Not Down Or Out

It could be worse. I might not be laughing.

Month: December, 2012

Talkin’ to Myself

I spent yesterday morning at the county hospital getting a prescription refilled. I called it in for refill last week, but it takes five business days to get a prescription refilled. I meant to get up at about 5:30 a.m. to drive over there and be sure to get a parking space. I kept thinking to myself that it is difficult to get a parking space. The hospital’s outpatient services will be closed over the upcoming holiday. People with scheduled services like chemotherapy and radiation will have to be shifted to days the hospital is open, creating log jams on the days the hospital is open.

At 5:30 a.m. I rolled over and went to sleep again. I was tired to the bone. My joints hurt. I have put on some weight because I am not getting out and about as I usually would. My bladder has been painful. I have some ringing in my ears. I have a painless rash on my shins. I am tired. I had tossed and turned most of the night.

So I expected to have this errand take all day. But it did not. It must have been a Christmas miracle.

I drove around the parking lot a few times but found a space. That alone was a surprise. You take it for granted that there will be sufficient parking at a hospital. Not so at Stroger Hospital. People sometimes have to park blocks away and wait for a shuttle. And it is cold this week. That would have been a misery.

Once in the building, I was prepared to encounter long lines. However, the place was no more crowded than usual. I sat in the main waiting room of the hospital for about five minutes. I was girding my loins so to speak for the short walk across the street to the Fantus Clinic. The wind was blowing hard and snow was falling. I was not looking forward to running through a cloud of cigarette smoke around the exits or dodging cars in the street between the buildings.

There were about twenty people seated there. The chairs with huge bites taken out of them had suffered more nibbling. One man kept getting up, walking over to a trash can and spitting into it. It had one of those lids that has to be pressed in with your hand to access the trash receptacle. Each time the man spit I imagined how far his cold or flu was spread. I know I shuddered at the thought. A maintenance man with a bucket was washing down doors and door handles, but the trash can was filthy.

One man sat with his crutches at his side. He appeared to have spent some time on the street. His clothes were dirty. But his foot was in a cast that appeared to be of recent vintage. He wore his coat, a hat, and gloves even though we were indoors. His big toe stuck out of the cast. It was clean, but I wondered how long it could stay that way. And he talked to himself. He was not loud enough for me to decipher what he said, but he was loud enough for me to know that he was angry and fearful. His eyes were squinted and he appeared mean as could be, but his whole body trembled at the same time. There was so much tension in every muscle of his body that I could not help but think about the battles that must go on inside of him every day.

The man next to me was about six feet tall. He also wore enough clothes to bear the cold outdoors. He wore a baseball cap pushed back on his head. He wore dark glasses that balanced on his forehead. Whenever the man with the crutches got particularly excited about something, the man next to me would dip his head. The sunglasses would drop down onto the bridge of his nose and he would stare long and hard. That’s how most of us feel comfortable staring at “crazy.” We hide behind dark glasses so the other person only suspects that we are watching.

It must be difficult to look “crazy” in its face and have to deal with it every day. In our society we have released our mentally ill citizens from institutions and now let them fend for themselves between appointments. This means that their families are the ones who must try to ensure that they have a place to live and receive treatment.

Everyone knows someone in need of treatment or looking out for someone in need of treatment. I have plenty of friends who cope every day with a mental condition or a relative with a mental condition. One friend has a brother who is living with strangers. She wonders if those strangers help her brother or prey on him to gain access to his federally paid disability income. She has tried to assume the role of being his protector, but he resists family supervision.

A former coworker has a sister with schizophrenia. Their mom kicked the sister out. My friend has fought for her sister’s disability benefits, hunted for her in shelters and on the street, gotten her sister job training, and watched as her sister has repeatedly damaged her prospects by not taking medications or wasting her money.

A friend of my mom takes care of a husband with dementia. Another friend has cared for a dad with Alzheimer’s disease. One friend has taken anti-anxiety and depression drugs for years. Another has several children with varying degrees of autistic behavior. Alcoholism is a significant problem in this country. Other forms of drug abuse or addiction are difficult to combat. I encounter many homeless people on the street and some of them appear to have a form of mental illness.

I did not have a pair of dark glasses to hide behind as I sat there watching that man addressing the demons within, so I got up and walked away. Where does a man who lives on the street go when he has a foot in a cast? Our country has significant financial problems that our elected officials seem unwilling to handle. Any segment of our society that cannot speak for itself will likely find itself facing reduced services and support in the coming months and years.

As a society, we don’t have to look too far to find our mentally ill citizens talking to themselves. Maybe we can find some time to talk about this problem with each other and find the resources to care for those who cannot care for themselves.

I crossed the street and picked a number (B151) at the Fantus Clinic. The clinic’s staff were already working with B145. It took about forty minutes for them to call my number. I sat in the waiting area along with about twenty other people. There were people from the street who smelled of urine and the kind of sweat that doesn’t come from being hot. It was the smell of sickness and alcohol and despair.

One man worked the room. He was drawing the people to the first row and talking them into watching what was on the TV. It was the stories of The Bible; and I did not have to be facing the screen to see that it was the story of Moses that was told. The actress said, “What’s that in the water? Is it a crocodile?” Someone else answered, “It’s a basket. Get it for me.” The servant opened it and said, “Look, it’s a baby.”

