Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Words of Wisdom – Part I

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

The idea for this little duet of posts first came to my mind several months ago.  If I’d had my thinking cap on I would have posted them in conjunction with Mother’s Day.  Alas, I did not.  So here they are now, awkwardly located between Father’s Day and the 4th of July.  Such is life.

I am among the fortunate.  I have two invaluable role models in my life; two women, whose imprint on me is indelible, and whose guidance and influence are among my most treasured possessions.  They are my mother and my mother-in-law.  Over the years the lessons they have imparted have become guideposts for my life, and I find it only fair that the rest of humanity should be equally blessed by their wisdom.  And so here, in two parts, I will share with you some of the most important things they’ve shared with me.

“Listen to your elders.”  I don’t know that she’s ever said it in those words exactly, but that is one of my mother’s marquis mantras.  During our teen years (and beyond) this lesson became a point of teasing and was (is) just as likely to be phrased as “Mom loves old people,” as opposed to the more quotable version above.  Nevertheless, both versions are true. 

The American culture (unlike say, Asian cultures) is not one that values age.  We spend gozillions of dollars trying to halt the aging process.  Hair color, Botox, sports cars, Viagra, face lifts, and the like serve the master of youth.  And in our quest for eternal youth we tend to forget that those who have traveled further down life’s path may have learned a thing or two along the way.  My mother, on the other hand, has never lost sight of that.

Because she likes tangible projects, and because she is a talented seamstress, my mother has participated for years in her church’s Project Day.  Lest its somewhat generic name confuse you, Project Day is a sewing circle of sorts, wherein women from the church gather to create clothes and blankets for needy people – usually babies.  They piece and tie quilts.  They sew little cotton shirts for African children.  They hem receiving blankets and burp cloths.  And the soundtrack to all of this stitching is the telling of their life stories. 

My mother (who was about my age when I was born – I’ll let you do the math) is by far the youngest member of the group.  Most of the women are well into their 70s, and some into their 80s.  Many are widows.  Some have lost children.  Collectively they’ve faced cancer, betrayal, divorce, and children moving away.  They’ve also been blessed by family, health, grandchildren, and community.  They’ve witnessed and experienced all of the good and all of the bad that life doles out.  As my mother aptly put it once, “There’s nothing these women haven’t been through.”

When Mom was in the throes of wedding planning for her daughters, they’d been there.  When a friend was diagnosed with brain tumors, they’d been there.  When her children moved away, they’d been there.  When her first grandchild was born, they’d been there.  And with each rite of passage they handed down their wisdom and perspective as my mother was christened into another of life’s little clubs.

In today’s world of “newer, faster, cheaper” we are inclined to believe that these things always add up to “better.”  But I’ve learned from my mother that this isn’t always the case.  What holds true for cell phones does not bear out when applied to people.  We are complex creatures.  Our elders may not know how to program a DVR.  They may not know how to record an outgoing voice mail message.  They may not understand the humor on 30 Rock.  But they know what to do when your child falls ill.  They know what to say when your cancer goes into remission.  They know what to do when your husband loses his job.  And they know what to do when your garden produces way too many zucchini.

It is with time that we accumulate experiences, and with experiences that we accumulate wisdom.  And it is because of my mother that I both understand and appreciate the rounded edges of an old person’s wisdom every bit as much as the sharp corners of a young person’s wit.

Five Dollar Post: There are these things

Monday, May 31st, 2010

There are these things that make me happy.

Like these guys, one so much larger and the other so much smaller than I, and yet we all fit together perfectly.

Like this rainbow, which glistened in the sky after buckets of rain fell on us one evening last week.

Like these ever-shedding dogs, whose kisses are sloppy, whose smiles are genuine, and whose love is unconditional.

And like this tiny blond curl, which bends up over the edge of his perky red cap and makes me melt just a little bit.

The Very Beginning

Friday, May 14th, 2010

I was almost two-and-a-half years old.  Daddy came home and picked me up to take me to the hospital.  As we walked down the hallway we had to stop and wash my hands.  We washed them in a water fountain.  Why in a water fountain, I’m not sure.

The soap was pink and antibacterial.  The water was cool and dripped down my wrists.  After we washed my hands I had to put on a tiny gown over my clothes.  I noticed that the pattern on the gown was the same as the pattern on my blanky at home.  That made the gown not so scary.

As we walked down the hallway I noticed a yellow chair rail and a banister.  I reached up over my head and dragged my fingers along the banister, which probably made the thorough hand washing pointless.  It didn’t matter at the time. 

