Categories
Faculty Life Family

Navigation Lessons: 1

On the wall in my home office is a frame approximately 4 feet by 3 feet that contains yellowed paper. From a distance, most assume it is a map, but the crinkled chart shows no countries or continents, no North and South Poles, only points drawn and connected by compass and ruler. It’s a navigation plot my dad made when he and his ship were literally lost at sea during World War II. The encouraging inscriptions from his shipmates are now faded and almost indecipherable, but the chart reassures me. And although it isn’t beautiful and doesn’t really go with my office decor, I keep it as a reminder of how to get back on course when I feel somehow “off the map.”  

Our University has been in uncharted waters for almost a year now, sometimes straight on course and sometimes seemingly adrift. I think frequently of a book called “Canoeing the Mountains,” which explores the Lewis and Clark journey as a metaphor of what it takes to move through an unimagined landscape. That expedition relied on canoes to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean. But when the expedition approached the Rocky Mountains, their canoes did them no good, and they were forced to use other tools and training. In many ways, life at UNC has been like that. In my roles on this campus, I have had to learn what skills and tools are useful and which to leave on the shelf. 

In my first internship, still a “baby” social worker (I was 22), I began learning what it meant to really listen. Like most lessons that actually stick, it was born out of a mistake. A second-grade teacher in the elementary school I was working in was frustrated by a child in her class who would not stop crying. I desperately wanted to prove that I was useful and could help her bring her class back to a steady state. 

The student, all of seven years old, accepted the puppet I offered her. After a little warm up, I asked good open-ended questions: What is the classroom like? Tell me about crying in school. Can you tell me what has made you unhappy in school? I was expecting to hear about bullying classmates or difficulty with the teacher. So focused was I on my own assumptions that I completely missed what she was talking about: a missing bed and a dog puppet that needed a doghouse. She kept on with the dog and his missing furniture, but by the end of our time together, I still had no clarity, no strategy to fix the situation and was as frustrated as the teacher. Several days later, when the child had not come back to school, I learned her family had been evicted and dispersed to who knows where. The dog actually had no doghouse. The bed was actually missing. I was devastated and ashamed when I realized I had missed her message completely, listening only for the literal, looking for a quick fix answer to give her teacher.  

In addition to missing the symbolism of the child’s play, I failed to see myself as working for the student; I saw myself as working for the teacher. The teacher’s concerns about classroom management were foremost in my mind, and though I remember being moved by the child’s tears and concerned for her, the real empathy that undergirds deep listening was not there. She was a problem to be solved, not a person to be heard. 

After that, I began to listen differently, to discern more than one layer of meaning at a time. I got clear on who I was serving and comfortable pushing back against those who thought I should be working for them instead. Little by little, I also learned to notice when I was missing something, some message that because of my personal blind spots or other challenges eluded me. Another lesson, this time in the form of a teenage girl, taught me to pay attention to any gnawing sense that something didn’t connect and to take action to find the missing link. 

About four years after the puppets, I was working with teenagers in Baltimore, many of whom pregnant. I remember a young woman, maybe 16, who wanted to continue her pregnancy. She lived with her brothers and her grandmother, who had accompanied her to the clinic and were affectionate and supportive. I helped get her to a prenatal clinic and thought that was that. Except that she came back – not once, not twice, but three times to sit my office and say virtually nothing. By this time, I was not such a baby social worker. I knew exactly who I worked for; I was not trying to please her family or the medical team. She was the center and I paid attention.  

“What have you been thinking about since you last came in?”    Nothing.  

“Still feeling like you made the right decision?”         Yes.

“Want to tell me about the father?”             No, just a boy I know.

I made statements hoping she might have a reaction to them. 

“Some girls make a decision that they think they’re happy with but then they change their mind and they don’t know what to do.”           No response.

I asked questions that were completely leading. 

“Did someone do something that you didn’t want them to do?”  Absolutely not.

I told her I was here for her and to call or come back whenever she wanted.   Thank you.

She would leave, only to return a day or two after that. 

I knew I was asking the wrong questions but couldn’t think of what else to ask. I called in reinforcements – a psychiatrist who had 20-some years of experience to my two or three. She went back to the beginning as I listened. Who did the young woman live with? Grandmother and brothers. Where was her mother? (I’d never asked that question.) Dead. How long? 18 months. How did the young woman feel? Terrible. She wanted to be with her mother. How could she do that? By killing herself. With what? The gun on her grandmother’s closet shelf.  We hospitalized her that afternoon. 

I was wracked with guilt that I’d missed a basic and critical question. In the community where I was working, many children and teens were living with their grandparents, their parents lost to the crack epidemic. It was so common that, as long as the grandparents were involved and caring, I sometimes didn’t ask about the actual parents because I thought I knew the answer and because I wanted to spare people having to discuss something many considered shameful. This young woman, who went on to have a successful pregnancy and birth and later brought her little girl to visit me often, might have lost her life to the grief and depression that enveloped her because of the assumptions I made and the questions I failed to ask.

As I second guessed my abilities, my colleague was gentle and understanding. She trusted you. She knew you’d find a way to help her if she kept coming back and you did. You learned something. Next time, you’ll know something that you didn’t know this time. This is what happens to those of us who “practice on people” as we develop in our careers. You were right to ask for help.  

I’ve learned a lot since I was a 22-year-old MSW student. It has taken many years and mistakes—fortunately most of them less dramatic than these examples—to learn how to connect, listen, seek help, and stay focused on who or what really matters in any given situation. I still stumble and seek out guidance and encouragement when I feel challenged. But now I know that when I am in deep water and off the map, there are no leadership tricks or gimmicks that will truly illuminate the way. When crisis comes, I will, as the saying goes, default to my training, leaning hard into those formative moments, remembering those early teachers and tough lessons. When I do this, my own version of rulers and compass emerge, the tools I need to chart the right course.

