Family Tree

The tree’s branches reach out to every corner of the front yard. My dad planted it in 1973 after another tree was taken down to save the sprinkler system, an event I remember as overwhelmingly sad. My father must have too, because he planted the new one right away, in a slightly different spot, and has taken great pleasure in watching it grow and thrive over these many years.

My father has always been a person with a great capacity for stillness. He could sit for hours outside in the evening enjoying the cigars he now tells medical professionals he never smoked and watch the sky change from the purple and orange of a Texas sunset to a deep blue star-filled delight.  I once took a cruise with my parents to Alaska during which I found my father sitting on deck as the cruise ship lumbered through the inside passage.  He was wrapped in a plaid blanket wearing his characteristic hat, watching the  glaciers, some calving, some imperceptibly shifting.  After a time sitting in silence together, he said to me, “Everything changes. It is the way the world is made.”

Indeed.  In two days this house will cease to be a secure base to which I have returned like a migrating bird for so many years. My feelings are bitter and sweet, self-indulgent and generous.  Bitter because I know my father hoped he could die in this house and now he will not.  Self-indulgent as I relive every path not taken, regret words unspoken, and words that were too sharp. Sweet because through the packing and sifting of the cards my mother saved, my father’s memorabilia, the photograph piles that climb like ivy  – I am left with gratitude, not because everything was perfect, it was not. My good hearted, but anxious and perfectionistic mother stressed us all out trying to meet her unattainable standards. For many years there were creepy neighbors, now long gone, that attempted creepy things that I escaped but did not know enough to call out. As an only child, I longed for brothers and sisters. God knows I long for them now.  But in the Christmas letters and recipes, the report cards and the invitations, there is evidence of an engaged, hopeful, good life, with deep roots and branches that will forever provide shelter whether I return to this house or not.

My dad and I took a drive tonight, his first since he left the hospital and made the move to his new living situation. When I asked where he wanted to go, he said, “by our house.” It broke my heart but I did it. We sat in the driveway and we talked about the tree he planted so long ago. Eventually, I turned to him and said, “I guess we have to say goodbye to this house.” “Yes” he said. “It’s time to say goodbye.”

The house needs another family. The backyard needs another tree house, another garden filled with tomatoes, radishes, eggplants, and green beans.  Children need to speed out the driveway on their bikes in the warm San Antonio breeze to discover how the connecting neighborhood streets lead them to Baskin Robbins with nary a busy street crossing.  Those kids need to meet their best friends on the elementary school swings to dissect every seventh grade romance. The special meatballs need to be in the chafing dish for the holiday party, the card tables set up for Bridge, or maybe Mah Jongg, or Lotteria. Another set of parents must plan the Halloween extravaganza in the garage, surprise a delighted sixteen year old with a car in the driveway, and welcome children and their friends home from college with a New Year’s Eve spaghetti dinner before the night’s festivities begin.

A new family will change this house completely, maybe even tear it down and start from scratch.  I don’t begrudge them that. But, I hope they see that beautiful live oak tree and allow it to speak to something deep inside them. Something that says, let your roots grow deep; make your house a shelter to all who come through the door; sing and make music in that house; grow a garden that you water with laughter and tears, accomplishments, milestones, joys, and sorrows.  Have some fun in that house. Do some good for others in that house. At the end, your branches will stretch, nurturing you and those you love even as you say goodbye.  If that new family listens, maybe they’ll say, “ We’re going to knock out this, tear down that, re-landscape this part, and put something completely different back here. But that tree? We’ll work around that one.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Always and Everywhere

 

Last night I learned I would have to leave vacation with my family because my father, who I was just with for almost three weeks, was back in the hospital. Worry and disappointment mounted in equal measure. What is happening to my admittedly very old, but always sharp and robust father? This slow decline is so not what I would wish for him. Why must he suffer?  And more selfishly, why does this latest bout of suffering have to happen during this 10-day window that, as a family, we had tried so hard to protect?  The last two or three years have been filled with family crises. And, between those crises and our work, our boys have gotten used to one or the other of us almost always being on the road.  And vacations, something we have always held sacred as a family, have gone by the wayside. This summer we were reclaiming them…

