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.



Current Events Faculty Life Family

Hey 19

Road maps, off ramps, anxiety, hope, trust, and distrust in equal measure characterize the current mood at UNC. Even as we believe our colleagues in epidemiology, virology, and infectious disease, when they tell us that strict masking, distancing, and hand hygiene can allow for a residential semester on campus, we are deeply distrustful of 19, my shortcut for describing our undergraduate students, most between 18 and 21. They come from all over the country, not merely to get a degree, but to transform and, in so doing, to transform us.  What happens on a college campus is a sort of magical alchemy when the classroom combines with other active elements: the dorm room conversation, dinner with friends in the dining hall, the walk across campus with a classmate, the after class conversation with a professor, or a late-night talk under a starry sky. I well remember 19.

Passport photos, when you were still allowed to smile!

At nineteen I saw my first glimpses of who I would become. I was a sophomore in college and on a lark volunteered for an afterschool program for kids living in nearby housing projects. It was my first recognition of systemic racism, although it would be years before I knew or understood that term. The experience interacted with a sociology class I was taking about social stratification. Because of the classroom, I saw my volunteer experience differently. The head and the heart began to intersect in ways that would lead me to my later career path. That same year, I fell in love and when I took that young man home to meet my parents at a special restaurant for dinner, I had glimpse, although fleeting, of what it would feel like to be part of a grown-up couple equal with my parents, friends instead of subordinates.  By that summer, still 19, I studied abroad, after a heart break from which I thought I’d never recover. I had no enthusiasm for the trip wanting only to wallow in my misery. Yet, as I headed toward the gate, luggage checked, passport at the ready, my mother told me I’d never be the same. She was right. That summer I learned that the world is big, wonderful, and curious. My professors, ostensibly teaching me Spanish, taught me that I was following a “good girls’ script” when I regularly deferred to my male classmates in class discussion. They urged me to find my voice and use it. I’m still working on the Spanish, but the other lesson, I’ve learned pretty well.

James Chapman, Officer of the Deck, LST 222

My father was 19 when he went to war. Upon receipt of his draft letter, he requested and was admitted into the V-7 program that allowed him to finish college as long as he took courses that the Navy required of him. At 19, my dad had never left his home state of Missouri except to cross the Arkansas or Oklahoma border on occasion for a basketball game. His family meals consisted of whatever was fresh on the farm and the catch from the nearby river where he and his brothers loved to fish. At midshipman’s school at Columbia University, he met a fellow 19 in his barracks. An Italian, Catholic boy from Brooklyn whose family invited my father home for a meal so foreign, yet delicious he remembers it to this day. After a send-off at Riverside Church, he marched down 5th Avenue and was sent on to join the Pacific fleet.  He and his shipmates and the Marines they carried, would secure the Marshal Islands while under fire for two years. They would repair their bombed ship with whatever they had at hand.  As 19 turned to 20, my father took full responsibility for navigation when it became clear that the ship was dreadfully off course and that the head navigator could not do the necessary calculations to figure out, quite literally, where in the world they were. Together with so many other 19’s, 17’s, 18’s, and 20’s, they secured your freedom and mine.

Then there is the 19 that currently lives in my house. When we all came home in March for the lock down, he spent the first few days irritable, hard to be around. I remember breathing deeply and contemplating what a long quarantine it was going to be. I should know by now that these moods in my 19 generally mask a deep worry. Finally, he spoke. “Mom, if you and dad get sick and are in the hospital, how do I take care of C… [referring to his younger brother.]” My moody 19 was not grousing about the days lost with his friends on campus. He feared his ability to meet the moment if he had to. A few weeks ago, he announced his intention to protest the murders of George Floyd, Ahmad Aubry, and Breonna Taylor. My husband, who has taken our son to marches since he was 5, was livid. How could our 19 choose to risk our safety this way in a pandemic? Let’s take his car. Drain his bank account. Make him sleep in a tent in the backyard. As mothers do, I stopped my own yelling and jumped, figuratively, between son and father. Remember 19, I said to my husband. He only sees the need for justice. He can’t see your fear. He knows this is his generation’s moment to stand up and be counted. Try to be compassionate toward him.  He’s just 19.