Eventually we turned left and walked into a room.  I saw a little crib, but it was empty.  Then I heard my mother’s voice from the other direction.  She was sitting in a rocking chair and holding a baby. 

It was my sister, Anne

There are other stories from that day.  Candidly, my parents’ memories make better stories.  I’ve been told countless times about how I looked at my sister and said in a squeaky voice, “little bitty fingers.”  I think I remember it, but I don’t.  It is a memory I have created from having heard the story so many times.

But the hallway, the fountain, the soap, and the gown – those memories are real.

About twelve years later I told this story to my dad.  He confirmed the particulars of my story, but confessed that he hadn’t thought about those things since the day they happened.  These things register differently in the mind of a toddler. 

It is my earliest memory.  I remember nothing else from my life until the age of five.  Apparently I understood, even then, that it was something worth remembering.

Perhaps it is contrived significance.  But I’ve always enjoyed knowing that my life – at least as I can remember it – began on the day I met my sister.

Gale (six months pregnant with IEP) and Anne, before her wedding

This theme of this post is “Memory”, as part of Momalom’s “Five for Ten”.

Hot Cross Buns

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

As I mentioned yesterday, I am newly obsessed with The Pioneer Woman’s blog.  Yesterday when I pulled up her site I was delighted to see that her latest recipe was for Hot Cross Buns.  My mother made Hot Cross Buns on every Good Friday of my childhood.  And while I have lovely memories of coming home from school to find a fresh batch on the kitchen counter (sometimes with extra frosting left in the bowl!) my favorite Hot Cross Bun memory comes from my adulthood, and from China.  This story is not meant to be thought-provoking or challenging in any way.  Rather it is a cherished moment of my life that I felt inspired to share. 

If you’re not familiar with Hot Cross Buns, you can learn a quick bit about them here.

I was 26 years old.  I was less than a month away from my wedding.  I was in Shanghai in the middle of a two-week business trip to my company’s Japan and China offices.  So things in my life were pretty calm at the time.  Right.

I’d spent the first week of the trip in Japan.  Sushi, tempura, industry trade show – all the usual suspects.  The second week took us to Shanghai for a 5-day training session with our Pac Rim distributors.  We were staying at the St. Regis hotel which was then, and is still, the most mind-bogglingly luxurious hotel I’ve ever stayed in.  I had a personal butler assigned to me at check-in.  The room was huge and stunning; the bathroom even more so.  Every time I left my room – even if it was just to run down to the hotel gym for a quick workout – someone came in and refolded the towels, tidied my toiletries, smoothed the duvet, and tucked under the corners of the toilet paper.  And every afternoon around 2:00 a snack was delivered to my room on a silver tray.  It was usually a pastry of some kind.  Something delectable that made me slide to the floor and want to never return home.  (What wedding?  GAP once lived in China.  Surely I could find a back-up version of him running around somewhere, right?)

I spent each day in a hotel ballroom, giving presentations on the key selling points of my company’s products, changes to the competitive landscape, and pricing and discount structures.  I’d eaten all of the local fare that had been served and had, for the most part, been delighted by how much I loved it.  Cuttlefish, jellyfish, whole roasted fish, seaweed salad, etc.  Business dinners each evening featured dishes that rotated among the traditional menus of our distributors’ home countries – Thai, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia.  I was lost in an international smorgasbord.   

I’d gone sight-seeing with a colleague one afternoon and eaten dumplings purchased from a street vendor that have never been matched by any I’ve eaten since.  The bread was fried crisp on the outside and chewy underneath.  The broth inside was rich, salty, and surprisingly hot.  It dripped all the way down my forearms and I actually licked some of it off.  The bite of pork in the middle was tender and fatty and melted on my tongue.  I was in a food nirvana.   

I was also reaching a saturation point of visual stimulation.  Ancient gardens, Confucian temples, giant Buddhas everywhere.  My colleague and I had a personal local tour guide for two days who took us into nooks and crannies of her city that we’d never have found (or braved) on our own.  I was absorbing the culture around me like a parched sponge.  I had moments of homesickness, but for the most part I’d been able to separate myself from the impending wedding and gotten lost in the world around me.  And so it was that when Good Friday rolled around at the end of my trip I was barely aware of it.