As these thoughts were roiling, the sentiments found in the New Testament and repeated in various ways throughout the Catholic and Anglican liturgies came to mind, spontaneously combatting my lesser angels: It is right and a good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give thanks and praise. Always and everywhere? Even right now when I have to leave this place I’ve been dying to get to?  “It is indeed right, our duty and our joy, always everywhere to give thanks.”  Well then…no escaping that very clear direction. I made my plane reservation and we went out for a last sunset hike as a foursome.  The climb was heavenly. An afternoon rain meant the earth was fresh, the Sedona colors magical, and every step led us to an enchantment-filled view. As I climbed, I found myself repeating, “Always and everywhere it is a good and joyful thing to give thanks.”  This morning, I left the three of them to continue the trip and I came home to be with my dad.

Giving thanks is harder tonight as I sit by myself in my parents’ house.  It is lonely. It is sticky and humid outside and there are mosquitoes.  The pictures and memorabilia that I started sorting during my last visit are still here, beckoning like a disorganized lament. Thinking of all that will transpire this week, all that will need to be figured out and accomplished, makes me want to crawl under a rock.

Yet, those words from Thessalonians keep surfacing, “In all things, give thanks.”  In other traditions, this might be called a mantra. Cognitive-behavioral therapists might even define this repeated sentence as a thought stopping mechanism, a means for combatting the negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression. For me, I think they have become a habit of mind, something that comes to me when I am facing something difficult that I know I cannot avoid.  Like the little engine that could, that said, “I think I can. I think I can” over and over, this liturgical practice drives out the frustration and, truthfully, resentment that threatens the tenderness that comes from caring for others and putting our own needs and wants on a back burner. And as I do, all that I am thankful for begins to surface and be named:

  • A father to care for who has loved me so well all my life.
  • A husband that supports me in doing all that I do for my dad.
  • The high school friend I’ll see tomorrow night for dinner.
  • A flexible summer work schedule.
  • Morning walks around my childhood neighborhood.
  • My father’s friends who remain so committed to him as he declines.
  • The professionals who are helping me figure all of this out.
  • The ministers that seem to show up out of nowhere when they are most needed.
  • The encouraging texts from friends far away.
  • The memories that live in that disorganized pile of pictures.

And finally for the practice over a lifetime that imbedded these words deep in my mind and heart so that I could call them up when they are most needed. Indeed, always and everywhere it is right, our duty and our joy, to give thanks.

Abortion Stories

As Alabama was passing its total abortion ban, a friend posted a CNN clip that I didn’t watch in which a guest or the anchor seemed to imply that a fetus was akin to an organ in a woman’s body that she might choose do with as she pleases. My friend posed the following question with this post: “Will one of my SANE pro-abortion friends explain this to me?” When no one responded, she took this to mean that her “pro-abortion” friends could not answer something so ridiculous and therefore this meant that they knew deep in their hearts how evil their pro-choice position was. When I tried to go back to the post later, in order to watch the clip and to decide whether to respond, the post was gone. Perhaps things got ugly…Truly, so little good comes from engaging in such conversations on Facebook or Twitter. Against my better judgment, I do engage sometimes but it generally ends with me ghosting out before or after someone dismisses my thinking while telling me how much I mean to them.  Pointless all the way around.  Maybe that is why no one “sane” responded to my friend’s post…

But everyday there is a new threat to reproductive rights, including the choice to abort, in this country. Yesterday, saw the most restrictive law yet move forward in Alabama. Many states now have only one abortion provider and in some cases none.  Yet, the majority of the U.S. population supports the right to abortion in all or most cases. https://www.pewforum.org/fact-sheet/public-opinion-on-abortion/

My opinions have been largely consistent since I was in about the seventh or eighth grade, approximately four years after Roe was decided. As abortion became a possibility in every state, the public debate came with it. I remember the cover of TIME or maybe NEWSWEEK with a picture of a fetus in utero promoting an article that examined the “when does life begin” question.  I read it and decided that should I ever need to, as long as I could have an early abortion meaning before 10 weeks or so, I would do it. That was my own thinking and for a long time I kept that opinion to myself.

