Friday, December 31, 2010

Pink Hats 21: The Drive Home

"Have you forgotten, this is like, you know, the 21st century, for Chrysler's sake?" asked Jessie's roommate, a "broad-beamed and buxom babe," as she called herself, from North Carolina. A true "Southern Belle," she was careful of her language; using "Chrysler" in vain was as close as she ever came to profanity.

"I know the date as well as where we are and who I am," Jessie responded, "and I don't need to reenact the sexual revolution in order to feel like a woman. Bob will ask when he's ready."

"And if he doesn't?"

"If he doesn't, then my name is Josephine, his is Napoleon, and you can forget about this being the 21st century. He'll ask. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but he's going to and when he does, I'll say 'yes.'"

"And in the meantime...?"

"In the meantime, I've got an Foundations of Doctoring practical tomorrow and a date to see The Incredibles Saturday afternoon, so shut up and let me listen to your heart."

That was six years ago. We were only talking about going out. I can imagine what she'd say to me now, Jessie mused on the drive home from Concord, ask him about the conversation with your father. Did he approve or didn't he? It was early evening and Bob was dozing in the passenger seat while she took a turn at the wheel. She liked the Escape's audio system and found an alternative rock station on Sirius playing the instrumental version of Linkin Park's The New Divide. The difference between Jessie and her roommate was, Jessie insisted relational freedom was reciprocal. When he's ready, he'll tell me.

"If I had it to do over, I'd be their drummer."

"I thought you were asleep." She glanced at him briefly.

"I was, and dreaming about playing with Linkin Park. We were in concert at Madison Square Garden and instead of a bass drum, I had a giant stethescope that snaked around the stage with the diaphragm for a drum head."

"Sounds like the 'rhythm of medicine,'" she said, smiling at the image. "What do you think it means?"

"I should ask Chuck next week. I suppose it has something to do with being creative about life or putting things together in new ways." He lowered the seat back and stretched his long frame, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, and changed the subject. "Your father is quite a guy."

"That's what he said about you, just as we were leaving. He really likes you -- so does everyone else."

"I enjoyed them all tremendously," he said, "they're warm and friendly. It was like spending an afternoon with my cousins out West. I especially liked how your father is unafraid to voice his doubts about what he believes -- it came up in our conversation on the porch. I didn't ask, it didn't seem polite, but how did he ever manage to become a deacon? I'd have assumed one would have to toe the party line for that sort of thing and he strikes me as someone who makes up his own rules."

"He does and he doesn't," she said. "He believes in the core principles -- you'll have to ask him what he means by that -- but everything else is up for grabs, as he puts it. He says faith is a living thing and has to be worked out continuously in the sweat and stress of daily life. If we'd pay closer attention, he says, we'd hear the voice of God in each other, but mostly we're too busy looking for burning bushes to notice."

"I like that," Bob said, thoughtfully. "And you're right, he still loves your mother."

"He told you?"

"In so many words. He said whatever she found lovable about him, it's something he tries to live up to, even now. It was the way he said it, almost reverently. I think 'true love' for him has religious significance. He used the term 'sacramental,' and while I didn't entirely follow him, I have an idea he means it's transcendent, rather like we were talking the other night. He said it changed him and I know it's changing me."

She looked over at him in the darkness of the November new moon and thought, If I live to be 100, Bob Z., I'll never cease to be surprised by you. When she turned back toward the road, he slipped his arm around her shoulders and gently kneaded the muscles at the base of her neck. She sighed and said, "Me, too."

(Creative Commons image by tortipede via Flickr)

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

When Lady Luck Turns Her Back On You

Well, at long last I'm on the brink of clinical rotations, my first being scheduled to begin next week. Four weeks of osteopathic manipulative medicine in private practice followed by four more of community medicine at a different location, and so it goes, one after the other. I will most certainly graduate on time, in the sense that I'll walk across the stage with my graduating class, knowing members of my entering class will be in the audience. They've had to wait a long time for me to join them and that moment will represent a triumph for us all.

However, since I'm beginning rotations later in the academic year, this means I'll have to complete a few after graduation. As a result, while I'll go through the ceremony, actually completing medical school will have to wait a bit. It happens; I'm not the first nor will I be the last. For some students, the art of medical school begins at the point where their education departs from the well-beaten path. Incidentally, this is also the point at which medical school becomes, or at least ought to become, a character-building experience. Whether it does so or not depends on the person, as does most everything in life. There's nothing automatic and there are no guarantees.

One thing happens or another and the first thing you know, your scheduled graduation is postponed by a year and what your fellows will accomplish in four, you'll do in five. Then you try to run the blockade of board exams and another year gets tacked on for good measure. Finally you find a way through that smokescreen and begin rotations. That's where I am now.

The extent to which you can call any of this "character building" seems like a joke when it's coming down on top of you. Your only goal is to survive. If you can manage it with a modicum of self-esteem intact, you've come a long way, baby. You tell yourself every hurdle overcome is one closer to getting you where you wanted to be in the first place. And that's not a lie. Even better, it gradually dawns on you that every one has the potential to bring you closer to others when their path diverges in the wood and circumstances decide which fork they're going to take, whether they like it or not.

If there's anything I've gotten from my own experience it's the opportunity to be grateful for those connections. As you may have guessed or long suspected, I'm not one of those who prefers the company of persons who have no idea what it's like to bang your head against a wall to that of those who do. I like people who've faced their demons and have the scars to prove it. They have a depth which makes me feel strengthened and enlivened from being in their presence. There's a lot of experiences I've felt I could have done without, but in the long run, the fact that they've created friendships with people like I've just described, makes me realize there are worse things than having Lady Luck turn her back on you.

(Creative Commons image entitled "Lady Luck" by Emily Raw via Flickr)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pink Hats 20: Untarnished and In Uncharted Territory

The Livingstone House, as the parishioners of Grace Episcopal Church fondly referred to it, wasn't exactly in Concord, though its mailing address claimed otherwise. About a mile outside the town limits, Bob swung his Escape onto a country lane lined on both sides with white flat-board fences declaring the acreage within to be horse pasture. At alternating intervals, first right then left, between the fence posts, were rows of not quite leafless maple, chestnut, and birch trees, creating a scene that would have made Norman Rockwell envious.

It was the first weekend in November and the previous month's Halloween was one he and Jessie would retell until their children knew it by heart. The two of them, along with Halley and Ted, dressed up like Harry Potter characters -- Bob as Ron, Jessie as Hermione, Halley was Delores Umbridge, and Ted made a very passable Rubeus Hagrid. They took the twins, each wearing a miniature peaked black witch's hat, trick or treating, and passed out candy to the children they met. Halley enshrouded the baby carriage built for two with black satin, like a hearse, and they took turns at the helm. If it takes a village to raise a child, as Hillary Clinton said, the twins were well on their way.

The lane curved deeply into a stream-fed, thickly wooded glen, and they drove through a small but classic New England covered bridge. Another bend to the right, a quick one to the left, and if they weren't careful, they'd have overshot the driveway marked by orange reflectors and a large, white wooden mailbox decorated with painted yellow daisies and the name "Livingstone" on the side in dark blue script. The reflectors were the small, round variety perched on twisted metal stems extending from ground level, informing nighttime drivers of the existence of an entry onto the lane. There were no street lamps this far into the country.

