Monday, May 30, 2011


Today, I'm reprising a post from 2009 -- I hope you don't mind -- honestly, it's hard for me to say it any better, on Memorial Day, than this.

Memorial Day used to be less personal for me. Often, it was an opportunity to make the trek over the high mountain passes from Denver to the Western Slope and visit family in late May and early June when the peaks are still snow-covered and marmots (woodchucks to Mainers) are just starting to creep out of their burrows, rub their eyes and yawn, muttering one to another, "You snored all winter."

But Viet Nam altered the holiday's innocence, and once you start down a road you may not be able to turn back quite so easily. It's that way with a lot of things but, thankfully, though difficult -- damn difficult -- it doesn't have to be impossible. My cousin's husband was a decorated helicopter pilot, killed in the boundary-less jungle somewhere between South Viet Nam and Laos. He's buried at Ft. Logan National Cemetery in Denver and I found his name on the traveling Viet Nam memorial last year.

I was in my early teens at the time and had only met him once but the reality of his death and its impact on my immediate family was even more acutely felt when it came my turn to register for the draft. My friends and I watched the drawing that year with held breath. I thought I had a fairly high number, but my margin of safety vanished quickly. Finally, like a roulette wheel ticking down, the ball dropped into place three spaces beneath me.

Uncle Sam apparently decided this nephew needed an education rather than military service, and I was given a deferment to finish high school and attend college. Over the years, however, because my father was a Disabled American Veteran (it was an injury rather than a wound incurred in the final days of WW-II), I spent quite a bit of time on one base or another, learning the ins and outs of Veteran's healthcare.

Memorial day came home to me in 2001 and I'm not talking about 9/11. My father passed away the previous late autumn and like my cousin's husband and now, my dear friend and coauthor, Dr. Lynn Smith, he is buried at Ft. Logan. They say a man never truly becomes a man until his father dies. I believe that's true. Until then, if he's fortunate enough to have a father who loves him, dad is always there. We make decisions on our own, we're responsible, we may even raise a family, but there's a change that occurs when a father dies and it's not until then that we finally begin to grow up. It's universal in my experience; I've never had a man who has gone through the loss of his father disagree with me.

So, there I was, on a cold day in November, with my father's flag-draped coffin immediately in front of me, while an honor guard showed him honor in slow motion. I thought I knew my father, but witnessing this, I felt as though I was seeing him for the first time. I'll never forget the moment one of them placed the carefully folded flag in my hands and saluted. I met his gaze and nodded. Seven rifles fired three times and a buglar sounded Taps. I looked over my shoulder at the rifles stacked as though at bivouac and realized I'd brought my father to rest among those with whom he'd served. Since then, I've never been able to hear Taps or see a military funeral, even depicted on television, without tears.

Memorial Day isn't a holiday for picnics, games, and visiting family -- not for me at least, not anymore. Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, on this Day I'm really standing among thousands of white marble gravestones with the mountains to the west, wind blowing over the grass, and Taps being played somewhere in the distance.

(Creative Commons image of Ft. Logan National Cemetery via Wikipedia)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

An Ordinary Guy

Garden with some tulips and narcissusWell, spring certainly came late to the farm this year. The past few weeks have been chilly, wet, and dreary -- more reminiscent, I imagine, of the northeastern coast of Wales, whence my ancestors came, than coastal Maine. The upside of all this has been my yard no longer looks like August in Colorado, brown and bone dry. The downside is, mowing the grass yesterday was more like harvesting the autumn hay crop.

I'm not complaining, though, nor am I disgruntled because spring decided to take the slow train from wherever. I've wrestled enough with my own "tardiness demons" to be empathetic when the clock runs behind for someone else. Rather than giving spring a good spanking for dragging its heels, I'm welcoming it with open arms. The Prodigal Son has come home at last.

