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. 

Faith Family Grief

For Two Friends Who Grieve

Among those college friends with whom I stayed up all night, took spontaneous road trips, and wondered about all that the future would bring are twin brothers who are friends to so many. Through football games and parents’ weekends, their parents became our friends too and welcomed large groups of college students to their home for summer shenanigans.  In recent weeks this family has been on my mind as the patriarch’s health declines and a decision has been made to focus exclusively on palliative treatment.

They are a family of great faith and, until this morning, their prayer requests via social media have asked for total bodily healing of their beloved father.  But that has not happened and they are making sense of the fact that he will leave them sooner rather than later. There is so much I want to say to them having faced my own versions of this parental loss journey in recent years.

First, there is no dishonor, no ungodliness in accepting that something sad and difficult is happening. Even though your father’s suffering will end, and in accordance with our faith, he will truly and joyfully meet his maker, the poignancy of saying farewell, if not goodbye, is real. It hurts and it does not need to be covered over by platitudes no matter how well intentioned.  There is no shame or guilt in wishing that the current circumstance could be different. God knows what you wish for and it is the mark of your dad’s great love for his sons that you want to keep him on this earth forever. I believe our tears for our parents please God, because it means that, at least in part, the parents and the children have seen something of Him in each other, something they know they will miss.

The next reminder is to dwell on the commandment to “Honor Your Father and Mother.”  Because during these next weeks or months, you will learn what that actually means. As a child, I thought honoring them meant using honorifics – Yes ma’am. No sir – and following their rules.  As I got older and had to find my own path, I often felt sad and sometimes guilty that I was not exactly the daughter they thought they would have. I felt badly about celebrations for them that I couldn’t quite pull off, frustrated by conversations in which I chose to be argumentative/adolescent rather than accepting. But what I’ve learned in recent years is that, if we’re lucky, there is time to honor them anew, and that honor shows up them in the smallest of acts. Not reacting with anger or frustration when someone can’t quite make it to the bathroom. Putting fancy moisturizer on my 93-year-old mother’s face in the hospital. Manicuring my father’s nails when they become ragged and torn. Helping him with socks and shoes.  Just as with the very young, it is the physical care of the body that is the most primitive indicator of our love. These are strange Rubicons to cross and yet there is sacredness to them that I hope you will not ignore.

Third is a lesson that many who grieve come to understand, but don’t necessarily speak. And, that is, that when you love someone fully, they do not leave you. Your relationship does not end; it simply changes.  You see them in different places. I see my mother in the morning glory that turns away from the sun to peak in my doorway.  I talk to her in my head most every day whether to ask advice, complain, or show off a new outfit. Very rarely, she shows up in a dream.  At first I wanted that more, but now once in awhile is enough. I am not a sci-fi person, but I am beginning to wonder about the nature of time. There are some loves that simply are bigger than the linear time frame in which we live our lives.  These loves don’t begin and end, they simply are, sometimes dormant as we pay attention to other things, but always present and waiting to speak to us again. Your relationship with your father is like that. He truly will be with you, even as he is not.

Finally, I remember our times together, your enveloping hugs that made me feel safe and cared about, our late night drives to Austin during exams, conversations by the suspension bridge plotting our respective futures, writing secrets on the walls of a house your folks were refurbishing before the paint went on, being one of many friends your parents welcomed home.  We have no daily contact now. I have no means to be of any instrumental help.  But know that far from East Texas someone loves you both, loves your dad, and wishes him and you Godspeed.


Photo Credit: Skylar C. Searing


Family Tree

The tree’s branches reach out to every corner of the front yard. My dad planted it in 1973 after another tree was taken down to save the sprinkler system, an event I remember as overwhelmingly sad. My father must have too, because he planted the new one right away, in a slightly different spot, and has taken great pleasure in watching it grow and thrive over these many years.

My father has always been a person with a great capacity for stillness. He could sit for hours outside in the evening enjoying the cigars he now tells medical professionals he never smoked and watch the sky change from the purple and orange of a Texas sunset to a deep blue star-filled delight.  I once took a cruise with my parents to Alaska during which I found my father sitting on deck as the cruise ship lumbered through the inside passage.  He was wrapped in a plaid blanket wearing his characteristic hat, watching the  glaciers, some calving, some imperceptibly shifting.  After a time sitting in silence together, he said to me, “Everything changes. It is the way the world is made.”