The man said to his assembled observers, “Look, that queen gone and took in a baby that weren’t hers. And she raised him like he was royal. Someday someone’s goin’ to do that for you, too. What kind of baby are you goin’ to be? You can be like Moses and say that the riches of the mighty pharaohs are not enough to make me turn my back on the people of God. Or you can do what’s right and turn away from wealth and riches and fight for the people God loves. What kind of man are you goin’ to be?” (Interesting idea to offer only “two” good approaches.)

I found myself smiling at the idea that this hospital preacher’s congregation was going to be Moses’ army on earth, but what do I know about that subject? Isn’t the Salvation Army filled with people who seemed lost and found their way to a life that serves them and others well?

After I got my prescription and got back to my car, I drove past several intersections where homeless people ask for money. I was going to give something because I usually do that. But I saw something I don’t see every day. I saw a man holding a folded cardboard sign reach into his pocket and give some money to another man walking on crutches. I could not tell if it was the man from the hospital waiting room, but the corner was close enough to the hospital for that to be the case.

The spirit of generosity that causes us as individuals and as a nation to reach out and help our fellow man comes from a well so deep that even those in need give every day to help someone worse off than themselves. The only way to replenish that well is to keep digging, even when it hurts to do so. That is the spirit that makes this a great nation.

How Quickly We Forget

Friday night I had dinner with Barb. Then we went back to her home to exchange gifts. One of my gifts to her was a Peanuts Christmas tree. You know the one I’m talking about. Charlie Brown decorates it with one ornament and Linus lends his blue blanket as a tree skirt. Barb loves Christmas more than any other day of the year, but she also loves the pathos of the boy who never seems to get Christmas right–if your standard for judging Christmas is that it is a time of childlike wonder that ignores the realities of life. She had a seven feet tall Christmas tree with all the trimmings, but she seemed pleased with my pathetic little tree, too.

Last night my mom and I picked up Mom’s friend Rosalie and Rosalie’s little beagle Cutie and took them for a ride around the neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights. Rosalie’s sister Anne died of breast cancer this fall. Marie died a couple of years before that. Rosalie used to live with her two widowed sisters. Now she lives alone in that house. A niece or nephew bought the puppy to keep Rosalie company. It was a poor choice for a woman in Rosalie’s medical condition. Rosalie has no feeling in her lower legs. She cannot drive without feeling in her feet. She walks with great difficulty. That puppy is constantly underfoot. Rosalie never leaves her home. Relatives take turns coming to her home to help her clean and stay for a night or a meal. They are her only company. My mom was so excited to be able to offer Rosalie an opportunity to get out of the house. She was determined to make this work.

Mom called Rosalie hours in advance so that Rosalie could be ready. She instructed her friend to lock the puppy in a bedroom so that Mom could get Rosalie out without the puppy racing out into the night. Of course, when we got there, Rosalie had not locked up the puppy. It ran out into the night and the two women called and scolded and coaxed it close enough for my mom to get her hands on it. They finally caught it. My mom carried it into the house. I sat in the car waiting, thinking about how the price of gas had gone from $ 3.15 to $3.29 per gallon in just a week. My mom had left the doors of the car open. I was heating the great outdoors and freezing inside my car. I grew a little impatient to get started on this tour, but I waited. The women came out with the dog on a leash. “Cutie wants to see the lights,” Rosalie explained. My mom shrugged and gave me a half-smile. Rosalie held her puppy in both hands while I strapped Rosalie into the front seat. My mom got into the back seat and the two women tried to control the puppy. Cutie was determined to lick and smell everything. In two seconds we had wet marks on the windows and white fur every place.

The puppy’s white fur was spread all over the black interior of my car. I bit my lip. It was like having a car filled with children. The puppy cried and licked me. Rosalie told me a hundred times what a treat this was. My mom sat in the back seat giving me instructions to turn this way and that. We found one home that had lights choreographed to a local radio station’s Christmas music. We sat there through several songs, marveling at the inventiveness of the occupants. Another home had a film of a friendly Santa welcoming visitors. It played on a screen in an upstairs window. Rosalie insisted that Santa was real and waving to us because he could see us. I was thinking that I wanted to get home and lie down, but kept driving up and down the streets of Itasca looking for well-lit streets and other cars.

My mom and I usually visit one home in Rosalie’s neighborhood that can be counted upon to do Christmas with the right degree of ticky-tackiness. One year it was blow-up reindeer tied to the fence posts. These were not those fancy reindeer with a compressor to keep them perky. They were hand-blown, like beach balls. In cold weather, they tended to get low on air. Their heads hung over, like the whales with “fin-flop” at Sea World in Orlando, Florida. Rudolph’s nose managed to dangle precariously close to his “ornaments.”

In another year, we went by and observed four snowmen and three Santas, each kept inflated by a compressor. However, someone had staged the scene so that each snowman had his face smashed into the “lap” of another snowman or Santa. You did not have to have a dirty mind to see the inappropriateness of the staging.

As we drove down Mill Road, my mom explained to Rosalie that our next stop was a house that had it all wrong. Rosalie forgot all of that as soon as she saw the house in question. This year the yard was filled with decorations. There were Chicago Bears signs and polar bears. There were reindeer and toys. I counted enough snowmen to molest a city of mall Santas. The various tableaux were gaudy and irreverent.

“My, oh my,” Rosalie announced, when I stopped in front of the house so we could get a good look at it. “This is my favorite.” She could not be dissuaded. “It is so cheery. I love the bright colors. Thank you for this special treat. I was feeling so sad. Now it feels a little like Christmas.” Even Cutie seemed fascinated. The dog stood in Rosalie’s lap and balanced on her front paws and stared out the window at the house.