That day our business agenda reached its scheduled afternoon break.  I returned to my room upstairs where I looked forward to slipping out of my heels, collapsing onto the fluffy bed, and delicately tearing into whatever scone, éclair, or other confection might be awaiting me.  I opened the door, walked into that now-familiar and serene retreat of a room, and stopped cold.  There, on the silver tray, was a porcelain plate with two Hot Cross Buns. 

They were beautiful.  Golden dough glazed with egg whites and studded with raisins.  Iced by hand with careful, but not perfect, crosses.  I was so touched by the gesture that I almost couldn’t bring myself to eat them.  But I did.  They lacked the delicate crumb and subtle sweetness of my mother’s, but it was irrelevant.  I was as far away from home – geographically, culturally, metaphorically – as I’d ever been.  And yet a hallmark of my childhood sat before me on a silver tray.

I still don’t know the answers to all the questions that spun through my head as I ate my Hot Cross Buns.  How did they know these tiny details of Christian culinary heritage?  Did they know I was a Christian?  Did everyone in the hotel get Hot Cross Buns for their snack that day?  Or was it just for the Westerners whom they thought might enjoy a taste of home.  Did they have any idea how their thoughtfulness would strike deep to the heart of me?

Since I’d left home after college I’d never made Hot Cross Buns of my own.  I guess I didn’t realize what meaning they held for me.  But in that moment I became keenly aware of their significance; significance to which I’d been heretofore oblivious.  The next year I made my first batch of Hot Cross Buns.  They too didn’t measure up to my mother’s, but they were good.  And they were mine.  And it felt good to take my traditions into my own hands.  I have plenty of time to perfect my technique.

I haven’t made them every year.  But I will make them this year.  I think IEP would like them very much.  And I want his memories of them to be as ingrained as my own.

You Can Never Go Home

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Home can be a slippery concept. 

The city that I now call home is not the city where I grew up.  My hometown, however, hasn’t been “home” since I graduated college ten years ago. 

This comes up because I spent last weekend visiting my parents.  My sister was also in town, but neither of our husbands joined us.  So, with the exception of one IEP (whose abilities to change the dynamics of a weekend should not be underestimated), for a couple of days we were the same family of four of my childhood.

Visiting my parents is an odd mish-mash of emotions as it relates to the concept of “home.”  They still live in the house where I spent my adolescent years.  And for several years after I moved out, going back there still felt like going home.  It felt familiar, comfortable, and still in some way mine.  It still feels comfortable and familiar, but no longer mine.  Throughout the course of the past ten years I have moved to a different place along the continuum of “home.”  It’s a strange experience to realize that home no longer feels like home.  And I’ve puzzled quite a bit over when and why this happened. 

There is the physical.  One by one, every room in my parents’ house (except the kitchen) has been redecorated since I lived there.  The coffee table in the living room that I once stabbed with a letter opener as a toddler is now in my sister’s house out West.  The lilies-of-the-valley wallpaper that I picked out for my bathroom (and which was installed upside down…) has been removed and replaced with textured green paint.  The leather couch where I did my best napping was donated to charity.  The dark mahogany pool table in the den that occupied me and my friends on many weekend evenings throughout high school has been taken down and replaced with an exquisitely arranged seating area.  The dining room, whose walls used to be covered in bold stripes, now displays a more muted floral pattern.  And so on, and so on, and so on. 

There is the temporal.  The city itself has changed since I left.  Like any city, my hometown is not a snapshot of itself.  Naturally some things are the same, but many things are different.  Restaurants open and close.  People move to new homes.  Land is developed and re-developed.  Family members move back.  Friends move away.  And so on, and so on, and so on.  A city is an organism with a pulse that beats according to the people in it.  As those people grow and change, so does the city around them.  So even if I were to move back tomorrow, I could never return to precisely the city I left, because it doesn’t exist anymore. 

There is the emotional.  I have never lived in my hometown as an adult.  When I finished school I had a strike-out-on-my-own mentality.  “I can move back there any time” I thought.  “This is the time to go explore new places.”  And so I did.  But once GAP and I had settled into our current city and built our networks of friends and colleagues, it became clear to me that my logic had been backwards.  For numerous reasons, I have understood for several years now that I will never move back to my hometown.  This was a strange realization to face.  Even stranger?  I’m okay with it. 

