Abortion: More Complicated than a Sound Bite

About a week ago, 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.




And then I told him what twenty-something me took away from watching Anita Hill, although I could not have articulated it then.

What a week to be the mother of a 17-year-old boy.  At dinner a few nights ago, my son asked me if I would talk with him about Anita Hill. His AP Government class is studying the episode and he wanted to know what I remembered about it.  When my teen asks me questions beyond, “What’s for dinner?” my policy is to drop everything and engage. We talked for almost two hours.

He was interested in all of it. Where I was living: seven blocks behind the Capitol. How engaged I was in the coverage: I watched every minute I could and read every news article.  I told him about how electrified I was by the photograph featured here of the seven women who marched from the House to the Senate and demanded that the allegations be investigated. How I desperately wished I could go to the hearings myself.

Then, I told him what I remembered of Professor Hill. How she spoke clearly, without malice, with great dignity, how she introduced her parents to the committee, how she simply told the truth over and over. I told him how, until that time, I had liked Arlen Specter, the senator from Pennsylvania. But after his relentless attempts to embarrass Professor Hill I hated him. I remembered that the senator from Alabama, whose name escapes me, asked her in his slow southern drawl if she was, “a woman scorned” or if she wanted to “write a book.”  And then I told him how every man on that committee, including Joe Biden, cowered in response to Clarence Thomas’ opening punch accusing them of a “high tech lynching.”

And then I told him what twenty-something me took away from watching Anita Hill, although I could not have articulated it then. I learned that, as a woman, it did not matter that you were smart, well-spoken, modest, church going, high achieving, or from a hard-working family.  You could be a “good woman” or one with a more complicated past. But, if you told the truth about how men treat women, you would be over-ruled even if those men knew, in their heart of hearts, you were telling the truth. I told him about my own experiences of harassment and assault, even though they are mild in comparison to others. I told him that if something had happened to me in high school like what Professor Ford says happened to her, I would not have even had language to describe it, much less think it was illegal. Like her, I would have thought it was my fault or at least that there was nothing to be done about it.  I too would’ve been quiet. Indeed, about most violations that have happened in my life, I have been silent or made them into a joke.

We talked again last night after I insisted on listening together to this extraordinary podcast in which Caitlyn Flanagan and Michael Barbaro talk about an attempted ‘date rape’ in Flanagan’s high school past*. Embodied in their talk is the essence of atonement, a demonstration of what miracles are wrought by thorough and sincere apologies. It is a lesson in empathy, forgiveness, and redemption. Judge Kavanaugh should listen to it.  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/20/podcasts/the-daily/kavanaugh-christine-blasey-ford-caitlin-flanagan-sexual-assault.html.

As we listened and then talked, I realized that this oldest and most complicated son of mine has grown up a lot in the last three years. He spoke with great empathy about what he is learning now that he has more female friends that tell him about how they live and move in the world. He cried as he listened to Ms. Flanagan describe her suicide attempt following the attack. He is recognizing the privileged place he occupies and how little the culture asks him to think about his safety or worth. He seems to be reckoning with the responsibility that comes with the unearned privilege he has as he makes choices about the adult he wants to be.

What will happen in the current circumstance is anybody’s guess. The values central to the situation – truth, honor, justice, or even mercy – are being completely ignored, ironic given the goal of filling a seat on our highest court. My son told me he thinks his generation of young men is different. I nodded in agreement, but in truth I doubt it. Unless they are extraordinary, young men will do what older men in their orbits do and what their culture tells them they can.  As the Kavanaugh confirmation continues to unfold, we will learn more about what our culture believes about women today. Silence does not serve us, and as the podcast points out, it does not serve our young men either.

*She wrote about this experience a few days ago in the Atlantic magazine. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/09/me-too/570520/


The Confederates in My Attic

For our campus, this moment is a reckoning, a time to face the difficult realities that echo through our buildings, bubble up on our quadrangles, and that have remained hidden for far too long.

Saturday afternoon on my screened porch in Chapel Hill: You might think I’d hear birdsong and insects as the sticky summer weather lingers in early September. Instead, I hear sirens and helicopters. Once again white supremacist groups from neighboring counties are coming to stand guard at the confederate stump that once held the statue on our campus known as “Silent Sam.” The last time they visited, we walked up to take a look.  Draped in the stars and bars, the group carried well-printed signs about monuments and heritage preservation that told little about their lives or motivations.  We stayed for a bit and then headed home shaken and wondering how this conflict would resolve.