My mom and I sat in church this afternoon waiting for Christmas Eve mass to start. I was praying non-stop through a long list of intentions for family, friends, and acquaintances. I felt that there were so many people in need of prayer this year. My worries for them were keeping me from feeling any Christmas spirit. There were a dozen or so young children preparing for reenactment of the Nativity. The director of the children’s choir coached the children through the story, telling them where to stand. I found the whole thing a distraction from the list of prayers I needed to cover. My mom was excited to be in church for this mass. She was busy looking around for folks she knew. She finally leaned over to ask me whether I thought the church was as crowded this year as it was last year.

That’s when I realized that she had forgotten that last year I spent Christmas in the county hospital because I needed a catheter to pass urine after radiation and chemotherapy had decimated my bladder and lowered my white blood cell count until I was vulnerable to, and succumbed to, a nasty bladder infection.

You don’t think that your family will ever forget the worst year of your life, but it happens. My mom has had her own health concerns of late. She told me ten times this past week that she’s getting old. She told me at least four times about how her personal papers are organized. I asked her if she thought she might be about to die, and she said, yes. She’s just seventy-six years old. But she has been a widow for twenty years already. Her brother-in-law just died. Her younger sister, her only sister, has just moved from Nevada to Florida to Virginia since May. That sister has metastatic breast cancer that has become very hard to treat. My Aunt Arlene is not strong. I know my mom is worried that her sister may not have long to live.

This past week my mom learned she had atrial fibrillation. The doctor got quite excited about it. My mom did, too. But she refused to go to the hospital for a test even though the doctor wanted her to go at once. She and her friend Phyllis had tickets for a Christmas lunch and she refused to waste the $21 already spent on that lunch by going to the hospital and risking admission that might affect her Christmas plans.

All week long I have been dreading Christmas because of the sad memories of what happened last year, but I have decided to indulge in a little forgetfulness of my own. I had cancer. Things got ugly. But so many people seem to have something weighing on their minds. There is something about holidays that can help us forget our woes for an hour, a minute, or a moment. This is a time for rebirth and renewal.

There will be time Thursday to relive the events of the last year. I have to go to the hospital to pick up a prescription. That will be enough to remind me of how tough the last year has been. For this Christmas, I will let the bright lights, gaudy ornamentation, and amateurish pageantry of the holiday distract me from my contemplation of life’s seemingly limitless capacity for causing pain and suffering.

It is Christmas. A child was born and this is His birthday.  He didn’t have everything that might have made His birthday perfect: just two loving parents, a manger, some gifts from far distant lands, and a future that would lead him to death on a cross. The story isn’t nearly as magical as the expectations we sometimes invest in it. It is a story in which there is joy–and there are tears. Just because we are a few months away from remembering the sacrifice He made for us doesn’t mean that we should forget that He also brought joy to the world. Happy birthday, Jesus!

Charlie Brown's Tree, photo by Barb

Charlie Brown’s Tree, photo by Barb

Crisis Averted

It is 11:00 p.m. and the world has not ended. I was not holding my breath. I did not buy any extra water, batteries, or canned goods. I did buy a bottle of Diet Pepsi, a pack of C batteries, and a plastic container of tomato bisque soup. I drank the soda earlier today. I needed the C batteries for my robotic floor cleaner. I plan to have the soup tomorrow for lunch. Sometimes, even when the stakes are at their highest, the chances of a tragic outcome are too remote for me to react.

According to the news I heard today lots of other people were buying assault weapons today. They fear that it may soon be illegal to buy such weaponry. If they are going to fight oppressive government, they want to do it with automatic weaponry. I also heard someone say today that school teachers should carry concealed weapons in case they have to fend off homicidal killers in classrooms. The sad truth about fear is that it seldom leads to wise action.

I have been afraid before and have faced some threats without recourse to violence. A student once was enraged during my critique of a speech. He threw a podium in my direction. I ran and urged the class to run with me. I once faced an irate student alone in a classroom. He was furious because he was failing my class. I asked him to tell me what he was feeling. I listened carefully and offered no explanations or excuses for my grades. He started to tear at his own hair. I started packing up my books and papers, all the while nodding and making empathetic sounds. Then I urged him to follow me out into the hallway. By the time we made it to the elevators, he was much less agitated. When he got into the elevator going down, I told him that I was going up. He never touched me.

I once faced a student who told me that she had started cutting herself after hearing my feedback to her writing. Another student sent me bizarre emails about personal issues that had no relationship with my class. That student ended up having a breakdown in court and was sent to jail for more than a month. Most upset students have stopped well short of violence. I still remember a young man who told me that he had not turned in several assignments because he was smarter than his classmates. They needed to do the work to learn the lessons, but he did not. When I insisted that the work be done, the student said to me, “Work with me. Work with me.” I told him that I thought I was doing exactly that.

I have known teachers who make it a practice to insist that students cool down for twenty-four hours before expressing reactions to grades. I invite my students to tell me what they are feeling as soon as they can articulate it. So far, the angriest students have done so without first going home to get a gun. I think it ended up mattering more that they got to speak their minds and that I helped them put their feelings into words than whether they were able to hurt me.

I do not imagine that the teachers who have faced armed killers in classrooms in this country had the time to talk much with their killers. Automatic weaponry makes it easier to shoot than to speak. Speaking about your pain appears to be much more difficult than shooting everyone in the vicinity. Nevertheless, I will not be buying weapons or carrying them to school no matter how dangerous it becomes to teach others. The stakes are high when you face a person bent on violence, but the chances of facing someone intent on murder remain small. Talking my way out of a bad situation is not foolproof; but the odds that it will work improve if it takes longer to reload a weapon.