And most importantly, there is the issue of family.  There are many maxims about home.  (It’s where the heart is.  It’s where you hang your hat.  It’s where your dirty laundry is.)  For me, home is where my family lives.  Of course my parents and sister are my family and I love them dearly.  But they are no longer the sun around which I orbit.  My hometown no longer feels like home for a few important reasons:  GAP has never lived there.  IEP has never lived there.  My giant, ever-shedding dogs have never lived there.  For me, home is where IEP’s toys clutter the floor of our sunroom.  It is the place with the telephone table in the kitchen whose corners were once chewed by Bernese Mountain Dog puppies.  It is the place where GAP’s and my bookshelves stand opposite each other because even now we refuse to co-mingle our books.  And it is the place where nearly ten years of academic, professional, and social roots have descended into the ground.

Over time I have grown to love this city and the life we have built here.  It may not always be home, but right now it is.  I doubt I will ever feel as bonded to it as I once did to my hometown.  But ten years ago I also would have doubted that never again living there would become a perfectly comfortable path for me. 

Like cities we too, quite literally, are organisms.  We change over time; not only in our looks, tastes, and interests, but also in the way we interface with the world around us.  In many ways I am vastly different from what I was at 22.  In other ways I am exactly the same.  And I suppose that the same is true of home.  Home is now “here” instead of “there.”  But it is still the place where I live my life on good days and bad.  And it is the place where my husband and son are at my side.

Pressured to Push

Friday, March 12th, 2010

To my male readers (both of you):  This one may be a bit outside of your wheelhouse.  Please feel free to keep reading.  If you’ve been through this experience I would be keenly interested in your perspective from the other side of the fence.  But this post is more estrogen-packed than usual.  Consider yourselves warned.

One of my best friends is pregnant with her second child.  She’s due any day and we’re all eagerly awaiting her little girl’s arrival.  Her son was born just shy of two years ago via a C-section after attempts at a vaginal delivery proved unsuccessful.  This time around my friend is hoping for a vaginal delivery, and has taken a series of very targeted steps toward that end.  When her previous OB was unsupportive of her interest in a VBAC she jumped ship and found a new OB who is.  She has hired a doula to guide her throughout labor and serve as her advocate with other medical staff.  She has researched VBACs extensively, and discussed the matter at length with her husband to cultivate his endorsement and support.  She is prepared.

The other night during dinner (at the dining room table, like the good little Lenten observers that we are) GAP and I were discussing our friend’s upcoming delivery, and, in spite of all her planning, we can’t help but feel a little bit nervous about it.  Once a woman has had a C-section vaginal births pose certain risks.  And, given those risks GAP posed the question: Why is it that women want a vaginal birth in the first place?

He didn’t limit his questioning to VBACs, either.  It is my casual understanding that many obstetricians prefer to deliver via C-section because less is left up to chance and fewer things can go wrong.  And I suspect that at some level GAP believes (particularly given our experiences with IEP’s delivery) that all babies would more prudently be delivered surgically.  He doesn’t really understand many women’s strong desire for vaginal deliveries.

His belief is that society has trumped up vaginal birth into some sort of a spiritual experience and that we women feel, either consciously or unconsciously, that it is something we are supposed to want.

I swiftly responded by asserting that this belief cheapens a woman’s emotions surrounding a vaginal birth.  I took it to mean that if our feelings weren’t original and uninfluenced by society, then they didn’t have as much value.  He countered (quite eloquently, I might add – he drives me nuts this way…) with the following analogy:

If I were to read A Tale of Two Cities in a vacuum, knowing the plot only, and not being able to relate anything outside of the book back to it, I would think it was a good book, but that’s it.  But when I come back to that book with knowledge of Christian allegory, Greek mythology, and all of the other layers that human society has added to it over the years, its meaning and significance grows exponentially.  Just because the more meaningful reading was influenced by society doesn’t diminish the value I took from it.

I couldn’t argue with that.  (Dammit!)  So we moved on in our discussion.

He asked me why I had wanted a vaginal birth when IEP was born, and why I would want another one the next time around.  I talked primarly about recovery times and other practical matters.  But what I couldn’t adequately articulate is the strong sense (instinct?) of wanting to push; of, after carrying this baby inside of me for nearly 40 weeks, needing to exert myself to the brink of exhaustion to bring his new life into the world.  And I wanted to feel that sense of completion, of (quite literally) deliverance.  It felt right.  And I believe that a C-section would have robbed me of the right and climactic ending to this process. 

(Note: If we had known at the time what was happening to IEP during delivery we would have gone straight to the OR.  And if either the baby or I are in any amount of distress during my next delivery I will sign on the dotted line for surgery immediately.  I would never pursue a vaginal birth in the face of legitimate medical risk.)

