Friday, February 27, 2015

The man in the cafeteria

My daughter and I sat in the hospital cafeteria awaiting a followup appointment.  We were sharing a monster cookie... the same delicious fantabulous monster cookies I coveted at 2am on my night-shifts when I worked there many moons ago in a different lifetime. My daughter chattered on and on and on, her nervous anxiety bubbling out in a continuous stream of senseless blather that combined with the dull hum of lunching hospital workers.  Over my daughter's shoulder I noticed a gentleman dining alone.  He was probably in his 70's.  He had finished his meal and was sitting in the booth slowly twirling a straw in his hands.  His gaze was very far off.  I knew that gaze, and though I didn't know him, I knew his story.

The look I saw in his eyes was the look of someone losing their love.  I imagine his wife was a few floors above us, possibly in the Critical Care Unit or Oncology Ward.  His face showed the exhaustion of someone who had been doing this, dining alone, a little while now.  Time in the hospital takes its toll on a person in warp speed.  Days quickly meld into each other by the 24hr nature of a hospital and the physical exhaustion experienced by family members is only trumped by the emotional exhaustion.  His stoic face barely veiled the exhaustion, and pang.

When I looked at him, I felt almost voyeuristic like I was seeing memories as they played out in his mind.  The day he met her.  The day he held his first born.  The years of drought that brought poor crops and little money, yet somehow they survived.  Together.  They succeeded and failed together.  And now he looks on a potential rest of forever, alone.

The disharmony between his palpable ache and my daughter's effervescent yammering was almost overwhelming.  I tuned into her and time and my sensory input sped up ten fold.  I looked at him, and it's like that scene in the Matrix when everything freezes.  He was taking inventory of their memories together, replaying every detail he can recall, hoping she has known just how much he needed her, and loved her.  And wondering how, just how he will go on without her.

I wanted, longed actually, to say something to him.  But there really are no words for these times.  In the same way there is no way to accurately describe the feeling of holding your first child, or watching someone take their last breathe, there are no words that can bring understanding or comfort to standing on the threshold of being alone.  It is a time solely intended for feeling, experiencing, witnessing.  Anything I would stammer to say would be as awkward as a bullhorn blaring during a sunset.

As I reluctantly got up to leave, I gave the gentleman one last glimpse.  I wanted to know how the story was going to end, I wanted it to be wrapped up in a nice little package like a 30 minute show.  But I know that isn't how life unfurls, as much as we would like it to.  It is this discordant symphony of life and death, youth and age, joy and grief that, with faith, plays out meaningfully in the end.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

For the love of our Mothers...

Imagine discovering you are pregnant and realizing you have to keep it as secret as long as possible or risk losing your job.  You are not a nun, but a bookkeeper in an Agricultural office.  You are married, a newlywed in fact, and 24 years old.  What would possibly warrant termination due to pregnancy then?  Because it is 1960. In Midwest America.  And you are (obviously) a woman.

My mom told me this story many years ago and after I gathered my jaw from the floor, I stammered and stuttered, "But why???" This equation did not compute in my brain.  She went on to further explain that "especially teachers" could not be seen in front of children pregnant.  This was just how it was and you did not have a choice.  You hid it until you were found out, and then were done working.

My mom was born in 1936, today she would have been 79.  To many of my parenting peers, she would be their grandmother's not mother's age.  She graduated in 1955 and lived with her great friend in an apartment, working and living on her own, until 1960 when she married my Dad.  The average age of a woman getting married in this time was 20. She was 24 when she married my Dad and her outside-the-norm journey to marriage and motherhood is something I appreciate more and more as I myself age.

I share this story and information because I think there exists a lack of understanding by many to the way it used to be for women.  My Mother and Mother in Law are both of the same generation, but I have friends whose Mothers are a full generation younger, and that one generation made all the difference in the world between understanding how life was, and is now, for women.

Prior to the Women's Liberation Movement, it was nearly impossible for women to have mortgages, their own credit cards, their own bank accounts. Essentially women went from being under their father to under their husband.  Pregnancy was not considered natural or beautiful, but something that resulted from *gasp* sex, thus was slightly obscene.  Women were judged for, well, being women.  My appreciation of Women's Lib (not said in a snarled face of disgust like I have seen from some 80 year old Men) comes from their fight, their struggle to demand to be treated as equals, not as a Woman, like it was a diagnosable condition.  Women were tired of being judged by their looks, their actions, their thoughts.  They were tired of double standards.  They were fed up with being considered slightly higher than an angsty teen who was still in need of a spanking if they "got out of line."  Men entrusted them to carry their children, but not to make any decisions.  They were done with being told "you can't" because for no other reason than they were born a female.

So why, WHY, for the love of our Mothers, have we engaged ourselves in the Mommy Wars???  This is so completely confounding to me.  You would be hard pressed to find a Man under 40 who could tell you what a woman's role "ought to be."  We have all been told from birth we can be astronauts or parents or teachers or police officers.  ALL of us, male and female, have been told that.  We don't have men telling us what we should do, or how we should do it.  So, we decided to be our own worst enemy and beat up on each other?  This all seems so counterproductive to the hell our mothers, aunts, and others went through to NOT BE JUDGED.  Why are we doing this to ourselves?