No matter how dangerous it is to live in a free society, I will sacrifice my right to bear arms because there are risks that I would rather bear than act to reduce. It does not matter as much to me that a bullet can still my voice as it matters that my voice can still a killer. I prefer to take my chances with people using my voice and wits than with weaponry.

I think it is courageous to face life without weapons. I respect people whose commitment to nonviolent expression of their beliefs has put them in jeopardy. It is my view that the order of the amendments to the Constitution is not accidental. Freedom of speech, religious belief, and association is what is fundamental–not the right to bear arms.

A growing number of Americans favor some limits on the right to bear arms. One should have to apply for the right to buy a gun–even at a gun show. A background check should be performed. One who buys a gun should have to report to authorities its theft, loss, transfer, or sale. Certain weapons with the capacity to kill many swiftly should be illegal to acquire–like automatic weapons, high volume ammunition clips, and explosives. People who object to these limits should be permitted to vent their objections until they tire of it. The rest of us should listen to what they have to say but stand firm. If we do so, then there may be other crises averted.

The End of the World

It is already December 21, 2012 in Australia and the world is going on. Here in Chicago, Illinois, we were expecting a snowstorm tonight. It sounds like the 50 miles per hour winds are the big story as most of the heavy rain has passed us. That means that most of the moisture passed us by while the temperatures were in the 50-40 degree range. Our snowstorm might accumulate one inch of the fluffy stuff.

I hear that NASA has received numerous emails from people wanting to know if the world will end tonight at midnight. The Mayan calendar is due to run out tomorrow. Here we have a calendar that runs out every 365-366 days, and I usually worry about only one thing when it does: will I make it home safely or will someone who drinks and drives strike me?

Last night I walked out to my car with a student after I taught a night class in a western suburb. She was having a rough time. She has been out of work for many, many months. She just got a new job, but is still learning the ropes. She is taking paralegal certificate classes to start a new career. At the same time she is sitting for professional license examinations given in stages over a one-year period. She is recovering from a case of the flu. Her dog is in the final stages of life and needed daily care for kidney problems last week. She racked up $800 in doggy daycare expenses alone. She could ill afford the expense but was unwilling to give up on her four-legged friend so close to a holiday. Her brother just lost his job. There is a holiday to prepare for. She was worried about how she did on the exam I gave this week and the several papers due in the coming weeks.

I heard this past week from a friend who lost a mother-in-law about year ago. Now she has learned she will lose her job. She has a child at home and three in college. She had some health problems this past year. She still does not feel quite like her old self.

One of my friends from law school has gone “home” for Christmas, but her family home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Her parents and a sister are displaced, sleeping at a relative’s apartment. Her mom is not well. My friend has a full plate in her own life, but she hopes to help her family dredge the first floor of their ruined home over her holiday so that it can be assessed for safety.

Another friend from a different school has three non-custodial children and a sick wife to take care of. He has been juggling expenses and income for months without making any headway. They have no holiday plans.

I have several friends and family members who have lost a loved one recently. They face a holiday at which there will be empty seats and sad hearts.

Today is the one year anniversary of my completing my chemotherapy and radiation treatments. A year ago I was entering the hospital because I was unable to function. My bladder had been burnt. I was bleeding internally and the clots blocked my urethra. I was in terrible pain. I had a raging infection and my white blood cell count was too low for me to fight it. I had no idea then, but things were about to get much worse before they got even a little better. I would spend nearly a week in the county hospital. I would feel the worst pain I could imagine. I would become tired and fearful. At the worst moments I would question my faithin the prospect of better days.

My point is not to say that the upcoming holidays will be a bust. My point is that, on any particular day, all of us know someone whose world appears to be ending. There are tragedies that rock our hope for the future. There are diseases that undermine our energy and prospects for long lives. There are losses that threaten our economic well-being. There are disappointments that make us wonder why we carry on. But the end of days comes and passes and most of us do not pass with it. We carry on with fortitude. One minute at a time. One step after another. And the sun does come out again. Life goes on.

My wish for you this holiday season is that you do not give up. Put out your hand. Let someone help tug you into a new calendar, a new day, even a new frame of mind. My mom is known for several outrageous statements. One of them is, “Save yourselves!” She yelled that when she thought there was a snake beside us on the side of a mountain in Utah during a family vacation–a moment before she took off down the mountainside. She is always there for us, except if she thinks there’s a snake in the vicinity. Another thing she likes to say is, “If we didn’t have bad luck, we wouldn’t have any luck at all.” She usually announces this when the rest of us are thinking that she will be the one who will figure out a way to get us out of a slump. But the thing she says that always manages to cheer me up is, “You’re going to get over this.”

I believe that, no matter how bad things get, we will. See you in the new Mayan calendar!

Feeling Sorry for Myself

I try not to feel sorry for myself. On Monday afternoon I was tempted to indulge. I was sitting at school recalling when I had the energy to do whatever I wanted. My ankles hurt like crazy. I am not talking about the occasional aches and pains I sometimes feel when the weather changes. I am talking about unrelenting soreness. I kept pointing my toes and trying to stretch my feet as if I danced on them in the ballet. This made the bottoms of my feet cry out as if I had a cramp in the arches of my feet. My knees hurt. There was nothing I could do to tease the pain out of my joints. Every time I stood up I felt like I stood on a tack. The pain went from my foot to my knee and made everything in between vibrate. My teeth were clenched to the point that my jaw ached. The back of my neck felt like a taut bow. The pain started when I went to the bathroom. My bladder was so painful that I was panting through the process of urinating. I had spent the day going from one excruciating moment to the next and I still had a three hour lecture ahead of me.