The son of a friend of mine was full breach in the womb, and she delivered via a planned C-section a week before her due date.  In the weeks leading up to the delivery she lamented the loss of that moment when the baby is born after hours of labor; the moment I described above.  In the interest of full disclosure I feel that I should note here that when he was several weeks old she confessed that her concerns were rendered moot once her son was born.  On the back end she didn’t feel that her birth experience suffered for lack of the “moment” at all.

So what is it, then, that makes us want to push?  And for the women who have no interest (scheduled C-sections have been on the rise for years), what is it that makes you want to avoid it?  Has society inflated our emotions about vaginal deliveries?  Or is there really something there – powerful, yet intangible; poignant, yet inexpressible; instinctual, yet untenable – that pressures us to push?

Role Model

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

There are many people in the world whom we identify as role models.  Many of them are athletes.  Some are government leaders.  Others are astronauts and soldiers.  Others still are people who have overcome incredible hardship.  And all of these people certainly deserve our admiration.  But there is a different breed of role model that this collection excludes.

For all of the attention we pay to people whose stories are worthy of glossy magazine pages, the honest truth of the matter is that they probably influence our lives very little.  We may be inspired as we read about them, or watch their stories play out in front of us in the form of a collection of slow-motion clips, narrated by Bob Costas and accompanied by touching background music.  We may tear up in these moments and stand in awe of these impressive people.  But when we close the magazine or turn off the television, very few of us carry these people around with us afterward. 

Most often the people we carry with us are those whose faces we can see when we close our eyes; whose voices we can hear when we find a quiet moment.  They are people who have taught us things big and small.  They have watched us succeed and fail.  They have shown us what maturity and integrity look like at every turn.  They are the people whose lives have left an indelible impression on our own.

Because I have led a blessed and lucky life so far, I have a number of people in my life who fit this description.  But only one of them celebrated his 90th birthday last weekend.

Steady.  If I had to pick one word that describes my grandfather more than any other, it would be steady.  In today’s world where we flit about, jumping frenetically from one thing to the next, steadiness is a trait that has become increasingly rare.  Today we value speed, multi-tasking, and efficiency.  We do not always appreciate the value that is brought by doing something well or with consistency.  But such quality and consistency are hallmarks of my grandfather’s life.

For forty-odd years Granddaddy was a physician; an internist.  He was an army doctor during World War II.  And when the war ended he started his own private practice which he ran until he retired in his sixties.  Throughout his practice he saw patients in his office, made his own hospital rounds, and made house calls.  He was home in time for supper.  He has gone to church nearly every Sunday of his life.  He played tennis with my father every weekend of his teen years – rain, shine, snow, or sleet.  He took a two-week vacation with his family every summer.  He made double mortgage payments every month until his house was paid off. 

When I was a little girl I did not always appreciate these qualities.  To a child some of this steadiness can seem a little stuffy, even rigid.  He has playful moments, to be sure.  And he is always full of affection for my sister and me.  But the same steadiness he exhibits each day he also expects of those around him.  As kids we knew exactly what the rules were, and what consequences might be handed down if we broke them.  Those consequences were never more than a stern expression accompanied by a few castigating words, but they always did the job.

In my life today I notice the ways in which we embrace and endorse many aspects of our lives that don’t quite measure up.  We have starter careers and starter marriages.  We eat fast food and watch reality television.  We carry credit card debt and spend more than we save.  In light of all this I am especially thankful for Granddaddy and the example he has set for me.  Because of him I have come to value reliability and consistency, and I can see what a life looks like that has been built on decisions that were made, one after another, with stalwart integrity. 

Granddaddy has always been a little bit formal.  But this past weekend at his birthday party I watched him soften a bit.  I worked collectively with my family to create a memory book from years’ worth of photos and stories for his birthday gift.  He unwrapped the book to find a front-cover photograph of himself and my grandmother taken in their front yard in 1960.  She wore a pale blue dress with a belt cinched around her impossibly tiny waist.  He stood in shirt sleeves and a tie with his arm draped over her shoulders.  They were so obviously happy.  As he flipped through the pages he smiled and sighed.  Stories spilled from his mouth as the photos cast fresh light on memories that had grown dusty with age.

It gave me real joy to watch him in that moment.  And it inspired me to more fully incorporate into my life the values that he embodies.  Granddaddy can sit happily today knowing that he has lived his life well.  I hope that I too reach my 90th birthday someday, and that I too will be able to look back over my life with a similar sense of satisfaction.

