The Dressing Table

Granted such a desire may seem strange. After all, it’s not 1964 and I am not a woman who spends time carefully preparing for a leisurely day of bridge and shopping. These days the dressing table seems a relic from another time, full of memories perhaps, but in no way a necessity.

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A few weeks before Christmas, my oldest son, not always tactful, walked in the house and asked, “What is that decrepit piece of furniture doing in our dining room?” I took issue with his characterization and explained that it was my mother’s dressing table, something she had used all my life and probably most of hers. My father had sent it to me and I was going to put it in the bedroom I share with my husband. My son shrugged and proceeded to the kitchen.

The dressing table is something my mother knew I would always keep. Some of my earliest memories are being with her while she was sitting at the dressing table getting ready for a special night out, taking off her make up before bed, or preparing for a regular day. She used it every day and night of my life including the night she fell. For us, the dressing table facilitated ordinary talks, vehement arguments, and revealing conversations. Some parenting gurus suggest talking to teens in cars because they talk more easily when adults are not looking directly at them. The dressing table served the same purpose. As a child, I felt freer to talk while her attention appeared to be focused on the mirror.

In middle school, I wanted a dressing table and was given one. I used it some but I never loved it the way I loved hers. Given the age, my dressing table was a place to construct a mask using the latest the eye shadow trick learned through Seventeen Magazine. As I felt less need for masks, I left behind the dressing table that had been given and have never bought another one. It was my mother’s dressing table that I wanted all along and that I am grateful to have now that she has left us.

Granted such a desire may seem strange. After all, it’s not 1964 and I am not a woman who spends time carefully preparing for a leisurely day of bridge and shopping. These days the dressing table seems a relic from another time, full of memories perhaps, but in no way a necessity. And truly, my son is correct; the dressing table is a little decrepit. It has a chip or two, a drawer nob that should be replaced, and it could use a good refinishing. Perhaps some day soon, I’ll send it out for a face-lift. For now, I’ve polished it and put in in my room. It holds a lamp, various elixirs, some treasures from my children, and a picture of my mother. Moments at the dressing table gave my mother, and I hope will give me, a daily chance to reflect on choices big and small, the ways we present ourselves to the world, time passing, and the chance to think of others while taking care of ourselves. But new habits take time. Right now, it feels strange to sit at her dressing table. In fact, this object that I thought of as such a symbol of elegance and ease, one that I had so long wanted, looks a little lonely and forlorn without her reflection in the mirror. Or perhaps that’s just me.

When Days End

Perhaps you wonder why I write about all of this. This is the third post I’ve written about my mom’s death. And it may not be the last. Is she paralyzed by grief you might ask? No. Is she okay? Yes, I am okay. But life is busy and death is such a demanding teacher…

Friday night…Saturday… Saturday night…Sunday…Sunday morning before dawn…that was how long we had to say goodbye. Now four months later I still wonder, “Did I do it right? Did I say things right? What if I’d explained it this way or that way? Here’s how I could have said it better. Can I have another chance to do this just right? Is there a just right?”

Here’s how it happened. My mother, having lived a long and good life until she was 93, left her house to go out to dinner, enjoyed an evening with friends and fell leaving the dinner party. She came through the hip fracture surgery quite well. She made the move to the skilled nursing rehab facility and had started physical therapy. She had her hair done. She made friends over meals. My dad came to see her every day. Once she was settled in, I went home for a week and a half. But while I was home with my husband and boys, I had strange dreams. Half waking/ half sleeping, the dream state felt like I was inside her head and could feel her suffering. It felt as if she was calling me, asking me to help her. In my head, I kept saying to her, “I’m coming. But I need these days at home. I’m coming as soon as I can. Please wait for me.”

Wednesday, as I was boarding the plane to go back to her, I got a call from the nursing facility saying that they wanted to take her to the hospital for a blood transfusion. Her blood pressure was low, meaning she could not get out of bed to do her physical therapy. Mom told the staff she would not go to the hospital. They wanted to send her anyway. I told them to wait. I’d be there that afternoon. When I arrived, she said she did not want to go to the hospital ever. I said okay. My father said okay. I took my father out to dinner.