My boys covet my father’s navigation chart, seeing it as a relic of war, adventure, and heroism. Some day they will decide where it should hang, but for now it belongs with me. Like my sons, I think of my dad as a hero too. He saved his ship when it was lost at sea. It seemed miraculous, but it was the product of preparation; he had taken his training seriously, not knowing exactly when he would need it most. He had practiced those calculations, learned every constellation in the night sky, aimed the sextant at the horizon day after day. When it became clear that his superiors did not know what they were doing and the ship was in peril, his actions were not extraordinary, although his grace under pressure probably was. He simply defaulted to his training, used the tools that had been with him all along, and found his way.  

Photo Credit: Mimi V. Chapman

Categories
Current Events

Remember

Prior to Wednesday’s desecration of the U.S. Capitol, people were posting about new year’s resolutions, a practice I find both seductive and annoying in equal measure.  I ask people about their resolutions, I read about them, and I consider some of my own and then generally abandon the idea of even writing them down. Now there’s a new riff on the resolution: a word to sum up one’s intentions, a sort of linguistic guiding light for the year to come. I’ve never chosen a word either, until now. The word is remember.

I remember my first encounter with the U.S. Capitol building. I was in high school and was with my mother and one of her friends in the National Gallery’s East Wing café, the Capitol Building virtually next door. After lunch, I got into a conversation with someone dressed in something an ancient Druid might sport who was proselytizing outside the museum. He was argumentative and so was I. And I was delighted to be engaging with someone so different from everyone in my sheltered 16 year old life. My alarmed mother was comforted by her friend, a woman I saw as worldly and sophisticated. “Don’t worry. Let her talk with him. She’s learning.” Later, in my 20’s, I lived seven blocks east of the Capitol. I walked by that dome every day on my way to catch the train to my job in Baltimore. There were Fourth of July fireworks and concerts on the Capitol lawn. I didn’t spend much time in the Capitol building itself but passed it frequently, walking down the lawn toward the Hirschhorn museum or cruising by on a bike toward Rock Creek Park or the Potomac. I remember meeting an ex who worked in the press gallery for lunch, walking through the tunnels that connect the legislative chambers to the House and Senate office buildings. I was starstruck spotting a legislator who had been recently in the news.  There were early morning jogs through the Capitol grounds as I tried to keep pace with a much faster Marine runner, while I waved at the Capitol police in their security boxes. I remember it in spring with cherry blossoms, in winter with snow, in sticky summer, and in the crisp perfect days of fall. I remember the full tableau: the Supreme Court on one side, the Library of Congress on the other, the museums that lined the mall, the Shakespeare Library. All part of a scene so majestic that I felt lucky every day to live there, like some of the magic and idealism embodied in those buildings might rub off on me. 

There have always been marches, protests, and other gatherings in that area. The AIDS quilt in all its devastating tenderness, a military parade during the first Iraq war, the March for Science my son and I attended a few years ago, causes too many and varied to count.  But that space was never one in which I was afraid. There was a generosity there, an inclusiveness; this was a place where ideas and Americans came together in a physical space that transcended the human frailty or heroism that those buildings might contain. As the rioting unfolded on Wednesday, I fell speechless. But in that silence the images tumbled in and I began to remember. 

Apparently, I am not alone. Arnold Schwarzenegger is remembering Kristallnacht and saying that Wednesday represented our own night (or day) of broken glass. Maureen Dowd is remembering her father, once the head of Senate security, and his own siege during another violent incident on the house floor in 1954. Many of us are remembering this summer when police seemed ready for anything except peaceful protest as Black Lives Matter demonstrations unfolded. There is ample evidence that there was advance knowledge that Wednesday’s event would not be peaceful; why weren’t the police preparing for violence on Wednesday as they did for a march intended to uplift Black lives? Did they remember their summer choices?

My word is remember too, because, as this current political crisis engulfs the news cycle, the pandemic crisis still plagues every corner of this nation, vaccines or no. Just this week, one friend lost a parent to COVID; another has a mother in the ICU. Even if deaths have not been directly caused by COVID, so many have had their grief shaped by this virus. My own father died at the end of July almost certainly of COVID, although that is not on his death certificate. He has yet to be properly buried as he will be, finally, in April at Arlington. On May 24th, the New York Times marked 100,000 American COVID deaths with a front page that listed every name with a brief line about their life. There were furniture movers, Holocaust survivors, and World War II heroes. They were 41 and 96 and 74 and 57. One man was described as having “respect for every living creature.” Now there are 300,000 plus dead. Remember.

A year and a half ago, my husband and I sat on the Capitol steps, listening to the Marine band as the sun set. We were relaxed and grateful to have some time together in the midst of what was a complicated and really too busy life, unaware of the difficulties that lay ahead. At that time, neither of us remembered to think about the pandemic of 1918, which bears such striking resemblance to the current public health crisis. Neither of us were remembering the authoritarian who was not fully held to account for his misdeeds following a failed coup attempt only to ascend to power in more horrible form several years later. (That leader would be Adolph Hitler.) We could not have imagined that we would be locked away from caring for our parents, that we would have to tell our oldest son that we could not see him for two weeks when he takes weekend trip or attends a gathering with his friends. We can more than imagine those things now.

There is so much that we still don’t know. How many students have dropped off the grid during online schooling? How many students are safer from school yard bullying and racism because they are at home? How much domestic violence has been hidden from view? How much sobriety or sanity has been lost due to isolation and constant anxiety? These are questions that must be asked, answered, and the answers committed to memory. Now we know what happens when we defund our public health infrastructure. Now we know what happens when we undermine the value of history and science. Now we know what echo chambers produce. Now we know what happens when we become so cynical and nihilistic as to erode our capacity for empathy and generosity. And, oh, how we want to move on from that knowledge, attribute this pain to an aberrant year that has ended. But there is a price for moving on too quickly, to not fully inhabiting what we experience, whether that experience is a personal loss or societal upheaval. That price is forgetting. If we’ve learned anything during 2020 and these first weeks of 2021, it’s that sorrow floats, to quote John Irving. These questions, challenges, characters, and storylines will come back. We will see them again. Unless of course we feel these awful realities, inhabit and interrogate them. Unless, we remember.

Photo Credit for Capitol Building Photo: Skylar Searing. Follow him on Instagram @raelyks.