In some ways what I’ve written makes the case that so many of my contemporaries have put forward. We cannot rely on 19 to understand risk and to behave in ways that mitigate it, wear their masks, social distance, and skip the big party. But in other ways, 19 sees what 45, 55, 65 plus cannot. Nineteen sees the future that should be, nineteen sees that the generations behind them have missed the mark. Nineteen sees that unless they carry the torch no one else will and it is then that 19 steps up, in protest to tell us we must be better than we’ve been, in kindness and concern for the responsibilities they may have to carry before their time, and to use the knowledge we give them on campus perhaps to save us all.  Two nights ago, at dinner, my almost 14 said something silly about wearing a mask.  It was 19 that piped up and told him, “Wearing a mask is an act of altruism. You do it because you care about other people.”

Well said, 19. See you on campus.

Family Grief

Virus Diaries: Water Park Lament

Every night in my kitchen my throat catches and my eyes water.  Every night this happens when I talk to my dad and he asks me when I am coming to visit him. Every night I explain that I don’t know, that I’m waiting for news of when I’ll be allowed to see him, that the virus is still a threat. Every night he says, “maybe we’ll know something tomorrow and you’ll call me every day.”  And every night I answer, “Yes. I hope so Daddy, I will.”

Monday was Memorial Day. There were fly overs, people playing Taps, laying wreaths, and extolling the virtues of veterans who died in battle and those who are still with us.  Tuesday, in Texas where my father lives,  Governor Abbot opened water parks. It’s hot in Texas and no doubt it will be a great relief to families and children to head down the twisting slides into the cool water this weekend. Sounds like fun. But, for my dad and his fellows, who live in assisted living and skilled nursing facilities, ostensibly so honored on Memorial Day, where is their fun? They are locked in with no end in sight. No bingo games, no outings, no visits from family, no walks on the trail, no reading Sherlock Holmes, no eating with their friends. They are sitting alone at a table in the dining room or in their rooms napping and watching TV on an endless loop. If it’s safe enough for everyone to go to the water park, shouldn’t it be safe enough for me to visit my 99-year-old father or for him to play bingo with his friends? Don’t answer that. It’s not a real question. Neither activity is safe.

My father and others like him are symbols, not people. They are referenced on Memorial Day or Veterans Day complete with black and white photographs of Normandy or the Pacific, Korea or Saigon. On those days, they are “thanked for their service” as we all belly up to the bars that just cannot possibly stay closed another day. The juxtaposition between “opening up” and “returning to normal” while I am told it will be at least July before there is any possibility of a visit with my father exposes the hypocrisy of the decision-making. If anyone cared about his service to this country, there is no way he’d be locked away from those who love him while everyone else is frolicking at the water park. I am disgusted and so very sad.

It was the most difficult decision I ever made to encourage my father to leave my childhood home last summer. And I never imagined that I would have to physically abandon him just because he needed so much more care than I could provide in my home or his. Now he and so many others are all but forgotten because their suffering and isolation have no impact on the economy. From Governor Abbot’s perspective, assisted living facilities will make money whether families can visit or not. Elders’ needs are not part of the economic calculus. The water park, on the other hand, only makes money if we pretend the pandemic is over. And so, as a society, we delude ourselves thereby punishing those we say we honor.

Every week a letter, transparent and completely honest, comes out from the director where my dad lives. I so appreciate it. The staff is conscientious, and I am sure they will not be enjoying the water parks this weekend as they try so hard to keep those they care for safe. They are also forgotten. They call me and help my father FaceTime, they tell me everything that’s happening, and I send them cupcakes every few weeks to show appreciation. What more can I do?

And truly, I don’t really begrudge the opening of the water parks. I have kids. I know parents are losing their minds after months of home schooling. But if the Governor really believes it’s time to open Texas and that it’s safe to do so, then do it. Open the whole thing and let me see my father. That won’t happen because the virus is still active and a grave threat to elders and those who care for them. No public official wants to take responsibility for killing them, but they’re fine to leave our elders, indeed our heroes, isolated and alone.