While we were out, a nurse told my mother that, unless she went to the hospital, the nurse could not keep her safe…. My mom and I spent that night in the emergency room. The next morning brought a transfusion and that afternoon a GI scope. A huge ulcer was found and repaired. Progress? A turning point? We hoped so. But that night brought more bleeding, more transfusions, and discussion of further exploratory surgery. At that point, I asked to talk with the palliative care team. The nurse and doctor were visibly relieved that I had asked the question. Medicine is such a death denying culture. Who knows what torture my 93-year old mother would have had to endure if I had not spoken for her? Actually, I do know which is why I spoke. But I still wish I did not have to be first person to question whether more diagnostics, more treatment, were really in her best interest. Isn’t that someone else’s job? Well, as all good southern women say, “If you want something done, do it yourself.”

And I can’t say it was easy after the hospice choice was made. Isn’t that strange? We want to believe that if we choose palliative care somehow the situation becomes peaceful, beautiful, etc. It does beat the alternative. But often hospice comes so late that it is only a matter of days between the decision and death. In our case, there was no meaningful talk of taking her home; she was too fragile and my father too conflicted about having her in the house that sick. Instead, she was moved to a different part of the hospital, an oncology ward that was very quiet in contrast to the busy step down unit where she was. We worked mainly with the oncology nurses, not meeting a palliative care nurse or doctor until about 12 hours before she died. There just wasn’t time.

But more important and challenging than the logistics, was her process:

She asked, “Why have they moved me here?”

I explained, “So that you have privacy, have room for people to come visit, and because the unit you were in is for people who have just come out of surgery.”

Then, “Tell me again what is happening.”

Me: “You are bleeding from an ulcer in your stomach. These ulcers often come from inactivity. They tried to stop the bleeding but it has started again. They could do more surgery to try to find the bleeding and stop it again but we’re not sure it would not do much good. But we can do that if you want to.”

Pause.

Mom: “Maybe the bleeding will stop.”

Me: “Maybe.”

Mom: “I want you to look whenever you can and tell me how much blood there is.”

Me: “Okay, I will.”

And I did. And I told her the truth. The blood was still there, in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, and so much of it. And that is when she said, “Then I think this is the end.” Paralyzed, all I could summon up was, “Okay.”

Then, began what I think of as the “seesaw” period. On the one hand she sounded very clear about what was happening. She talked about her good life, friends, my dad, my husband, my children, and me. Yet, in the next conversation, she would talk about, leaving the hospital, living in the skilled nursing facility, but perhaps being able to go back home to visit. This made me cry and I replied, “Maybe.” In another conversation, when I used the word hospice, she was indignant. I asked again if she understood what was happening. “Tell me again.” I told her. She said, “I understand but never use that word [hospice] again. “

Whether doctor or patient, care-giver or cared-for, we want to believe there is one answer that is right and one answer that is wrong. In fact, the wrong answers are often easy to spot. But what about the right ones? I am glad she did not have tubes down her throat, crushed ribs from being resuscitated, or a mind addled from anesthesia. I am glad she had a quiet space to visit with friends, that my father could sit with her, and that there was a place for me to sleep so that she was not alone. I am grateful for the nurses who helped me prepare her body and brought me coffee while I stood watch from 3 to 6 in the morning waiting for the funeral home folks to arrive. But for all that was comforting, the uncertainty of the situation, the imperative of choice with no chance for a do-over is something to be bourn rather than resolved. There is no right path when someone is faced with letting go of a life they still love, no matter how small it is becoming.

Perhaps you wonder why I write about all of this. This is the third post I’ve written about my mom’s death. And it may not be the last. Is she paralyzed by grief you might ask? No. Is she okay? Yes, I am okay. But life is busy and death is such a demanding teacher: one that requires honor and attention for a subject we always want to put last on the list. “I’ll think about that tomorrow or maybe next week.” But we fail this class through avoidance. So I write to try and make the grade.