Categories
Family

Secret Ingredients

I am perhaps one of the few people on the planet who still has a recipe box. In fact, I have three: my mothers’, a metal multicolored 1950’s affair; a yellow, plastic one that I had to put together for 8th grade home economics, filled with recipes for sweets and white food, not a vegetable dish to be found; and my own recipe box, blond wood, vaguely Scandinavian in design, the only one I open with any regularity. I do have an online recipe organizer app, but I haven’t transferred any paper recipes there, meaning that my recipe box is essential rather obsolete. In fact, it is a treasure box, containing the gold of my mother’s Christmas cookie dough recipe.  

Truly, this cookie dough recipe is the best, not complicated in any way, though it has a few secret ingredients that my son says makes it “taste like Christmas.” He asks for it every year. We keep it wrapped in the fridge, sometimes with an eye to actually rolling it out and making cut-out cookies to decorate, but mostly we just slice off a piece and enjoy it raw, salmonella be damned. Unfortunately, the last two years were jampacked leading up to Christmas travel and I never got around to the dough. Not so this year, that’s for sure. My oldest son was coming to dinner this week, so I decided to surprise him with dough made and perfectly chilled for slicing. 

But where was the recipe? Once through the recipe box. No cookie dough. The second time I landed on the “drunken meatball” recipe, a staple at my parents’ Christmas parties, but still no cookie dough. With rising panic, I spread the box’s contents on the kitchen table. If it wasn’t there, it was gone. My mother died nearly four years ago, so there was no chance to call and ask for it again. Nor did I have any idea of the original source. On the third time through, I found it. Misfiled. With relief, I vowed to get those recipes in the cloud and busied myself laying out the ingredients for the delicious dough.

My mother used her cursive Smith-Corona typewriter to type up her recipes or wrote them out in an impeccable hand, always with detailed instructions. The cookie dough recipe was typed, with the ingredients listed along with guidelines and directions. It includes suggested cookie cutter shapes, decorations to add, and methods of storage. Wrap in wax paper, put in a plastic bag, and secure with a twist tie–Mom was big on directions. Each recipe was dated, attributed if it came from someone else, and signed like a letter. The cookie dough recipe ends with Love, Mom before a critical P.S. on baking times. It is dated December, 1988. That must have been the year I started throwing my own Christmas parties which prompted her to send this one along. Years later, when answering machines came into vogue, she ended her messages the same way: Love, Mom. I found her habits a little silly, but this year her closing message hit differently, and I was grateful to hear from her. 

My son was delighted when I told him to look in the refrigerator. My younger son, on a health kick at the moment, agonized for a few seconds, and then all three of us enjoyed a slice of dough as my husband looked on slightly aghast. Raw cookie dough is not his thing. Then my eldest asked, “Could you come to my apartment and help me? I have to wrap presents and I don’t know how.” 

A memory flashed through my head of my mother teaching me to wrap presents–the light in our house, the scissors, and the paper, a bag of bows and ribbons to choose from. I don’t remember what we talked about or who we were wrapping the presents for, only the feeling of being guided in a holiday task I do every year, sometimes just plowing through and checking “present wrapping” off the list, other times taking pleasure in getting the gift looking just right. 

I don’t remember many of the physical Christmas gifts my mother gave me over the years and I don’t know what gifts my own children will recall. For me, what remains is the cookie dough, the annual mother-daughter Christmas lunch at a long-gone San Antonio landmark called Scrivener’s, advice for throwing the holiday party, favorite carols, her opinions about ornament placement on the tree (the star goes on last). And maybe it’s laziness, but I’m not sure I want to exit my recipe boxes and the paper they contain to move into the 21st century cloud version. Though stained and easy to misplace, they are infused with memories and messages, maybe the true secret ingredients that make things “taste like Christmas.” 

Categories
Miscellaneous

Pandemic Pleasures? A Thanksgiving Virus Diary

On a rainy day, I sit in my home office with the windows open and a candle lit as my workday hums along.  In my “real” office, the windows don’t open, and I’ve never thought of lighting a candle. Here at home, I make a cappuccino for my 8th grader every morning as a special treat. I eat lunch with my husband. Without any choices to make — we don’t have to agree on a time and place to meet for a special workday lunch together. There’s more time to read and write. These are pandemic pleasures and there are more.

Every Sunday, the New York Times “At Home” section features five new recipes to try. Since March, I’ve added to a growing stack I think will appeal to my crew. My husband knows every trail, well- traveled or super-secret, in this town. We walk our dog in the woods accompanied by moonlight and owl song. Here at home, we have winter gatherings on our screened porch, heater and blankets at the ready. This Thanksgiving, without our extended circle, we are free to choose our own menu, nothing made because we’re supposed to meet others’ expectations. 

But as grateful as I am for the gifts this pandemic has strangely given, gloom and melancholy are ever-present specters that I don’t know whether to run from or embrace. As a country, we are closer, but still so far away from anything that we used to think of as normal. Yesterday there was reporting that the first vaccines would be given in mid-December. Does this mean we can plan a trip for the summer? Maybe a big party in the spring? How I wish…The road to normal is a difficult one and it will be littered with grief. The temptation, so strong right now, to gather around holiday tables will sicken so many. Others will get lucky and return to daily life unscathed. Still others will die.  

To be thankful in all things, as the Psalmist writes, is a mantra I try to live by, something I have said to my sons over and over throughout this time when they have become discouraged. The temptation to either/or thinking is strong. If I am thankful and have found some new pleasures during this time, does that make me toxically positive? What does it mean to be grateful for aspects of my own life when I know so many are suffering? When I don’t feel grateful, when I lapse into self-pity, impatience, and frustration, can I accept that in myself without judgement? Can I accept it in others? Can I leave off planning for a little while longer and find what pleasures I can in this pandemic cocoon? Sometimes, I’m just not sure. 

There is an author I like who sends quotes to my inbox most days. Sometimes when things are busy, I skip right over them and delete the message without a second thought. But today I opened it and found this:

“This is the day which the Lord has made,” says Psalm 118. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it” (v. 24). Or weep and be sad in it for that matter. The point is to see it for what it is, because it will be gone before you know it. If you waste it, it is your life that you’re wasting. If you look the other way, it may be the moment you’ve been waiting for always that you’re missing. All other days have either disappeared into darkness and oblivion or not yet emerged from it. Today is the only day there is.  

(Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark)

Perhaps this is the best I can aspire to, greeting the specters of gloom and melancholy not so much with disappointment, but with acceptance. It’s hard to be away from those we love at the holidays. It’s hard to continue to live in uncertainty. But it is really the only choice. Try the new recipe. Read the new novel. Watch the long-awaited TV series. Walk the dog under the crescent moon. Do my work. Bundle up and see friends in small doses. It is enough for now. 

Photo Credit: Skylar Searing (Follow him on Instagram @raelyks)

Categories
Faith Family Grief

Sympathetic Ink

On October 23rd, my father would have been 100 years old. Last year for his 99th, I flew to San Antonio with a suitcase full of pictures and mementos to give him a special birthday lunch. I spread photographs across the floor of the apartment I’d rented, choosing which ones to take to make into posters to display. One poster focused on his time in the war, one on his life with my mother, and one captured my relationship with him. The last was an intergenerational collage that showed him with his brothers on barren prairie and then with my children. At the party, I set up a table with telegrams he sent to my mother when he passed the bar exam, graduation programs, and other keepsakes of a lifetime. Toward the end of the event, he toasted the group saying, “Let’s do it again next year!”  Little did we know…

In late February or March, as I read and listened to news stories like this, I broke down in my kitchen, consumed by dread. I had envisioned his 100th with a great slideshow, a menu with everything he loved to eat, and even his favorite pianist playing “Stardust” and “As Time Goes By” as people raised a glass to toast his long and interesting life. Looking back, I knew we would not get through to the other side of the pandemic, that somehow my father and I would have a front row seat to the tragedy of this virus and would likely be called to take the stage. In a novel, this experience would be foreshadowing, my response a kind of premonition. 

My father’s family was populated with deeply devout churchgoers. His mother played the piano and the organ every Sunday in their small Baptist church. His father never “took a drink” in his 102 years. My father’s grandfather knitted his deeply divided community back together through public service and the church after the civil war. His great-grandfather was inclined to visions, one of which warned him of imminent capture by the Kansas Jayhawks. (He woke up and made an exit to Texas; the Jayhawks were, as it turns out, in hot pursuit.) Among the men on that side of the family, at least in hindsight, there was a clarity about how to handle uncertainty and hardship. Use both your faith and your education as a guide, take decisive action, do your duty however hard, and don’t give up on your community. 

My mother’s family held a few more secrets. Many years ago, I found my maternal great grandmother’s book of spells, with a red, faded cover, entitled “The Secrets of Life Unveiled.” In it are instructions for reading tea leaves and coffee grounds, along with the intricacies of palmistry. The book provides incantations to perform in the light of the three-quarter moon to attract a new love. There are herbal potions to ward off a cough or improve the skin. One chapter is called “Sympathetic Inks” and provides options for writing letters that cannot be read unless some sort of chemical treatment is used to make the writing appear. You can even choose your color!  

Once my father went into lockdown, I felt like I was reading tea leaves myself, scouring the Texas press, various state government websites, and the communications that came out from his assisted living facility to see if there were policies, procedures, or updates that would facilitate a visit. Perhaps in another month something would change? Maybe, because of his age, I could sneak in under the guise of an end-of-life visit, even if he wasn’t imminently at life’s end? Perhaps there was some way of writing to the Texas Governor that might indeed induce his sympathy and convince him that a World War II veteran should be able to see his only daughter? Full moon, half moon, crescent moon–for months I tried them all to no avail. I created my own ritual with the nightly phone call, modern day amulets of flowers, candy, new shirts or slippers, whatever tokens or talisman I could send to keep his spirits up. His friends and caregivers did too. Tomatoes from a garden, cans of popcorn, and fresh peaches, looking for the alchemy that would keep him going.  

Although no believer in the occult, my dad, in his own way, was full of a whimsical magic. He was the one who first introduced me to his version of sympathetic ink during Saturday treasure hunts. He could always find a nickel behind my sons’ ears and utter a few magic words to make a stoplight change. He could find common ground with anyone and was a spellbinding storyteller. But as the months wore on, I think he knew there was no magic that could save us. He let that 100th birthday go; he knew, or at least believed, there could be no celebration with his family and friends, no holidays together, just ongoing isolation. And, although he could not give it voice, surely he knew the awful toll not being able to see him was taking on me. I believe he decided that his duty was to let go, to give up the ghost, and head to new land.  

I’m still working on knowing what my duty was and whether I executed it as I should. The peace I seek is complicated by guilt, anger, wishes, and love. Joan Didion wrote about the first year after a death as “The Year of Magical Thinking.” And, indeed, for the last four months I’ve kept a sort of altar in our house that has kept my dad alive, including the three hats he wore regularly, one for winter, one for summer, and one that was part of his Navy uniform. When I came home from attending to his death, I hung two of them in my closet and kept one sitting with his picture on a chest in our living room. After his 100th birthday had passed, my husband added a nail and we hung up his last hat. 

This weekend, the President-Elect quoted from a hymn we sang at my father’s funeral. As I listened, I thought perhaps the terrible spell will soon be broken and that once again through faith and science, decisive action, devotion to duty, and hard work, we will get to the other side of this pandemic. It is too late for my father and me, but I write this in “sympathetic ink” for other families that still wait to reunite. 

Categories
Faculty Life Miscellaneous

A Room of My own: another Virus Diary

The first time I had my own apartment was in graduate school in Austin. I remember the feeling of organizing the space to my, and only my, liking. My very small kitchen with magnets holding “quotable quotes” that I did not want to forget, a kitchen table where I could drink as much coffee as I wanted, a refrigerator to fill with food that I wanted to eat. My desk in the window bay that looked out on no view whatsoever, a bedroom decorated with cheap prints of my choosing and piled with books I wanted to read. Exhilarating. 