Damaged or Destined?

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Young Ted Kennedy and his father.

For the past several weeks I have been (slowly) making my way through Ted Kennedy’s autobiography, True Compass.  He was a man about whom I knew precious little as a child; only by his family name as a young adult; and increasingly by his own reputation into my adulthood.  When his brain tumor was diagnosed in the spring of 2008 I started paying more attention to his history and influence.  My attention span increased further when he endorsed and, throughout his illness, actively campaigned for then-Senator Obama.  When he passed away last August I had significantly made up for my prior ignorance.  But it wasn’t until I read his book that I realized how woefully uninformed I still was. 

As a Kennedy there is clearly a big story to tell.  The wealth and privilege.  The fabled family.  The tragic loss of three brothers and a sister at ages far too young.  The life of public service.  The scandals.  The legacy.  But despite all these things, it was a passage on the 40th page of this 500+ page book that made the deepest imprint on my mind. 

My father’s voice was paramount.  He was never abusive, never wounding toward any of his children, but he had a way of letting us know exactly what he expected of us.  Once, when I was thirteen or fourteen years old Dad called me into his room for a chat.  I must have done something that prompted the conversation, but I don’t remember what it was.  But he used phrases so concise and vivid that I can remember them word for word nearly sixty-five years later: “You can have a serious life or a nonserious life, Teddy.  I’ll still love you whichever choice you make.  But if you decide to have a nonserious life, I won’t have much time for you.  You make up your mind.  There are too many children here who are doing things that are interesting for me to do much with you.”

I returned to that passage multiple times as I made my way through the rest of the book.  I noted the page number on my bookmark so I could easily find it.  I became mildly obsessed with it.  I cannot fathom what it must have been like to hear words like those as a teenaged kid just trying to find some sunlight in the shadow of your overwhelmingly impressive family.  And now, as a parent, I cannot fathom saying those words to any child of mine; particularly at such a tender and impressionable age. 

However, whether or not you agree with their politics, it is difficult to deny that the Kennedys set an unparalleled example of public service in this country.  Given that there have been many wealthier families who did not enter the public sector in droves, I believe it is fair to surmise that it was more than the financial edge afforded by family money that buoyed the Kennedys into these positions.  Clearly there was something about the way they were raised that spurred them to lives of service.  And statements such as the one above made by the senator’s father solidify that suspicion.

Throughout the book Senator Kennedy writes with sincere affection for his father.  But beyond that he writes with admiration that borders on reverence.  His father, along with his brothers, was a pillar in his life whose approval he worked ceaselessly to earn.  And despite the fondness that his words convey, I can’t help but wonder what frailties his relationship with his father suffered due to such profound expectations.     

Ted Kennedy is not the only man to achieve “greatness” whose relationship with his father was strained, distant, or altogether absent.  Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, both George Bushes, and Barack Obama all fit this bill.  And so I am prone to wonder what it was about the way that these relationships affected this collection of men that served as a catalyst for achievement rather than dereliction.  Federal penitentiaries are filled with men whose paternal relationships were equally strained and didn’t take the high road in response.  Where does the fine line reside that separates the damaged from the destined?

I believe in many of the principles that the Kennedy family has stood for, service being foremost among them.  As GAP and I raise our family I would be proud to see any of our children choose such a path.  But at what cost?  Could I bring myself to tell my son that my interest in his life survives only to the extent that I find his choices sufficiently “serious”?  And even if I could bring myself to speak such words (which I proudly doubt), would I want to?  Twenty years from now, as he enters adulthood and the parent-child power dynamic begins to soften, do I want IEP to see me as a dominant figure whose approval he covets?  Or would I rather our adult relationship be closer to friendship; something comfortable we can share and enjoy?

I find Ted Kennedy’s relationship with his father troubling.  I certainly would not be comfortable in it, and I don’t intend to parent in that way.  But I admire Joe Kennedy’s ability to impart the value of service on his children to such a profound extent.  (As an aside, I do not mean to shortchange the Kennedy daughters by omission.  Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics.  And Jean Kennedy Smith founded an arts foundation for mentally and physically challenged children and also served as the US Ambassador to Ireland.)  However, I aim to find a kinder, gentler mechanism for fostering such values than the blunt instrument of ultimatum. 