I knew that once I started the lecture I would feel a little better. I can be distratcted from the pain by my students. But three hours without a trip to the bathroom would make that next trip so much more painful. One of the only ways to combat the pain of radiation cystitis is to drink lots of water and go through the pain with so much frequency that you eventually stop gritting your teeth and bearing down.

I was feeling sorry for myself. I was remembering how a year earlier I was just starting to suffer from the combination of weekly chemotherapy and daily radiation. I thought it was awful when I went to the bathroom every ten minutes through the night. I was so tired that I wondered how I could keep carrying on as if life had not changed dramatically. How many hours of each day did I spend in waiting rooms with a full bladder so that my bladder would push my bowel out of the way during radiation? It was excruciating. But it hurts even worse now, nearly a year after radiation has ended.

I went onto Youtube.com and watched military homecoming surprises. That’s right. For about two hours I watched children going on about their daily lives until they realized they were in the presence of a parent who had been away for four months, seven months, or twelve months. One contractor had been away for twenty-four months. It broke my heart to see them run into their parents’ arms. Little children so young I thought they could not possibly remember their returning fathers ran to daddy. A young boy buried his eyes and nose into the gap between his father’s collar and the reddened skin of his father’s neck. His arms were wrapped around his dad’s neck and his hands dug into the back of his dad’s uniform. Sometimes two or three children piled on a parent. One young girl prepared to perform a cheer for her mom when her parent crept into the room to watch. Her face went from strong to soft. Her lips wobbled. She jumped into that first hug.

The children were sometimes aware of the cameras that surrounded them. I felt bad that I was watching that private moment when they no longer had to put up a brave front. None of us want others to know just how lonely life can be when the ones we miss the most cannot be there for us. There was one girl going through a painful stage in her teen years. She wore clothes that expressed her awkward youth, her uncertain entry into womanhood without the approval and support of the first man she’s ever learned to love and trust. When her dad walked in, she was unleashed and yet frightened by the force of her need. You could tell because when she wrapped her arm around her dad’s neck her fingers were curled in upon themselves. She was trying hard to hold onto some measure of self control even though her knees had lost their starch and her eyes were filled with tears.

There were videos of dogs being reunited with their owners, too. Some of the dogs were beside themselves with excitement even before the door opened and they were free to leap into a soldier’s arms. They wiggled and wriggled and jumped. They cried out like children. They squealed with pleasure.

There were girl friends, mothers, and dads. There were wives and one or two husbands.

The soldiers themselves were stoic. They stood while children and other persons launched themselves. They held others up. They let their loved ones wrap them in gift boxes, arms, legs, and limbs. They rested their hands on childrens’ heads. They kissed cheeks and patted backs.

You could not watch these reunions without realizing that there are people across this country holding in and holding back so many feelings that they ache to release. They are frightened. They are lonely. They are strong. They are brave. There are sacrifices that cannot be measured in months apart because, regardless of modern technology, there are distances that cannot be spanned even by seeing an image or hearing a voice. There are people whose fear that a loved one will not return is exceeded only by the fear that they are letting others down if they need their families too much.

I may be in a lot of pain every day, but I am free to experience that pain. I can close my eyes and grimace. I can pant or cry. I can share my experience with others. I can lean on loved ones for support when I am exhausted by it. I don’t have to suck it up, shut it down, or show others my game face if I don’t want to do do so. I can take pain pills. I can hide in my bed. After watching those kids’ suffering, their relief, and their joy, I decided I had no good reason to feel sorry for myself.

I was emotionally exhausted by the idea of how much sacrifice we ask of people who let their loved ones serve. You never know what challenges you will have to face in life. You may think your own challenges are more than you can bear. Bear them anyway. The resilience of the human spirit is a marvel. I got up from my chair and walked into my classroom with renewed vigor. In the process of appreciating the strength of others, the tension in my feet, ankles, knees, neck, shoulders, jaws, and face eased. I was feeling humbled by the sacrifices of others. I was feeling cameraderie because sometimes we cannot share joy or celebration, but we can still share the struggle. I was inspired to carry on. I’ve been feeling a little better every day since then. Maybe tomorrow will be a good day. Maybe tomorrow will be the day when families will be reunited and everyone can celebrate another homecoming.

I Was Scared

Last night I watched Parenthood and was scared. I do not usually watch that television show so was not expecting that the subject would be a mother and wife’s hospitalization on Christmas Eve for a very low white blood cell count and septic shock. It took about two minutes after the character started to show signs of a lung infection for me to feel the first symptoms of stress. I stopped grading papers. I felt my jaw tighten. My fingertips started to tingle. My brows drew together. Her husband insisted they go to the hospital because the doctor had warned them to be alert for signs of infection after her most recent dose of chemotherapy. I did not know her, but I was afraid for her.

The doctors told her husband that it was possible for her condition to continue its decline or improve. They were busy. Sometimes the doctor appeared not to know what was going on. My eyes teared up. My bottom lip trembled. Her husband became angry. He sent his father away at first. He sat at his wife’s side in a yellow gown, a mask, and gloves. He was helpless to do anything else but stand vigil. His father returned with a laptop computer, some clothes, and a snack. They hugged. The father promised everyone at home was being taken care of. The husband watched a video “good-bye” taped by his wife. She wanted her children to know how much she loved them. My nose started to run.