As our campus has been grappling with our confederate past, I have been learning about the confederates in my own family attic. Their stories are complex and in some ways mysterious. Although I’ve known they existed for along time, only recently have I learned some of the details of their stories.

My father is fast approaching 98. He grew up living with his paternal grandfather, a confederate veteran who lost his arm in a civil war battle near Helena, Arkansas. My injured great grandfather John was saved by his brother who dragged him behind a church then left to continue the fight. Union soldiers then captured John, completed the amputation of his arm, and paroled him to a nearby plantation for the remainder of the war. Family lore has it that after his arm healed, those same Union soldiers allowed John to fish the rivers of his childhood and sell those fish to Union troops. The money he earned bought the Missouri farm I roamed during my childhood summer visits. Because John lost his arm, he had to re-learn to write with the opposite hand, was elected county tax assessor, and became a peacemaker in his divided community of northern and southern sympathizers. Think Missouri compromise if you want to know why these two groups were living in such close proximity.

He is not the only confederate in my attic. His father before him, one Coleman Chapman, joined the confederate army to flee the Jay Hawks of Kansas. Great, great, grandfather Coleman was a minister and wheelwright, moving west from Tennessee to make wagon-wheels for the gold rush. He married Annie, the daughter of a slave-holding family. As my father tells it, even though Coleman and Annie did not enslave people themselves, they were not allowed to settle in certain states because of Annie’s family’s actions. They believed they were unfairly persecuted as “southern people,” and my father points out that to his knowledge no one on the Chapman side ever enslaved someone. He is wrong. This summer I found a will in which an ancestor in the 1700’s in South Carolina willed a young girl as a piece of property to one of his descendants. Probably the tip of the iceberg. When I read that will, I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. Nothing compared to what that young girl must have endured.

Then there is the Union soldier in my attic known as Uncle Lem. As my father tells it the divided state of Missouri was populated by what were essentially gangs – much like those described in the novel Cold Mountain. Young men had to join for basic safety and Lem, like Coleman who joined a confederate aligned group to escape the Jayhawks, joined up with a Union aligned militia. He was sent west to a Union garrison in what would become Montana where he was likely involved in “subduing” native populations. He came back to the same Missouri community as his confederate brothers, ran the local store, and made sure my dad had lunch every day through the Great Depression.

To my father, each of these people is a hero in their own way. They are brothers who saved one another’s lives. They are men who persevered after losing a limb so that they could feed their families and contribute to their community. Among these civil war veterans are individuals as real to him as he is to me, who created safety and sustenance for him through bleak days. When I tell him about the confederate statue coming down, he dislikes the idea, believes it dishonors people, long dead, but that he loves still. I try not to talk about it too much.

But I  think about these long gone ancestors as our campus struggles to find a path forward. Should they be honored, and if so, for what? History is a harsh judge; the simple version might make all of them villains. Even Uncle Lem, supposedly on the historically right side, was involved or at least a witness to crimes against native populations. Villain? Victim? Victor? Vanquished?

What I honor in their stories is not what they did or did not do during the civil war. For each of them, their choices may have been as much about survival as conviction. What I honor in these passed down stories are their choices after this conflict, particularly Great Grandfather John. Blessed are the peacemakers and he became one settling Hatfield and McCoy type feuds between northern and southern sympathizers and knitting his town back together through his church and government service. Peacemaking is something to which I can aspire, admire, and honor. Does any confederate statue do that?

As I’ve written previously on this blog, to read the speech that was given at the statue’s dedication in 1913 erases all doubt about the immoral ideals it celebrates. https://exhibits.lib.unc.edu/files/original/c1160e4341b86794b7e842cb042fb414.pdf Its presence is an insult to my colleagues of color and taints the good work done daily at UNC. In the easy version of the story, we’d leave the statue in his undisclosed location and erect something that honors our common work, work that bridges divides, finds solutions to vexing problems, celebrates knowledge, and promotes creation of life-changing art and scholarship. But this story is not easy. Like my own confederate history, there is a lot we don’t know or have not acknowledged. For our campus, this moment is a reckoning, a time to face the difficult realities that echo through our buildings, bubble up on our quadrangles, and that have remained hidden for far too long. Once we, as a community, stand together and face the truth that enslaved people were housed in the basement of South Building, that our beautiful campus was built with slave labor, that it was 1966 before we had an African- American faculty member, https://museum.unc.edu/exhibits/show/integration/roberta-and-blyden-jackson, and all the rest of our yet unspoken history, then we will have peace. I like to think, although it may be wishful thinking, that Great Grandfather John, the peacemaker, the one who befriended his Union captors, the one who brought North and South back together in his community, would agree.