As for these men who’ve risen to political peaks (I’m sure comparable examples are plentiful in the business, sports, and entertainment industries as well) I will continue to wonder what aspects of their relationships with their parents drove them to achievement versus failure versus something in between.  And I will wonder if it is possible to find a hybrid version of the same; an emphasis on service and philanthropy, but absent the cost of a dysfunctional relationship.  Is this too much to ask?  Surely these qualities are not mutually exclusive.  Perhaps my naïveté betrays me?  Check in with me in twenty years and I’ll tell you how things panned out.

A Sense of Conviction

Friday, February 19th, 2010

This is the part of the blog where I tell you that IEP was a NICU baby.
 
Because it was painful and because it is private, I will not provide many details except to offer this:  After 39 weeks of the world’s most routine pregnancy, IEP suffered head trauma during the final stages of his delivery.  That head trauma resulted in a follow-up CT scan, which resulted in a frightening diagnosis, which resulted in his transfer (by helicopter) from the hospital where he was delivered to a local children’s hospital when he was just hours old, so that he could be treated by teams of neuro specialists. 
 
Our experience was not nearly as dire or dramatic as many other NICU families’.  But it is ours.  And for that reason it has affected GAP and me every day since our son was born.  Some its effects are obvious and tangible, like the months of follow up appointments IEP has had since he came home.  Other effects are subtler and more discrete, like the way in which moments from that day creep into our minds unannounced and remind us of how terrifying it all was. 
 
I tell you all of this now because this experience is rolling back into our lives in a concrete way and on a regular basis. 
 
Last fall I spent many weeks grappling with the orbit of my life.  More specifically, I felt that the orbit was too local; local to me, my family, and my friends.  Not to discount their place in my life – they are my biggest priorities.  But I am fortunate.  I have a happy and healthy family (both nuclear and extended).  I have a lovely home and good job.  I want for nothing.  And in living a life that is so blessed, I felt remiss that its benefits so rarely reached beyond the circle of my own people.  I felt that everything I did had a very short radius back to me. 
 
I spent a great deal of time soul searching over this topic.  I shared my frustrations and concerns with my husband, sister, parents, and a couple of bloggy friends.  I didn’t want to just “pick a cause” so that I could go through the motions of filling a void.  I wanted to add something to my life that was both valuable to others and meaningful to me.  After several weeks it finally occurred to me.  Children’s Hospital is a place very dear to me.  It is the place that healed my son.  It is the place that gave us comfort and confidence when his new and fragile life was in its capable hands.  And it is a place where I can offer a unique perspective as a woman who has walked its hallways as a mother.

This is how it came to be that in November, after a relatively rigorous application process, I was accepted as a volunteer at Children’s Hospital.  On Wednesday night I spent three hours there participating in Volunteer Orientation.  And sometime in early March I will work my first volunteer shift.

During the orientation session we went through important but dry topics like HIPAA compliance.  We learned about the scope of our responsibilities.  We learned how to properly put on a gown, mask, and gloves if we are called to visit a patient in isolation.  We walked past patient rooms where some kids were being rocked by their parents, but others were alone in their beds. 

One boy in particular is burned in my mind.  He is probably slightly older than IEP.  He was sitting in his crib in hospital pajamas, playing with a rattle, and his cheeks were flushed bright pink.  His family wasn’t there.  He watched intently as our tour group passed by and I felt an ache deep in my gut as I was forced to keep walking, rather than turn on my heels back to his bedside.         

The evening concluded with a placement assessment wherein I met with the volunteer coordinator to discuss my interests within the hospital.  She asked why I wanted to volunteer and I told her about our experiences there and my desire to help others whose paths I’d once walked myself. 

I left the hospital with a strong sense of conviction.  I feel good about this.  Not eager.  Not excited.  Not happy.  But good.  In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever started something new in my life with so few doubts or questions.  I know this will be hard.  I know it will break my heart.  But I know that I can help and that this is the right thing for me to do.    

When I got home Wednesday night GAP and I ate dinner together and I told him all the details from my evening.  Then I made a new batch of baby food for my sweet boy.  Then I walked up to his room and leaned over the side of his crib, watching his curled-up body sigh with sleep.  I laid a blanket over him, ran my hand along the back of his head, and walked out. 

When I got in bed I started my prayer and gratitude journal for Lent.  There are many things I am thankful for.  The first two things on the list were:

Children’s Hospital
The fact that IEP isn’t there

Observance, Forgiveness, and Redemption

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

I’ll go ahead and say it:  I’m religious. 