The clock is ticking.  Time for me to make my nightly phone call and for my father and I to repeat our quietly desperate daily mantra. I don’t know, Daddy.  Yes, maybe tomorrow. I miss you. I love you. I’ll call you every day. I will.







The Salon: A Different Sort of Virus Diary

My stylist calls herself a “hairapist” –rhymes with therapist– and as we’ve talked about this moniker over the years, I have come to recognize how apt a descriptor it is at least for our relationship. My stylist is an artist and healer in other parts of her life and she brings those qualities to her work “behind the chair.”  Yet, unlike therapists, who are encouraged and trained to maintain some level of professional distance, in the salon personal sharing is not a one-way street. Even as I choose to share a current struggle, dilemma, or triumph she may also choose to share such things with me. You might say, “Well, sounds like to me like you’re friends.”  Yes, certainly. But it’s a different kind of friendship, not characterized by Saturday get togethers or dinner parties. Yet, for me, a woman approaching a certain age, this salon friendship has taken on particular significance.  

I consider myself fortunate to have a pretty deep bench when it comes to women friends starting with childhood and moving through my professional life.  Among them there are many I could call in an emergency and some that know the secrets of my past. There are women that taught me that my baby’s bath water was “still too hot” or that maybe I really should talk with the doctor about this or that pediatric issue. There are women that laugh with me about my husband’s obsession with bikes and trail-building and those that have joined me at my mother’s grave to leave flowers. There are women I talk books or university politics with and some who are always willing to share a dessert (too few of those sadly!). But as I’ve continued through adulthood, my time to talk deeply with friends has shrunk. I remember so fondly those late nights in high school and college when there were endless hours to talk about who my friends and I thought we were, how we might achieve whatever it was we wanted to achieve, what would make a meaningful life. How often do I have a conversation like that now as I run from meeting to meeting or more recently zoom to zoom? Nowadays, it’s a group dinner here, a walk there, a quick lunch out during the week. Once in a while the weekend get-away. I suppose some people might think that women at our age have it figured out; there’s really no reason to ask questions about meaning, purpose, and identity when life is certainly in its second half and we’ve made our choices. But, for me, the opposite is true. I think I am asking those questions now more than ever and I find I crave “the deep” in conversation. And, oddly enough, the place where I most regularly feed that craving is a place that seemingly focuses on the literal surface of who I am.

My “hairapist” knows a lot about me. When I tell Andrea I want a cut with “a little edge,” she can guess I’m a little bored with my current circumstances.  Want to go shorter? Looking for control. More low lights? Feeling bad about my aging skin. Longer, with some layers? Worried about my weight.  She also knows how much daily time I’m willing to invest to achieve a particular presentation. Not much. How much money I’ll spend to to minimize the daily time on my appearance. A fair amount. With all this as baseline, it doesn’t take much to make the salon a space where, in front of a large mirror for several hours every six weeks, I take a deep breath and confront the reflection staring back at me and the me I hope to take into the world upon leaving.  Happily, Andrea is a willing ally in the switchbacks between the interior and the exterior exploration that goes on in the salon. 

I am not the only one apparently who gravitates toward this interior/exterior salon meet-up. My hairapist has other clients and sometimes our conversations draw them in. Because we both have creative pursuits that are sidelines to our day jobs, Andrea and I talk about them and share our progress. Recently, I shared a piece of writing I was thinking about submitting for publication. Deeply personal, it featured a first love who recently made contact after many years. I looked like a Martian with foil all over my head as Andrea quietly read the piece through twice or maybe three times. Her focus is never on the craft of the writing; she responds to the emotional gestalt. She loved it and said so, piquing the curiosity of another client who asked to read it. I was nervous, but then again, my plan was to submit it to a national publication. I turned it over to this stranger and tried to calm the butterflies in my stomach. The conversation that unfolded was a delight. Three women sharing their experiences and memories long locked away about early love lessons, those men we leave behind, and how we are shaped by them. At the appointment’s end, I looked in the mirror and saw both the girl I was and the woman of a certain age that I am. The gray was gone. The ends looked sharper. I had new questions to consider. 