Besides the rain, this means there was a blanket of fog draped over the hayfield when I crawled out of bed this morning, awakened rudely by the sound of water, a steady stream tinkling from my puppy's bladder onto the towels in his crate. Oops. That's what towels are for, right? And it was only his first night and I'd probably pee, too, if it was me, or have to or want to. Something I think he'd like to do again, as a matter of fact, so pardon us while we step away from the computer for a minute and go outside.

False alarm -- he's gone back to sleep, a momentary reprieve. Crate training is a grand experiment. I tried it with my big dog and he did well with house-breaking. Since the little guy has been in a shelter, I thought a crate would make him feel more at home and give him a place all his own. Thus far, it seems to be working; he's slept through most of this post. I can only hope readers don't take the hint and follow his example.

Getting back to spring and grass-growing, it's possible you're wondering why I waited so long to begin mowing, aside from the fact that it's rained almost daily. Well, there was my rotation for one thing. Twelve hours a day at the hospital doesn't leave much time for yard work and that includes repairing the flat tire on my lawn tractor. When I finally had a day free, I discovered it was virtually impossible, with the tools I had, to get the rim off the tractor.

I was, as my late father would say, stuck. I couldn't drive the tractor to the garage because it had a flat and couldn't trailer it because I don't have a trailer. So, I did what any self-respecting future physician should do, namely, phone a colleague and ask for assistance. And that's what I did. I rang up my mechanic, a down-to-earth, easy-going type who is fond of referring to himself as the Car Doc, at least when he's repairing my car, and asked if he'd make a house call. I figured it had to come with the territory.

Now here's what I love about rural Mainers. Not only did the "doctor" take me seriously, though he's probably never had a case quite like this, he actually sent help. A friend of his came over and together we manhandled the tire and rim free. He followed up by insisting on taking it for repair and refused to take a dime in payment. I've never met the man before but he treated me like his next door neighbor.

Driving home -- turns out, the tire was fine, by the way, just a little low in oxygen saturation -- I reflected on what had happened. I've got a graduate degree, nearly two more, and the fellow I'd just met graduated, maybe, from high school. Yet, the measure of his kindness exceeded that which I've experienced from persons who are far more socially adept as well as academically accomplished. He was simply an ordinary guy who enjoyed doing something good for someone else and today was my day to be that person. If spring hadn't been late, if my tractor tire hadn't gone flat, if I hadn't been working so much, think what I would have missed.

(Creative Commons image via Wikipedia)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Our Peaceable Kingdom

I've been thinking my dog needed a friend for quite some time. The problem has been finding the right fit. Now, it's true, he has the cat -- they're buddies for life -- and that's great. But, well, I've just thought he needed someone else.

Like another dog. You see, he grew up in the company of a somewhat older dog who was sort of an uncle or older brother type who showed him the ropes and taught him the things dogs do. The joys of lying in the sun, lolling on a freshly made bed and scattering pillows like confetti, and going for walks with his head hung low, not too low, just low enough to send the message to any other dogs that I'm his person and they'd better not forget it. And be sure to regularly check his D-mail (dog mail) on fire hydrants and tree trunks.

When we lost that friend to cancer, I knew eventually we'd need another pal, but I couldn't contemplate it so soon. Some people can do that, lose a dog, then find another shortly afterward. It doesn't work that way for me. I need time, lots of time, to get accustomed to living with a huge unwelcome hole in my life. I suspect more of us are that way than not, nothing against those who are; it's just not something I can do.

Anyway, I've been looking for several months, prowling Pet-Finders and the local shelters, but no one caught my eye. This afternoon, however, a shelter in Portland was hosting a fund-raiser, with puppies advertised. Something told me we'd better get down there or I'd regret it, so off we went, instructing the cat to hold down the fort until we got back. Naturally, I left HBO-Family on for him, in case he decided to watch. You never know, you know.

I definitely wanted a puppy because I figured it would be easier for our chapter of The Peaceable Kingdom to adapt to a younger dog, and therein has been my biggest difficulty, i.e. finding a puppy who wasn't cooling his heals in Arkansas or Tennessee, awaiting shipment out of state. Dogs need to choose their owners and that's hard to do when you're five states apart. Even if there was such a thing as People-Finders, it has to be tough for a dog to find a shelter with free internet access -- assuming they brought along their own laptop, that is.