Acknowledgement: Title adapted from the Tony Horowitz book, “Confederates in the Attic.”

Just the Right Dress: A Mother’s Day Post

Okay Mom. Will do.

A woman going to a high school reunion faces the puzzlement of “what in the world should I wear?” This time last year I was preparing to travel home for a such an event coupled with a visit to my parents. At first, I tried the way of the minimalist. Surely there was something – perhaps several somethings – that might suffice in my over-stuffed closet? But panic crept up and I found myself shopping for “just the right dress.”

Although it sounds superficial, shopping is something my mom and I always liked to do together. Growing up, I remember hanging out at the mall with friends, but true shopping sprees were reserved for my mom. She had the checkbook after all!  But well into my adulthood, she had an eye, whether in person or in a catalogue, for what would look good on me. Once in a while, something she picked out would show up in my mail box. Sometimes this annoyed me even though that annoyance was ungracious, but more often than not, she would get it exactly right. So, as I searched for a reunion outfit, I was acutely aware that my best fashion consultant was in Texas and not in North Carolina shopping with me. After wallowing in indecision, I decided to take the runway to her. I bought several selections and took them home to San Antonio planning to return those deemed unacceptable. After dinner, I tried them on and she gave me her honest, sometimes too honest, opinion.  “That is trashy. Take it back.” “That one does nothing for you. Return it.” “That one’s good but not for this occasion.”  And finally, with a slight gasp, “Ah…I love that one.  It’s perfect.” And then, “I want one just like it!”

The next day off we trotted to the nearby branch of the store where I had purchased the “just right” dress to find one for her. My mom had trouble walking or standing so she decided to sit in the car while I looked for the dress in her size and a few other things she wanted. I couldn’t find the dress just like mine. But I found another dress and I brought it to the window to show her. I received an enthusiastic thumbs up and purchased it. We had it tailored and she was all ready to go for the birthday party she would attend a week later. It was at that party that she would fall as she was leaving and break her hip. She would suffer for three and half weeks and then die. In the hospital, she told me she wanted be buried in that new dress I chose for her and a week or so later I duly delivered it to the funeral home.

During the weeks after her fall and fracture, I was back and forth between my current home in North Carolina and our family home in Texas. On the final trip, I was not anticipating her imminent death. But there it was and I was faced with choosing what to wear to her funeral. Although we often wonder why people focus on such details after a death, I think it serves a purpose. It gives our minds some space get used to a new reality and it gives us a chance to find small ways to honor the person that was lost.

In my case, I was texting back and forth with my husband urging him to make sure my children were fully presentable for this occasion. Through texted pictures, I signed off on every belt, sock, and tie choice. Then, I realized he’d have to dig out something appropriate for me to wear. He started texting pictures and nothing was right until a last bittersweet connection built over a lifetime of shopping trips together gave me the answer. On the day of my mother’s funeral, we would wear the dresses we chose for each other. I already had “just the right dress.”

But the dress no longer feels just right. Every time I think of wearing it, I change my mind.  The shoes don’t work. It’s too light weight for the weather. I’m not sure I like the length. Not right for today. Not right for tomorrow. Not next week. Not ever? It seems like a waste.

But as I write this, a whisper of grief reminds me that this “year of firsts” with all its love, remembrance, reflection, and contemplation is ending. That ending is probably why I’m avoiding the dress. To wear it is to return it and me from the sacred space that I have given myself to grieve to embrace the full catastrophe* of the everyday. But if I could ask her, I know what she’d say:

“Take the dress to the tailor, maybe change it up a bit. Then it will be just right. Put it on and get going.”

Okay Mom. Will do.


*Zorba the Greek called his daily life — spouse, children, work — the “full catastrophe.” Most recently, this term has been embraced by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who writes about mindfulness practice.

War Stories

Bless the ships at sea and the boys and girls in khaki.

An unusual request came my way via twitter…It is 2018 after all.  A 96 year old Marine veteran, recently admitted into hospice care, desperately wanted to talk with someone who, like him, had been in the battle of Guadalcanal. A surprise attack launched in August of 1942 and lasting until February of 1943, that battle was the first major victory and first offensive attack by the allies in the Pacific theater (https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/battle-of-guadalcanal). My Navy veteran father, age 97, a navigator on an LST during WWII, was not at the battle of Guadalcanal; he was there a year or so later picking up marines that had been in that battle and taking them to Peleliu, another Pacific island where lives would be lost or forever changed.