There were other story lines. I was so nervous. I did not want this to be a sad holiday story. I needed to know that the woman would be okay.

It is happening everywhere. I read this week on Laura’s blog the big scary “C” word about how she worried over whether she could travel or see a nutritionist because her white blood cell count was so low after her last dose of chemotherapy. It seems like everyone I know who has had cancer has suffered from some close call with a terrible infection during treatment.

Last year I was dealing with one of my own. And I spent Christmas week in the county hospital. It was more awful than anything else that I have ever experienced in my life. It was worse than losing so much blood that I had to have eight packs of blood by transfusion before I could have surgery. It was worse than learning I had cancer. It was worse than surgery or recovery. It was worse than when I thought my cancer was at stage three. It was even worse than losing my job because my boss thought all cancer patients made unreliable employees. It was worse than chemotherapy and radiation (and they took quite a toll). I was alone in an environment that was as toxic as the infection that sent me into the hospital.

I remember feeling fear that I might not get out alive.

I have been afraid before. How many times have I watched as some other driver lost control of a vehicle in snow or on ice? How many times have I feared that my own car could not be controlled? There is that moment when every nerve from extremity to brain seems fried. I once was confronted on a street by a man with a gun who demanded my purse. I was a little bit under the influence of alcohol at the time. I remember feeling that my fear had to spread through jelly before my limbs felt it and I formulated the illogical but (on that occasion) effective plan of running away.

I once was attacked on the street by ten men. I was on foot delivering a package to a D.C. residence during a cab strike when the men decided to follow me. I had to push past them to climb the stairs of that home and I prayed mightily that someone would be home. No one was home so I had to walk back down those stairs and through a gauntlet of pinches, bruising squeezes, bumps, and threats of violence until I made it to the next big street. I remember that I was so scared that I lost my voice. I longed to scream, but not a squeak came out of me. Moreover, no one who observed what was happening to me lifted a hand to help.

I once was grabbed in an elevator by a man who tried to force me down onto the elevator floor. He was determined to sexually assault me in the elevator. I remember throwing my hands out to hit every button on the elevator’s control panel. I crawled out of that elevator when the doors opened. That man held onto my skirt, but I managed to claw my way out far enough that the elevator doors were trying to close and my waist was in the way. That time I was overcome with adrenaline and absolutely determined not to be anyone’s victim. I know I landed at least one kick of my high-heeled shoe into the man’s upper torso in making my escape.

Working in hotels had its frightening moments. I once was attacked by a coworker and had to talk my way out of being hurt. I blocked a person’s attempt to enter the hotel by thrusting my arms up into the door’s opening mechanism to prevent its movement. I brandished a telephone in a hotel room when the two prostitutes I was intent on ejecting physically threatened me. I was young then. I faced my fears with the certainty that I would survive. The fear surged through me with so much adrenaline attached to it that I found the strength I needed to fight off what threatened me.

But there are big bad scary threats that I cannot fend off with adrenaline, fast reactions, defensive maneuvers, kicks, claws, wit, or wile. Cancer and its accompanying threats proved much more challenging than any threat to my well-being that came before it. I was trapped in a hospital with no family or friends to fight for me. I was in terrible pain, barely managed by painkillers. Pain came in waves that went on for hours at a time. I had a couple of nurses who had no time, skill, or resources to help me. My doctors were occupied with their own holiday revelry. My infection had me fevered and begging for relief. I went several days without sleep and had no more reserves of adrenaline. I had cried out for hours and no one even came to look at me. I prayed until my words became incomprehensible.

I have learned something from my own overwhelming fear. It is like a bully. It separates you from everyone and everything that would make you strong. You must fight it on your own. No matter how weak or miserable or hopeless you feel, the only way to overcome it is to face it and determine not to give in to it. You long for reinforcements. I have heard that song sung several years ago at Christmas by Carrie Underwood–Jesus Take the Wheel. It’s a wonderful idea. Faith can be your friend in times of trouble. Family and friends can be your allies. But you still have to fight. Some of us fight with will that combats infection at a cellular level. Some of us persevere through dark days by showing the grit to hang on until we find or build the strength to overcome. Some of us put up our fists or kick with our feet. Some of us draw on adrenaline. Some of us scream. Some of us win and some of us lose. All of these battles are easier to wage with the support and assistance of others.

The character on TV made it through the night. I was relieved even though I don’t even recall what her name was or what the name of the actress who played her was. While I was chewing on my lips over the medical condition of an actress in a TV show, there were real people hiding in a Portland, Oregon mall from a gunman intent on killing strangers before he took his own life. Soldiers walked streets in Afghanistan without the ability to tell friends from foes. Mothers and fathers tried to put children to bed in neighborhoods where gun violence makes no place safe. Other parents and grandparents watched their children or grandchildren pray for moms and dads serving in dangerous places overseas or on our own cities’ streets. People sat in hospitals across the country willing loved ones to get better or wishing loved ones would find peace by letting go. Some people huddled over grates, in their cars, or in shelters and tried to find sleep because they were homeless. Others slept in comfortable beds with demons that kept them from resting–disease, addictions, insecurities, loneliness, or something else.

There are people all around us at the holidays who are engaged in battles with fear. Some are sick. Some are watching a loved one suffer. Some are living in dangerous times. Some are living in dangerous places. Some are facing economic ruin. Some are alone. Some face threats to which they cannot put a face or name.