When we all came home last March to live and work, I set up shop in our bedroom. I already had a small desk there next to a window overlooking the backyard, where I might write thank you notes or manage my father’s affairs when he was alive. I could close the door and be undisturbed. That seemed the logical space to locate my work life. By July I had added a second desk, a ring light, some filing baskets, and a new office chair. When my husband began scheduling a 20-minute interval between my morning zoom calls to take a shower, I found myself thinking about the proverbial room of my own. Perhaps the guest room? But for months, I put it off. Too much trouble, what if someone wanted to come visit, did I really need it? It had been so long since I had “my own space” outside of my office on campus, just the idea felt self-indulgent. 

When I was younger, I had a few other apartments of my own–one in Washington D.C. had the Rear Window effect sans the courtyard and the missing dog. There I bought the first furniture I ever chose for myself, an impractical white love seat and an IKEA dresser with its dreaded pictorial directions and the little wrench. There was a woman who also lived there and sat in the lobby for much of the day talking always about how she was from New Hampshire and the state we call home is “the most important thing.” Later, there was the relief of moving into my own apartment here in Chapel Hill as I separated from an ex, someone who wanted to control everything from the temperature in the house to whether or not we could buy a blender. I was so thankful just to be warm in the winter, to have the thermostat and the appliances under my own control. 

So when a friend texted my husband saying he’d seen our bedroom on the local news (after I had given a Zoom interview from my desk there) and I realized the last thing I saw before bed and the first upon waking was work, I told my husband I thought I should make a change.  Apparently, he had thought it was a good idea all along; he started orchestrating the move upstairs to the guest room that afternoon.

With hardly any effort, this room looks and feels like so many that have been mine throughout my life. The walls are an off-white with a slightly pinkish cast, a butterfly quilt made for me by my grandmother covers the bed, my mother’s Florentine night table is here, along with two shelves filled with books that range from my great grandmother’s “Book of Spells” that I discovered in an old trunk when I was in the 8th grade to poetry I came to know in a favorite college class. There are a few mementos of my father’s, offerings from my children, and a mug my husband brought me from a long-ago trip now filled with pencils. Once again, the pictures on the wall are of my choosing. There are fresh flowers in a vase and I’ve taken to burning a candle while I’m working to add calm in the midst of the daily storms.

I’ve not had “a room of my own” since my children were born, almost 20 years ago now. Every morning during this pandemic, I wake up thankful that my children are no longer small. The idea of managing their schooling, changing diapers, keeping them entertained, as well as clean and fed all day, every day while maintaining a demanding career would send me into despair. As much as I loved my children when they were little and as much as I found them delightfully round and funny, if given the chance, I would return to those days for only a sweet hour or two. Those years were so hard even with lots of great babysitters and a great partner. My husband has been a fully engaged parent since day one. I remember conference calls while pushing one son in a swing, being called to pre-school to take my other son home because he was a biter. (BTW, don’t worry too much if you are the mother of a biter. Your child is not a serial killer in the making.)  I remember my husband and I trading off a feverish little person so that we could get the grant in, teach the class, or show our faces at some all-important meeting. I really cannot imagine what parents of young children, and particularly mothers, are enduring right now. In academia, the current state of affairs threatens progress for women for the next ten years. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/06/science/covid-universities-women.html

Like everything else, the pandemic has exposed the ways in which so many of us scramble to make our lives work. Everything goes perfectly, as long as everything goes perfectly. And now we are far, far away from perfection. 

Men who contribute to parenting are seen as heroes, but not so for moms, even though they are most often the default for sorting out their children’s schooling, meals, the doctor, the dentist, the therapist, the elder care…I’m sure there’s more I’m forgetting. There is always more. And we are told in ways subtle and not so, that we are not to ask for too much more. Over the years, more than one person has said to me that when I spoke of the complications of working while having children or caring for elders that I was implicitly “devaluing other people’s stress.”  These comments were made by people taking care of no one but themselves at the time. I’ve been “affirmed” by highly productive men whose wives stayed home with their children, explaining to me how they understood exactly what I was going through, though not for a minute adjusting their expectations for productivity. Over time, I made two choices in response: to always mention whatever was going on with my children so that people could not pretend that I and other women colleagues existed in a vacuum where motherhood was somehow conveniently managed out of sight. I also chose not to “complain.” I did not want to give anyone an excuse to write off reality because they had decided I was “too difficult.” I still don’t know whether or not these were the right choices. 

There is a picture I keep on one of the now three desks in this room – not of my family – but of me as a senior in college. My dad kept it on his desk next to a little koala bear I had given him for father’s day that year. It is not something I would ever keep in a professional office, but I keep it here. In it, I see both who I was and who I am. The mix of objects in this room grounds me in the midst of complicated choices and difficult days, acknowledges the expectations I’ve had for myself and those put on me by others. 

I am lucky to have a room of my own. I see it as such a gift, a necessity and a luxury all at the same time. I am thankful that I have it and I wish it for other women, perhaps especially for those who are juggling so much right now. For years, I have been making space for other people. But this room has been here all along waiting for an occasion for me to claim it. The pandemic has given me permission to do that. Did I need that permission? Apparently so, but I wonder why.

While I figure it out, I’ll light my candle and do my work, smile at the memories that surround me, wish for more time to return to those poetry books, and mark my new space as a win during this pandemic, a gift I’ve given myself out of necessity, but one I should’ve claimed a long time ago.  

Categories
Family Grief

HI Mom

After I raced to my father’s deathbed and but didn’t make it in time, my closest friend, whom I met when I was 15, brought me to her home. We poured some drinks and began to walk the neighborhood. The San Antonio summer heat had abated, and the soothing night breezes washed over us as we walked and talked for hours. The conversation ranged from my dad to the neighbor’s renovation to high school memories. The specifics completely escape me even though the walk happened less than two months ago. I only recall the feeling of being outside of regular time and the impulse to be outdoors in the dark, as I so often was with my father as a child, looking at the stars and breathing in the night air. 

Now it is my friend’s turn. Her mother has died overseas, and because of the situation, my friend also did not arrive in time. Even as I sort out my father’s death, my mind is returning to what we lose and what we gain when we say goodbye to our mothers. Both my mother and my friend’s mother were loving and devoted as well as critical and demanding. Although different in their styles and temperaments, there is a reason their daughters became and stayed friends. We both know what it means to harbor the twin desire to meet our mothers’ high standards and to break free of their influence and make our own choices.