Indeed.  In two days this house will cease to be a secure base to which I have returned like a migrating bird for so many years. My feelings are bitter and sweet, self-indulgent and generous.  Bitter because I know my father hoped he could die in this house and now he will not.  Self-indulgent as I relive every path not taken, regret words unspoken, and words that were too sharp. Sweet because through the packing and sifting of the cards my mother saved, my father’s memorabilia, the photograph piles that climb like ivy  – I am left with gratitude, not because everything was perfect, it was not. My good hearted, but anxious and perfectionistic mother stressed us all out trying to meet her unattainable standards. For many years there were creepy neighbors, now long gone, that attempted creepy things that I escaped but did not know enough to call out. As an only child, I longed for brothers and sisters. God knows I long for them now.  But in the Christmas letters and recipes, the report cards and the invitations, there is evidence of an engaged, hopeful, good life, with deep roots and branches that will forever provide shelter whether I return to this house or not.

My dad and I took a drive tonight, his first since he left the hospital and made the move to his new living situation. When I asked where he wanted to go, he said, “by our house.” It broke my heart but I did it. We sat in the driveway and we talked about the tree he planted so long ago. Eventually, I turned to him and said, “I guess we have to say goodbye to this house.” “Yes” he said. “It’s time to say goodbye.”

The house needs another family. The backyard needs another tree house, another garden filled with tomatoes, radishes, eggplants, and green beans.  Children need to speed out the driveway on their bikes in the warm San Antonio breeze to discover how the connecting neighborhood streets lead them to Baskin Robbins with nary a busy street crossing.  Those kids need to meet their best friends on the elementary school swings to dissect every seventh grade romance. The special meatballs need to be in the chafing dish for the holiday party, the card tables set up for Bridge, or maybe Mah Jongg, or Lotteria. Another set of parents must plan the Halloween extravaganza in the garage, surprise a delighted sixteen year old with a car in the driveway, and welcome children and their friends home from college with a New Year’s Eve spaghetti dinner before the night’s festivities begin.

A new family will change this house completely, maybe even tear it down and start from scratch.  I don’t begrudge them that. But, I hope they see that beautiful live oak tree and allow it to speak to something deep inside them. Something that says, let your roots grow deep; make your house a shelter to all who come through the door; sing and make music in that house; grow a garden that you water with laughter and tears, accomplishments, milestones, joys, and sorrows.  Have some fun in that house. Do some good for others in that house. At the end, your branches will stretch, nurturing you and those you love even as you say goodbye.  If that new family listens, maybe they’ll say, “ We’re going to knock out this, tear down that, re-landscape this part, and put something completely different back here. But that tree? We’ll work around that one.”













Faith Family

Always and Everywhere


Last night I learned I would have to leave vacation with my family because my father, who I was just with for almost three weeks, was back in the hospital. Worry and disappointment mounted in equal measure. What is happening to my admittedly very old, but always sharp and robust father? This slow decline is so not what I would wish for him. Why must he suffer?  And more selfishly, why does this latest bout of suffering have to happen during this 10-day window that, as a family, we had tried so hard to protect?  The last two or three years have been filled with family crises. And, between those crises and our work, our boys have gotten used to one or the other of us almost always being on the road.  And vacations, something we have always held sacred as a family, have gone by the wayside. This summer we were reclaiming them…

As these thoughts were roiling, the sentiments found in the New Testament and repeated in various ways throughout the Catholic and Anglican liturgies came to mind, spontaneously combatting my lesser angels: It is right and a good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give thanks and praise. Always and everywhere? Even right now when I have to leave this place I’ve been dying to get to?  “It is indeed right, our duty and our joy, always everywhere to give thanks.”  Well then…no escaping that very clear direction. I made my plane reservation and we went out for a last sunset hike as a foursome.  The climb was heavenly. An afternoon rain meant the earth was fresh, the Sedona colors magical, and every step led us to an enchantment-filled view. As I climbed, I found myself repeating, “Always and everywhere it is a good and joyful thing to give thanks.”  This morning, I left the three of them to continue the trip and I came home to be with my dad.

Giving thanks is harder tonight as I sit by myself in my parents’ house.  It is lonely. It is sticky and humid outside and there are mosquitoes.  The pictures and memorabilia that I started sorting during my last visit are still here, beckoning like a disorganized lament. Thinking of all that will transpire this week, all that will need to be figured out and accomplished, makes me want to crawl under a rock.