My parents each approached the topic of an early pregnancy differently.  My mother told me around this time period, meaning when I was about 13, that if I became pregnant she would want me to carry the pregnancy to term. I remember the scene in great detail. I was in her room. It was summer and I was wearing my favorite multi-colored short shorts. The memory is probably so clear because I was terrified. Not because I was sexually active, but because I believed that it was up to me to never make a mistake; that if I did, I would have no choice over what would happen to me; and that if I wanted to have a choice, I could not turn to my mother for help. I am sure she would be devastated to hear me say that.  And perhaps those were the beliefs of a young adolescent that did not reflect what really might have happened.  But beliefs of teens are often not articulated and as such parents have no way to correct them.

Several years later, perhaps when I was leaving for college, my father gave me a very different message. He wrote me a letter tucked in the trunk of my car where he often left me a little extra cash. In it, he told me to avoid pregnancy at any cost during my college years. I was shocked by this part of the letter. I never talked about such things with my dad. But I did ask him about it the next time I saw him and he was clearly embarrassed. Avoiding further conversation, he simply said, “A girl has to know when to say no, because when you are pregnant and you don’t want to be there are no good options. But if that ever happens to you, you come to me and I’ll help you.” That statement has been etched on my heart ever since.  In so many ways it sums up my relationship with my father. He has always been the person who could simultaneously clearly state his expectations and his beliefs about how I should conduct myself – “pretty is as pretty does” –and at the same time acknowledge the realities of being human.

Fast-forward another seven, or eight years and I was working in a teen clinic in a hospital located in an extremely high need neighborhood. I did all kinds of things in that clinic and one of my main activities was “options counseling” for teen girls who were pregnant.  I was not so far away from adolescence myself and began this work with the view that an early pregnancy represented a crisis.  Overtime, I learned that an early pregnancy represented as many possibilities as there were young women in that circumstance.  For some, it was a joy, a happy accident of which their family was aware and supportive.  For others it was a secret and they were convinced, as I would’ve been, that they could never talk with their mothers about their situation. It was my practice to encourage them to talk with their moms and many times I helped facilitate those conversations. By then I knew that no matter what mothers say to their teens, when the chips are down, they want to help and they do not want their daughters to go through challenging experiences alone.  And, I knew, that the best decisions teens make – 9 times out of 10 – are decisions that fit with their families’ beliefs and values – not mine and not yours.  But notice that qualifier – 9 times out of 10.  There are exceptions. Families that are hardly families at all, where young people have been raising themselves and making their own way for years. There are families whose belief systems are so rigid and a young person desperately wants something different that to involve the family would be to risk harm to the girl’s life or leave her with no place to live unless she followed their wishes. And, these wishes could go either way.  Sometimes families felt that having a baby was punishment for being sexually active. On the flip side, I had family members call me and yell at me because I would not “make” their daughter have an abortion. Never mind that a forced abortion is illegal in this country; a doctor doing such a thing would be prosecuted for assault and battery.  So what I learned in this role was the wisdom both of my profession, which prioritizes individual autonomy, and also the wisdom of my father: my goal was to help them make a their own decision, not tell them what their decision should be.

And so to my friend and so many like her who cheer these repressive laws and the pre-ordained paths those laws produce, I would ask, who would you want me to be for your daughter or your son’s girlfriend or one night stand?  Would you want me to tell her what she has to do because the government has decreed what that choice should be?  Or would you want me to help her talk to people who are important to her. Maybe you, maybe her minister, her aunt, or her father, so that the decision would reflect something thought through, examined, carefully weighed, and freely chosen. Would you want me to shuttle her off to prenatal care without a second look or would you want me help her know her own heart and mind? These laws take away the possibility that a woman might find a non-judgmental ear, someone to help her talk to others who care about her, or simply some space to consider how to move forward.