When we’ve opened a vein…

In the end, my mother died of hypovolemic shock. This means that during the 48 or so hours between when we decided to stop treatment and when she died, the blood drained from her body. With nothing to deliver oxygen to her organs they stopped working. I watched as she became paler, weaker, turned inward, and then took leave. Little did I know that, even then, she was teaching me a lesson I would need very soon.

Her death this summer was not the only trial our family suffered. And while difficult, her death and my grief feels natural and bittersweet, shot through with grace and extraordinary kindness . The experience of her funeral was one of the most beautiful days of my life. People came to be with me when I needed it most. My oldest friend from childhood and her mother were waiting when we arrived at the funeral home. It was the most comforting site I’ve ever seen. My childhood minister’s successor and his wife, spent hours helping my father and me talk about my complex, beautiful, difficult mother. Teachers and friends from high school, friends of my parents, my father’s colleagues, people I’d not seen in years came together in support. There were repeated daily phone calls from friends who could not be physically present. The invisible web we create over time became visible and held me up. My husband, always a prince among men, out did himself in his tenderness. My children learned what it means to say goodbye in the best way, why the life of the spirit is important, and how to honor someone when life is through. Watching their maturity and grace that day was the greatest gift I have received as a mother.

But sadly, another death followed my mother’s “good death” and chaos came with it. One person was literally on life support and someone else was figuratively there. As I’ve thought of all that unfolded , the phrase “opening a vein” came to mind. But, in current parlance, “to open a vein” indicates that you no longer find whatever you are experiencing worth your time and you want to open a vein to escape. That is not what I mean.  Fredrick Buechner uses the phrase http://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2017/7/23/open-a-vein to describe a writer pouring their experience into a reader. This definition hits closer to my own:  lending life to someone deeply and dangerously suffering. Such an outpouring is sometimes necessary and always perilous. The blood supply, whether literal or figurative, can be depleted much faster than the body can replenish it. When you “open a vein” for another, you risk your life to save theirs. In my case, others stepped in just as I was approaching the emotional doppelganger of hypovolemic shock. Patience, empathy, and compassion –  the vital organs of the spirit – were on the brink of shutting down. The subsequent tiredness that enveloped me is like nothing I’ve ever known. Yet, I would “open that vein” again and do not believe that I should receive particular sympathy or accolade for what I did. None of us know when we will find ourselves battered and bleeding on our own Jericho road. There but for the grace of God…

Soon it will be time to fully return to the world of the living. But I know I have to replenish. Just for awhile, I am giving myself what I want as often as I can. And what I want is quiet. To sit on the screen porch listening to the natural world, to drink coffee, to walk with my dog as the leaves begin to fall, to survey the profusely blooming morning glories that I planted just before all of this started. I want to be with the truth-tellers, the mystics, those who are gracious, nurturing, joyful, compassionate, funny, and sincere. Those qualities in others feed the spirit and will call me back to who I am at my best. So for right now, don’t count on me to engage in every fight, solve problems, or right wrongs.  The blood supply is coming back up and I am feeling stronger each day. But the porch is open and I welcome good company.

No More Silence on Sam

So many colleges and universities have them. A monument that has been on the campus as long as anyone can remember, located in a prominent place that people pass by each day, and often with a silly, if somewhat offensive legend surrounding them. “General ABC will get off his horse the day a virgin graduates from XYZ University.” Or in the case of the monument currently under scrutiny at UNC Chapel Hill, “Silent Sam will fire his gun the day a virgin graduates from UNC.” For years, these legends were all I could tell you about these monuments on the campuses where I’ve been a student or faculty member. I’ve been around such monuments all my life; many have their roots in the confederacy.