Yet, those words from Thessalonians keep surfacing, “In all things, give thanks.”  In other traditions, this might be called a mantra. Cognitive-behavioral therapists might even define this repeated sentence as a thought stopping mechanism, a means for combatting the negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression. For me, I think they have become a habit of mind, something that comes to me when I am facing something difficult that I know I cannot avoid.  Like the little engine that could, that said, “I think I can. I think I can” over and over, this liturgical practice drives out the frustration and, truthfully, resentment that threatens the tenderness that comes from caring for others and putting our own needs and wants on a back burner. And as I do, all that I am thankful for begins to surface and be named:

  • A father to care for who has loved me so well all my life.
  • A husband that supports me in doing all that I do for my dad.
  • The high school friend I’ll see tomorrow night for dinner.
  • A flexible summer work schedule.
  • Morning walks around my childhood neighborhood.
  • My father’s friends who remain so committed to him as he declines.
  • The professionals who are helping me figure all of this out.
  • The ministers that seem to show up out of nowhere when they are most needed.
  • The encouraging texts from friends far away.
  • The memories that live in that disorganized pile of pictures.

And finally for the practice over a lifetime that imbedded these words deep in my mind and heart so that I could call them up when they are most needed. Indeed, always and everywhere it is right, our duty and our joy, to give thanks.

Current Events Family Youth Issues

Abortion Stories

As Alabama was passing its total abortion ban, a friend posted a CNN clip that I didn’t watch in which a guest or the anchor seemed to imply that a fetus was akin to an organ in a woman’s body that she might choose do with as she pleases. My friend posed the following question with this post: “Will one of my SANE pro-abortion friends explain this to me?” When no one responded, she took this to mean that her “pro-abortion” friends could not answer something so ridiculous and therefore this meant that they knew deep in their hearts how evil their pro-choice position was. When I tried to go back to the post later, in order to watch the clip and to decide whether to respond, the post was gone. Perhaps things got ugly…Truly, so little good comes from engaging in such conversations on Facebook or Twitter. Against my better judgment, I do engage sometimes but it generally ends with me ghosting out before or after someone dismisses my thinking while telling me how much I mean to them.  Pointless all the way around.  Maybe that is why no one “sane” responded to my friend’s post…

But everyday there is a new threat to reproductive rights, including the choice to abort, in this country. Yesterday, saw the most restrictive law yet move forward in Alabama. Many states now have only one abortion provider and in some cases none.  Yet, the majority of the U.S. population supports the right to abortion in all or most cases.

My opinions have been largely consistent since I was in about the seventh or eighth grade, approximately four years after Roe was decided. As abortion became a possibility in every state, the public debate came with it. I remember the cover of TIME or maybe NEWSWEEK with a picture of a fetus in utero promoting an article that examined the “when does life begin” question.  I read it and decided that should I ever need to, as long as I could have an early abortion meaning before 10 weeks or so, I would do it. That was my own thinking and for a long time I kept that opinion to myself.

My parents each approached the topic of an early pregnancy differently.  My mother told me around this time period, meaning when I was about 13, that if I became pregnant she would want me to carry the pregnancy to term. I remember the scene in great detail. I was in her room. It was summer and I was wearing my favorite multi-colored short shorts. The memory is probably so clear because I was terrified. Not because I was sexually active, but because I believed that it was up to me to never make a mistake; that if I did, I would have no choice over what would happen to me; and that if I wanted to have a choice, I could not turn to my mother for help. I am sure she would be devastated to hear me say that.  And perhaps those were the beliefs of a young adolescent that did not reflect what really might have happened.  But beliefs of teens are often not articulated and as such parents have no way to correct them.

Several years later, perhaps when I was leaving for college, my father gave me a very different message. He wrote me a letter tucked in the trunk of my car where he often left me a little extra cash. In it, he told me to avoid pregnancy at any cost during my college years. I was shocked by this part of the letter. I never talked about such things with my dad. But I did ask him about it the next time I saw him and he was clearly embarrassed. Avoiding further conversation, he simply said, “A girl has to know when to say no, because when you are pregnant and you don’t want to be there are no good options. But if that ever happens to you, you come to me and I’ll help you.” That statement has been etched on my heart ever since.  In so many ways it sums up my relationship with my father. He has always been the person who could simultaneously clearly state his expectations and his beliefs about how I should conduct myself – “pretty is as pretty does” –and at the same time acknowledge the realities of being human.