When I heard about this dying marine I knew it might be a longshot to find someone who had exactly his experience. So, I asked my dad if he would be willing to speak with a comrade-in-arms. “Yes. I certainly would.” It’s been at least 10 years since I got my courage together and asked my father to tell me his own war story. In all my growing up, he had never mentioned those experiences. As a child, I saw him as wise and patient, sometimes too patient and conflict avoidant, seemingly content with a calm and quiet life while I craved drama and adventure. That deep quiet was not so much choice as necessity, a balm to a 19 year old psyche subjected to years of intense, life-threatening experiences. But now, at 97, those memories don’t seem like quite the enemies to keep at bay that they once were. He seems glad to have people like my husband and sons who are intensely interested in what he we went through and what he learned. So I asked my father why he thought it was so important for this marine to speak at the end of his life about these experiences. There was a pause. “I expect he saw some bad old days there.”

My dad is not one for verbosity leaving me to create my own stories about the dying marine. What were the choices he made at 19, 20, or 21 years of age, choices that he perhaps had to make but hated to? Were there choices he wanted to make but could not? What did he witness that haunts his last days? My desire to help this all-too-familiar stranger was strong. Finally I asked my dad, “So does he want absolution?” “Probably. He needs to know he did the right thing. That it meant something and it did. Those supply lines had to stay open. He did what he had to. He did what he could. Someone should tell him that.”

In the end, the social worker who sent up the signal to find kindred spirits for her dying client said the family had decided that the old marine was not up to talking with anyone.  She promised to pass along the flood of messages from people across the country who wanted to help. By email, I conveyed my father’s good wishes and respect. Of course I know nothing of what troubled this marine veteran. Perhaps he wondered why he lived such a long life while others were cut down so young. Perhaps he still worries about decisions made in the fog. Perhaps he again feels the terror of knowing death is close at hand. We will never know all of the secrets these  old soldiers keep. Their stories remind me though that what happens to us when we are 19, 20, 22, and 25 shape us. It was true for them, true for me, and true for my 17 year old son whose time is coming. When I listen to my dad’s war stories, my heart hurts for the young man that he was. But I cannot judge or absolve, cheer-lead or minimize. I can only listen with an open heart willing to break in honor of that brave young man who is my 97 year old father. The stranger/brother marine fought, and maybe still fights, a terrible battle. As the social worker suggested, maybe my father’s ship, the good ship LST 222, picked that young man up at Guadalcanal and took him on the next leg of his difficult journey. We will never know.

Godspeed to the old marine. God bless the ships at sea and the boys, and girls, in kakhi. Anchors away.


Coda: It looks like the marine got his wish after all. See this link for more.


What remains.

As my mother was dying, I came across the picture that accompanies this post, a picture I’d never seen before. I’ve looked at it over and over and always feel two opposite things at once: a sudden recognition of some shared, yet indefinable characteristic and conversely, a curiosity about this beautiful woman that I’m not sure I ever met. And how could I? We were of different generations, different temperaments, and although we were close, we were also conflicted. So much that is essential, we can’t see, obscured by our individual short-comings and the daily-ness of it all. We see through dark mirrors during life. Perhaps I am learning to see her face to face.

During these months, I’ve thought a lot about the current “clinicalization” of grief. At eight months out, my grief should be resolved, according to the psychiatric establishment. [Here’s a good review article on the topic. https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/pro-a0036836.pdf ] I should have integrated this loss into my daily life and my view of the world. Have I done that? By most any measure, the answer is yes. I am certainly not immobilized in the way the article lays out. And yet…

I would like to have one more day. One more day to sit with her and watch the sun move across the sky from her hospital room window, to hold her hand, brush her hair, to take care of her, to make sure she knew how much she meant and how much she was loved. But that is not how it works and, even if I had that day, it would not be enough. Relationships change and death is the ultimate expression of that. My task is to learn a new language, a mysterious grammar that keeps us connected even across an insurmountable gulf. But the elements of this language are different and hidden. They require every one of my senses and sometimes a sixth to decipher. I have to look and listen noticing the subtle ways in which she speaks.

I see her when our dog frolics with the ball she sent him, a toy he’s paid no attention to in months; I hear her when an aria from her favorite opera unexpectedly soars over the radio; I feel her strength when the morning glories reach the roof before succumbing to the year’s first frost; I learn about her through photographs I’ve never noticed. We speak our old language only in the occasional, fleeting dream.

Is all of this a “cure” for grief or an outcome of it? What remains when we’ve lost someone who is as much a part of us as anyone can be? I can’t be sure. I can only have faith that she is with me still, hope that I can embody all the good that she gave to me, and love that I give to others as it has been given to me. This must be enough and it is.