When my mother died, I was able to be with her and have a few important last conversations. I was able to tell her I was sorry for times that I was cruel in the way only a daughter can be toward her mother. I was able to seek her counsel about a painful, long-ago incident that had been brought to mind at recent school reunion. I was able to care for her. Even in death she was completely herself and so was I. I found myself apologizing when she was impatient with the nursing staff, fighting back frustration when she told me how to arrange something in her room. I am haunted by a last encounter in which she became agitated and a nurse came in to administer Ativan to help with the anxiety that often accompanies the dying process. When she asked what she was being given and I explained, the look she gave me was a mixture of resignation and anger. I couldn’t help feeling that I’d done something wrong. She did not open her eyes after that.

But there were ways in which I knew I had pleased her. I felt secretly proud of “doing everything right” at her funeral and the lunch that followed. I remembered to put a pretty plant by the door. I set a proper table. I used the right tablecloth and found the right dishes, even though she had already sent many of her favorites to me. With the help of friends, the spread was nourishing and delicious. For a final time, her social circle enjoyed themselves in her home. 

Later, I sorted through her belongings and found poems she had written about some left-behind love interest. I found papers from her graduate school days and contemplated her secrets and unfulfilled ambitions. The housekeeper that helped my parents told me a story of finding my mother, sitting just as I was, reading old love letters one by one and then systematically ripping them up and throwing them away. When my mother realized she’d been seen, she put a finger to her lips – shhh, don’t tell

I found pictures that were taken long before I was born in which she looked ready for anything, excited to be seeing the world beyond the small town where she grew up. She looked like someone I wanted to know. In her death she became whole, a person to be understood and forgiven her foibles and even her faults. It is sad and curious that I find such forgiveness easy to extend to friends but found it so difficult to extend to her during her life. 

What I’ve learned since my mother’s death is that death as an ending is not real. My relationship with my mother has changed, become purer, than it was. That summer when she died, three years ago now, I had planted morning glories as I had done many times, though never very successfully. But that year, they climbed our house and bloomed in an amazing profusion of pink and blue and purple. The vines were as strong as rope when they finally died. Now they flower every year. Once in a while, a blossom will turn, as if to peek in our front door to check on us. Who else would that be but my beautiful, demanding mother wanting to know about every detail of my life and making sure we are all okay? Hi Mom, I say as little shiver envelops me.

What I think my mom knew, but we never discussed directly, is that it’s not what is in place when our parents leave us, but who. Friends, partners, siblings, colleagues – people we care about who will walk with us in the darkness, who can stand beside us, sometimes literally, sometimes through the imperfect means of texts or phone calls when a virus keeps us from being physically together. Tomorrow morning perhaps I’ll take a minute with my coffee to sit with the morning glories and ask my mom to walk with my friend as she travels across the sea to say goodbye to her own mother. I’ll ask my mom to be where I cannot, so that my friend will know that a mother’s love goes on forever.  

Categories
Miscellaneous

A WALK ACROSS CAMPUS

Photo Credit: Skylar Searing, UNC Chapel Hill, Class of 2023

I was 17 when I first walked across UNC’s campus alongside an older friend from home who was a sophomore. It was November and most of the fall leaves had already dropped, creating a crunchy carpet on McCorkle Place as we crossed it late at night. The old brick buildings, the bells, the towering trees, the funky jewelry store on Franklin Street, the Carolina Coffee Shop where I would one day have my first date with my husband, the Varsity Theater, Sutton’s Drug Store, Ye Olde Waffle Shop, Spanky’s — to me it was a place of wonder, somewhere young people might give themselves over to first one and then another version of themselves, until they found out who they were to be in the world. Of course, that task actually lasts a lifetime. Although as a17-year-old, I was not competitive for admission as an out of state student, I eventually made my way to Chapel Hill, where I did my Ph.D. and eventually joined the faculty. Seventeen-year-old me must have known home when I saw it. 

I still love the fall in Chapel Hill, when the air turns slightly crisp and the weather vacillates between summer heat and absolute perfection before giving in to a gray winter chill. Decades later, I still get a thrill from the electric vibe, the students blanketing the quad, the music blaring from a fraternity house as students reunite on the street, and colleagues who have been separated over the summer greet one another. It gives me the sense that even though I’m past the mid-point of life, I’m still a part of what will come next.  

Now that I am the Chair of the Faculty, many people are suddenly interested in what I have to say. In the last week, many people I don’t know have posted on my Twitter feed. One of them talked about mocking Chapel Hill’s stumbles in the current moment even as they offered a sort of compliment. My hackles went up at that word “mock.”  Finger-pointing and blame are so often the default. Rather than partake in the semi-gleeful gotchas, the what-did-we-expects, and the I told you so’s, I find I’d rather swim for a bit in the river of sadness that is washing over our campus as we send students home and wait, like everyone else, for brighter days.

A few years ago, I was invited to give a talk at a small, Mid-western college. The campus, in the heart of Amish country, was so quiet and green. Being there felt calming, like a retreat and I could see the appeal of being part of a small academic community like that.  Two days later, I was back at Carolina crisscrossing campus. I passed the School of Government, the soccer fields full of young people in their prime. I headed to central campus where I passed a memorial to Thomas Wolfe, an angel of course, and my mother’s favorite author. I headed to the Ackland Art Museum, a place that has invigorated my teaching and research in recent years. Tarheel One, the helicopter that brings sick folks from across the state to our medical school, touched down on the hospital’s helipad. As I made my way to my own academic home, the School of Social Work, I felt such good fortune to work on a campus where curiosity, discovery, and service is a way of life. Perhaps there are other places where an English professor is so creative as to use Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a motif for the American health care system, but for me, it’s all here and it always will be. 