Given all that, it was pretty obvious we needed to see whomever we wanted to bring home, face to face, and have a chance to introduce ourselves, talk about common interests -- your typical first-date stuff. From the photo you can tell the guys got along famously and the muddy puppy paw prints all over the front of my jacket were a solid indicator things went equally well with the human. So, one night this week, after he's had his day with the vet, getting "fixed," I'll bring him home and life will take a decidedly new turn for us all.

As to what we'll call him, I haven't decided yet. To the shelter, he's Jacob. Frankly, I wouldn't call my kid that, even though it's a fine name and Jacob in the Old Testament was a hero to his people. It just doesn't seem like the right name for this little fellow who, in a few months, will be another big fellow crowding me out of the bed along with his older brother. He may be a Sam, like Jessie Livingstone's Black Lab from Pink Hats. We'll have to see, but I'll be sure to tell you, just as soon as he tells me.

(Photo copyright 2011 by the author)

Monday, May 9, 2011

My First Baby

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbili...

Today I delivered my first baby -- sort of. I had the guiding hands of a resident on mine and for good reason. I've read enough about damage to the brachial plexus (a web of nerve roots between the neck and shoulder that enable feeling and movement in the hand and arm) to know that the last thing I wanted was for this sweet little gal's arm to be twisted round with fingers bent as though she was a waiter expecting a tip -- because of anything I'd done. The tension distracted me from the elation I felt, but that doesn't change the fact that the hands that caught her were mine.

Ordinarily, fathers are offered the opportunity to cut the umbilical cord as we place the baby on mom's belly and witness the miracle of mother-child bonding take place before our very eyes. My baby, though, was a premie -- born a little too early and a little too small for her own good -- and destined right off for an appointment with the neonatologist, followed by a few weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit. Since dad was busy assisting his wife and timing was critical, I cut the cord and then we proceeded to deliver the placenta. My first time at bat and I have to swing at another pitch, but I'm not complaining, not one bit. I've been looking forward to this for a long, long time.

My imagination had this entire experience enshrouded in a mystical light accompanied, almost, by the voices of a heavenly choir. The reality was more sobering and it took me all day to put it together. 

Delivering babies is something doctors do. I know, midwives do it, taxi drivers do it, policemen and sometimes fathers who can't get to the hospital soon enough, do it., too. Even though the division of medical labor results in many doctors only delivering babies during an OB/GYN rotation, as did I this morning, in my mind, being a doctor is still characterized by certain key tasks and delivering babies is one of them.

Whether I ever have the privilege of delivering another, I'll never forget this one nor will I ever cease to be grateful for the chief resident who stood behind me and said, "Go ahead, you can do this."

(GNU Free Documentation image via Wikipedia)

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Wearing Mom's Shoes

"I think Beggar sort of 'adopted me' after his mother passed away," my late aunt said. It was a warmish autumn Sunday afternoon and my female cousins composed her audience. I was in the living room and they were in the kitchen, where my family has always congregated whenever they're together. Only when you can't move without bumping a glass and baptizing it's owner, do we slowly sift, one or two at a time, out the door onto the patio. But not for long. The vacant kitchen is a vacuum, sucking us back inside, unaware we're like pieces of driftwood, floating out to sea, drifting up the shore, riding the tides onto a Maine beach, floating out again.

When I overheard her, I smiled, thinking she was the one who'd adopted me after my father, her younger brother, passed away. Maybe it went both ways, each of us trying to fill an empty space no one else could.
Marion the Librarian, my uncle, her youngest brother, christened her because she literally was the librarian for a small, northwestern Colorado town. Though not it's founder, she was certainly it's builder, and it grew steadily, like children, as long as she held her post.