Several years ago, having worked at UNC for quite awhile, my views on monuments began to change. Students and others on our campus were calling for the statue known as Silent Sam to come down. They asserted that it was a symbol of white supremacy and an object of oppression. At first, it was hard for me to muster strong feelings either way. I had no big stake in the statue staying up. I did not feel it was an important representation of my values or “southern heritage.” It was a big statue with a stupid legend attached to it that was passed down from first year class to first year class. Statue up, statue down, whatever – not my issue. Such is white privilege. Nothing in the culture forced me to think about what Silent Sam might mean to people of color in my institution. I had the choice to think about it or not, take a stand or not because the confederacy and what it stood for, a state’s right to enslave black Americans, never felt threatening to me. The confederacy was something for the history books, a question on test, something people I knew romanticized, but not a threat to my very humanity.

However, the student voices were loud. My colleagues were having conversations. There were articles in the newspaper, op-eds, letters to the editor. Those voices pushed me to engage, asked that I listen: listen to how shocked colleagues from other parts of the country were to come to UNC and find a monument to the confederacy at the symbolic “front door” of the University, to listen to how students of color felt walking past Silent Sam every day. For them, Sam was not a statue with a silly legend attached. He was a visceral symbol of hatred and exclusion, something that undermined their ability to trust the institution where they worked and studied. Finally, I learned the Silent Sam’s history. The plaque attached to him described him as a memorial to UNC students who died during the civil war. However he was not erected until 1913 – nearly fifty years after the civil war. The confederate dead had done fine without him until that point. Why was he needed then?

The answer is in the dedication speech made by one Julian Shakespeare Carr, a local businessman of the time.  Here’s a link to the dedication speech.  Look at pages 9B and 10 in particular. https://exhibits.lib.unc.edu/files/original/c1160e4341b86794b7e842cb042fb414.pdf.  This speech is evidence that demands a verdict. The speech references saving the “Anglo-Saxon race.”  The speaker proudly describes himself “horse-whipping” another human being of African descent and sleeping well afterwards. Though couched in tributes to young men who died in battle for a “glorious cause” and some “all’s well that ends well” language regarding the civil war’s outcome, the violence and values described in the speech churn the stomach. As part of a wider white supremacy movement that was active in the early 1900’s, Sam’s installation sent a hateful message that is and was antithetical to the Lux/Libertas, (light and liberty) creed that UNC holds dear. Sam’s message echoes even if many of us don’t have ears to hear it. He should come down, not because his time has passed, but because he never should have been there to begin with.

 

All views stated here are my own.

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A Letter to My Mother

Dear Fox, Old Friend, Thus we have come to the end of the road that we were to go together…
-Thomas Wolfe

 

Last year, I made a quick visit home to see my parents. When the taxi cab picked me up to take me to the airport, my parents stood on the porch and waved prompting the taxi driver to talk about how much love their simple action conveyed. He seemed to be from a far away country and to understand the difficulty of distance. Implied in what he said, was a directive to make sure that I said what I needed to say and  that it was never the wrong time to express to others all that they have meant to us. When strangers speak to me in this way, I assume that I am encountering an “angel unaware” and listen. In response, I wrote my mother the letter below. I am grateful that she received it and got to read it before her death. At her funeral last week, I shared it with those who came to honor her with a few additional comments. A friend advised that I share it here. 

Dear Mom,

The last few times I’ve been home, I’ve heard you praying in your room, sometimes at night and, during this last visit, in the afternoon. You are often praying for me and Adam and the boys. Thank you. Your prayers help and are reassuring to me.

There are many things I would like to tell you but it is hard for both practical and intangible reasons. The decline in your hearing inhibits conversation and that must be very frustrating to you. But I don’t know whether I could say everything that I want to even if your hearing was perfect. Sometimes it is too difficult to say things verbally and in person.

Ours has not always been an easy relationship. We have different temperaments and have lived such different lives that it is sometimes hard to see eye to eye. But that does not mean that I don’t love you or value all that you have taught me. In this letter I want to tell you some of what I’ve learned from you.