Current Events Family

Virus Diaries 2: Texas’ Two Step Reopening and My Father

On April 13th a friend posted that his father, who lives in a New Jersey retirement community, was moving in with a friend. The community had 13 COVID-19 positive staff members and there had been multiple deaths among residents.  He described his gratefulness that his father’s friend had opened his home and lamented our national response: “This is a nightmare.”

Yesterday, a mere two weeks later in a different part of the country, the Texas governor began promoting a two-step plan for reopening the state. It begins this week with retail and restaurants. He didn’t call it the Texas Two Step, but from my vantage point it sounds like a dance with the devil.  Okay, maybe you’re right. Compared to some plans for re-opening, aka Georgia’s, I suppose it could be worse.  In Texas, not everything opens all at once. There are limitations for how many individuals can be in a retail store; there is guidance on being six feet apart, and using hand sanitizer. (Masks are only mentioned for those working with elders.) What’s not to like. People are cheering Governor Abbot as a hero…except for those that aren’t. ( In reality, his “plan” passes the buck to business owners and individual employees. Open and go to work or stay closed at the peril of your livelihood. Neither your state nor federal government will back you up to do what is best for public health. Without clear guidance, all those Texans longing for a beer at the corner bar or an enchilada they don’t have to cook will be back in circulation.  Haircuts and manicures are just a week or so away. Hang in there, ladies! With this guidance, it is up to individual business owners to decide whether to stick to their social distancing guns or cave to hurried, entitled customers who may defect to a not-so-strict competitor. 

Even on April 13th, well before anyone was discussing the Texas plan, my friend’s post brought up the grief that I have carried throughout this pandemic. It is the loss of certainty in the decisions I made for my father last summer. Finally at age 98, after a series of small strokes and blood clots, my father reluctantly moved into an assisted living facility.  After he had agreed, he started revisiting the decision. With the endorsement of everyone I know, I took the reins and told him, “Daddy, that horse is out of the barn. No going back now.” He knows about barns and horses and accepted the new reality. He’s become beloved in his community, made friends, and has created a little life that consists of bingo, cocktail parties with very weak cocktails, and other small pleasures that are punctuated by my monthly visits. Those visits ended abruptly in March. Now six weeks later, my father asks every day when I am coming. Every day I tell him I don’t know and explain why. Then, he says, “Maybe you’ll know when you call tomorrow.”  I reply, “Maybe I will, Daddy. I hope so.”  It is the best we can do. 

On-line, I see people debating back and forth about the merits of Governor Abbot’s plan. “We can’t stay home forever. We’ll develop herd immunity.” Or the converse, “Re-opening is too big a risk. The models show what happens with 20 percent opening, 50 percent opening, and none of it looks good.” Thus far, nobody is talking about my dad or others like him. Nobody talks about the fact that the Governor’s Two Step, and other re-opening schemes, only make his and other elders’ lives worse. Not even the most rabid proponents of reopening would suggest reinstating visits in assisted living, skilled nursing facilities, VA centers, or hospitals. Yet, those wonderful staff to whom I am indebted for their tender, daily care of my father will, within days, be going out to dinner or shopping on their days off as will their friends and family with whom they will certainly gather. Who could blame them? Yet, with each human interaction his caregivers have with others, my father’s risk of contracting the virus, dying alone, and, as of this morning, not even getting a proper military burial increases. To what benefit? His portfolio may improve, but his loneliness extends.

On Easter Sunday, my husband and I talked about what would happen if my father became ill. Unbeknownst to my husband, I had a plan. I found an apartment rental service that operates remotely. I decided I could ask a friend to stock one of those apartments with groceries and other necessities before I arrived. Maybe I could get some PPE from medical friends here to take with me and then I could be with him while he died even if I had to get a step ladder and surreptitiously crawl through his window.  After that, I’d quarantine for 14 days before returning to my family in North Carolina. My husband listened, then said, “And if you get sick? Our family can’t lose you.” I had no plan for that possibility. We tabled the conversation and ate our Easter Sunday cinnamon rolls. But as Texas dances into this next phase of the pandemic, perhaps we have to have the conversation again. 