The arguments on TV and elsewhere about abortion are all ridiculous in different ways. Of course an embryo or a fetus is not an organ like an extra kidney or an appendix. It is sad that we spend so much of our public discourse on red herrings. Abortion is one of, if not the most ancient of medical procedures. http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/abortion/legal/history_1.shtml  Cultures around the world have recognized for centuries that there are times and circumstances in which carrying a pregnancy to term is terrible idea. Abortion was made legal across this country because women seek abortions whether they are legal or not.  But when they are illegal, women are maimed, infected, often made sterile, or sometimes die at that hands of charlatans and mercenaries that prey on their desperation.  That is why a network of clergy existed to help women get safe abortions in this country before it was made legal in every state. https://www.npr.org/2017/05/19/529175737/50-years-ago-a-network-of-clergy-helped-women-seeking-abortion That is why physicians campaigned for legal abortion as a matter of public health.

Are there times that people regret a decision to have either an abortion or a baby? Of course. Are there times they regret a decision to place a child for adoption? Undoubtedly. But that is the price of freedom – the chance to make our own decisions, as long as they do not hurt the wider community, and to live with the consequences, whether they are positive, negative, or indeed a complex web of regrets, hopes, and contentment that make up the reality of our lives.

 

Note about the photo: If you click next to the colon below, you will be taken to the site where the photo originates from, the archive of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Photo credit: 

Living Atul Gawande…

 

If there is one book I have recommended over the last five years, it is Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. Immersed as I am in caring for an older parent and surrounded as I am by friends and colleagues sorting out the same questions, this is no surprise.  But what is surprising is that in spite of how much this book has helped me, I have to return to its lessons again and again.

When my parents entered their nineties, I would return home to the house they shared since 1973.  But instead of envying my mother’s ability to have everything sparkling clean and perfectly organized at every moment, I noticed that every treasure in their home turned from lovely memento to potential landmine.  Persian carpets were tripwires.  The marble coffee table brought back from a tour in Naples, the perfect blunt object for a head injury. Each stair might as well have been the Hilary step.  My anxiety skyrocketed the moment I walked in the door. My goal in life became to convince them to move to a retirement community of their choosing.  There is a lovely one within a mile of their home, a place where many of their friends have lived, with low staff turnover, and everything they would have needed.  There are terrific places near me in North Carolina. My father said no. Again and again he said no.  When I asked him what he thought it would be like to live in such a place he compared it to the Bexar County jail and told me I would essentially kill my mother if I made her move.  That was a conversation stopper.

And then I read Being Mortal.  Not only did I read it, I holed up in a tent in the North Carolina mountains at an annual multi-family camping party to finish reading it while everyone else socialized.  Early in the book, Gwande describes his grandfather, a gentleman over 100 years old living in India. Gwande writes that, in contrast to our stated goals for elders in the U.S., the stated goal for his family in India was to help the centenarian grandfather do whatever he wanted – in this case, to ride his horse on a daily basis to inspect his farm.  This meant that the family secured a very docile horse and walked the horse with the grandfather on it, every day.  Notice what they did not do.  They did not say, “You’re too old to ride a horse.” Or, “ There’s no horse that is appropriate for you to ride.” Or, “Sorry, it is just not safe for you to ride a horse.”  Rather, they recognized that at 100, there is no “safe” and the only thing they could really do for their aging patriarch was to give him what he wanted at what was surely the end of his life. The rest of the book is very good and completely compelling, but if you read no further than this anecdote, I wager it will change you as it did me. I quit asking about the retirement community, stopped seeing the rugs as ticking time bombs, and stopped worrying about how I, an only child living across the country from them, would manage it when disaster came.  And several years later, it did. My mother fell and broke her hip.  But guess what? She did not trip over the rug, nor did she hit her head on the coffee table.  She fell leaving a friend’s birthday party at a lovely restaurant after a lovely meal.  And she didn’t trip over anything, just lost her balance and fell.  When she did she was perfectly coiffed and sporting a smart new dress. Three and a half weeks later she was dead at 93.  There was suffering in between to be sure.  But she died as she lived and there is something to be said for that.

Gwande’s work highlights the competing values we hold but rarely articulate when we are caring for elders.  In truth, it’s not much different than the calculus made when caring for children – particularly adolescents.  Safety versus autonomy.  In the U.S., we lean towards safety, always attempting to mitigate risk particularly for the old and the young. We long for safer playgrounds and safer old age. In the teen years, parents are challenged to know where the line is between allowing young people to make their mistakes versus keeping them safe from their under developed frontal cortexes. Perhaps this is why Being Mortalhit such a chord when it was assigned as UNC Chapel Hill’s 2016 summer reading book for incoming first year students.  When I heard about the assignment, I was perplexed.  Sure, I found the book meaningful as an adult child of older parents, but what would an 18 year old see?  But see it they did.  In the discussion section I co-facilitated, the first year students had read the book cover to cover, were eager to talk about it, and planned to share the book with their parents and grand parents.