Some of the best lessons are epitomized in memories. I remember shopping trips to find just the right dress with a stop for a yummy lunch or milk shake along the way. Often these trips coincided with a teenage disaster – a romance that didn’t work out, difficulties with friends, or some other such drama. From you I learned not to get too bogged down in whatever was troubling me. In telling me, “Find the right dress and get on with your life,” you were telling me to define myself versus letting others define me. It is good advice and it has stood me in good stead through many storms. Also embedded in these memories is the lesson that taking care of yourself is important, even when you feel your worst. Over the years, I’ve seen others give up on many aspects of their life in the face of difficult moments. From our shopping trips, I learned that, failure or triumph, I was important enough to invest in, whether that be through something seemingly superficial as a new dress or through something more substantive like getting a Ph.D.

Next, I remember you telling me to clean up my room. At the time, I found it torturous. I have no idea what I thought I should be doing instead but I did not like doing it. And I really didn’t like being compelled to do it. But now that I have my own home, nothing makes me happier than creating and coming home to at least a semi-orderly environment. It will never be as orderly as yours but relative to where I started, I’ve come a long way! And I’ve learned that if I can’t manage to make my bed, it is unlikely that I can organize myself to achieve other goals. Most everything I do, both personally and professionally requires some level of planning and organization. I don’t come by these skills naturally. So if you had not taught and modeled these attributes consistently, I most surely would have no capacity to organize my family, my work, or myself.

I remember you helping not only me weather life’s ups and downs, but my friends and your friends too. Someone I knew would be sad or in crisis and would turn to me for help. Not having a clue what to say or do, I would tell you about it and you would say, “Go get her and bring her here. “ I would do that and then maybe we’d make brownies or play the piano. The friend’s crisis might be discussed or not. It was the being together that was important and communicating to someone, that as a friend, you would drop everything for them if they needed help.

You also put yourself in other people’s shoes and anticipated what it might be like to be the new person in school or the person without family at a holiday. I remember many holiday meals with older friends of yours who were otherwise alone. And I remember you encouraging me to reach out to those who were newcomers and to make them feel welcome. I didn’t always do this as a young person. For kids and teens it seems “cooler” to exclude than include. But I remember the lesson and regret the times I did not heed it.

You were a fierce advocate for me and for yourself and I’m sure for others. This was difficult for me when I was young because I didn’t see other mothers standing up for themselves and for their kids in quite the same way. You were not afraid to make noise when something was not up to snuff. Over time, I have learned that being able to take a strong stand, particularly as a woman, is an important skill. I employ it judiciously but when I do, I think of your strength and fire and channel you when I need to fight for myself or someone I love.

I remember and witness still how committed you have been to your marriage. Sustaining a marriage is somewhat like building a structure. As the building goes up there are setbacks, things are more complicated than it looked like they were going to be at the start. Along the way the builders are tempted over and over again to abandon it. Perhaps, they think, it would be a better structure with different framing or a different type of sheetrock or lighting. Maybe the whole building should be scrapped and restarted with different materials. But the most important part of a building is the foundation. If it is solid, then all else can be fixed. You and Daddy had a foundation of commitment and partnership, which seems to have helped you through the spells when you wanted to tear the whole thing down. That is a powerful model for a child. Not every marriage can or should be continued. But almost every marriage contains moments where one partner or the other believes it should be discontinued. You and Daddy found ways to weather those moments. For that I am grateful.

You hate it when I go to China and I am sorry for making choices that worry you. But you should know that it is because of you that I am brave. You made me try things and encouraged me to learn by travelling. It was you who encouraged me to go to Spain during college. I didn’t know anyone else going on that seven-week course. I spoke the language in the most rudimentary way. There were no cell phones to keep in regular touch with home. I would be living with a family I didn’t know. It was a true jumping off point but you greeted it not with anxiety, but with excitement. You told me I’d never be the same after the trip and it was true. The result I’m afraid is that I’ve wanted more and more of learning about other cultures, languages, and people. My work in China is one of the greatest gifts of my life. But I would not have been brave enough to do it if you had not encouraged me to travel. Likewise, because I am adventurous, I have faith that my boys will thrive through their own adventures. Skylar in particular craves this. I will be able to let him have his adventures because you have been able to let me have mine.