Bob parked next to a dual-axle Chevy truck with the words, "Southern New Hampshire Large Animal Clinic" lettered on the door with a phone number. "My brother's," said Jessie, as she held her door open for Sam. He bounded out and ran to join a game of frisbee between father, daughter, daughter-in-law, son, and two grandchildren. "Johnny -- we call him that to distinguish him and my dad -- Johnny married Julie, his high school sweetheart," she explained, "and the kids came along while they were in college. They're eight and ten. Julie's the clinic office manager, bookkeeper, and sometime vet tech." Recalling his difficulty remembering names, she winked and said. "Don't worry, we're easy to remember -- think 'J' and you'll feel like you're back in medical school."

Moments later, they were surrounded by her family and a flurry of hugs and handshakes ensued, welcoming Bob as though he was a long, lost cousin. "Thank God Jessie had the good sense to find someone who's name begins with something besides a J," her father said. "We need some variety in this family!"

"Well, I could go by my middle," Bob said, smiling, "James." They laughed at the synchronicity while John herded the group into the house and stood, holding the front door. Bob was about to enter last when John laid a hand on his shoulder and said, "I hope we'll have time for a chat later on, just you and me."

"Yes, sir, I'd like that very much."

"Sir. Did you hear that Jessie?" he shouted, "Bob called me 'sir.' Looks like I'm finally going to get the respect around here I so richly deserve!" He adopted a regal stance, hands on his hips, and gazing about as if surveying his kingdom. The household erupted into laughter as he turned to Bob and said, "I appreciate the compliment, but the truth is, too many 'sirs' and I start looking around to see if my father's risen from the grave." He rolled his eyes for emphasis.

Lunch at the Livingstone House was loud and lively, drowning out the Opus 3 Handel Concerti Grossi playing in the background. Jessie leaned over and whispered, "Don't be afraid to reach for something or to interrupt. Even when my mother was alive, formality at dinner meant you used a napkin instead of your sleeve. Which we all did, but you know what I mean."

"Do you come from a large family, Bob?" asked Johnny. "More gravy?"

"No, I'm afraid, I don't -- yes, thanks -- I'm an only child, but my parents and I were close and I had lots of friends growing up, so I wasn't lonely."

"Me too," said Julie, "Would someone pass the salad, please? When Johnny and I married, I suddenly found I had 'sisters' and it's been wonderful."

It continued like that for a couple of hours
, Bob's impression being, these people genuinely like each other. After the birthday cake had been cut and eaten and presents opened, the two kids insisted on more frisbee and were joined by everyone except Bob and John, both of whom settled into wicker chairs on the front porch.

"If I had cigars, I'd offer you one, but since I don't and never smoked them anyway, I guess it's a moot point," John said, with a twinkle. "So, you want to marry my oldest daughter."

"You don't waste any time, do you?" asked Bob, at which the eldest of the two chuckled. "Well, I won't either, but pardon me if I use the word 'sir.' This is one time I feel like I ought to, and yes, sir, I do."

"Don't worry about it. It's never easy talking to the 'father of the bride.' I practically wet my trousers when I asked for her mother's hand. You're doing a little better than that, I presume?"

"My hands are sweating, how's that?"

"It's good -- don't laugh, I'm serious," he said, "Well, not entirely, but if a fellow wasn't nervous, I'd think there was something wrong, and I am serious about that. No matter how well we knew each other, if he wasn't scared to death I might withhold my approval, I'd wonder if he really loved my daughter."

"You don't have to be concerned about that, not today at least," Bob said, wiping his hands on his pants. "It isn't that I'm afraid Jessie would refuse to marry me without your blessing, it's because she's so important to me that I want us to have the support of her family and, especially, you."

"I can appreciate that," said John.

"I realize I'm incredibly fortunate. Jessie is the most...I don't know how to say it without sounding like I'm putting her on a pedestal, which I'm not. She's amazing. I've never known anyone who was so natural, unselfconscious, kind and generous with herself, and yet, incredibly daring at the same time. I've often thought, if I could only be more like her --"

"-- I felt the same about her mother. She was reasonable when I was hard-headed, thoughtful when I couldn't care less -- and she was daring, too, probably where Jessie gets it. I thought marrying me was risky, but not her. She saw something in me worth loving and it made me want to live up to whatever that was." He paused and said, quietly, "I still try to do that."

Bob noticed the change and hesitated a respectful few seconds before continuing. "I fell in love with your daughter before I even knew it. I'm sure she's told you why I waited before saying anything." John nodded. "She's always mattered more to me than I did to myself and I don't think I've ever felt quite that way before. I thought I did, I said I did, and I meant it. But with her," he sighed and shook his head, "everything is...different. I'm probably not explaining this well and I'm not sure I can. It's as though the person I used to be has been washed away and she's getting me completely new and untarnished."

John looked down at his lap and was quiet. "You're talking about baptism, whether you realize it or not. Baptism is a sacrament, an outward symbol of an inward grace. Am I losing you? Sorry, let me try again. Your relationship with Jessie is taking you into uncharted territory and you're being changed for the better because of it. What you're describing isn't a metaphor; it's real."

He waited before going on. "If you were coming to me for premarital counseling, I'd say you've found the one you were meant to find." He leaned forward in his chair and said, "Listen, there are women a man can marry and have things work out fine. But when he finds 'the one,' it's much more than that. She makes him feel like his whole life, up to meeting her, has been, for want of a better word, preparation. It's as though he's been getting ready for her, and now the stage is set for his real life, the one for which he was born, to begin. And it's the same with her. How that's going to unfold, depends on them. There are no road maps. We discover it as we go."

It was Bob's turn to be silent and he was for a long minute. "You keep using the term, 'meant.' Do you think it was fate that brought us together?"

"Well, fate, the will of God, the benevolence of the universe, I don't know. Jessie probably told you I have more than my share of doubts about the things I believe. All I know with certainty is what I've experienced, and on that basis, I think it's safe to say some relationships -- like the one I had with her mother -- are so unique, so distinct, it takes more faith than I have to presume they resulted merely from the luck of the draw. Remember your Shakespeare? 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreampt of in your philosophy.' It helps to keep an open mind."

"I've said that very thing many times in other contexts," Bob said, referencing John's last statement. "And I have doubts as well, but if there is anything to what you believe, and I mean that respectfully, then loving and being loved by Jessie is the proof of it." Shifting his gaze to Jessie, who was about to leap for an awesome catch, he said simply, "She's the love of my life."

"I know," said John, following his gaze, "and you're hers. That's why you don't have to worry about my approval."

"I don't? Does that mean you...?"

"It does."

(Creative Commons image by Aelle via Flickr)
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Monday, December 27, 2010

My Father's Gloves

snowmanWell, the snow has stopped for now, but the wind continues to howl, imitating the sound of a passenger jet flying low overhead. Or the sound of traffic on the highway from the patio of my apartment in Champaign this past fall. It's funny how one thing triggers the memory of another. Oh, it's started again -- snowing. We had a couple of inches before Christmas, enough to qualify for a white one, and I have an idea Maine has seen the last of the soil until spring.

