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The Real Dragon Lady

Whether or not you watch Game of Thrones, let me tell you about the real “Dragon Lady.”

That’s what people call Dr Yvonne Kaye, 85.

She grew up in England, where she was bombed out three times during World War 2.

Homeless and literally shell-shocked, Yvonne hid in her cellar.

There were times she was outside with friends and could not get to a bomb shelter in time. She saw a few of her friends die in front of her eyes.

Those few neighbors whose homes were not destroyed offered Yvonne safe shelter and food.

She felt such a debt of gratitude to these kind humans that she decided to commit her life to helping others.

In 1968, she moved with her four children to America and became a bereavement therapist and addictionist.

For 18 years, she had a radio show, Two Way Talk, and one day, received a phone call from an organization called Compassionate Friends.

It’s an organization that helps bereaved parents. They asked Yvonne to come and speak. She has worked with them ever since.

Yvonne said there are so many kinds of grief she deals with. It’s the worst of the worst.

Yvonne is the one who is called into ground zero… triage… for people enduring impossible pain after the overdose of a child or a homicide.

Only in the last 3 or 4 years did she stop running out at midnight as a crisis worker.

She would be the first on the scene to be with families of a homicide or do interventions with addicts.

To this day, at 85, Yvonne is a grief therapist working in Bucks County Pennsylvania. She is on the front lines of the opioid crisis.

She trains staff at recovery centers on what to do when a patient relapses.

And she councils families who have lost a family member from an overdose.

Yvonne told me stories that I can’t…that I won’t…share with you.

It’s too hard to even think about.

But the fact that she is out there…with her storied past and her mystical strength and impossible courage…I didn’t know people like her existed.

To see and feel this kind of grief once, let alone constantly?!

I asked how she handles all the pain.

“It takes a big chunk out of me. It’s horrific. But early childhood trauma gave me the ability to communicate with people in the throes of grief.”

This might explain some of her tattoos, particularly her tattoo of a dragon.

“People call me the Dragon Lady, which means ‘Don’t mess with me. Don’t tell me i can’t do anything.’”

She also has a bumblebee tattoo.

“The bumblebee… aerodynamically it’s not supposed to be able to fly but nobody told it. That’s been my attitude.”

And a Phoenix.

“The phoenix rising because we rose from the ashes after World War 2. And I believe in people who rise from the ashes whatever those ashes happen to be.”

I have to be honest in saying that I interviewed Yvonne two times.

The first time, we barely cracked her story. And I never wrote about her because I wasn’t sure what to say.

But Yvonne has an amazing son who followed up and said “Dave, when you are writing the piece about my mom? My mother is an amazing person, full of kindness and light, so it is terrific to see her recognized like this. Thank you!”

That was my kick in the ass to reconnect with Yvonne, and that’s when her full story reared its Dragon head!

I am so grateful to have met, not just Yvonne, but also her son Daniel who spends his life fulfilling the wishes of elders.

If you talk to him, you would realize, there aren’t a lot of people like Daniel. He’s truly dedicated.

It’s a testament to his mother, a total badass who also knows how to have fun. That seems to be the formula for the type of mom who raises strong children.

Yvonne said, “Music and laughter saved my life.”

She loves Bowie, Queen, and Phil Collins and shares this music with her patients in recovery.
She said, “The song ‘Don’t Lose My Number’ is especially relevant for a recovering addict.”

“Billy, Billy don’t you lose my number
‘Cause you’re not anywhere
That I can find you”

Yvonne also leads bi-monthly workshops at Gilda’s Club, a worldwide cancer support community, inspired by Gilda Ratner. “Even in excruciating pain, we laugh with each other -when nothing seems funny, and when it is.’ “

Dr Yvonne Kaye is woman who has lived through the worst of humanity during WW2, and instead of hiding from the pain, she walks toward it…everyday.

To anyone who has been through loss…

and…

to everyone who is blessed with life…

as Yvonne said, “You miss out if you take things for granted.”

***

Dr Yvonne Kaye speaks nationally on subjects of grief and addiction.

Check out her website.

 

Bringing it…at 100!

Joe Pietroforte is rare.

He is 100.

He is a decorated veteran.

His mind is sharp and he shares VIVID memories from every decade of his lifetime.

Joe took me through his nice months of combat in Europe during World War 2.

They crossed rivers in the pitch black of night.

The Germans were often well-entrenched, shooting at them from the other side of the river.

One out of every two soldiers Joe fought alongside did not survive.

Some just hid in their foxholes and didn’t come out.

Others shot off their own toes or fingers, in hope that a trip to the medic would help them avoid combat.

He said, “Dying is easier than living when you’re in combat.”

I asked Joe if he knew he had this courage within him?

“I knew I’d die here or die there. I figured there was no chance I’d survive the war.”

But he survived, and pressed on with his portable rocket launcher, 3 rockets, grenades, belt of ammo, and a backpack with 2 days of rations, a bayonet and a shovel.