You taught me the joy of books. From the soft books I had in my crib as a baby, to the “little books to put in a pocket”, to telling me about your love affair (pre-Daddy!) that featured Thomas Wolfe’s novels, through having me listen to poetry recordings, to encouraging me to write my own poems, to sending me books in college you thought I might like, you gave me a love of language and literature that is deeply a part of who I am. I love language and books because you loved them first.

You gave me faith. As I grew older and you told me about some of the deep difficulties of your own childhood, you told me how God sustained you and put people in your life to help and encourage you. Those difficulties did not characterize my life and so my faith is in some ways different. But I believe in a merciful, loving God who asks us to show the rest of the world His love because of you. If you, who suffered so much so early, can believe, then so can I.

Lastly, you taught me about cycles of life – birth and death – celebration and sorrow. Recently I facilitated one of the UNC summer reading groups for the first year college students. The book, “Being Mortal,” examines our collective experience with death and end of life choices. In the training to prepare discussion leaders, one of the facilitators was talking about how death used to be something children were taught to deal with quite naturally by their families. Yet, in the current age, parents avoid the topic. I remembered vividly Eloise’s funeral and all that you taught me through that experience. I had been to perhaps one funeral before that, Uncle David’s. But at this one I was older and you walked me through every step. We walked to the coffin together and you showed me all the details. How she was buried in the pink dress she had chosen. How she wore her wedding ring. You sat by me as we all talked with the minister about our memories of her. You showed me that, although we all wish those moments wouldn’t come, they could be faced with equanimity and grace and were more meaningful when we could summon courage to look whatever was before us straight in the face.

There is undoubtedly more to say but perhaps that’s enough for now. You have been a strong, beautiful, exasperating, and inspiring, mother. Like all mothers, there may be things you wish you’d done differently or perhaps you wish I’d made different choices. As a mother now myself, I know I question my own choices regarding the boys regularly and, of course, question theirs as well. But as we “approach the end of the road we will go together” none of that really matters. What matters is that you have given me all that I need to have a good life and that I love you with all my heart.

 

So that is the letter. And since she passed, I’ve been waiting for some sort of visitation. After all, if anyone’s mother were going to haunt them, it would be mine! But so far, all has been quiet. I think now I know why.

Thomas Wolfe described death saying: “To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth…”

I think my mom has found that place. And she is very busy getting everyone there sorted out.

 

The Papal Visit and the Road to Jericho

Could the Pope influence this President in ways town halls, intelligence advisors, and the Congressional Budget Office have not? I was holding my breath.

 

As the President and his family have traveled abroad this week, as much focus has been on the women travelling with him, the first lady and daughter, as on affairs of state. From the moment the group de-planed in Riyadh, reporters discussed Melania and Ivanka’s hair covering choices and what Melania’s outfits might be trying to convey. Then, on Tuesday, a Washington Post columnist wrote that Melania and Ivanka were setting examples for the world about powerful women. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/melania-and-ivanka-trump-show-the-world-what-feminine-power-looks-like/2017/05/23/60205088-3fec-11e7-8c25-44d09ff5a4a8_story.html?utm_term=.608219a49eef

What was that definition of female power exactly? As I interpreted it, the message was be beautiful, dress exquisitely, and…be silent. Then you will be admired much like beautiful objects are everywhere. Unless you are an art historian who knows better, beautiful objects have no messy pasts, no complicated presents, no opinions or expertise, and a future in which time stands still. Not so powerful after all.