This virus is not going away; every person, every institution, and every business is trying to figure out how to live with it in in the absence of a national strategy. Our UNC System leaders, meaning the Board of Governors, told us to figure out how to open for residential learning. That impossible dream that we tried to actualize is turning into a nightmare with news of more infections in more places on our campus coming in by the day. A “post-mortem” to understand which parts we got right and which parts we got wrong is in order, and not just as an intellectual or ethical exercise; spring is coming and so is Fall 2021.  None of us knows how long we will have to live with this virus. We will learn from what’s happened to better plan for what’s next. But in the meantime, keep Carolina on your mind and let our bad experience serve as a cautionary tale for your communities and institutions. And students, on campus we’ll miss your fire, your fury, your sense of the future. In the meantime, we’ll find it with you on zoom, but your home is still here. Your faculty will be waiting to welcome you back. 

Categories
Faith Family Grief

Virus Diary Number 5: Reunion, Robbery, Requiem?

Today my house is full of flowers and cards, remembrances of my dad, and messages of comfort to me. His possessions are gradually accumulating. The black lacquer box with his initials that sat on his dresser for as long as I can remember holding cuff links, belt buckles, stray keys, and war medals. Others are en route: his favorite red blanket, his summer and winter hats, the paintings he wanted to surround him, a few pieces of furniture, some books and other small treasures.

Two weeks ago, my father died alone moments before I was able to get to him. I have gone over and over the time frame, looking at phone logs and text messages, wondering how I could’ve gotten to him sooner, whether my decisions were the right ones, believing both what others tell me– that I did the best I could with the information I was given– and admonishing myself for not acting on the choices I thought of making, but didn’t, choices that might have allowed us at least a brief good-bye.

There are questions that will never be answered. He was presumed to have COVID-19. His symptoms: first diarrhea, fever, aches, and chills, and later a cough and trouble breathing were all consistent with the virus. He had been tested the day before his symptoms started as part of a routine screening. The test result, returned seven days later, a full three days after his death, came back negative. I have no idea whether to trust it or not.

Of course, it is good that the test was negative. Good for his lovely friends and caregivers and good for the reputation of the place where he lived.  The negative test provides validation that the procedures in place to prevent spread to frail elders worked. But what about the choices that were made in service of the presumptive positive status?  He was kept in isolation from the onset of symptoms. I had planned a trip because, at last, there was going to be some minimal form of visiting, a chance for a reunion however limited.  When I called him upon arrival, I knew he was still in isolation.  Even though he was coughing and seemed to be struggling to breathe, I didn’t tell him I was in town because I didn’t want to upset him without knowing whether I’d be allowed to see him. If had told him, would he have told me to come right away, that he knew he was dying?  Would the nurse with whom I spoke immediately after I got off the phone have gone to check on him and told me to come sooner if the concern of infection had not been so great? An hour or so later, when my messages were finally answered by the director, I believe he was checked and, at that point, the staff realized how dire the situation was and called me.  I arrived moments too late and instead of sitting with him until the funeral home staff arrived, I was advised to leave, to not spend too much time in his room because I would be exposing myself to infection. I remained with him for perhaps 30 minutes after gingerly moving his special, red, potentially infectious blanket, in which I much would’ve much preferred to wrap myself, so that I had a place to sit. He looked like he might wake up any minute except that he was too still for this world.

Even so, I was able to give him a proper, if unorthodox, memorial service more intimate and beautiful because of the painful time in which we live. Fifteen people gathered outside at a lovely spot in San Antonio. My husband and sons at home in North Carolina, along with friends and family in other places joined in by livestream. The experience of listening to a pastor who has come to mean so much in my family, contextualize my father’s long life, and indeed his death, as one that teaches us how to adapt and accept difficult circumstances has been deeply comforting. Likewise, listening to my husband and friends describe my dad so fondly let me know surely that he knew how much he was loved even in the isolation of his last days and months. At the memorial, the minister told those gathered and specifically me, that “we would not ask for another day for him.”  At 99, he had led a long and fruitful life. And I know that those words are right.  But, it is also true, that we were robbed – by circumstance, by uncertainty, by choice, and by chance –  and I would give anything to live that last day over, to try it different ways, and see if there was a path that might have led me to his bedside a day, an hour, or even ten minutes sooner.

Some would say that what God asks now is for me to focus on all the good of his life, and to the gifts he gave to me, to be thankful for all that he was and will remain. But in the Christian tradition there is a place for righteous anger and Jesus most expressed his fury at the money changers in the temple, saying that his house of prayer had been turned into a den of robbers. That is where I am right now. The pure grief I might feel is blunted by a deep outrage that drowns out any requiem I might wish to sing. My anger is not for individual missteps, mine and others; those can be seen only in hindsight. Rather, it is reserved for the policies enacted, espoused, and exploited by politicians that sacrificed frail elders to create a perception that we are a caring society, isolating elders while feeding our economic engine. To wit, the day after my father’s death, I asked what I should do about his belongings. I was told to get a rapid COVID test, which took about 30 minutes total, and then I was allowed into his facility to organize his things. While there, I spent a good hour talking with two of his close friends who are also unable to see their children. What sense does that make? A lot, if the concern is the economic health of the elder care “industry” versus the emotional health of those elders and their families. Keeping elders from their families was never really about safety. It was about liability and about perpetuating a false belief that society could move on economically by “protecting the vulnerable.” Just a talking point. It was no more safe for me to enter his facility the day I did than it would have been two days before following a rapid test with 80% accuracy. But, if my dad’s belongings are sorted, the room can be prepared for someone else; there is more money to be made. State law and policy supports this practice, a cynical reality laid bare.

The memory of all he was and is to me are already well documented in his obituary, in the remarks I made at his memorial, and in the many previous posts I have written about him. So, there will be no requiem for him here. His life began just as a deadly pandemic had subsided and it ends with another that, to date, has no end in sight. My father’s virus diary concludes, but for me it is not over, and I find myself wondering what entries will come next.