Fast-forward another seven, or eight years and I was working in a teen clinic in a hospital located in an extremely high need neighborhood. I did all kinds of things in that clinic and one of my main activities was “options counseling” for teen girls who were pregnant.  I was not so far away from adolescence myself and began this work with the view that an early pregnancy represented a crisis.  Overtime, I learned that an early pregnancy represented as many possibilities as there were young women in that circumstance.  For some, it was a joy, a happy accident of which their family was aware and supportive.  For others it was a secret and they were convinced, as I would’ve been, that they could never talk with their mothers about their situation. It was my practice to encourage them to talk with their moms and many times I helped facilitate those conversations. By then I knew that no matter what mothers say to their teens, when the chips are down, they want to help and they do not want their daughters to go through challenging experiences alone.  And, I knew, that the best decisions teens make – 9 times out of 10 – are decisions that fit with their families’ beliefs and values – not mine and not yours.  But notice that qualifier – 9 times out of 10.  There are exceptions. Families that are hardly families at all, where young people have been raising themselves and making their own way for years. There are families whose belief systems are so rigid and a young person desperately wants something different that to involve the family would be to risk harm to the girl’s life or leave her with no place to live unless she followed their wishes. And, these wishes could go either way.  Sometimes families felt that having a baby was punishment for being sexually active. On the flip side, I had family members call me and yell at me because I would not “make” their daughter have an abortion. Never mind that a forced abortion is illegal in this country; a doctor doing such a thing would be prosecuted for assault and battery.  So what I learned in this role was the wisdom both of my profession, which prioritizes individual autonomy, and also the wisdom of my father: my goal was to help them make a their own decision, not tell them what their decision should be.

And so to my friend and so many like her who cheer these repressive laws and the pre-ordained paths those laws produce, I would ask, who would you want me to be for your daughter or your son’s girlfriend or one night stand?  Would you want me to tell her what she has to do because the government has decreed what that choice should be?  Or would you want me to help her talk to people who are important to her. Maybe you, maybe her minister, her aunt, or her father, so that the decision would reflect something thought through, examined, carefully weighed, and freely chosen. Would you want me to shuttle her off to prenatal care without a second look or would you want me help her know her own heart and mind? These laws take away the possibility that a woman might find a non-judgmental ear, someone to help her talk to others who care about her, or simply some space to consider how to move forward.

The arguments on TV and elsewhere about abortion are all ridiculous in different ways. Of course an embryo or a fetus is not an organ like an extra kidney or an appendix. It is sad that we spend so much of our public discourse on red herrings. Abortion is one of, if not the most ancient of medical procedures.  Cultures around the world have recognized for centuries that there are times and circumstances in which carrying a pregnancy to term is terrible idea. Abortion was made legal across this country because women seek abortions whether they are legal or not.  But when they are illegal, women are maimed, infected, often made sterile, or sometimes die at that hands of charlatans and mercenaries that prey on their desperation.  That is why a network of clergy existed to help women get safe abortions in this country before it was made legal in every state. That is why physicians campaigned for legal abortion as a matter of public health.

Are there times that people regret a decision to have either an abortion or a baby? Of course. Are there times they regret a decision to place a child for adoption? Undoubtedly. But that is the price of freedom – the chance to make our own decisions, as long as they do not hurt the wider community, and to live with the consequences, whether they are positive, negative, or indeed a complex web of regrets, hopes, and contentment that make up the reality of our lives.


Note about the photo: If you click next to the colon below, you will be taken to the site where the photo originates from, the archive of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Photo credit: 


Living Atul Gawande…


If there is one book I have recommended over the last five years, it is Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. Immersed as I am in caring for an older parent and surrounded as I am by friends and colleagues sorting out the same questions, this is no surprise.  But what is surprising is that in spite of how much this book has helped me, I have to return to its lessons again and again.