Current Events Family

Virus Diaries: 1

When this strange chapter in our collective life is said and done, we will each have our own virus diary. We will have the day we realized this episode was serious. The day we realized we had to change the way we were living.  The day we recognized how this could affect people that we know and the day we realized that we would not come through it unscathed. This is my virus story, even though it is not over.

Almost a month ago, my family was approaching spring break. My oldest son had plans to spend a week off with a “lady friend” in her hometown near mine. My husband was to have a week to himself. My younger son and I would head to Texas where he would help out at a friend’s ranch – which he loves – and I would visit with my 99-year-old father. As we prepared to leave, reports on Covid-19 were growing more dire. My husband and I discussed whether any or all of us should travel. In the end, we took Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer, cleaned every surface we encountered on our respective journeys, and off we went. 

The visit began normally enough. We saw my father and his friends who all wanted to shake my son’s hand and give me a hug or a pat. I walked in and out of his assisted living facility with nary a second glance from the wonderful staff that I’ve come to admire. Then, as universities across the country sounded the alarm and told students not to return to campus, our visit took a different turn. 

Between visits with my father, I was all of sudden on daily conference calls with work. I was trying to get his taxes done and when I went to visit him the visiting procedure had changed to include a sign in process and questions about travel. As spring break was extended for another week to prep for remote teaching, entrance to my dad’s assisted living facility became limited to immediate family. I told my older son and his girlfriend not to make their planned visit since they’d likely been exposed to too many potential carriers. On Friday morning, I visited as usual and left with a plan to come back later that afternoon and finish the Sherlock Holmes story I’d been reading aloud to my father. When I returned two hours later, I was locked out.

Hysteria welled up inside of me. That I could not explain to him what was happening, that he would be left wondering why I didn’t return, that my only chance at talking with him would be the five-minute phone calls that he appreciates, but provide precious little in the way of real communication – my mind could not take it in.  Thank God for the hospice nurse who happened to arrive at just the right moment and advocated that I be allowed to visit for another hour or so, to finish our Sherlock Holmes story, to say what might be a temporary or, God forbid, a permanent good-bye.  I was allowed in, allowed to explain, tell him I love him, and walk out the door. 

Two days ago, some public official – I know their name but choose not to mention it here – said that senior citizens would be willing to sacrifice for the country, to risk death so that the economy wouldn’t suffer. And, I suppose if anyone asked him, my 99-year-old father might agree.  Why not? He said yes before when he was 19 years old and marched down 5th avenue before boarding a ship that took him to the Pacific where he was under fire for 2 and half years. What would make any of us think that any of those brave, now old, young men and women would ever say no to what we ask of them?  Has my good, noble, kind father ever said no to me? Hardly ever. But why in the world we would ever ask this of them?  How could we be so selfish, so self-important, so ignorant, and so cruel, as to expect that our elders who have sacrificed in World War 2, in Korea, in Vietnam, and in a million other non-military ways, should have to sacrifice a good, quiet, supported old age and eventual death surrounded by their loved ones because we cannot find it in our hearts to sit in our houses and be bored, or contend with endless zoom meetings in our workplace? If we can afford to have someone clean our homes, keep our yards, help with children, nails, or hair, can’t we, both individually and societally, pay people not to work for a month or six weeks for the good of all? Could we not find an unselfish bone in our bodies that allows us to value our elders, our health care workers, and others who are vulnerable to a virus that, as a society we have no experience with and to which no one, except maybe those who have recovered, has any immunity?

Two weeks have passed since I left my father. It has taken this long for me to even begin to write about leaving him. Locking out visitors was the right decision and my need to be with him was so intense as to make my rational mind fall completely away.  I talk to him every day but have no idea when I’ll be able to read to him again. I keep telling him I’m coming again at the end of April because it gives us both hope that there will be time to read another Sherlock Holmes story, or perhaps Treasure Island, or maybe a Tale of Two Cities. There is no economic gain in such activities, no contribution to America’s business of business. But oh how we love it. The characters, the humor, the turn of phrase, the suspense, the story. When I left him, he said, in a way that you’ll recognize if you know him, “When you come back, we’ll read another tale of danger.” How I hope so. Please stay home so that I and you can have a chance at another chapter with those that are so dear.