This is the kind of snow I loved and hated as a kid. Loved because my gloves didn't soak through while playing, hated because it was too dry to pack. No snowballs or snowmen will be forthcoming from this one. The wet snows were my father's bane. First, my gloves would get wet, so I'd come inside and tell my mother. She'd produce another pair, usually my dad's, and I'd go back out and play until those were too wet and cold to wear. Once again inside and "Mom!" Another pair of my father's, and you guessed it, he'd come home later to find all of his, side by side with mine, dripping in front of the radiator. This did not make him happy.

"Son, I needed gloves so that I could do some work in the barn and feed the horses."

"But I needed them to play." I felt badly -- really, I did. While I was playing, though, it was hard to see further than the next snowball.

"Mm. Well, do me a favor, next time leave me at least one pair, okay?"

"Okay." The lessons of my youth.

I think about those days when it snows because, as soon as it stops snowing, I'll go out and start digging my way from the door to the driveway, and then from the barn door to the street. My polartech gloves will be the first to dampen, then my old wind-proof gloves I got at REI in Boulder, and finally, if it comes down to it, my leather work gloves.

Thankfully, if all else fails, I still have a pair of my father's in a drawer. I guess I could always resort to those. Psst. Don't tell him, okay?

(Creative Commons image by Grant MacDonald via Flickr)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Pending Blizzard

This is just a note to let you know, if you don't see any new posts before Tuesday, it's because we've lost power. We're under a blizzard warning in my area and power outages are possible. If that occurs, then Sunday's, Monday's, as well as Tuesday, will hopefully, appear at the same time -- more or less. Thanks!

The Healing Clause

Film poster for The Santa Clause 2 - Copyright...Image via Wikipedia I mentioned yesterday, in addition to The Santa Clause, The Santa Clause 2 was one of my favorite Christmas films. The reason is, both of these, but especially the second, points out the significance of Santa Claus for adults. This isn't something one usually thinks about, the presumption being, Santa, his elves and reindeer are the stuff of fairy tales and, as everyone knows, fairy tales are for children. The thing is, that's not entirely true.

Fairy tales, as they are written, as "they lived happily ever after" stories, are for children. As a vehicle for communicating truths about life, however, fairy tales are for adults and most of the literature you'll see concerning their meaning applies to adults. Movies and television can be helpful as springboards for discussion because we all see the same image played out and have the same frame of reference. 

In The Santa Clause 2, Scott Calvin aka Santa, has a problem. In order for him to remain Santa, he has to fulfill The Mrs. Clause, i.e. he has to find a wife. It helps to read the fine print before signing on the dotted line. Anyway, in the course of searching for one he can live with, he actually finds one he wants to be with, but wouldn't you know it? she has a problem, too. When he tries to reveal his identity, she refuses to believe him. This is not a minor detail. We can't very well expect her to marry a man she can't or ought not to have believed, can we? I know of women (men, too) who've done it, but they lived to regret it. Well, Carol, our character, has a reason for her disbelief. She was very seriously disappointed as a child when her parents informed her there was no Santa.

Now, this isn't like Lois Lane's incredulity over Clark Kent telling her he's Superman. Carol was hurt so badly by her parents' revelation that she continues to be extremely sensitive about anything related to Christmas. As a result, she's done what anyone might under similar circumstances, i.e. set up defenses to avoid being hurt again. But this only makes it harder for her to trust, and before she can experience Scott's love, she has to be willing to trust.

Carol's not the only one character with Christmas "issues." We see her, Scott, and the faculty of a school where she is principal, at a Christmas party, and it's a lifeless one. There is no joy or frivolity, no one is dancing -- they all act like they've come down with a bad case of the blues. In an effort to intervene "therapeutically," Scott introduces the "Secret Santa." Although Carol whispers to him there is no Secret Santa, he insists there is and produces a bag of gifts to prove it.

When the packages are opened, each person discovers either a toy from childhood they wanted but kept to themselves or one that was especially meaningful. These aren't just any toys, these are special toys, healing toys -- ones that possess the power to touch a person, not only where they've been hurt, but where the pain lingers. In a sense, they are sacramental, conveying the grace of genuineness, of letting go, of playing with abandon. Self-consciousness vanishes as the party goers are free to be themselves.

I entitled this post, The Healing Clause as a word-play on the film's title, because it seems to me the mythic role Santa plays in the lives of adults is that of healer. It may be something we experience with our children, watching them light up at the sight of Santa at the end of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade or any other parade of the season. Smaller ones, too, like Boulder's Lights of Christmas, where I've stood on the sidewalk, with gloved hands round a rapidly cooling cup of hot chocolate, alongside children who were cold as icicles until they saw Santa and his reindeer and everything changed.

Something happens as we remember old hurts and the jolly old man in a sleigh somehow touches our hearts and we begin to let them go. I don't understand it, maybe it's the power of myth, maybe it's the Season, maybe it's beyond me, but wherever the magic comes from, I know it's real because I'm different and others are different around me. If you've experienced it, you know what I mean and if you haven't, I hope someday you do. You'll be glad you did.

(Fair use of low-resolution image of copyrighted movie poster for The Santa Clause 2 to provide critical commentary on the film itself and not merely as an illustration. Source: Wikipedia)

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Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Good Samaritan Reindeer

Rudolph...For the record, let me say The Santa Clause is my favorite Christmas film, hands down. What makes it so special for me is the way Scott Calvin is changed on the inside by circumstances he clearly can't control, as well as the impact of those changes on those around him. It's a theme repeated in The Santa Clause 2, another favorite, one that I'll revisit later this weekend. Right now, what I'd like to do is ask, whatever happened to poor Rudolph? Have you ever noticed, he's not included in Santa's reindeer? Did the filmmakers mess up? What's going on here?!

Well, I think the explanation may have crept into my head sometime between cup of coffee #1 and #2 this morning. The first description of Rudolph appeared in a booklet written in 1939 by Robert L. May on assignment by the department store giant, Montgomery Ward. Eventually, his story became a song and the rest, as they say, is history. Rudolph has been a fixture in Santa Claus mythology ever since. But not in The Santa Clause.

The reason we don't see Rudolph in the film is simple. There are no foggy Christmas Eves. Rudolph's claim to fame results from a single night when Santa needed him. His is the tale of the "fool" who is rejected by all until the time comes when only he can save the day. He was never intended to be the ninth reindeer forever and he only shows up when the flying conditions are poor enough that Santa needs fog lamps. Not on snowy Christmas Eves or bright, shining moon-lit ones like last night's in Maine. But on foggy ones when not even the sharpest-eyed can find their way through the soup between the North Pole and points south.

Now, I think this is an important piece of information to have at hand, especially when our children notice, as they most certainly will, that Rudolph is missing. It's not an inaccuracy or a mistake or, as unbelievers would suggest, evidence that it's all humbug anyway. It's simply an accurate reflection of the fact that Rudolph has a unique role and only fills it when necessary.

I guess you could call him the Good Samaritan Reindeer. Kind of like the three people who came to the rescue of a woman trapped in a rollover crash last night near my home. They didn't have to stop and Rudolph could have told Santa he was busy, but they did and he didn't, the woman is recovering nicely and Santa made his rounds on time. I like that. Rudolph is a reindeer with a conscience.

So, remember, now, when you look up into the Christmas Eve sky, searching faithfully, as I do every year, for a sign, a streak of light, or anything at all that fulfills the desire of your heart to see him at long last, don't be disappointed if there's not a red spot in the lead. Not unless it's foggy that is, and then Rudoph's nose is all you'll see. And that will be good enough for me.