When my parents entered their nineties, I would return home to the house they shared since 1973.  But instead of envying my mother’s ability to have everything sparkling clean and perfectly organized at every moment, I noticed that every treasure in their home turned from lovely memento to potential landmine.  Persian carpets were tripwires.  The marble coffee table brought back from a tour in Naples, the perfect blunt object for a head injury. Each stair might as well have been the Hilary step.  My anxiety skyrocketed the moment I walked in the door. My goal in life became to convince them to move to a retirement community of their choosing.  There is a lovely one within a mile of their home, a place where many of their friends have lived, with low staff turnover, and everything they would have needed.  There are terrific places near me in North Carolina. My father said no. Again and again he said no.  When I asked him what he thought it would be like to live in such a place he compared it to the Bexar County jail and told me I would essentially kill my mother if I made her move.  That was a conversation stopper.

And then I read Being Mortal.  Not only did I read it, I holed up in a tent in the North Carolina mountains at an annual multi-family camping party to finish reading it while everyone else socialized.  Early in the book, Gwande describes his grandfather, a gentleman over 100 years old living in India. Gwande writes that, in contrast to our stated goals for elders in the U.S., the stated goal for his family in India was to help the centenarian grandfather do whatever he wanted – in this case, to ride his horse on a daily basis to inspect his farm.  This meant that the family secured a very docile horse and walked the horse with the grandfather on it, every day.  Notice what they did not do.  They did not say, “You’re too old to ride a horse.” Or, “ There’s no horse that is appropriate for you to ride.” Or, “Sorry, it is just not safe for you to ride a horse.”  Rather, they recognized that at 100, there is no “safe” and the only thing they could really do for their aging patriarch was to give him what he wanted at what was surely the end of his life. The rest of the book is very good and completely compelling, but if you read no further than this anecdote, I wager it will change you as it did me. I quit asking about the retirement community, stopped seeing the rugs as ticking time bombs, and stopped worrying about how I, an only child living across the country from them, would manage it when disaster came.  And several years later, it did. My mother fell and broke her hip.  But guess what? She did not trip over the rug, nor did she hit her head on the coffee table.  She fell leaving a friend’s birthday party at a lovely restaurant after a lovely meal.  And she didn’t trip over anything, just lost her balance and fell.  When she did she was perfectly coiffed and sporting a smart new dress. Three and a half weeks later she was dead at 93.  There was suffering in between to be sure.  But she died as she lived and there is something to be said for that.

Gwande’s work highlights the competing values we hold but rarely articulate when we are caring for elders.  In truth, it’s not much different than the calculus made when caring for children – particularly adolescents.  Safety versus autonomy.  In the U.S., we lean towards safety, always attempting to mitigate risk particularly for the old and the young. We long for safer playgrounds and safer old age. In the teen years, parents are challenged to know where the line is between allowing young people to make their mistakes versus keeping them safe from their under developed frontal cortexes. Perhaps this is why Being Mortalhit such a chord when it was assigned as UNC Chapel Hill’s 2016 summer reading book for incoming first year students.  When I heard about the assignment, I was perplexed.  Sure, I found the book meaningful as an adult child of older parents, but what would an 18 year old see?  But see it they did.  In the discussion section I co-facilitated, the first year students had read the book cover to cover, were eager to talk about it, and planned to share the book with their parents and grand parents.

It’s now been almost two years since my mother’s death and my dad, now 98, still lives in the house with the rugs, the coffee table, the full catastrophe. And although he picked up a walker the minute my mom fell and has not put it down since, he is weaker, requires more help, and still says no when I talk with him about moving. I promised my mother I’d look after him. “Make sure he turns off the coffee pot!”

She thought, as did I, that this meant he would move to North Carolina. I brought it up days after her funeral and he said no. At first, I thought we needed to give it time, no sudden changes, yada yada yada. But his position has remained stalwart. No, to moving across the country and no, to leaving his house. He explains, “Here, I am surrounded by everything that reminds me of my good wife and our long life. I know just where everything is. So keep me on the list at the retirement place and then, when I decide I need it, I’ll go.”  If I press, he describes moving into assisted living as moving into a “rat’s nest.”  Again, a conversation stopper.