It’s now been almost two years since my mother’s death and my dad, now 98, still lives in the house with the rugs, the coffee table, the full catastrophe. And although he picked up a walker the minute my mom fell and has not put it down since, he is weaker, requires more help, and still says no when I talk with him about moving. I promised my mother I’d look after him. “Make sure he turns off the coffee pot!”

She thought, as did I, that this meant he would move to North Carolina. I brought it up days after her funeral and he said no. At first, I thought we needed to give it time, no sudden changes, yada yada yada. But his position has remained stalwart. No, to moving across the country and no, to leaving his house. He explains, “Here, I am surrounded by everything that reminds me of my good wife and our long life. I know just where everything is. So keep me on the list at the retirement place and then, when I decide I need it, I’ll go.”  If I press, he describes moving into assisted living as moving into a “rat’s nest.”  Again, a conversation stopper.

People tell me I need to take a firmer stand with him, take the reins, force the issue. It’s true there have been some problems of late – medication mix ups, a couple of spills that resulted in waits on the floor until someone could arrive and “right the ship” as he cheerily puts it. But although he is weaker in both mind and body, in spirit he is strong. He is still the one who walked with me for hours in the Mark Twain National Forest naming every tree, who guided me into the hills near the farm where he grew up to drink from spring water that came sweet and pure from the earth, who showed me how moss grows and how it might help how to find my way should I get lost. He is still the one who liked to take the scenic route home from church and stop by what he called, “the land of many flowers.” (Check out the San Antonio Botanical Gardens when you have the chance.)  He is still the one who would write a poem in walnut shell and hang it on the Christmas tree for my mother each year. (I always wanted one too. But they were just for her.) He is still the one who, in response to some long forgotten heart break, told me, “Worry and cry as hard as you can about that young man for all of five minutes because that is more than he deserves.” And he is still the 19 year old who went bravely off to war when duty called, who saved his ship when it was lost, and fought for your freedom and mine. Who am I to tell him what to do with his last days, months, or years? Who am I to force him to do anything so that I, and others who care about him, can be assured that he is safe? When I push, he fights hard. And the truth is, although I know I could prevail it is a battle I don’t want to win. It would diminish him and he deserves better than that.  And perhaps, I can be grateful l that he’s not asking to ride a horse.

 

 

Friendship

Soon I’ll leave for a brief trip back to Texas. I go most every month to see my father. Because I go so often now, the reality is I see friends from childhood more often than I see my friends here in Chapel Hill. This trip will be particularly festive since I’ll make a brief stop at my college alma mater for an evening with buddies from those days kind enough to make time for me.  I am grateful for these friendships that have lasted a lifetime and mournful that everyday life crowds out the time for friends in my own proverbial backyard.

For those of you who’ve not followed it, I highly recommend the Dear Sugars podcast. The podcast is over but the archives are available for free download.  You won’t regret any 20 minute interval you devote to listening to these two friends reflect on the complications their letter-writers describe. In one series of episodes, they describe the ways in which friendship is different most other relationships. In others, there are external forces that promote hanging-in-there when, however occasionally, frustration, anger, boredom, or any other negativity that finds a way in. With family, in addition to love, memories, and commitment, we are bound by law, blood, finances, and the rest of it. Webs deliberately hard to escape – a situation that gives us time to regain our appreciation for those we love and are committed to when our better angels get lost.  Likewise, at work, our employment may depend on being able to make relationships work with individuals we might otherwise run from. But friendship, whether we find it in the office, with our partners, in a high school class, a college dorm, or the neighbor next door, happens because we choose it.  Again and again, today and tomorrow, until we can’t or because we decide we won’t. In friendship we choose and are chosen even as we gradually, or sometimes all at once, allow those we call friends to know the good and the bad of all that we are.