P.S. To all who have made this blog a part of your lives the past year(s), please accept my sincerest thanks and best wishes to you and yours for a wonderful and blessed Christmas and Holiday Season!

Beggar, the dog, and the cat

(Creative Commons image by Zoomloes via Flickr)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Pink Hats 19: Together

"I's sorry to disappoint you, Ladies, but ah don' know no John Denver lullabies 'r anythin' else. He is or he was, ah should say, mighty fine, but all ah know is good ole Gospel, so thas' what you gonna get. It's eye-ronic fer him to die flyin' and you two pert near doin' likewise. Maybe there's somethin' in dat, but t'ain't fer me ta figure. Tha' Lord, he knows dese kinda tings and I leave 'm in his capable hands. Meantime, les' try us some Amazin' Grace."

Of course, little did they know, the Saturday morning while Bob and Jessie were driving to New Hampshire for her father's birthday, their foster father had sung in one church choir or another, most of his life. Halley was raised attending what is called in New England, a United Baptist Church, affiliated with the American Baptist Convention. Baptist history is a like a stew made with a little bit of everything in the spice cabinet thrown in for good measure. English Baptists were the first to actually use the name, but once they got to the New World, all hell broke loose, as Bob would say. What was once a fairly unified body ended up with more branches than Medusa's head.

Ted was a Baptist, too, but as tends not to be the case in most predominantly White Baptist Churches, Halley discovered worship in a Black congregation meant hand-clapping, amen-shouting, and a minister who preached while pacing back and forth, only stopping when it was time to pray and go home. She liked faith being treated as though it was something worth getting excited about for a change and fit in nicely.

Jessie and Bob left early, having decided to take the scenic route west along route 4, the Old Portland Road, through Sanford and the Berwicks, over the state line to Concord. They had just pulled into a parking space in front of the Donut Hole Cafe in East Buxton for refills and homemade pastries, when Bob said, "I've been thinking about living space. Mine. Yours. Now the twins'. Mine wasn't a house built with a family in mind and neither was your apartment. Mine would do short-term, but honestly, I haven't felt 'at home' there for years."

She looked over at him as if pondering whether to finally tell him the truth, there really was a Santa Claus and she'd met him personally, or to keep him guessing. Finally, she said, "Let's get some coffee. I want you to see something."

A few minutes later, she directed him down a long road in the  direction of Salmon Falls on the Buxton side of the Saco River. "Drive slowly," she said, "the property," indicating the corner of a cedar-rail fence line, "there, that's it." She pointed to a large white two-story Cape Cod with an attached barn at the crest of a long, well-kept grassy slope. He slowed the Escape to a stop and she said with a deep, longing sigh, "Isn't it beautiful? I've adored this place for years. I saw it the first time while taking a drive in the country the week after we met."

"Beautiful is right. Is this all there is? The house, barn, and the field we passed?"

"Oh, no, there's a total of 90 acres, most of it pasture that includes, are you ready for this? A cross-country course -- you said you wanted horses again. And there's a grandmother's cottage, two more smaller barns, and almost a mile of river bank." Her voice got higher as she became more animated. "It was built in 1779 and has four bedrooms -- three upstairs including the master, one over the barn -- a great room, a library, a huge kitchen, and three fireplaces, one of which is in the master bedroom. And it has a garden."

He gave her an amused look and said, "You missed your calling. You should have become a realtor."

"Don't get me started. I love old historic houses, but it wasn't until I saw this one that --"

" -- you knew you'd found your dream home." At the unspoken question on her face, he said, "It's your expression, describing it. You've already got your name on the mailbox." He smiled at her and asked, "I don't see a sign, is it on the market?"

"It is," she said, slowly, "but it's not inexpensive." She told him the asking price and he suggested calling Monday for an appointment to see the interior.

"You aren't concerned about the cost?"

"Not that much. I never touched my weekend salary; I put all of it away thinking someday I may want to move or fund college education for the children I didn't have. The house in Stroudwater is paid for, so it should bring a healthy sum. Off hand, I'd say there's enough to set aside money for the twins, two or three more, and still make a substantial down payment."

"And even with my student loans, together we could make the monthly." Together, she thought, that has a lovely ring to it.

"Together," he said, reflectively. "Mm, that has a nice sound to it. Maybe we should talk about that, too, sometime?"

"Oh-kay," she said, a smile slowly forming at the corners of her mouth.

(Photo by the author, copyright 2010, all rights reserved)
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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Pink Hats 18: Barbara Bush to the Rescue

Although some researchers suggest the development of short-term memory begins as early as the third trimester, the twins would probably never recall the wild ride along a country road culminating in their first flight and potentially fatal first landing. Being cuddled against a chest resonating with a male baritone softly singing slightly off-key renditions of Annie's Song and Poems, Prayers, and Promises, in lieu of Brahm's lullaby, was something else again. In the weeks they'd been residents at Hotel Maine Med, the twins had begun recognizing primary caregivers, especially Mr. Baritone and a certain Ms. Soprano, who sometimes came to see them alone, though more often, with him. It was the highlight of their day.

Being removed from the comfort and familiarity of the "Hotel," probably came as a bit of a shock, but they recovered nicely. Under Halley's supervision, and recalling his rudimentary attempts at parenting their own newborns, her husband, Ted, had transformed their guest room into an acceptable semblance of a nursery, complete with cribs, mobiles, and teddy bears, a lot of teddy bears. He admitted he'd overdone it at Toys R Us, but he had a good time and, besides, "Kids need lots of teddy bears," he said.

The project itself came about when Halley, cooing in his ear as if she was making him the kind of offer the manufacturers of Cialis dream about, explained, "DHHS has gotten involved with the twins." After letting the impact of her statement as well as it's tone, sink in, she continued, "Ordinarily, foster parenting -- close your mouth, big guy, before you hyperventilate -- requires six months of training, but someone, a very well-placed someone I'm told, in the hospital hierarchy intervened and we'll be allowed to foster the twins under supervision the first six months. So, we're golden, if you're willing, that" She punctuated her question by gently nuzzling his ear and following it with a suggestive wink. What Halley wanted, she usually got, and he was generally the happier for it. When her requests were framed like this one, he had no complaints whatsoever.

And he was happy, watching his new tenants drift off to sleep. "Ladies, you gonna love it here. Th' food's good, th' cook's pretty, and th' waitah, tha's me, he don' take no tips. Wheah you gonna find it bettah den dat? Doctahs Jessie and Bob'll be by to see you and life is gonna get real in-ter-estin' sooner'n you know." Ted was African-American but said of himself, "I'm a Black man from th' South Side of Chicago -- bein' Black was good enough in th' Hood and if folks don' think it's politically correct enough, tha's jes the way it is." He had a Master's Degree in English Literature from the University of Maine but prided himself in his ability to resort to ethnicity at will.

Ted was just out of high school when Uncle Sam decided it was time for him to do some serious growing up. He had been "in country" almost his entire tour before he and Halley were introduced one evening during the 1968 Tet Offensive, by an NVA bullet that entered his thigh along with 23 fragments of grenade shrapnel in various other places. She was working in a mobile surgical hospital and nearing the end of her first and only tour as well. They shipped out for the States together, him wearing a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, and she, his wedding ring. Their parents were upset -- it was 1968, after all, and racial tensions in America were running high. A mixed marriage between a White woman and a Black man would not be easily overlooked, but they threw caution to the wind and let love decide.