People tell me I need to take a firmer stand with him, take the reins, force the issue. It’s true there have been some problems of late – medication mix ups, a couple of spills that resulted in waits on the floor until someone could arrive and “right the ship” as he cheerily puts it. But although he is weaker in both mind and body, in spirit he is strong. He is still the one who walked with me for hours in the Mark Twain National Forest naming every tree, who guided me into the hills near the farm where he grew up to drink from spring water that came sweet and pure from the earth, who showed me how moss grows and how it might help how to find my way should I get lost. He is still the one who liked to take the scenic route home from church and stop by what he called, “the land of many flowers.” (Check out the San Antonio Botanical Gardens when you have the chance.)  He is still the one who would write a poem in walnut shell and hang it on the Christmas tree for my mother each year. (I always wanted one too. But they were just for her.) He is still the one who, in response to some long forgotten heart break, told me, “Worry and cry as hard as you can about that young man for all of five minutes because that is more than he deserves.” And he is still the 19 year old who went bravely off to war when duty called, who saved his ship when it was lost, and fought for your freedom and mine. Who am I to tell him what to do with his last days, months, or years? Who am I to force him to do anything so that I, and others who care about him, can be assured that he is safe? When I push, he fights hard. And the truth is, although I know I could prevail it is a battle I don’t want to win. It would diminish him and he deserves better than that.  And perhaps, I can be grateful l that he’s not asking to ride a horse.



Current Events Family Youth Issues


What a week to be the mother of a 17-year-old boy.  At dinner a few nights ago, my son asked me if I would talk with him about Anita Hill. His AP Government class is studying the episode and he wanted to know what I remembered about it.  When my teen asks me questions beyond, “What’s for dinner?” my policy is to drop everything and engage. We talked for almost two hours.

He was interested in all of it. Where I was living: seven blocks behind the Capitol. How engaged I was in the coverage: I watched every minute I could and read every news article.  I told him about how electrified I was by the photograph featured here of the seven women who marched from the House to the Senate and demanded that the allegations be investigated. How I desperately wished I could go to the hearings myself.

Then, I told him what I remembered of Professor Hill. How she spoke clearly, without malice, with great dignity, how she introduced her parents to the committee, how she simply told the truth over and over. I told him how, until that time, I had liked Arlen Specter, the senator from Pennsylvania. But after his relentless attempts to embarrass Professor Hill I hated him. I remembered that the senator from Alabama, whose name escapes me, asked her in his slow southern drawl if she was, “a woman scorned” or if she wanted to “write a book.”  And then I told him how every man on that committee, including Joe Biden, cowered in response to Clarence Thomas’ opening punch accusing them of a “high tech lynching.”

And then I told him what twenty-something me took away from watching Anita Hill, although I could not have articulated it then. I learned that, as a woman, it did not matter that you were smart, well-spoken, modest, church going, high achieving, or from a hard-working family.  You could be a “good woman” or one with a more complicated past. But, if you told the truth about how men treat women, you would be over-ruled even if those men knew, in their heart of hearts, you were telling the truth. I told him about my own experiences of harassment and assault, even though they are mild in comparison to others. I told him that if something had happened to me in high school like what Professor Ford says happened to her, I would not have even had language to describe it, much less think it was illegal. Like her, I would have thought it was my fault or at least that there was nothing to be done about it.  I too would’ve been quiet. Indeed, about most violations that have happened in my life, I have been silent or made them into a joke.

We talked again last night after I insisted on listening together to this extraordinary podcast in which Caitlyn Flanagan and Michael Barbaro talk about an attempted ‘date rape’ in Flanagan’s high school past*. Embodied in their talk is the essence of atonement, a demonstration of what miracles are wrought by thorough and sincere apologies. It is a lesson in empathy, forgiveness, and redemption. Judge Kavanaugh should listen to it.

As we listened and then talked, I realized that this oldest and most complicated son of mine has grown up a lot in the last three years. He spoke with great empathy about what he is learning now that he has more female friends that tell him about how they live and move in the world. He cried as he listened to Ms. Flanagan describe her suicide attempt following the attack. He is recognizing the privileged place he occupies and how little the culture asks him to think about his safety or worth. He seems to be reckoning with the responsibility that comes with the unearned privilege he has as he makes choices about the adult he wants to be.

What will happen in the current circumstance is anybody’s guess. The values central to the situation – truth, honor, justice, or even mercy – are being completely ignored, ironic given the goal of filling a seat on our highest court. My son told me he thinks his generation of young men is different. I nodded in agreement, but in truth I doubt it. Unless they are extraordinary, young men will do what older men in their orbits do and what their culture tells them they can.  As the Kavanaugh confirmation continues to unfold, we will learn more about what our culture believes about women today. Silence does not serve us, and as the podcast points out, it does not serve our young men either.

*She wrote about this experience a few days ago in the Atlantic magazine.