After the war, he was decorated with a Silver Star, Bronze Star, European Theater of Operations, 3 battle stars, a victory medal, a Medal of Honor from the government of Luxembourg, a Medal of Honor from the government of Belgium.

Joe did not have a gratitude teaching to tie it all together with a pretty little bow.

When talking to these elders with such a prestigious and grizzly history, I remember that words and quotes and sayings are cheap, something anyone can cut and paste.

Here’s what I did learn from Joe, whose wife died 10 years ago, and yet he is still going strong.

He lives with his baby brother who is 91.

They obviously have good genetics. They credit their diet of olive oil and homemade red wine.

Joe’s brother sings opera.

And Joe LOVES to go dancing, especially when accompanied by younger women.

He said, at this point in his life, when he wears his World War 2 uniform, he is a celebrity.

Joe recently met two younger woman at a veterans event, and they took him out for a night of dancing.

I left this meeting with Joe’s favorite “swing music” playing in my car, imagining the incredible thought of a 100-year-old dancing his heart out!

To spend an hour with any combat veteran, let alone a decorated WW2 centenarian, changes the definition on “value of life.”

It’s not something that usually comes up in conversation and is rarely something one recognizes until their very life comes into question.

When I got together with some of my best college friends last week, we watched the NCAA Tournament, talked about fitness trends, business investments, mutual friends who are struggling, friends who are thriving.

Maybe this sounds like a conversation you’d have with your friends?

There was no “value of life” in the conversation.

And it might have been awkward if someone were to suddenly say, “Dude, how about this? We are lucky to be alive.”

Therein lies the value of the Joe Pietrofortes of the world.

In his book War, Sebastien Junger writes, “Combat isn’t where you might die — though that does happen — it’s where you find out whether you get to keep on living.

“Don’t underestimate the power of that revelation.

“Don’t underestimate the things young men will wager in order to play that game one more time.”

You get to keep on living. 

If that doesn’t resonate…

Imagine voicing your everyday complaints to Joe’s best friends…many of whom perished on the European battlefields, right in front of his eyes.

If it still doesn’t hit you in the heart…

Yesterday I visited my friend who has been in ICU, fighting for his life, every second of everyday, for over a month!

He has 2 young children. His road to recovery will be months and even years into the future.

When asked if he is depressed, he said, “No. I’m fighting to survive so that I can be a parent to my children.”

Consider parenting, not as a hassle, but as a privilege.

You get to keep on parenting.

You get to to keep on running, stretching, breathing. 

You get to keep on dancing. 

There will come a day when you can’t do this stuff anymore.

God wiling, it’s a day in the very distant future.

But as Joe or my friend in ICU might tell you, that day can come any second.

So fill in the blank.

Today, I get to keep on —————-.

And go do it!!!!

Oscar Wilde said, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people just exist.”

Pittsburgh And A Survivor

It’s been six days since the shooting in Pittsburgh.

Tonight, I’m going to Shabbat services at my synagogue.

I’m wondering, “Is this gonna be dangerous?” 

Any unusual sound will be alarming. People will be on edge. 

This isn’t the first time the most civilized country has trended toward darkness. 

Just ask the Holocaust survivors. 

A few days before the shooting in Pittsburgh, I interviewed an 85 year-old Holocaust survivor, Ruth Steinfeld (see above pic of Ruth and her daughter) 

Ruth shared with me her first memory. 

She was five-years-old, having dinner with her family in Ladenberg Germany, on the night of November 9, 1938. 

“The Nazis came into our home and broke everything.

“They burned the synagogues and broke all the storefronts of the stores owned by Jews. 

That’s why it’s called Kristallnacht, the night of the broken crystal.”

A short time later, Ruth and her family were taken to a concentration camp in France. 

A representative from an organization called OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants)…snuck into the camp and pleaded with Ruth’s mother to let them save her children. 

“OSE somehow got into the camp and they told my mother if she would let us go, they’d do all they could to keep us from any harm. 

“I must have had an unbelievable mother because she put us on the bus. Here we were screaming and crying but she insisted. 

“If you have little children you know how hard this must have been for her. 

“That’s the last time I saw my mother, waving goodbye from the back of the bus.”

Ruth’s parents were killed in Auschwitz and Ruth’s identity was changed by OSE. 

You can imagine her fear, an 8 year-old without parents, alone in the world. 

Just a few months prior, she was in a beautiful home with her loving family in a modern European country. What the hell happened?!

Through the rest of the war, Ruth was protected by friendly Frenchmen in small “off-the-grid” towns in the countryside. 

All of their lives were constantly at risk. 

If the Nazis found even one Jew being hidden in one of these small towns, everyone in the town was killed.

Over 1.5 million Jewish children were killed during the Holocaist. 

Ruth was one of the lucky ones. After the war, whe emigrated to Texas, got married, had 3 children and 10 grandchildren. 

But there was great pain in growing up without parents. 

So in 1981, Ruth found the courage to return to Germany and the home where she last saw her parents. 

An old lady answered the door to her former home.