Now don’t go painting me with your Pat Robertson brush.  I’m not that kind of religious.  Just because I’m religious doesn’t mean I think you should be too. 

But my faith is something that matters a great deal to me.  It always has.  I have attended church weekly (for the most part) during every stage of my life – childhood, college, 20-something singleton, newlywed, and today.  (Also, in case you were wondering, no, I don’t believe that regular church attendance is the only way to have an active faith life.  But that’s a topic for another day.)  I frequently fail at my faith.  I sin every day.  I drift from God periodically.  There are times when my faith is more at the periphery than the center of my life.  But it is always there.

I say all this because today is Ash Wednesday.  Today begins the 40-day journey of Lent that marks Jesus’ period of wandering in the wilderness and leading up to His crucifixion.  Within some Christian denominations (Catholic, particularly) it is common practice to give up something for Lent.  As a nod to Christ’s suffering, we forego something that provides us pleasure or comfort so that we may be reminded of said suffering on a daily basis. 

As a child I was Presbyterian (to some extent I still am) and Lenten sacrifice was not a part of my upbringing.  When I began attending Catholic prep school in junior high I became more familiar with the practice.  And having had many Catholic friends over the years I’ve become well acquainted with the tradition of Lenten sacrifice. 

Here’s my problem with it.  At least as I have seen it practiced, it tends to be more about the technicalities and not so much about Christ.  People give up chocolate candy but still eat chocolate chip cookies because when hidden inside the cookie the chips “don’t count” as candy.  Or they give up cheese except on Sundays because technically Sundays are God’s day and aren’t part of Lent.  Or they give up meat on Fridays (a tradition derived from Middle Eastern fishing cultures where meat was considered a luxury) and instead (ironically) go out for lobster tail or Alaskan halibut topped with a port wine demi glace.  Or, they stick with their chosen sacrifice for a few days, fall off the wagon, and then blow off the rest of the season altogether.

And I’m not quite sure what any of that accomplishes.  For me to go 40 days without sweets would make me cranky, unpleasant, and more focused on planning an Easter menu geared toward saying “stick it!” to Lent than on really observing Christ.  This prospect leaves me cold.  Today, as an Episcopalian (the halfway point between my Presbyterian upbringing and my husband’s Catholic one), I am inclined to bring the observance of Lent into my daily life, but uninspired by the mere eradication of vices.     

[Sidebar: If you are an observer of Lenten sacrifice and feel that 40 days without alcohol or red meat really does bring you closer to God, then more power to you.  I certainly don’t mean to insult.  And I’ll be the first to admit that what doesn’t work for one person may be quite successful for someone else.]

There is an alternative, though.  That alternative is to do the opposite.  Rather than take something out of your life to mimic suffering, you add something to your life.  Perhaps you might carve out more prayer time.  Or volunteer at a homeless shelter.  Or become involved with a charity.  It is this path which I will travel for Lent this year.

Taking a page from my sister’s play book, I am going to adopt the practice of recording my gratitude and my prayers in a daily journal.  Through this practice I hope to become more aware of the many blessings in my life, and more mindful of those in need of my prayers.  I think on these topics frequently, but not regularly.  And I hope that ritualizing the acknowledgement of them will make me more aware of both.  (And if I’m being truly honest, I was very excited to shop for the perfect journal.)

The second Lenten observance does not relate so much to my faith as to my family; and I struggle with this one a bit for that reason.  I will tell you why I’m moving forward with it in spite of these concerns in a moment.  This is a step that GAP and I have decided to take together.  For the season of Lent we will eat dinner at our dining room table.  We eat dinner together every night; and almost every night it is something I have cooked from scratch.  But we almost always eat on trays in front of the television.  Now while we are a couple that communicates well and often, I can’t help but believe there are aspects of our lives getting lost in the shuffle for want of dinnertime conversation.  As for my aforementioned concerns?  It is my hope that through these dinners spent facing each other, instead of the cast of Entourage, we will spend some time discussing our journey through Lent, as well as the ups and downs of our days.    

To be sure, like so many aspects of my faith, I will fail at these too.  There will be nights when I’m dog tired and cannot bring myself to journal before my head hits the pillow.  There will be nights when we say, “But March Madness is in full swing.  Let’s just order carry-out and watch the game.”  But one thing I will commit to is bouncing back from those failures, rather than allowing them to sabotage my Lenten observance altogether.  Because if there’s one thing that the Christian faith offers, it’s forgiveness.  And if there’s a second thing, it’s redemption.