The way Halley put it to Ted, their approval as the twin's foster parents was a walk in the park. The truth was, the girls were dangerously close to being placed with strangers, reliable and trustworthy no doubt, but strangers nonetheless and Bob had very much hoped to keep things "in the family." Jessie got wind of their pending discharge first and sent Bob a page with the numbers 911 appended to it, which meant, drop everything and call me now.

He, in turn, once he'd gotten the 411 from Jessie, immediately paged the medical chief of staff and she arranged a STAT meeting between the two of them and the hospital CEO. After detailing Bob's plan to adopt, they reminded him of the generous public attention the hospital had received since the whole affair began. Local television stations covered the story, photos taken by the PR director regularly appeared in The Portland Press Herald, and even Barbara Bush, "W's" mother, had dropped by and had her picture taken with Bob, Jessie, and the twins -- as well as the CEO -- during a recent visit to the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital. A framed and autographed copy was sitting prominently on the his desk.

For his part, the CEO wasted no time in contacting DHHS; the results of the conversation were not especially satisfying. However, his next call to Kennebunkport, followed by Barbara's to Maine's Governor Baldacci, and then his to the Director of the Department of Health and Human Services, was, for some odd reason, more productive, and Halley and Ted received prompt approval. In addition, the adoption process, they were assured, while it must follow certain protocols, would go smoothly with absolutely no delays.

That same evening, following the twins' arrival at their new digs, Jessie and Bob came over to see them. "The way you looked at me, Bob, when ah took the girls from you, ah thought I's a goner," Ted said, joking.

"He's just a protective daddy-to-be," said Jessie, who was sitting in the rocker with one twin, and smiling affectionately at Bob, who was holding the other.

"Well, tha's all well an' good, cuz gals as purty as these two are gonna need lots o' protection when they hit sweet 16."

"And that's why he's got me," Jessie said, "to make sure the shotgun stays locked in the closet when boys come over!"

Bob smiled and said nothing, prompting Jessie to ask, "What is it, honey?"

"Oh, I was thinking about Barbara -- Barbara Bush to the rescue. She didn't have to go to bat for us, but she did and then insisted we send photos at Christmastime. She's quite a woman. I'm really touched."

"I feel the same way, but I've got a feeling something else is on your mind."

He was quiet for a second or two and said, ducking the teddy bear she playfully threw at his head, "Well...if only she was a Democrat."

(Creative Commons image by esther1616 via Flickr)

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pink Hats 17: The Rest is Frosting

"The days are all blurring into one..."

"You got that right, Jake," Bob said wearily, addressing the character Jake Sully, in the DVD of Avatar Jessie and he were watching. "Whoever coined the phrase 'Friday night, date night,' was obviously not a doctor."

"No, they weren't, but I'm not complaining" Jessie said, "I couldn't do this in a theater." She snuggled closer to him, draping her right leg over both of his.

He slid his arm around her and said, wryly, "Not unless you want to get arrested."

They were sitting -- lounging is more accurate -- on his over-sized chair-for-two with their legs stretched onto the matching ottoman. The past two weeks, since his conversation about adoption with Chuck, Bob and Jessie had been so busy, their contact was limited to text messages saying, "I love you," and sleepy, late night phone calls. They'd been able to grab a couple of quick lunches together, in her office or his, and on a couple of occasions, one seeing the other passing in the hall, they'd slip into a vacant room, like two teenagers, for a quick kiss and hug. First one would leave and a few seconds later, the other.

That morning, Jessie arrived at the hospital and found a mixed bouquet of flowers leaning against her office door with a note that read, "Pizza and a movie, my place, 8 pm tonight? xoxo, B." She responded with a text, "C U then. xoxo." To an outsider, their courtship might have seemed less than ideal, but the reality of medicine is such that it becomes the silent partner in any relationship. Something Bob and Jessie knew going in.

"My favorite poet is Rich Berlin," Bob said, punching the pause button, leaving Jake asleep in his cinematic bunk. "He's a psychiatrist out in Lenox and we met at a conference on medical journalism a few years ago. Anyhow, he wrote this poem called 'Our Medical Marriage,' about him and his wife, and there's a line I'd like to read to you." He reached his free arm across the chair and picked up a thin paperback off the end table and opened it to a dog-eared page.

'One hushed June evening in mid-life
scented rose and thick with fireflies,
the phone steals her.
I sit with my half-filled glass
and the life we knew we were choosing,
our marriage a joining of two strains
of mint, planted close, cross-pollinated
to form a single type, the small, unfailing
flowers arrayed in purple spikes
I can see most clearly
when I'm down on my knees.'

"Mm," she whispered, "I love that. Especially the line about two strains, cross-pollinated to form a single type."

"Me, too, and also the evidence of it, the small flowers, that he's able to see best when on his knees. I assume he's referring to his garden -- I've never asked him about it, I should -- but I'd also like to think it refers to a sense of humility he feels in the presence of their marriage. It's the kind of thing I feel when I think about us."

She laid her chin on his shoulder and said, "Tell me more."

"What I mean is, when I think about the way we met and all the time in between, and how you make me feel as though anything and everything is possible -- I've never been particularly religious, though my parents were -- but about you and me, I feel like I'm in the presence of something...for want of a better word, something transcendent. I'm so much in awe of you."

He'd turned his face toward her as he said this and she traced her finger around his lips before kissing them lightly. "You, sir, are utterly amazing. It is a gift, what we have, and one I never thought would feel quite like this. I'm not certain I can describe it, but it feels deeper, more 'alive' -- it makes me want to take chances and go exploring, to see what's out there beyond the boundaries of my life. And what makes it wonderful is we were both going in that direction, individually, and now we're going together."

"It's kind of like Jake, here," he said, gesturing toward the television. "he's slowly losing his connection with the person he was before he landed on Pandora and is taking on the identity of his Avatar and all that it means. Who he is on the inside is becoming a more accurate reflection of who he is on the outside. I feel like that's happening with me, and you and the twins are inescapably essential pieces of my puzzle. And you're the biggest and most important piece of all."

She smiled. "I like what's happening. To both of us. How we're finding a way that's ours. It's a good thing. You haven't brought up adoption this evening, but I want to because it's time you knew where I stand. I want my own children and if we decide we want them to be 'our children,' there is no doubt in my mind, I want that, too. But I also love the twins and I'm absolutely with you in any decision you make."

"It's a huge step, Jess. It means we're going to be a family from the outset. I hadn't planned on things developing quite like this when we first met, but they have and --"

" -- neither of us could have planned it and that's the beauty of it, sweetie. This is out of our hands, in a sense, and I like that. We're being led in directions we wouldn't have thought of and couldn't have anticipated, and as long as we're always together, it doesn't really matter to me which of those directions we take. First and always, you're who I want. The rest is frosting."

He shook his head. "I am so lucky, God, I'm so lucky."

"Yes, you are," she said, kissing his cheek, "and so am I."

(Creative Commons image by Sifu Renka via Flickr; Our Medical Marriage from How JFK Killed My Father by Richard M. Berlin, MD, Pearl Editions Publishers, copyright 2004)

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pink Hats 16: A Little 'Couch' Time

"Howdy. You weren't visiting the twins, so I thought I'd find you here." Using the code Bob had given him, Chuck tried the doc's lounge. He stepped over to the counter and selected French Roast from the automated maker. "You want a refill?"