Categories
Family Grief

Virus Diaries 4: The Lies We Tell

Psychologists tell us that we all tell lies even as we aspire to honesty. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the lies we are living by each day in this pandemic. Here are a few, surely not an exhaustive list…

Number 1: A Lie Others Tell Me

We can keep frail elders in congregate care safe even as staff members fall ill. As of this week, four staff members have tested positive in the facility where my dad lives in Texas. I fully expect that next week the number will jump to six, maybe with a resident or two thrown in by then, and to 12 the week after that. We know how this virus works. He and others in his situation are sitting ducks waiting for the virus itself or its side effects of loneliness and isolation to come for them.  The facility is honest with its numbers, even as its leaders participate in an implicit lie of safety, a lie that I and every other family member in this situation want desperately to believe.  The current truth is really too terrible. Our elders are not safe; they cannot be kept safe; and our vigilant attempts to keep them physically safe put them in psychological and emotional peril deprived of the physical presence of family and friends.

Number 2: A Lie I tell my Father

I will be able to see him soon. I’ve reserved a place to stay later in the month in hopes that maybe I’ll be allowed to visit. And when he asks when I’m coming, I tell him late July. Earlier in the crisis I told him late April, then late May, maybe June… I promised him, and I promised myself, when I moved him from his home that I’d visit at least every month, a promise I kept until the virus changed everything. He needs those visits as much as he needs air. What I’m learning is that I need them too. I know I will lose him to death sometime in the near future. He is almost 100 after all. But it shouldn’t be like this. Strange as it may sound, to be with the dying is sacred and I do not want to miss those last precious moments with him. And while there is still time, we should be able to share another meal or two, read a bit more Sherlock Holmes or Huckleberry Finn. Surely, he could have one more walk in his wheelchair down the Salado Creek trail where he says hello to everyone he sees, comments on the creek’s water level, looks for the deer that hide there, and listens intently to the gentle birdsong. I love the natural world because of him. It is a great pleasure to take him back to it as he declines. As it is, four months have passed since I last saw him. Daily I stare down my broken promises, gulp, and lie telling him I’m coming soon. Three weeks, two weeks, one week and then my cover will be blown. At that point, I’ll start over. Maybe I can come in late August, maybe Labor Day.

Number 3: A Lie We Tell Ourselves

We can protect the vulnerable while living just as we wish. This is probably the most interesting untruth. It sounds so good on the surface. Just keep all those folks with underlying conditions and frail elders protected somewhere and the rest of us can head to Mount Rushmore sans masks with abandon or ‘get back to work” to keep the wheels of commerce turning. But this lie is sits atop the most American of myths, the Lone Ranger, dependent on no one, self-reliant, ruggedly healthy, a man who lives and dies by his own rules. Even the myth is a myth; what would’ve happened to him without Tonto or even trusty Silver? The truth is that every aspect of our lives is part of a web of interdependence – a beautiful web, but so complicated in the time of COVID-19.

Well over half of American adults have at least one chronic condition such as obesity, diabetes, cardiac issues, asthma, or auto-immune disorders like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. Most all of these conditions make adults vulnerable to worse outcomes if they contract the COVID-19 virus. Many of these folks are working, meaning that the economic wheel that everyone is worried about can’t turn if those of us with chronic conditions aren’t there to turn it. Rather than confront this complexity, we tell ourselves that it’s just people like my dad, very old and very frail, that need “protection.”  But “the vulnerable” include so many more who are “essential” to keeping economic progress humming along.

Next, unlike the lone ranger, we are not at home on the range. Rather, we interact with all sorts of people, in so many ways every day. Let’s start with someone who believes it is his or her fundamental right not to wear a mask in public. I’ll name him/her “Anti-Masker.”  On Wednesday, Anti-Masker goes to community choir practice where (s)he belts out hits of the seventies or their favorite hymn. The alto sitting in the next chair is an asymptomatic carrier who unwittingly sings the virus to our friend,  Anti-Mask. Anti-Mask won’t have symptoms for several days to two weeks, if at all, during which time (s)he’ll head to a family reunion, grab beer at the tavern down the street, and somewhere along the way transmit virus to someone else who rides the bus to work, and sits next to the person who helps my dad with his bath, or getting dressed, or brushing his teeth. And, statistically, at least one person in that series of connections will have chronic illness. Add a few masks into that chain and you begin to cut transmission. No masks, further transmission and illness at best, curtains at worst. We are interconnected, across class and circumstance, a truth this virus lays bare.

Now that hospitals are overflowing in Houston and San Antonio, freezer trucks are en route to Corpus Christi to hold the dead, and a field hospital is being erected in the Rio Grande Valley, Governor Abbot finally decided to require folks to wear masks or face a fine. There are competing rumors that he will shut down the bars or even, God forbid, the water parks. I don’t even know what to say. I guess we have to be thankful for any showing of leadership that deals in science and reality at this point.

The Truth: What I Must Accept

If, in the end, my father survives until 100th birthday, just a few months away, it will be a function of good PPE, luck, and divine intervention. There is no testing strategy or staff rotation scheme that can protect elders in congregate facilities when the rest of society is chooses to live the lie that the virus is no longer relevant, wearing a mask and refraining from mass gatherings are infringements on our fundamental rights. But where does that leave me as I daily stare at my plate of broken promises, swallowing the heartbreak I feel with each phone call?

Two weeks ago, I finished a book called The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. Nominated for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, the story focuses on two characters, a man and a woman, linked over time by their friendship during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s. The male protagonist dies alone even though the young woman tries so hard to stay with him. The abandonment is not her fault even though she lives a portion of her life believing that it is. Yet, inside the dying character’s consciousness, the reader can see that the dying person, travelling to what comes next, enters a realm where those still of this earth can’t follow – whether we are physically present or not. Likewise, the novel ends with a recognition that some periods of life – whether  the AIDS or the Corona virus crisis – are so beyond our imagination that we  are left only to navigate them as best we can.  The decisions I made last summer on my father’s behalf were made not knowing that our society would collectively lie to itself to such a degree that it would impact my ability to care for my father. The only way out of this terrible situation is for all of us to quit lying; it is the truth, after all, that sets us free. When we take this virus seriously by everyone doing their part to stop it, we won’t have to lock up frail elders in an act of collective delusion. Then, perhaps, I could, together with my father’s caregivers, find ways to provide him the visits and connections he needs. Until then, my only choice is to trust that my father is strong in spirit if not in body, that he knows that I am with him, even as I am not, and that somehow and somewhere we will meet again.