Current Events Family race

The Confederates in My Attic

Saturday afternoon on my screened porch in Chapel Hill: You might think I’d hear birdsong and insects as the sticky summer weather lingers in early September. Instead, I hear sirens and helicopters. Once again white supremacist groups from neighboring counties are coming to stand guard at the confederate stump that once held the statue on our campus known as “Silent Sam.” The last time they visited, we walked up to take a look.  Draped in the stars and bars, the group carried well-printed signs about monuments and heritage preservation that told little about their lives or motivations.  We stayed for a bit and then headed home shaken and wondering how this conflict would resolve.

As our campus has been grappling with our confederate past, I have been learning about the confederates in my own family attic. Their stories are complex and in some ways mysterious. Although I’ve known they existed for along time, only recently have I learned some of the details of their stories.

My father is fast approaching 98. He grew up living with his paternal grandfather, a confederate veteran who lost his arm in a civil war battle near Helena, Arkansas. My injured great grandfather John was saved by his brother who dragged him behind a church then left to continue the fight. Union soldiers then captured John, completed the amputation of his arm, and paroled him to a nearby plantation for the remainder of the war. Family lore has it that after his arm healed, those same Union soldiers allowed John to fish the rivers of his childhood and sell those fish to Union troops. The money he earned bought the Missouri farm I roamed during my childhood summer visits. Because John lost his arm, he had to re-learn to write with the opposite hand, was elected county tax assessor, and became a peacemaker in his divided community of northern and southern sympathizers. Think Missouri compromise if you want to know why these two groups were living in such close proximity.

He is not the only confederate in my attic. His father before him, one Coleman Chapman, joined the confederate army to flee the Jay Hawks of Kansas. Great, great, grandfather Coleman was a minister and wheelwright, moving west from Tennessee to make wagon-wheels for the gold rush. He married Annie, the daughter of a slave-holding family. As my father tells it, even though Coleman and Annie did not enslave people themselves, they were not allowed to settle in certain states because of Annie’s family’s actions. They believed they were unfairly persecuted as “southern people,” and my father points out that to his knowledge no one on the Chapman side ever enslaved someone. He is wrong. This summer I found a will in which an ancestor in the 1700’s in South Carolina willed a young girl as a piece of property to one of his descendants. Probably the tip of the iceberg. When I read that will, I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. Nothing compared to what that young girl must have endured.

Then there is the Union soldier in my attic known as Uncle Lem. As my father tells it the divided state of Missouri was populated by what were essentially gangs – much like those described in the novel Cold Mountain. Young men had to join for basic safety and Lem, like Coleman who joined a confederate aligned group to escape the Jayhawks, joined up with a Union aligned militia. He was sent west to a Union garrison in what would become Montana where he was likely involved in “subduing” native populations. He came back to the same Missouri community as his confederate brothers, ran the local store, and made sure my dad had lunch every day through the Great Depression.

To my father, each of these people is a hero in their own way. They are brothers who saved one another’s lives. They are men who persevered after losing a limb so that they could feed their families and contribute to their community. Among these civil war veterans are individuals as real to him as he is to me, who created safety and sustenance for him through bleak days. When I tell him about the confederate statue coming down, he dislikes the idea, believes it dishonors people, long dead, but that he loves still. I try not to talk about it too much.

But I  think about these long gone ancestors as our campus struggles to find a path forward. Should they be honored, and if so, for what? History is a harsh judge; the simple version might make all of them villains. Even Uncle Lem, supposedly on the historically right side, was involved or at least a witness to crimes against native populations. Villain? Victim? Victor? Vanquished?

What I honor in their stories is not what they did or did not do during the civil war. For each of them, their choices may have been as much about survival as conviction. What I honor in these passed down stories are their choices after this conflict, particularly Great Grandfather John. Blessed are the peacemakers and he became one settling Hatfield and McCoy type feuds between northern and southern sympathizers and knitting his town back together through his church and government service. Peacemaking is something to which I can aspire, admire, and honor. Does any confederate statue do that?