Then, there were the hand slap moments in which The First Lady appeared to rebuff her husband’s hand holding offers. Whether this was real or clever video editing, I have no idea. Perhaps the strong internet reaction was in part because she appeared to be an actor versus an object in her life…

Even as I tracked these gendered aspects of the trip, I was waiting hopefully for the main event: the President’s audience with Pope Francis. What would their conversation be like? Could the Pope influence this President in ways town halls, intelligence advisors, and the Congressional Budget Office have not? I was holding my breath.

Pope Francis loves the parable of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25 – 37), a Bible story that has captivated me since childhood. This parable is the Pope’s answer to questions that vex. What should our attitude be to our immigrant neighbors? How do we treat our enemies? What do we do when we are scared of someone who is different than we are? Five years old or fifty, peasant or president, Christian or not, the parable provides clear and powerful guidance.

  • First, we notice suffering without judging the sufferer.
  • Next, we change our plans so that we can help.
  • We bind the sufferer’s wounds as best we can, even when we think the sufferer is our enemy.
  • We use our resources to make sure they are safe.
  • We act with compassion even on dangerous roads.
  • We act with love, even when, indeed particularly when, we are afraid.

Pope Francis follows this example. He washes the feet of refugees and prisoners. Surely an audience with such a person could transform anyone.

But I was watching for the wrong thing, a transformation. I was forgetting that the Samaritan never knew what became of the person he helped on the Jericho road. The Samaritan’s actions were important because they transformed him, not because they transformed the injured man. The Pope gave the President art that featured an olive branch, a symbol of peace, forgiveness, perhaps even an offer of friendship.  He gave the President his point of view in the form of an encyclical, using the logic and language of the spirit to discuss climate change. And then he spoke to the First Lady, engaging in what was reported as a cute joke or a light interchange, asking whether she was feeding the President too much dessert. Specifically, the Pope asked if she was feeding him too much “potica,” a rich cake served on special occasions in Slovenia, her home country.

Remember, this Pope is from Argentina. Perhaps potica is a regular dessert served at the Vatican. But my guess is he took some time to think of how he might acknowledge the First Lady and treat her as a person versus the object that she is to the rest of the world. In that small moment, by referencing her home culture and language, he acknowledged so much that her beauty and style cover up: a complicated a past, a different heritage, a present that is not easy to manage, an uncertain future. He gave her the tools that he has to help her on her journey: a rosary and a blessing. He was the Samaritan.

Two days ago, I sat with colleagues from multiple disciplines talking about ways to adapt and enhance some training modules we are working on for the helping professions. We observed that trainees want a cookbook: “What do I do if x,y,z happens in a clinical encounter? What do I say if the patient says, ‘abc?’ Such questions skirt the central one: “Who am I when I encounter someone who suffers?” Pope Francis answers in words and in example. Be the Samaritan. Notice. Avoid judgment. Stop to help even if you’re afraid. Use your tools for good. Embed your actions in compassion. Act with love.

Pope Francis says it best. Watch him here.

 

Speaking of Health Care

As we all know, there are “choices” that are not choices at all.

Spring break has not turned out exactly as I had planned. The bliss of a week without teaching or meetings, the chance to runaway with my husband for one night to a “dress-up party” in Washington, D.C., the ability to feel thoroughly prepared for next week’s onslaught…all out the window because of the flu.

On Saturday afternoon, I was chatting with our college friend who was to be our overnight babysitter. As the conversation ended, my younger son walked in coughing. By bedtime his fever was 104. We gave him some medicine hoping to affect a good night’s rest. At 4 a.m. I found myself changing vomit-soaked sheets. By 10 a.m. we were in the pediatrician’s office receiving a flu diagnosis and prescriptions for anti-viral and anti-nausea drugs. By noon, the healing had begun. We were no worse for wear save a few sleepless nights and the stupor that comes from watching too much TV.