"Hey, Chuck. You done for the day?" asked Bob. He looked at his watch, 8:00 PM, and added, "For the evening? Yeah, thanks."

"Pretty much," Chuck said, knowing he was preaching to the choir. Bob was no stranger to late hours, especially since he'd started seeing the twins. "Unless you have anything going on I can help with, that is. You know me, glutton for punishment."

"Suits you well as a student -- within limits. It's easy for an overworked resident to take advantage of you without meaning to and you end up doing more than you should. Just be aware. It's like 'the road to hell is lined with good intentions.'"

"Thanks for the heads up. So, speaking of which, are you done with me?"

"More or less. Have a seat, there's something I'd like to bounce off you, something personal, if you'd be willing. A little informal couch time."

"Not at all. What's on your mind?" he asked, setting both cups on the table and falling into therapist mode. Asking a patient what was on their mind was one of his favorite open-ended questions for initiating conversation. With a new one, it might be, "How can I be of help?" Though Bob wasn't a patient, old habits die hard.

"To get right to the point, I'm thinking about adopting the twins. I've gone through my own list of reasons, my age, and so forth, but I'm wondering how it looks to someone like you, with your background. If I were to ask for 'psychological' impressions, what would you say?"

"I'd say it's interesting you should bring this up because it reminds me of a patient I worked with a few years ago. He was retired military, put in 30 years, had never married, and was thinking he'd like to have a family. Mid-fifties, had been careful with his money, bought a house in Denver, and gradually came to realize he'd lived primarily for himself most of his life. He wasn't depressed, he didn't appear to be compensating for guilt or avoiding grief. He wasn't trying to use kids to 'save a bad marriage,' as sometimes happens. He was simply a guy taking stock of his life and had been thinking for quite a while that he'd missed out on some important things along the way."

"So, you're saying he was having a mid-life crisis?"

"You could say that. I didn't because mid-life is always a time, for men at least, of reevaluation, thinking back-thinking ahead, getting in touch with feelings in ways they'd ignored for most of their career-building years. The idea of a 'crisis' is usually associated with an acute, precipitating event like a divorce or illness that forces a man to face up to his mortality. I didn't get any of that from him. Retirement can do it, of course, especially if a person doesn't prepare and has no specific ideas for using their time. This guy had opened a photo gallery in Lo-Do a year before I began seeing him -- Lo-Do is Denver's equivalent of Portland's Old Port -- and was happy, optimistic, and overall, doing quite well. Families would come in, he said, and he noticed how he felt when he saw them. He'd started working with Big Brothers, thinking doing something with one kid would help, but it wasn't enough. So, he thought maybe it's not too late to have some of his own.

"Sure, it's possible to interpret his desire as denial of mortality -- if he has kids, he won't get old. I was reluctant to do so because it seemed to me he was attempting to be more true to himself, to the person he might have been, to accept responsibility for himself as a man in mid-life, rather than pretend he was 22 once again, footloose and fancy-free."

"Women do it, have children on their own," Bob said, "and quite often, as a matter of fact. I have several patients of single mothers -- you've seen a couple of them -- who became pregnant by artificial insemination. Career-minded, they found themselves getting older, with no immediate prospects of a husband on the horizon, and besides, they didn't want to marry just to obtain a sperm-donor. Their biological clock was getting closer to midnight and they felt like it was now or never."

"Exactly. It's part of the 'changing face' of families we've been seeing in the last few years. Anyway, he and I spent a few sessions talking about alternatives, should he adopt an older child, did he want to deal with diapers, was there a love interest on the horizon. Then we got into what it all meant for him and of course, that's when things got really interesting. He had a sister with three kids and when they were younger, the two of them discussed who would be best suited to provide their parents with grandchildren and who would take on the role of being the hot-shot career person. She wanted a home and family, their dad was retired military, so it seemed natural for a son to follow in his footsteps.

"We talked about how that decision may have derailed any desires he may have had to procreate and how those were, apparently, resurfacing. Having done his duty for God, country, and his family of origin, now he wanted to live the rest of his life more on his own terms. In that sense, he hadn't been living for himself at all, as he initially believed, and instead, had lived for others, fulfilling expectations that weren't necessarily his. Opening a gallery rather than becoming a CEO of a Fortune 500 company was certainly a 'feminine' thing to do in terms of expressing beauty and creativity, and it showed how he was becoming increasingly open to the depth dimension within his own life. You might say he was doing 'soul work,' tapping into deeper levels of his psyche."

"Chuck, you ought to be a psychiatrist. If you like pediatrics, do child-adolescent, you can still work with parents. As far as your patient's story is concerned, you're talking about me, whether you know it or not."

"I wasn't sure, but I had a feeling. Anyhow, to wrap this up, he eventually did go ahead and adopt. He started the process while we were working together and then I saw him at intervals over the remainder of the year to check-in on how things were going, do follow-up, and help him with the transition to fatherhood. I got a letter from him last week -- he writes every now and then -- with a photograph of him and the kids. He adopted a boy 5 and girl 3, brother and sister, whose parents were killed in Bosnia -- like I say, this was a few years ago. He went over, saw them in an orphanage, and brought them back to the States. They're in their early teens now and the three of them were on vacation in Honolulu. He said adopting was the best decision he ever made. Oh, he's also dating a woman who has two more -- only these are little, two or three, and he's thinking it may go to the altar. If it does, he said, he's ready to be a father for the second time."

"Let's go back to something you said earlier, about avoidance of grief. What's that about?"

"It's generally assumed women suffer more from infertility or the absence of children than men. The truth is, men suffer, too, though it may not show up until the middle years, 40s and 50s. At that point, it's usually an issue that may or may not get him into therapy. In any case, his options include, first, to actively mourn the loss of children and come to grips with his life as it is. I've worked with men who did this and came out on the other side with a renewed sense of purpose and satisfaction. Second, he can try to avoid mourning altogether and I'll see him when he needs an alcohol or drug detox admission or a script for an antidepressant and therapy. Generally, that's how it goes. The third is more complicated but it applies to the patient I described and I'm guessing it also applies to you, at least based on my observations."

"You've been observing me." It came as a bit of a shock, but he said it without offense.

The jig is up, Chuck thought, oh, what the hell, go ahead, tell him, the worst he can do is flunk you. "It's an occupational hazard. When you 'read people' for a living, you start doing it without thinking. But as a student, working with physicians or staff I'm unfamiliar with, it helps to develop my own sense of who they are and what's important to them. What they say, what they mean, and how they behave, can be very different.

"In your case, to be completely honest, I think you've probably done quite a bit of mourning, and I say that because men in mid-life who haven't, tend to lack a measure of emotional stability. They aren't centered, in other words; they don't really know themselves. You do, or you're working at it, which is the same thing. Furthermore, you haven't found that process to be completely satisfying, no matter how hard you've tried to convince yourself it ought to be. That's why you were standing out there in the middle of the road when a Mack truck came barreling along in the form of the twins. Desires like the one you're experiencing, that don't go away with the grief process, are ones we have to resolve in other ways. If we can't work them out by volunteering or being more involved with nieces, nephews, or children in the family, the choices get kind of obvious."