Family Grief

Tears in the Cranberry Sauce

George Winston’s December has been one of my seasonal favorites for years. The album, which starts slow and contemplative is a perfect opening to the holiday season. I usually start my holiday prep on a day much like yesterday, rainy, chilly, but hardly freezing. The fall color has just peaked and the trees are dropping their leaves at a steady pace. There is so much to do before the end of the semester. But I take the holiday as permission to take a pause.  I turn on George Winston and get started.

I usually begin my holiday cooking with my mother’s cranberry sauce, a dish my younger son would consume by the gallon if he were allowed.  There’s no magic ingredient, just water, sugar, a little orange juice and zest, and of course the cranberries. Combine and simmer until it’s a consistency you like. The result is tart and sweet on the tongue and a deep, satisfying red flecked with orange for the eyes. My mother used to bring it on the airplane in a Ball jar wheedling her way through TSA screening.  Believe me, it was hard to tell her no… Eventually, I explained that I could probably make it too, particularly with proper supervision.  And six or seven years ago, that baton was passed and I became the one charged with making sure this condiment was ever present at the holiday table. 

This year I had hard time finding the recipe nearly disassembling my recipe box in the effort. Along the way, I chanced upon so many other recipes infused with holiday memories. One grandmother’s ice-box rolls the other’s fudge, and the cookie dough that my older son, just home from college, will soon begin to beg for. Note: Like me, he prefers to keep the whole loaf of dough in the ‘fridge and cut off a delicious cold slice here and there.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention be dammed; some things are worth the salmonella risk. Sorry, I digress…

 As I chopped and boiled, salted and whisked, and listened to melancholy George Winston, I began to get texts from friends sending good wishes for the holiday. One, an only child like me, who is also away from her failing 90 plus year old father this holiday.  Another from a friend who will move her mother into assisted living the day after having the last family holiday in her childhood home. The list goes on. This middle age season is both brutal and beautiful; we have to make so many hard choices for those we love. Choices that often leave me feeling inadequate to the task. But at the same time we finally learn exactly who loves us as the web of friendships that we’ve woven over a life-time comes into view and lifts us up. 

I think my favorite song on December is Winston’s version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. I know as a piece of music it as become ubiquitous to the point of being almost mundane. It’s not and I love it anyway. And his version layers the joy, the longing, the peace, and the complexity of the season. As the music began to soar through the kitchen, I began to suspect that my mother’s cranberry sauce does have a secret ingredient, one she never told me about, but that I’ve learned for myself: the tears, not a lot, but just a few to acknowledge the love and loss we feel in equal measure as the leaves fall and the smell of the bubbling cranberry sauce fills the air. 

Current Events Recommended Weekly Reads

Reads and Listens: November 3 – 8, 2019

A crisp, lovely morning here in North Carolina and I am back again on my not-so-regular schedule. This week I’ve started enjoying coffee and poetry for breakfast. Every time I run across a poem by Mary Oliver, a find myself awestruck. Six months or so ago, I bought an anthology of her poems entitled, Devotions, and have decided to start the day by reading a few. It is a peaceful, grounding way to begin.

The next two suggestions are on the lighter side. There is so much to be concerned about these days. We need to find ways to balance out the heavy and remember there is fun in the world. Try this one from the New Yorker on the appeal of astrology when we’re feeling of kilter.

Next up is a piece a friend posted on Facebook that had me sitting in the Dallas Airport with tears rolling down my face because I was laughing so hard. The Case for Checking a Bag is by Roxanne Gay. She is a great writer and, in this piece that she published on Medium, very funny! You’re welcome.

Finally, here’s a listen that is serious. Many of you know I am a big fan of the NYT Daily Podcast. I usually listen while I’m getting dressed in the morning. This episode aired yesterday. (11/7/19) and details the case the Supreme Court is considering regarding transgender rights in the work place. The Daily has much to recommend it. Not only does the podcast take you behind the scenes of a particular story to let reporters explain their craft in gathering facts and communicating a story, the host, Micheal Barbaro, also allows the listener to hear directly from the people involved. This episode is a particularly compelling and informative example.

books Current Events

Weekly Reads, Watches, and Listens 10/7 – 10/14

Have you noticed that the title for this branch of the blog keeps morphing?  That’s because, although I’m always reading something, sometimes it’s the same as the week before.  And, sometimes something I’ve watched or listened to is what is really making me think. So here’s to opening our eyes and perking up our ears.