Through the coughing, the fever, and the vomit, I did not think twice about getting us to the doctor’s office ASAP. I did not think, “Can I afford the co-pay? How much will the medicine cost? What if I don’t get the medicine; how long will he be sick? How much work will I have to miss? Will I lose my job? What will happen if I miss that meeting or have to take a sick day I don’t have? What happens if my older son gets sick? Or my husband? Or me? Can we afford prescriptions and co-pays for all of us? Should I pay for this and skip my preventive dentist appointment scheduled this week? It will cost about $100 too.” I also did not think, “Darn it. I should not have bought new shoes for my teenager yesterday. I should’ve been thriftier at the grocery store because you never know when someone is going to get sick.” I didn’t think of any of this. Instead I thought, “If I can get him the Tamiflu, he won’t be so uncomfortable. He’ll be able to sleep. He’ll be able to get back to the things he enjoys sooner. And, let’s be honest, I also thought, “Maybe he’ll be well in time for that overnight get-a-way.” I could be selfish for him and for me and that is a privilege.

Like every member of Congress, my husband and I receive affordable health care coverage as part of compensation for our work. Indeed, right now, as of 5:05 EST on March 14th, it is a privilege many working families and poor families in the U.S. have too. That is because of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly known as Obamacare. But it won’t be 5:05 EST forever and members of congress, who like me, don’t think twice about going to the doctor are considering repealing the ACA and replacing it with a GOP sponsored plan that will repeal the Affordable Care Act and end health insurance for 24 million of our fellow citizens according to the just released estimates from the Congressional Budget Office (https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/115th-congress-2017-2018/costestimate/americanhealthcareact_0.pdf ).

The new plan seeks legitimacy through the language of choice. People without coverage will be uncovered because they will “choose” to be uncovered. But as we all know, there are “choices” that are not necessarily choices at all. Premiums and co-pays that are unaffordable, plans that don’t cover you or your family because of health conditions you already have, caps that keep you from receiving the mental health coverage you need, which incidentally, helps people manage their chronic physical health conditions in ways that bring down health care costs. The Affordable Care Act is not perfect. Because of choices not to expand Medicaid by 19 states, the program does not work the way it should in those states. People there are experiencing premiums that are too high. But this is an easy fix. Accept the Federal government’s offer to expand Medicaid. We are finally talking about this in North Carolina but it may be too little too late. There are also other parts of the law that should be strengthened. But in spite of whatever flaw you choose to point to, under Affordable Care Act, more American citizens are covered than at any time in history. That is a success. Any logical approach would fix the things that are not working in the Affordable Care Act, not scrap it.

But it’s not about logic. It’s about money. And money is about values. Under the proposed repeal plan there are big winners and they are people who are winners already. (http://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-tax/house-republicans-aca-repeal-plan-would-mean-big-tax-cuts-for-wealthy-insurers ). A small group of U.S. citizens will win because they will get huge tax breaks if the money that funds the ACA is shifted away from covering all Americans back to their bank accounts. Who else wins? Insurance companies. They will be back in the business of charging whatever to whomever for whatever. How will my family fare if the repeal and replace plan is enacted? I’m not sure. But I am sure that many of my fellow citizens will suffer. How do I know? Because, as a country, we’ve tried this before. We’ve tried letting people choose whether they should buy coverage or not. We’ve tried more limited regulation on insurance companies. We’ve tried Medicaid caps and various waiver programs to see if the states can be “creative and efficient.” (Guess what? They are very creative and efficient at covering fewer people!)

So as we listen to competing narratives on the Affordable Care Act and the new GOP plan, perhaps we should think about our values more than we think about how much any one of us might dislike the particular president associated with each plan. What choices do you want to make for your family? What feels like a choice to you and what does not? Would you want for all what you want for yourself?

As I snuggled on the couch with my sick son yesterday watching the Wizard of Oz, I was struck when the wizard said to Dorothy, “Let us return to the land of E Pluribus Unum.” Out of many, one. Yes, please. Let’s do return to that. What is it that we want for ourselves? And can we find it in our hearts to want it for all? I want everyone to be able to do what we did this weekend. Seek healthcare when you believe you need it without a second thought.