As I’ve written previously on this blog, to read the speech that was given at the statue’s dedication in 1913 erases all doubt about the immoral ideals it celebrates. Its presence is an insult to my colleagues of color and taints the good work done daily at UNC. In the easy version of the story, we’d leave the statue in his undisclosed location and erect something that honors our common work, work that bridges divides, finds solutions to vexing problems, celebrates knowledge, and promotes creation of life-changing art and scholarship. But this story is not easy. Like my own confederate history, there is a lot we don’t know or have not acknowledged. For our campus, this moment is a reckoning, a time to face the difficult realities that echo through our buildings, bubble up on our quadrangles, and that have remained hidden for far too long. Once we, as a community, stand together and face the truth that enslaved people were housed in the basement of South Building, that our beautiful campus was built with slave labor, that it was 1966 before we had an African- American faculty member,, and all the rest of our yet unspoken history, then we will have peace. I like to think, although it may be wishful thinking, that Great Grandfather John, the peacemaker, the one who befriended his Union captors, the one who brought North and South back together in his community, would agree.

Acknowledgement: Title adapted from the Tony Horowitz book, “Confederates in the Attic.”


Just the Right Dress: A Mother’s Day Post

A woman going to a high school reunion faces the puzzlement of “what in the world should I wear?” This time last year I was preparing to travel home for a such an event coupled with a visit to my parents. At first, I tried the way of the minimalist. Surely there was something – perhaps several somethings – that might suffice in my over-stuffed closet? But panic crept up and I found myself shopping for “just the right dress.”

Although it sounds superficial, shopping is something my mom and I always liked to do together. Growing up, I remember hanging out at the mall with friends, but true shopping sprees were reserved for my mom. She had the checkbook after all!  But well into my adulthood, she had an eye, whether in person or in a catalogue, for what would look good on me. Once in a while, something she picked out would show up in my mail box. Sometimes this annoyed me even though that annoyance was ungracious, but more often than not, she would get it exactly right. So, as I searched for a reunion outfit, I was acutely aware that my best fashion consultant was in Texas and not in North Carolina shopping with me. After wallowing in indecision, I decided to take the runway to her. I bought several selections and took them home to San Antonio planning to return those deemed unacceptable. After dinner, I tried them on and she gave me her honest, sometimes too honest, opinion.  “That is trashy. Take it back.” “That one does nothing for you. Return it.” “That one’s good but not for this occasion.”  And finally, with a slight gasp, “Ah…I love that one.  It’s perfect.” And then, “I want one just like it!”

The next day off we trotted to the nearby branch of the store where I had purchased the “just right” dress to find one for her. My mom had trouble walking or standing so she decided to sit in the car while I looked for the dress in her size and a few other things she wanted. I couldn’t find the dress just like mine. But I found another dress and I brought it to the window to show her. I received an enthusiastic thumbs up and purchased it. We had it tailored and she was all ready to go for the birthday party she would attend a week later. It was at that party that she would fall as she was leaving and break her hip. She would suffer for three and half weeks and then die. In the hospital, she told me she wanted be buried in that new dress I chose for her and a week or so later I duly delivered it to the funeral home.

During the weeks after her fall and fracture, I was back and forth between my current home in North Carolina and our family home in Texas. On the final trip, I was not anticipating her imminent death. But there it was and I was faced with choosing what to wear to her funeral. Although we often wonder why people focus on such details after a death, I think it serves a purpose. It gives our minds some space get used to a new reality and it gives us a chance to find small ways to honor the person that was lost.

In my case, I was texting back and forth with my husband urging him to make sure my children were fully presentable for this occasion. Through texted pictures, I signed off on every belt, sock, and tie choice. Then, I realized he’d have to dig out something appropriate for me to wear. He started texting pictures and nothing was right until a last bittersweet connection built over a lifetime of shopping trips together gave me the answer. On the day of my mother’s funeral, we would wear the dresses we chose for each other. I already had “just the right dress.”

But the dress no longer feels just right. Every time I think of wearing it, I change my mind.  The shoes don’t work. It’s too light weight for the weather. I’m not sure I like the length. Not right for today. Not right for tomorrow. Not next week. Not ever? It seems like a waste.

But as I write this, a whisper of grief reminds me that this “year of firsts” with all its love, remembrance, reflection, and contemplation is ending. That ending is probably why I’m avoiding the dress. To wear it is to return it and me from the sacred space that I have given myself to grieve to embrace the full catastrophe* of the everyday. But if I could ask her, I know what she’d say:

“Take the dress to the tailor, maybe change it up a bit. Then it will be just right. Put it on and get going.”

Okay Mom. Will do.


*Zorba the Greek called his daily life — spouse, children, work — the “full catastrophe.” Most recently, this term has been embraced by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who writes about mindfulness practice.