Two books are in rotation right now.  

The Starfish and the Spideris the first.  This is a book about organizations and how they are put together – not a typical genre for me.  A year or so ago, I was at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina.  I saw this book in the bookstore there and loved the title so much that I decided to give it a try.  You can tell it’s not my normal cup of tea since its taken me a year or more to get to it.   Anyway, the gist is that most organizations are spiders, meaning there is someone or some set of someones at the center.  If something happens to that center, the organization cannot survive.  Starfish organizations, in contrast, have no central leader and therefore regenerate if an arm is lopped off.  The authors’ contention is that Starfish organizations create situations in which everyone in the organization feels more invested because it is everyone’s job to keep the organization running and healthy. It’s an interesting idea.  I’ll keep you posted.

Next, I’ve started Peter Hessler’s new book, The Buried.  I love Hessler’s writing and have written about it elsewhere on this blog.  I first read him when I began going to China in 2008.  His rise as a writer was tied to his time living in China and he has been sort of a cultural translator for newbie China watchers every since.  I love his writing because he combines his own life experiences and current circumstances as he seeks to understand a foreign culture. In addition, he points out the ways in which language reflects something central to the culture or land in question. Here’s an example from the new book that is focused on Egypt during the Arab spring.  

He describes two different words that ancient Egyptians used to describe different types of time beginning on page 10 of The Buried:

Ancient Egyptians had words for two different types of time: djet and neheh.  These words cannot be translated into English, and it may be impossible for them to be grasped by the modern mind. IN our world, times is a straight line, and one event leads to another; the accumulation of these events, and the actions of he people who matter, are what make history.  But for ancient Egyptians,, time was not linear, and events were suspect.  They were oddities, distractions that interrupted the world’s natural order…

Nehehis the time of cycles…Djet, on the other hand is time without motion.  When a king dies he passes into djetwhich is the time of the gods…

Then he goes on to quote an Egyptologist who relates these two types of time to the physical landscape, the cycles of the Nile river valley versus the endless dessert.   It is beautiful and mysterious and thought provoking all at once.

Here’s a link for more information:


A few weeks ago, I decided that even though I have a parking place on campus, I really don’t need to use it every day and therefore I should walk.  The climate situation is so dire.  I know one person walking to work a couple of days a week is not going to solve it, but I have been looking for little habits I could either change or incorporate in support of saving the planet…

So, on my morning walks, I’ve been listening to Master Classes.  Here’s the link to this service.  It costs something, but before you write it off, think about all the things you waste money on.  You can choose master classes from a series of interesting people.  They might be on cooking or investing or conservation. Most of my choices have been about writing.  For the last week or so, I’ve been listening to Judy Blume talk about her writing process. And before that I listened to Anna Wintour talk about leadership.  Both have been fun and interesting and given me plenty to think about.  They are set up as videos that you might watch.  But I never do that.  I think it would be boring and I could never sit still for it. But it’s perfect for a morning and evening walk.

Finally, on Friday, I got to hear Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist who envisioned  the 1619 series, speak on campus. Here’s her website. She was receiving a distinguished alumnae award the next day.  Really terrific to hear her in person.  If you’ve not read or listened to the 1619 podcast, start immediately.  And, before your write it off, at least give it a try.  The quote of the day from Jones was this, “To love something does not mean you are never critical of it.”  She was referring to America.  And I so agree. We do our children, our friends, and our spouses no favors when we don’t expect the best of them. Why would we feel any differently about our country?

That’s it for now. Let me know what’s perking up your ears or opening your eyes this week.