Almost a month ago now, I received news that someone not quite a friend, but who ran in the circles I did in college had suddenly and inexplicably lost her beautiful, apparently healthy daughter. I have looked repeatedly at the posted picture, a picture so lovely and filled with hope that it seems impossible such a young woman could ever die. It is friends that are walking with this mother through this terrible valley. She has yet to stay alone or cook a meal. Her friends are listening to the stories, embracing her sobs, and holding her up as her feet struggle to find solid ground. And they are doing that because they choose to; there is nothing forcing them, no obligation, only the choice of friendship.

That beautiful picture of that beautiful girl that I never knew keeps reminding me that our life goes by so quickly and we are all so busy and it can all be taken away in a twinkling. But for this moment, I give thanks and praise for friends old and new, those I talk to every week, every month, and those I see once every few years. You know who you are.

 

 

San Francisco

When we saw her sit down and her tears begin, we dropped to our knees in front of her and joined hands forming a circle with to share and acknowledge her sorrow. What a gift to share our collective grief  with this stranger-friend for a moment.

 

Just back after four days in San Francisco, a city I don’t know well but that has captivated my imagination since I read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series in my 20s. For the most part, I spent my time this visit doing pretty standard work conference activities. But the last night, a colleague cum friend sent a text inviting me to join her and her husband at a Market Street wine bar.  After a longer-than-expected walk, I arrived to a quiet scene.  My friends were there along with two gender bending, male-identified men behind the bar and two women, apparently a couple, sharing quiet conversation.

We were enjoying appetizers and a bottle of wine when my colleague’s husband burst into song with a falsetto that let me know this was going to be no ordinary night.  The three of us are in our 50’s and the songs of our youth were topping the playlist. As my colleague and I talked shop, her husband kept singing and befriended the couple to his left.  Soon enough we put away our workplace concerns and let the impulse to sing and dance take over.  At first, it was the three of us.  One of the bartenders began to act as DJ, taking requests. First Journey, Queen, Pat Benetar, then Bye Bye Miss American Pie, The Cars, more Journey….music that took me back. Another colleague arrived and joined the fun. Eventually, one member of the unknown couple decided to dance with us, and with some trepidation her reluctant partner joined in.  Soon enough the bar tenders were strutting their stuff and we jumped into a joyous, raucous-for-me, evening. I’ve been basking in the glow of the laughter and camaraderie ever since.

But there was so much more to that evening than a spontaneous dance party in a far away city.  Our evening stood in contrast to the news story that had broken that afternoon in which a group of boys from a Catholic school in full MAGA gear appeared to taunt and disrespect a Native American elder at a protest in Washington D.C. What actually happened is now the subject of debate and I’ve not followed every nuance. But our current national life is so filled with stories of open prejudice and hatred that the complexity of this situation hardly matters. We hear similar things almost weekly, incidents that are either ignored or celebrated by our leaders.

Indeed at one point in the night, in the midst of the dancing and laughter, one of the women we met began to cry. A Latinx lesbian woman who valued her Catholic faith even though many who share it would reject her, she was dismayed by the boys’ behavior.  (For the record, many claiming Christ would reject this woman. Her Catholic Church is not alone its exclusion.) For her, because the boys were Catholic she hoped that they would choose to represent a message of Christian love. When we saw her sit down and her tears begin, we dropped to our knees in front of her and joined hands forming a circle to share and acknowledge her sorrow. What a gift to share our collective grief  with this stranger-friend for a moment.

The tears passed and we kept dancing, singing, and laughing. Two very young couples joined the mix, and soon thereafter it was time to call it a night. As we said good-bye, one of the bar tenders explained it was his first night on the job and said we had made it great for him. But really we all made it great for each other. For one evening, by tacit agreement, we all remembered what it was like to be young and open to new people and experiences. We agreed to let our stereotypes drop, stereotypes about how 50 plus straight people, and 40 plus lesbian people, and 30-ish gender bending people are “supposed to” act and relate. Those stereotypes would have kept us in our corners, no spontaneous falsetto, no singing, no dancing, no understanding, no joyful connection. For a moment, as the song goes, we belonged to the light, we belonged to each other, and we belonged together.