Women's Lib fought so hard to gain the opportunity of CHOICE.  They begged, demanded, screamed for the choice to use their abilities, skills, intelligence and passions to do what they CHOSE, not what was expected of them.  They fought so we could go and have a career, or stay at home with our kids.  They fought so we could breastfeed our baby in public, or their Daddy could give their baby a bottle without being mocked.  They fought, kicking and screaming for choices.

So I offer this up, if you can't give up the battle from your side of the Mommy Wars because of your own convictions, give them up for those who went ahead of us.  We are all united as Moms.  Whether we carried them in our hearts or under our hearts, there is a bond that is inexplicably powerful we share as Mothers.  It is something that can not be understood by those who do not have children.  It is the thing that makes the story of a cat adopting chicks completely make sense.  How we choose to mother or parent is based on our experiences, our education, our upbringing, our talents, skills and passions.  The very things the women before us wanted to base their choices upon.  Let's honor them, and each other by embracing choice, supporting each other and stop being our own worst tormentors.

If you are exhausted from the nonsensical "Mom Wars" I invite you to sign the petition created by my friend over at Next Life No Kids! 

The Power of Words.

My oldest son slumped into my car's passenger seat after school, pants covered with snow and sighed. "Mom," he said, "A kid said in class today, 'Everyone who thinks Teddy is a nerd raise their hand.'"  My heart broke a bit for him, but I was not prepared for his words to slap me back to 1980.

In an instant, I am sitting at my desk in Mrs. Curle's first grade classroom.  The late afternoon sun blazed through the south windows.  The room was quiet as we worked at our desks, the smell of ditto ink wafting off the paper.  I was overcome by a force that caused the words to hatch from deep inside me and I watched them leave my mouth like evil little raptors, their claws dripping with cruelty.  The quiet was shattered by my 6 year old voice saying "Who ever doesn't like Chandra raise their hand."

My recollection of what happened next has faded.   I don't remember if I was the only who raised their hand in the unwarranted poll and I was probably mildly scolded. Then life went on as it does. Chandra was a heavier girl in our class, quiet if I remember correctly and she moved after first grade.  Honestly, I am not even positive if her name was Chandra or Chanda or Shandra, because my Mother had this amazing ability to contort even the simplest name thus what is scrawled on the back of my class picture may or may not have been her name.

What I do know is this act of unadulterated cruelty has haunted me for 34 years.  Did my words affect her forever? Did she shake them off? Did she eat her way to 500 pounds? Did she take my words and succeed to spite me and anyone else who had ever teased her?  Did she become a recluse who lived with 12 cats?  Does she remember this instance after 34 years?  I wasn't a mean child and that is why this one moment is burned into my memory.  I had no reason to say such a cruel thing, other than I made the conscious decision to blurt out those words, on purpose. Every once in a while I pull out my photo album and look at the class picture and wonder where her life took her, and really wish I could say I was sorry.

My husband and I have talked about the rare acts of deliberate meanness that we performed in our youth which have haunted us.  We wonder when cruelty and meanness eventually became the norm?  Maybe we are weird ( I mean weirder than what we already accept we are) to both be continually bothered by actions of our youth.  I realize I sound like an old codger with this "Kids these days" mentality, but frankly I'm a bit shocked by how commonplace, easy and accepted, it is to be cruel.

One of my wonderful babysitters showed me a Twitter page the other day.  It was anonymous, obviously, because the cruelty posted on the page is not anything that someone would actually own.  The page is aimed at students of our local high school, and the unnecessary, false and malicious claims and statements made are easily tweeted because the poster is hidden behind a wall of anonymity. 

I was left with so many feelings after she showed this to me. I sat wondering how I'll survive the my children's teenage years trying to navigate them through the landmines of technology and social media with zero past experience to draw upon.  I didn't have a cell phone until I was 26.  I didn't text until I was about 30.  Let all that sink in next time you see a 10 year old Snapchatting while enjoying your Oreo Blizzard at Dairy Queen...  If you can relate to this, realize you also are a pioneer in parenting this generation of techy-social media kids, and personally I find this terrifying.

I was also just sad... Sad for the the targets of the posts, and more so for the poster.  What drove this person to feel the need to be just cruel for the sake of being cruel.  I think the tagline of the Twitter page was something about "Saying the stuff that just needs to be said."  Does it? Does it really need to be said? Is it constructive? Productive? Kind? Uplifting? I will be the first to admit I am all for honesty.  I am a self-described "Cold bucket of reality" friend, but it is done in person, and out of love.  I fully own the words I choose to say to my friends, and also my readers.  So the thought of spewing cruelty packaged as posts and tweets, blows my mind.  To lob hurtful statements out into the world, hidden behind a screen, for  just the sake of enjoying watching people react makes me shake my head.  One of the very best pieces of advice, a teacher gave me was "Never put into writing something you do not want someone to read."  I guess that advice became slightly irrelevant once one was able to hide behind a screen name. 