Grief Miscellaneous

Constant Companions

In spite of a friend’s deep suffering, the death of an elder neighbor, a loved one’s diagnosis of an advanced cancer, life rolls on straight through my son’s 13th birthday, and keeps going through my worries for my father, my sadness for an acquaintance grieving a too early death, and despite my own need for rest. The last several nights I have slept deeply, my body and mind tired from intensity in my work and pain in so many parts of my social circle.  Although the season is changing to autumn –just this week there’s been crispness in the morning air—there is no beauty yet. In fact, right now, the earth is dry and everything looks a little down at the heels and sad.

I feel parched too. Tapped out, stunned by the suffering that seems to be around every corner. (And this is in the personal realm – don’t get me started on the suffering being perpetrated in our collective, national life.) A few days ago I was walking with a friend. We get together every couple of weeks and almost every time, we have to give each other what we are now referring to as “the horror report.”  The list of awful things that have befallen people we know: friends losing parents, colleagues diagnosed with grave illnesses, aquaintances experiencing the sudden loss of a spouse. Not to mention, because really who can bear to, the soul crushing losses of a child to drugs or a friend to suicide. As we talked two days ago, we were both a little overcome by how many of these events we had to process. How to make sense of it…

At almost 55, my father’s long-lived genes not withstanding, I am well into my own autumn. A season that has always been my favorite and yet, as I am now realizing, a season in which loss and grief will be constant companions.  I remember this happening to my mother probably 25 plus years ago.  I would call home for a chat and she would tell me about someone that was sick, a funeral she had to attend, a comfort meal she was planning to deliver. I think I said the appropriate things, but asked very little about her experience of it all, and thought about it even less. Her words echo now: “It’s so hard to lose your friends. No one ever tells you how hard it is.” Over time, I realized none of the people she was regularly spending time with were the family friends I had known growing up.  She wanted me to get to know her new friends and at first I was hesitant. Why did I need to know these new people she and my dad were so good at incorporating into their lives?   Eventually, I gave in and of course my life is richer because of it.  And, what’s more, in so doing, she taught me the importance of continuing to incorporate new people into my life, so that the circle can continue and not collapse. 

But what she didn’t teach me is how to deal with these other characters that seem to want to worm their way in? How do I welcome Grief and Loss into my house?  How do I acknowledge the pain they escort in, honor those experiences when they come fast and furious, without numbing out via one of the 30-wonderful flavors: alcohol, shopping, religious platitudes, busyness? Hmmm… Perhaps the first step is to stare down that complicated cousin they bring along, the one called Regret.

Regret is what makes any sorrow unbearable. And even as regret may begin with specifics of any particular situation, once it takes hold, it goes systemic: Did I say what I should’ve said?  Was I kind enough, patient enough, giving enough? Should I have kept the china cabinet that was my grandmother’s? Did I clear out my father’s things too soon? Why didn’t I pay more attention to my mother’s suffering as she lost her friends one by one or two by two? Why did I say yes to that relationship, but not to that other one? What if I’d kept travelling that summer instead of coming home to summer school? What if I’d called the one I left behind? What if I’d married the one my parents’ hoped I would and stayed in my hometown?  What if I’d gone overseas and not come home? What if I’d mastered the second or third language? Called the visiting professor/New York newspaper editor that gave me his card? Regret over some of it, becomes regret over all of it. There are only so many roads we can travel. We have to choose. And no matter which one we choose, Autumn comes and as we watch other’s lives being over too soon, we revisit our own, spending at least a moment at each cross-road wondering what if and wishing we could rewind the tape to see where a different set of choices would lead. 

Thank God for Kierkegaard.

“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.”

SOREN KIERKEGAARD, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life

When I internalize these words, then I can accept my new house-guests and the tears and disbelief they bring with them. I can recognize that these guests come with all the others: pleasure, achievement, joy, hopefulness, and gratitude.  I can recognize that there is truly no way around these seasons and that really, I would not want to miss them. Perhaps I can allow myself to settle deep into enjoyment of all that is in this moment: the morning glories that are finally blooming, the time spent eating dinner with new friends on the porch, the excitement of a young person’s latest success, the delight in a friend’s soon-to-be born grandchild, the pleasure of a long walk and friends’ good company.  I can cry the tears when I have to, allow myself to spend a few moments on what if, and then get back to the business of this, sometimes parched, sometimes painful, always complicated, capacious, and wonderful life.