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.

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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.

 

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.

No Bad Days

This morning, I started writing sitting on a seawall where my young son was fishing. Computer out, glasses on, skin tan, and my hair a little blonder because of sand and sea, I was reveling in my son’s fun, the beautiful water, enjoying a peaceful moment. A man came by and asked the following question: “What do you call a smart, beautiful, blonde?” Although I didn’t ask, he gave me an answer. “A golden retriever!” When I looked perplexed, he asked if I didn’t like jokes. I smiled and went back to my writing. He then asked if I wanted to hear something “a little bit dirty.” I declined and bid him adieu. Sexism at its finest. Yet, it always takes me off guard and I can never respond in the moment with the quick comeback that will put the offender in his place. The incident was all the more jarring sitting in such an idyllic spot.

Of course, not nearly as jarring than the day’s news. When we’re on vacation, my husband deletes Twitter from his phone and strongly requests that I not bring work along. I like to post pictures to Facebook mainly so our extended families can follow along on our adventures, a habit that keeps me connected to the strife that never seems to stop including this morning’s reports from Baton Rouge. Self-doubt floods in as I post pictures of stunning scenery and family fun while colleagues and friends are trying to help others understand why #all lives matter is an easy out from acknowledging systemic racism and its ever-spinning sequelae. I find myself asking is it okay to disengage for a while? Is it even possible?

“Self-care” is a term that was unknown to me when I was in my masters program; now, my students talk about it all the time. There is more recognition that social work and other helping professions takes a toll on our well-being and our effectiveness, a concern shared by colleagues in medicine, occupational therapy, and nursing among other disciplines. But the term, “self-care” doesn’t sit well with me. It conjures a box to be checked, an appointment on the calendar, something that happens a few weeks a year or for an hour a day, too discrete, too time-limited. Maybe this term is more about a longing for a way of being, a way to stay moored when the waves, whether small swells that throw us off-balance like the one I experienced this morning, or overwhelming seismic sea waves, that occur because of deep ruptures– think Baton-Rouge, Dallas, Baltimore, Stanford, Orlando, Nice — threaten to capsize our sense of purpose and meaning.

Two days ago I saw a window decal that said, “no bad days.” There is something about that simple statement that has been working on me and is teaching me something about weathering and, better yet, thriving in the ever-pounding surf. Perhaps it is a kind of mantra that might encourage me to stay engaged with the suffering of the world, denounce its savage idiocy when I must, and still celebrate its beauty and joy. Individuals who have confronted life-threatening illness often seem to understand that there are truly “no bad days.” They seem to know that as long as we live and breathe and have the great good fortune to work to make the “earth as it is in heaven,” then there are really no bad days. There are moments we may regret, lives lost that we mourn, changes to make, causes to champion, and always work to do. There will also be moments to cherish, wonder to find, and love to give. No bad days? No bad days.