"Yeah, I think so, too. And that's what makes love not quite enough. I mean, it is up to a point, but I could love the twins without adopting them. Taking that step means I need to do it as much as I want to."

"And there's nothing 'wrong' with that. This is as much about you as it is the twins or anyone else you choose to involve. Clearly, you have a legitimate need to express your affection for them as their father, not merely as an altruistic bystander. Maybe you felt that way at first, maybe not, but you sure don't now. This is not something to take lightly or dismiss as self-interest. What it boils down to is, your 'inner father' is not going to be happy until you're doing what you believe you were meant to do.

"The need-to part is driving you forward, propelling you to deliberately think about the implications of your actions, how to be a good parent, and how to provide adequately for the twins. It makes you responsible. The want-to part is love; that's ultimately what makes the prospect seem worthwhile; it tells you this is the right thing to do and motivates you to give your best. Bringing those two together, as you have been doing, allows you to experience wholeness. The 'Bob' you were meant to be is the one you're becoming."

"Are you going to charge me for this?" Bob asked, cracking them both up. "Seriously, you ought to. And don't let anyone talk you out of being a psychiatrist, either, not even me. You can count on a hell of a recommendation from me when you apply for residency -- you are applying here, aren't you? I can help with that."

Bob heaved a huge sigh. It seemed to him like he'd done a lot of sighing lately. That's good, he thought, it means I'm feeling and feeling is better than not, any day of the week. "This is the right thing to do, for the girls and for me, and I believe, I hope, it is for someone else I'm thinking of involving. Talking about it tonight -- don't worry, I know you're my student, but this," he said, waving his hand across the space between them, "this is outside that relationship. We're both a little older, I think we can handle the differential. Anyhow, talking about it tonight, I'm even more convinced. Anything else, feels so lousy I don't even want to contemplate it." At Chuck's nod, he said, "I take it you agree, following my gut is better than going counter to it. Good. Thanks -- Doc." He smiled and got up, scraping his chair along the wooden floor.

"Anytime." Chuck said, smiling in return. "I'll send you my bill."

(Creative Commons image by pasukaru76 via Flickr)

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Revisiting A Charlie Brown Christmas: All You Need Is Love

For years, A Charlie Brown Christmas has, for me, been one of the heralds of the Holiday Season. I've never outgrown it and God forbid I ever do. My favorite scene, I think, is of Snoopy dancing on Schroeder's piano. His unselfconscious abandonment to the moment is something I dearly love.

At the same time, however, I'm also ashamed of Snoopy for joining in when the other children are laughing at Charlie Brown. I want to say, bad dog, no treats for you. But Snoopy's failure shows that no one is perfect and even those we rely on the most can yield to peer pressure. We all hope our courage will hold and we won't deny our friends "three times before the cock crows." It's at times like these when to err is human hits home the hardest.

Watching A Charlie Brown Christmas last night, in this, it's 45th year, something about the story crept up behind and whacked me over the head, something I've quite honestly never seen before, or at least in quite this way. Charlie Brown is depressed, as you know, and goes to Lucy for psychiatric assistance. She listens, so far as Lucy ever listens to anyone, and rather than offering him a diagnosis, she proceeds directly to treatment. "You need involvement," she says. In other words, what's wrong with you isn't important, just get busy and you'll be fine.

But Charlie isn't fine and taking her prescription results in treatment failure. His efforts to direct their Christmas play fall apart because he and the cast are coming from different psychological places, a situation Lucy might have anticipated, had she been able. That she didn't, stems from her presumption that, as an "expert," she knows best and depression, loneliness, or isolation are purely behavioral phenomena. The idea that he might, following Sioux wisdom, have a "bad heart," never occurs to her.
Now, I realize I'm asking a lot of Lucy, but it doesn't take much to listen well. Children do it more often than they're given credit for; we just need to pay close enough attention to notice.

Charlie's cry for help, "Does anyone know what Christmas is all about?" tells us, superficially, that he very badly wants to know if there is a reason for all the activity, for sending cards, for giving and receiving gifts, or is it just something controlled by a big eastern syndicate, as Lucy suggests. What he really wants to know is the answer to the existential question asked at some point by everyone, i.e. is there any meaning at all for what I do?

I have to hand it to Charles Schulz for expressing some very profound truths very simply. Linus' response to Charlie's question, telling the Christmas story from Matthew's Gospel, does not, in itself, solve Charlie's problem. The function of religious faith is not to provide easy answers to hard questions. Instead, in the best tradition of pastoral care and theology, what Linus does is infuse Charlie with the impetus to go forth into the night to discover the meaning of Christmas for himself.

In the final scene, as I'm sure you remember, the other children gather round Charlie's little tree, remove the decorations from Snoopy's house, and "create" a fuller expression of a Christmas Tree. Linus says, "Maybe it just needs a little love," and then he wraps its trunk in his most prized possession, his blanket. It's the Gift of the Magi, and his action takes him beyond merely restating the Christmas story to enacting it. If we take the scrawny tree to represent Charlie Brown, the one kid who stands apart from all the rest, who, despite his best efforts, never seems to attain social acceptability, Linus' "diagnosis" takes us to the heart of the story.

Charlie doesn't need involvement. Like his little tree, he needs love, but he doesn't know it yet. Determined to not allow commercialism to ruin his Christmas, he places a decoration on the tree, it falls over with the weight, and he accuses himself of being incapable of doing anything of value. Charlie is still held captive by his feelings of being unacceptable. He needs what we all do, to experience appreciation for his unique perspective and contributions. He needs the affirmation of his community. He needs to hear, "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown," in order to raise his voice in the chorus of others without shame.

Charlie Brown is us. Not just the disadvantaged or disabled, the elderly or children, but all of us. He is the voice within that says, "see me, feel me, touch me, heal me." John Lennon and, by the way, Dr. Bob Z from Pink Hats, are right. All you need is love.

(Creative Commons image by manymeez via Flickr)

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pink Hats 15: Don't Fear the Reaper

Grim reaper crossed out with red X
"Valentine is but now they're gone...Romeo and Juliet...are together in eternity..."
Halley punched the off button like Ali going after Sonny Liston in the 6th.

"As if you know anything about it," she said, addressing the radio. "Bob, are you even listening to yourself? she asked, visibly exasperated, "You-are-sixty-two-years-old." She enunciated each syllable distinctly as though he was experiencing hearing loss. 

"Yes, I -- "

" -- You've never had children," she said, interrupting, "oh, you know the theory all right, but this is far from theoretical. When the girls enter college, you'll be 80, assuming you live that long. Do you need me to spell it out for you?"

"No, I --",,

She interrupted him again. "You're in great shape, I'll admit, but no one lives forever."

They decided to take one car to Biddo -- official student slang for Biddeford -- in order to compare notes for a class they were team-teaching at the medical school on pediatric emergencies. He was beginning to regret using the opportunity to bring up the subject of adopting the twins.

"Is it my turn yet?" He waited a few seconds. Her expression suggested asking twice bordered on the suicidal. "I'll take that as a 'yes.' I can spell fine, thanks, and to tell you the truth, it scares the hell out of me."

