outlook and spunky attitude. She confided that because she was the school administrator that everyone in her town gave her great respect but no one ever confronted her like I was doing.
Two weeks later Eleanor walked into my office with a package under her arm neatly wrapped in brown paper and string and a great big smile on her face. She was practically bursting with something she wanted to share. I could feel the shift in her energy and gave her a big (surprising) hug. Oops. She wasn’t used to that. I couldn’t help myself! I was responding with so much joy to the difference I could feel in her energy field. She laughed and gave me a furtive hug back. I backed off a bit.
“Well, tell me all about it. I can tell that something wonderful is happening.” She untied the string and opened the neatly wrapped paper. My eyes must have opened really wide because she giggled . . . yes, giggled with glee. I was astonished. Her watercolors were absolutely beautiful. I was speechless for a moment and then began to gush. “Oh my, you are sooooooo talented. No wonder that your soul yearned to have colors and paints when I asked you in our first session what your heart would have like to do when you were a child. There is genius in your hands.” She was humble and shy about her paintings, yet the pride glowed from her face.
She told me that she had been chosen to display some of her art in the local library. My next challenging assignment in response: Investigate art fairs at which she could display and sell her work.
Eleanor relayed that the shopping trip with her daughter was the most fun that they had experienced together in years and that she did indeed find and buy a couple of wonderful new dresses. (Her daughter had called me after the shopping spree gushing that she had never in her life seen her mother so happy and so much fun. She thanked me profusely.)
The weekend cleaning fest also turned out to be a great deal more fun than either had anticipated. The clutter was cleared in a hurry and new paint had been chosen to prepare for a visit from her son Jeff who would help with the new look on the walls.
The next session was full of chatter from her about how she had started the dance lessons and met a wonderful gentleman who asked her out to dinner. She had taken three lessons in the prior two weeks and gone out dancing four times. She was now vibrantly alive and shining and happy. She looked 20 years younger in her new dress and a new hair cut, and our session was bursting with laughter and joy.
By the end of our eighth session together, Eleanor was selling her art work so fast that she couldn’t keep up with it. She had three favorite dance partners and was now learning to play cards. She made new friends in nearby towns who she met at dancing and was meeting them for lunch and tea. Her house was completely painted in new colors that pleased her and she had learned how to reupholster her sofa . . . with the help of a gentleman friend who taught her while he was helping her. She turned the children’s bedroom into her painting studio. Simply, she was glowing with health and happiness.
After two years in London, I had completed the internship to become a certified life coach and I moved back to Milwaukee in 1987. I kept in touch with Eleanor and six years later I received a letter from her about how much fun she was still having. The tears rolled down my cheeks as I read her words about winning awards with her paintings and her romantic adventures with one beau for dancing and another for cards and another for rides in the country. I breathed deeply in joy and gratitude for the guidance I had been given to help her see and experience what she might not have discovered herself. Eleanor had to wait until she was 74 before she truly bloomed in her brilliance and artistic genius and social beauty.