I'm left wondering where does that leave us? Me? Our kids?  In the end I can only go back to what I am in control of, and that is myself, and for a while more, my kids.  I guess I can only continue to stress and encourage the light, applaud the positive and love.  I can teach them that words will sometimes want to hatch inside them, but once they take flight, they are free.   They can not be reclaimed and once they have been released they are free to do whatever they will.  They will have to learn to choose what they release: pigeons or doves. 

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Chomp 1996?-2/13/2015. Goodbye my old friend.

In the summer of 1997, I moved to Fargo, ND to start my career in nursing.  At that time I knew precisely a handful of people in that city.  I was 23 and ready for "life."  By autumn I had settled into my ICU nursing job, my first big-girl apartment and life in general, however I was missing companionship.  My close, animal-loving friend suggested (insisted) I go to the Fargo Humane Society (now Homeward Animal Shelter) to check out their kittens.

I went to the shelter which was an wonderful no-euthanize facility.  I walked down the hall of kennels ooing and ahhing at the cute little kittens, and then came upon a stately looking gentlecat sitting in a kennel.  He had a black coat and the most beautiful swirls of silver on his sides I had ever seen.  I remarked to the employee, "This one's markings are beautiful!" and she wistfully replied "Yeah... He has been here six months already."  "Take him out" I directed her and we went into the playroom.  They told me they thought he was somewhere between a year and a year and a half old at that time.  I sat down on the floor and he purred and rubbed against me and then bit me.  But, it wasn't in a mean, defensive way, but in the way that kittens do when they wrestle and play with the siblings and mom they love.  It was as if he loved me so much he just had to nibble a bit.  I'd eventually come to learn he only bit if he really liked a person.
Fargo 1997

And so began my relationship with Chomp (Chomparoo, Sir Chompsalot, Chompasauraus Rex).  It was a relationship that saw me through several stupid boy heartbreaks and and an eventual forever love.  If you were to ask my husband, he would have to admit Chomp was his wing-man on one of our first dates.  As we sat on the couch Chomp conveniently sat on the back of the couch, allowing my hubby to reach up and pet him, and then naturally and casually wrap his arm around my shoulder.  They were cohorts from that point forward.  

He tolerated us bringing home a kitty brother, and another kitty brother. 
L to R: Harley, Kit (The Caribbean Kitty) and Chomp (Iowa, 2007)

He was with me through the loss of my mother and the arrival of a baby,
and then another, 
  and then another.

 He loved me through, and mourned himself, the loss of brother Kit after 7 years and brother Harley after 12 years.  He tolerated 10 moves in 10 years, living on a small island in the middle of the Caribbean for almost 2 years.
I will get you Mr. Gecko! (Saba, NA 2002)

He endured no less than 8 airports, and the flights that went through them. He rode along and saw from a car window, no less than 8 states as he traveled with us.  My husband's journey through medical school and residency brought many evenings closing with both of them sound asleep together, Chomp curled in his favorite place, my husband's lap.  
Studying Medicine is exhausting. (Saba, NA 2002)

Throughout all of this turmoil and readjustment, he just rolled with all of it.  He never reacted negatively or angrily.  He consistently maintained his slightly proper demeanor and his uncanny ability to know when someone was upset, jumping to their laps to comfort them.  He was a master of subtle attention-getting, slowing clearing the jewelry from the top of my dresser piece by piece, sliding it to the edge until it fell, usually around 3 am.  He also never lost his ability to tip an unattended water glass. 

In the last couple years he has slowed down.  His favorite places were laying in the sunbeams on his cashmere (upcycled sweater bed for felines) pillow or in the cooler months, curled directly in front of the fireplace.  His chomping became less and less but he still would sneak a lick of your beer if you were not paying attention.  
mmm..... beer.....

He tolerated the addition of MommaCat, her daughter Samantha, and Gravy.  MommaCat, in true Mother fashion, has cared, cuddled and cleaned him for the last year.  Much to my dismay, he even cuddled with Samantha as a kitten. Even more shocking, he didn't flinch when we introduced him to a Karma, a 4-legged rescue thing referred to as "dog." 
Karma and Chomp Feb. 2015

And now, with him somewhere between 18 and 19 years old, I am having to say goodbye to him.  How do I summarize the amount of love I have for something I have loved longer than my husband?  How do you let go of such unconditional love? I don't know... there are really know words. I only know what he has taught me.  He taught me that sometimes what we are looking for is not what we need.  I know he taught me consistent, unwavering, unconditional love.  I know he has taught me to always dump out any water glasses.  And I know he taught me that sometimes you have to love something enough to let it go. 

I think if Chomp could have spoken (it would have been in a proper British accent) he would've asked, even begged you to consider a shelter animal if you are thinking of getting a pet.  He waited six months to be loved, and in return he gave me all of himself for 18 years.  Please consider a rescue pet; they are worth it, and so are you.

To see my video tribute to him:click on the word video.