Anyone can be scared.  Instead of letting fear divide us, let’s look for ways to overcome it together. Toss some money in a Salvation Army kettle. Make a contribution to the Red Cross. Give blood at an area blood bank. Donate something you do not use any longer to a charity. Thank a member of our military for his or her service. Ask a caregiver if he or she could use a break to take a nap, a shower, or do some shopping. Visit someone who doesn’t seem to get out anymore. Greet an acquaintance with a kind word. Let go of a grudge. Say a prayer for a stranger if your pockets are empty this season. When someone cuts you off on the highway let it go. If you know someone going through tough times make a phone call, send a card, or make a visit. If you cannot help a troubled soul, then consider calling for help from the community at large. Talk about what scares you so that someone else can reassure you. Everyone is afraid of something. It is society that helps get us past what scares us. It often is by others’ caring that those who are scared find the strength to face their fears. It is caring that makes life’s battles less lonely.

For those of you facing battles that test your mettle, I wish you the strength to overcome your foes, your fetters, your fatigue, and your fears.

Farewell, Love

My Aunt Arlene called today with her son to inform my mom that Arlene’s husband Dan died yesterday. This was unexpected and very sad news. As you know, my aunt has metastic breast cancer and has already survived for more than a decade since her diagnosis. My uncle was a difficult man. He served many years as a Chicago police officer. After he retired and my aunt retired from nursing they moved to las Vegas, Nevada. They lived there until very recently. This spring they moved down to Florida.

They bought a “summer place” near Area 51. He and my aunt signed up to be part of an emergency response team for when the aliens arrive (again) on this planet. Many Americans believe we are not alone in the Universe. Not everyone can claim relation to people training to be part of the “meet, greet, and defeat” effort. My aunt and uncle aren’t the only family members with UFO fascination. I have relatives who tell me that we should keep some strawberry ice cream in our freezers. The “grays,” as the aliens we often see depicted in “news” about alien visitors are called, apparently like strawberry ice cream. It’s better to feed them what they like than to feel like you are about to attend a Soylent Green reunion.

Dan was contentious. He had an opinion about everything and most of his opinions were unwelcome. A colorful background is, however, not entirely unwelcome in my wacky family. We put up with his negative attitudes toward everyone and everything because he sometimes could be very funny (and because he was part of the family).

My mom tells the story of when he took out his service weapon and started shooting at her stainless steel mixing bowls in our backyard. One of our neighbors realized these were live rounds ricocheting off of the bowls and dropped to the patio in his backyard. He crawled on his stomach to the back door and hid in his home.

My brother recalls the night he was pulled over for underage driving in my dad’s business car. He called Uncle Dan, who came out to get him out and helped smooth things over with my dad. My dad already had a healthy dose of “Boys will be boys” delusions, but the men closed ranks and my brother survived to become one of the best men I have ever known.

We all remember some inappropriate comments my uncle made when I married into a Puerto Rican family. My dad had issued an order that there would be no disrespect, but Uncle Dan was a law unto himself. He announced at the wedding reception that people should check their cars’ hubcaps on the way out of the parking lot. My ex-husband and his family did not deserve to be disrespected. I was upset about this incident for a long time. Uncle Dan has been terrible to others in our family, too.

When he was last in Chicago and saw us, I took my mom, my aunt, her sister-in-law, and him for a ride in my car. Uncle Dan shouted out the car windows at the minorities walking the street. I was appalled, but not terribly surprised.

Uncle Dan was injured in the racial violence that overwhelmed the Democratic National Convention in 1968. He told us true stories of drug crimes in the big city. He recalled when the police who responded to a call for help in a housing project building became trapped in an elevator and how residents dumped their mattresses down the elevator shaft and set fire to them to kill the police. He once walked a plane crash site near O’Hare and helped to identify the remains of deceased passengers. He was a hard man. He had to have guts to do his job.

When I spoke to my aunt last month he was in the background yelling. That happened quite a bit. “Arlene, you’re talking on the phone so much that you’re sucking all the air out of the house,” he yelled because she did not want to end the call. But he was her rock through tough times. He held her hand as they waited in doctor’s offices. He was there in the waiting room when she emerged from so many treatments that you could never count them all. They walked the paths around the little lake in their community and picked out the birds that stopped there to drink on their migrations south. He was thinking of getting her a puppy because she was cheered by one brought in to see her during a recent chemotherapy infusion. When the doctors told my aunt it might be time to stop treatment, it was Uncle Dan who said, “Hell, no. We’re fighters.” When she lost strength in her legs due to the destructive power of cancer in her bones, it was Uncle Dan who dragged her to her feet. And when he could not, he got the fire department to come and help her up.

A man will be judged for the many things he does. Anger and bias and bigotry were part of the same man who called my aunt from the phone when their favorite talk radio show was on because he wanted to share it with her. As I contemplate this loss and all that it will mean to my aunt, I am forgetting nothing, but I am honoring the part of him that had a tender heart for a woman who will miss him terribly. Farewell, Uncle Dan.

 

Hypocrites and Hypotheticals

I am watching CBS Sunday Morning–a church for non-believers–because it is a habit I have tried to keep for so many years now that it has become sacred to me in a non-religious sense. If I can, I watch the show and then watch the Sunday political news on ABC, now hosted by George Stephanopoulos. It used to be Tim Russert I watched, but he has been gone for several years. I still miss his political acumen. I digress.

Today’s CBS Sunday Morning story is about Thomas Jefferson’s legacy. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence. He owned slaves. He loved a slave. He had children with her. He kept his love for her a secret as long as he could in his time. Others kept it secret thereafter. It was in recent times that the “black” and “white” lines of his family first gathered together for a family reunion.