He paused, then said, "Here's the thing, Hal, does anyone know how long they've got? Do you? Statistically speaking, yes, it's conceivable they'd have a younger father around longer. But do you remember that 32 year old I pronounced a couple of weeks ago? Passed out at his son's soccer game -- thought it must be the heat. In October? His wife insisted they call 911, he arrested en route to the hospital, and was dead on arrival. Prior to, he's in excellent health, no history, not even an ibuprofen for a headache. Beautiful wife, three kids -- the youngest in diapers -- six figures, the guy's at the top of his game. Cause of death? Undiagnosed cardiomyopathy. What do statistics mean to him now? Not a damn thing, not anymore."

"Maybe that's true, but it still doesn't change anything," she persisted.

"I'm not so sure, and neither should you be, if you don’t mind me saying. What if – wait, give me a chance with this – what if I make better use of my time than I might otherwise? What if, conscious of my age, I put more energy and devotion into loving my kids and ensuring they get the best of everything I am? What if I teach them how to live and care for themselves and one another whether I'm around or not? What if I'm a better husband and father because I'm unwilling to risk not having a second chance? You’ve said it yourself, we all live by faith to some extent."
"My God, you're getting religious. I'd almost given up on you."

"I don't know whether religion has anything to do with it or not. I do know none of us be can be absolutely certain we're going to make it home at the end of the day. The fact that we don't go crazy worrying about it means we anticipate or "believe," we will. That uncertainty doesn't keep Jessie from saying she loves me and I don't think it should interfere with my being a father. The truth is, I'm a good deal more concerned about caring for two infants while maintaining a practice than I am about how many years I'll have past 100.

"However, just for the sake of argument. My father was 97 and never spent a second in a retirement community or assisted living. Not only was he still practicing with a full patient load, the week before he died, he and my mother were planning a fourth or fifth "second honeymoon" in St. Martin. His father was 96 and his uncle, 108."

"Your mother had to be, I don't know, sixty something?" she asked. "I can't imagine losing Ted so young. Does she have any regrets?"

"Mom was exactly my age, I was 35. At his memorial and years later, she said the only regret she might have had would have come from never marrying him in the first place."
She shook her head. "All right, what about you? I'm sorry about this, but didn't you ever feel embarrassed about having a father so much older than all the others?"

"Do you mean, do I wish he was still living? Of course --"

"And that proves my point --"

" -- hold on, let me finish. How could I not wish that? My father was the model for 'engaged.' He taught me to ski, we did Scouts together, he was there at every critical point in my life as well as the ordinary ones. He was my best friend and my father. Was I ever embarrassed about his age? If you'd known him, you wouldn't have to ask. My friends all wished their dads were more like mine and said so. I can only recall one occasion when anyone tried to play the age card. The school smart ass made a crack about my 'grandfather' and my friends were on him before I could speak. I'd love to have more time with him, to introduce him to Jessie, to share him with grandchildren. But I don't need more time and that's what makes the difference. I had him and that was always more than enough for me." 

Halley said nothing, which he took as an excuse to continue. "I don't want his legacy to die with me. Is it selfish to want children at my age? Depends on who you ask, I suppose. Is it selfish to want to give as I've been given? Seems to me that runs counter to the definition of the word. I think it would be selfish to keep my father, my mother, all they've done, all the love I received, to myself. I may be wrong, but that's how I see it, it's how I have to see it, if life is going to make any sense at all." He pulled into a parking space a short distance from Alfond, turned off the car, and started to get out.

Halley turned toward him in her seat. "Wait," she said. "Bob, you are without doubt, the most stubborn S.O.B. I've ever known and you know I don't swear. Right or wrong is not for me to judge. I wouldn't contemplate what you are, in a million years, but I'm a grandmother and thankfully, I don't have to. But I'm going to say this: you -- and Jessie, if she wants in on this -- don't have to worry about childcare."
His face became a question mark. "Ted's been after me to retire forever." she said, "I'll need something to keep me busy, won't I?"

(Creative Commons image via Wikipedia. Don't Fear the Reaper words and music by Donald Roeser -- Blue Oyster Cult --
copyright 1976)

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What We Know So Far

I have to admit, the story of Pink Hats and a Mack Truck has taken me by surprise. At first, I had a basic idea where it was going and assumed it would get there with the occasional entry. Then I realized I genuinely cared about the characters and their tale took on new interest. What I thought was going to be a short story has become much more; it's almost an online novel, with each post serving as a separate chapter.

One of the themes I hoped would develop asks the question, how far will a person go to get what they want? Drs. Bob and Jessie have given us an indication. We know they've been acquainted for a little over five years, but circumstances did not permit the expression of anything beyond friendship. Nevertheless, we can see they began caring deeply for one another almost from the moment they met, and these feelings have endured. Her biological clock is ticking, yet she has been willing to wait for "the right one"; he resisted taking things to the next level because the freedom to establish herself as a physician in her own right was more important to him than his own desires. Clearly, they are willing to go to considerable lengths for each other and for a chance to be together. I'm genuinely impressed with their depth of character, courage and determination.

Another intriguing theme that has surfaced concerns limitations. Bob is 62, divorced, and has no children. He's always wanted them but the cards he's been dealt didn't play out as he'd hoped. Now he's presented with a pair of orphaned newborn twin girls and it appears he cares for them a great deal, so much so that he's intimated he'd like to become their father. While age is not a limitation for adoption in the State of Maine, there are questions about his age that he's got to confront and I'm sure you can think of a few of them.

The issue of his mortality absolutely must surface; neither he nor we can avoid it. Halley will be his sounding board as well as devil's advocate in this discussion. Jessie has already let him know, in no uncertain terms, that she's not afraid of what may be coming. But the answers he needs are ones he'll have to provide for himself and I can assure you, he's been doing a lot of thinking lately.

You see, there are limitations and then there are limitations. Some limitations are real in the sense they result from being human or they're created by the world we inhabit. Others, we create for ourselves, i.e. they are psychological, though this should not be taken to mean they are imaginary. Instead, the ways we think of ourselves as persons and our unique perceptions of reality influence our capabilities. Bob and Jessie, just like us, will have to confront both kinds of limitations in order to find out what they're made of and what they're capable of accomplishing. How well they do this will largely determine their future.

One more question awaits Bob and Jessie's deliberation and it relates to the rightness, if you will, or the justice in pursuing something that one believes to be essential to their well-being. Is it right, is it fair, or is it selfish and unfeeling for Bob to undertake loving a woman who is substantially younger than him and to contemplate adopting children in the same breath?

And what about Jessie? Has she been foolish, loving this man as long as she has and turning down what we assume have been other offers? The answers to these questions are not merely matters of opinion, at least not for Bob and Jessie. Okay, I admit this is partly because I'm writing their story and I want them to think through the issues. You got me there. But the real reason stems from who they are. Neither one is the kind of person who takes life for granted. They are intentional, they know what they want and who they want, and in order to have them both, they must look destiny in the face and say, in essence, hit me with your best shot.

There's no question Pink Hats and a Mack Truck is a "feel good" story. But it's also an opportunity to see how two people grapple with issues that you and I aren't strangers to. Hopefully, reading about them, we'll all gain some wisdom or perspective or whatever it is that we need to make life better for ourselves and those we love. From what we know so far, I think Jessie and Bob would like that, very much.

(Creative Commons image of sunrise over Portland, ME from Maine Medical Center by jennratonmort via Flickr)

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