It was a profoundly emotional moment, which I cannot describe in words. 

Please listen to the new episode of my podcast, 18 Minutes and hear Ruth tell her story firsthand. 

Ruth shares a story of forgiveness, and how pain can go away. It is possible. 

My interview with Ruth took place a few days before the shooting in Pittsburgh. 

A few days after the shooting, I again called Ruth.

She was very distraught. 

She told me. “I came to America and it was a free country, and this was never going to happen. And it happened. 

“I find it to be very difficult to explain. It’s the sort of thing that never in my life, after World War II, I would have to encounter. 

“These were wonderful people [in Pittsburgh] who were praying. I just can’t believe this happened.”

Where do we go from here? 

Here you have a Holocaust survivor who found it in her heart to forgive, to release the pain…and now…

…has she, have we… returned to a world of pain and darkness?

*****

Earlier this week, someone recommended a documentary, The Lady in Number Five

It’s the story of another Holocaust survivor. Alice Herz-Sommer.  

When Alice died in 2014, she was 110, which made her the oldest Holocaust survivor in the world.

Alice was a super talented concerted pianist and a rising celebrity in Europe in the 1930s. 

Then, HItler came to power, and Alice was sent to a special concentration camp for Jewish intellectuals and celebrites.

The Nazis would bring the Red Cross representatives to this special camp in order to show that the situation of the Jews in the concentration camps was “good.” 

Alice, along with 100 other Jewish musicians, would play concerts for the Red Cross representatives. 

The room was filled fellow prisoners and Nazi Guards.  

Alice said, “The prisoners lived for the music. It was like food to them. If they hadn’t come [to hear us], they would have died long before. As we would have.”

“Music saved my life and music saves me still.”

I find hope in Alice Herz Sommor’s message. 

Just as there will always be always darkness, so will there always be music.  

Nobody can make this darkness go away but nobody can make the music go away either!

I find hope in Ruth Steinfeld’s strength. 

Next week is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Ruth is traveling to Germany to share her story and her memories. 

In the face of all Ruth has been through, at 85, she continues to rise up and spread her beauty amidst all this darkness. 

If she can do that, then you can do that, and I can do that…

…and no matter how dark it gets, we will forever hold OUR light, and play OUR music, and speed OUR love.

**TO HEAR THE RUTH’S STORY FIRSTHAND, check out the new episode of my podcast, 18 Minutes

Lessons From A 111-Year-Old

My oldest friend was 108 years old when I met her.  She lived to be 111. She was one of the few supercentenarians not just in her hometown of NYC but on the entire planet. 

Of the 7 billion people on earth, there are only around 60 people at any one time who are supercentenarians…110 and older!

To reach that rarified age, you need the genetics. But you also need the attitude. These are 3 lessons I leaned from one of the oldest people on the planet:

1.When I asked this 111 year-old lady for her secrets on health and longevity, she answered, “Sex, vodka, and spicy food!”

We call that “Joie de Vivre” or the “joy of life.” 

It’s so important to take a moment each day to push back from your computer and savor the sunshine, the music, the dark chocolate.  I have a mantra that I call The BFD Mantra. “A beautiful, funny, and delicious moment each day keeps the stress away.”

2. This 111 year-old lady told me she’d been married 5 times!

We call that resilience. 

It’s so important to bounce back from your setbacks. In matters of health or finance or career or relationships, we all get knocked down. Not everyone gets up.  You gotta get up and keep truckin! 

3. When the social worker put his hands on the 111-year-old’s shoulders to help her lie down, she said to the social worker, “Are you propositioning me?”

She had a great sense of humor and wouldn’t we all benefit from loosening our grip on life!

I learned so many lessons from this 111 year old lady but nothing more important than recognizing that the oldest and wisest people have so much to teach us, so much wisdom and history. And yet so many of our elders are isolated, lonely, and dying with their stories in their hearts.

I wanted to do more to bring the old and the young together. So I created a series of events called DRINKS WITH YOUR ELDERS.  I’ve hosted these events in cities across the USA. We open a bottle of wine and have an intergenerational conversation about love, relationships, regrets, dreams, everything under the sun.

The next such event is Thursday, November 8 in New York City. You are invited. Please come. Here are the details.  Its a chance to hear stories from a generation of people who won’t be with us much longer.

  Its a chance to hear stories from a generation of people who won’t be with us much longer.

At this event, I will also share stories from new book, LIFE LESSONS FROM THE OLDEST AND WISEST. 

Launching in November, the book is a compilation of everything I’ve learned from these Drinks with Your Elders events and many years of conversations with the oldest and wisest people in our communities. They have great advice on marriage, divorce, parenting, health, happiness, and finding time for it all amidst the busyness of life. 

I’m excited to see you in a few weeks…

Thursday, November 8, 2018

6:30-7:45pm

The Brick Presbyterian Church in NEW YORK CITY

62 East 92nd Street (between Park/Madison) 3rd floor,

Carnegie Room – wheelchair accessible

Please RSVP:212 289-5300

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