The news story ended with a view of his grave. On the monument that marks his grave, Jefferson’s accomplishments are inscribed. There is no mention of his hypocrisy–perhaps because it did not die with his mortal shell. As I sit here pondering the lint in my navel, I find myself wondering what it is that would allow a person to fight for the freedom of a people “enslaved” by political responsibility (taxes) while keeping people “enslaved” (the quotation marks ironic and unnecessary) for economic success.

The only completely consistent people are the dead. – Aldous Huxley.

All of us are inconsistent at times. I can admit that there was a time in my life when everything in my life was more black and white. Now I am confounded by the shades of gray that surround my life. I was not a better person when things were clear. I recall hurting people from time to time with my certainty about what was right and what was wrong. Now I am sometimes uncertain of whether I am more correct and yet still managing to hurt others.

Last night I drove home from my mom’s house. A man darted into the street in front of my car. I had to slam on my brakes to avoid hitting him. Everything in the back seat catapulted forward onto the floor. The largest casualty was a ruptured container of yogurt. Nevertheless, I was enraged. I know. I was motivated by fear. I yelled (to no one), “What is wrong with these people?”

Today I am asking myself what I meant when I said “these people.” It was one man who ran in front of my car. But I was angry with a people. I am not even certain what type of people he represented. I never saw his face. I live in a very mixed neighborhood. The people who surround me are hispanic. Some are Middle Eastern. My grocery store hands out Jewish calendars in September.  The people who live in my four-flat residence are Caucasian with Western European surnames. There are many Asian families on my block. Did I say “these people” because I meant to impress a gender, race, or creed of people with my blanket judgment? Was I attempting (perhaps more nobly) not to convict one person with my judgment?

The thing about inconsistency that puzzles me most is the thing that Thomas Jefferson embodied. It reflects dimension. I am human and three-dimensional. It is possible for me to face north and south. I can feel the sun rise on my eastern side and watch its spectacular setting from my western exposure.

Last week I had lunch with a friend. We discussed discrimination in our profession. He often speaks to the legal profession about racial discrimination. He often finds himself at meetings in which he is the only black man and a bunch of white men ask him why none of their efforts to diversify take off. He has to point out that if the law firm’s diversity team is made up of all white men then the message it sends to a minority candidate is you won’t find much comfort here.

There is something to that feeling. However, of women in business I sometimes hear the expression that women will never take over (despite being the majority in many places) because some women hold others down. I recall a female partner who, upon hearing that a female associate was pregnant for the __nth time said, “Oh, did I just hear you will terminate this pregnancy? Because that would be great news. Over the last five years I’ve often wanted to send you home for coming to work with baby vomit on your suit collar.” Talk about the comfort of finding your own people in the ranks! It is not always about numbers or making room for people with one characteristic.

I once sat in a lunch meeting at a firm and heard a supervisor use a racial epithet. Another partner said, “I don’t think that was a PC thing to say. It’s a good thing we had no one of color here.”

I looked up from my meal into the startled eyes of a black co-worker. Both of us were shocked by the epithet and the comment to it.

I guess what stunned me most was that the second person did not realize a black person was present. I remember thinking, they don’t even see him. I did not think that was right either. Was it? Is our goal to become “color” (or other) blind?

That’s the hypocrisy I thought about this morning. On the one hand, I think my behavior should be right whether or not anyone is looking. On the other hand, if my behavior is right, then it should be the same whether or not I realize I am in company. Sometimes I wonder whether I have come as far as a person as I can in doing right by others.

I think I should be conscious of whether I engage in secret hypocrisy. If my references to “these people” is ever about a people whose only significant shared attribute is gender, race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or some other similar characteristic, then I should stop that. I do not want to be merely politically conscious. I would like to become and remain unconsciously fair. I also think I should be aware that I am always surrounded by people whose differences may require me to extend additional courtsey so that they will understand that all are welcome.

This is the difficulty with affirmative action, isn’t it? If all are equal, then there should be no need to favor a group previously discriminated against. By accommodating in deliberate fashion, we can isolate someone else for a trait that such a person has come by as innocently as did the one isolated in the past.

I guess it is okay to yell about “these people” if I mean pedestrian scofflaws. Of course, I have been known to jaywalk, so that would still be a type of hypocrisy, wouldn’t it?

Maybe the answer is to live consistently enough that, when I appear to have misstepped, others who do know me presume I have misspoken rather than misjudged others.

Maybe the answer is to speak out about what I perceive as injustice without judging the person’s motives. If I focus on the effect rather than the motive, will I be both more just and less judgmental? If I follow that rule, then I may fight discrimination but back away from affirmative action. Is that the better course of action? I really do not have one answer to this question. Like everything else in my life, I see gray in even the “simplest” hypotheticals.

Perhaps the real measure of a person should be to be an epithet rather than have one as an epitaph. Maybe I should be enough of a pain in the behind to others that they will notice me but not judge me too harshly because I was that to the exclusion of all else. I would like to be a @#&%! woman, a @#&%! lawyer, a @#&%! Catholic, a @#&%! Caucasian, a @#&%! teacher, a @#&%! cancer survivor, a @#&%! rabblerouser, a @#&%! jaywalker, part of a @#&%! people, and anything else you can think of to classify me as for at least part of the time. But I will never be just one attribute. And, in my eyes, neither will you. Because all of us are people with multiple dimensions. And all of us have to figure out how to live with our epithets and epitaphs.

 

 

 

 

 

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