My aunt was a large woman. I don't mean obese, just big. Tall. Buxom. A woman born to be mother who was a good one to one and all. She loved how I lived near Maine's "stern and rocky coast," (The Last Gasp of Summer) though she never saw it for herself. When I think of her, I can't help but see her tall, dark-haired, matronly frame with a gingham apron knotted at the waist. I remember visiting the library once, when I was younger, and being startled when she walked out of her office without that apron. Most days, she tied it on in the morning the same way some women put on makeup -- she didn't quite feel dressed without it.

The truth is, my father's passing was hard on her. To him, she was "Sis," and she missed hearing it. His last years, spent fighting off the disease that could only lay claim to him in his final second at the very end, they spoke regularly by phone. I was never privy to those calls but the way she described them, they were the kind we have when we're acutely aware time is short, and we dare not waste the briefest of breaths speaking words expressing nothing. The kind we have when we fear we'll never have another and what we say will have to last us for eternity. The kind we have when we don't want to leave anything unsaid and regret what we do.

I did try to step into my father's shoes, to the extent I could, since at last we lived close and a visit was so easy you'd be embarrassed to call it a drive down the road. We were both glued to the tube on 9/11 when I began punching in her number. You remember how it was, how you reached for the phone, ringing up mom or dad to tell them you loved them because it was the moment drawn close when tomorrow may not come. You didn't know for sure and couldn't take the risk. She was wearing mom's shoes then and was a comfort I still feel.

As you can tell, I'm thinking about Mother's Day and have been all week, how it was for the women I've known and how different it will be for the women I've intimately met in the birthing room. I saw them the very instant each became "mom." The same instant some lucky slug of a guy became dad. Until this weekend, the first-timers, at least, experienced the day as a daughter, wishing their mothers happiness. Now, I imagine those mothers calling their daughter-mothers, offering them the same wish. It's really quite something.

Happy Mother's Day.

(Creative Commons image by JoshBerglund19 via Flickr)

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Without Exchanging a Word

Something dropped onto my radar recently concerning a theme that appears in Pink Hats and a Mack Truck that I wanted to bring up this morning. It came about while viewing the Matt Damon film, Hereafter, on DVD a couple of weeks ago. Now, I'm an unabashed Damon fan -- show me his name on a marquee and I'm good to go. And that's how I came to rent this one; I saw his name on the Red Box screen, barely glanced at the description, and clicked "rent." Initially, I thought the film confusing and wasn't clear whether Matt was the main character or simply received top billing for the sake of name recognition. Then things began to come together and patterns began to emerge.

The film is about a guy who has a gift for channeling messages from the hereafter to loved ones who remain in this life. It stems from a quite serious childhood illness and what he describes as changes in his brain functioning that resulted from his treatment. Although he once used his talent to make a living by charging for his services, he now sees it as a burden that prevents him from having truly meaningful personal relationships, especially romantic ones. As soon as he physically touches a person, if they've lost someone through death, an immediate connection is formed between him, the person, and their loved one in the beyond. If this sounds like your bread and butter film about mediums and spiritualism, trust me, there's a lot more to it than that.

My initial impression was, this scenario typifies the dilemma faced by psychotherapists. The idea of having intimate relationships with patients is precluded at the outset by the fact that you know things about them that they don't or perhaps, can't know, about you. Apart from the fact that such relationships constitute violations of ethics, the core of the matter is, they are inherently unequal. Doctor and patient do not share the same measure of relational ignorance about one another that is partly the basis for mutual romantic exploration. Similarly, Damon's character always knows too much and as soon as he reveals it, that marks the end of whatever else he might have hoped for. Even when one young woman assures him it won't make any difference, it does.

That is, until he meets lovely French writer, Marie Lelay, who drowned in the sunami that struck Southeast Asia in 2004. She was revived, of course, but only long after she reasonably ought to have been and she continues to have visions of her experience, something which others, including a lover, find difficult to take seriously. In the film's final scene, we see Lelay and Damon's character meeting and shaking hands. This time, however, the connection that he is accustomed to forming, doesn't. Relief is drawn across their faces and we know each has finally found someone with whom they can relate, freely and intimately.

Admittedly, I thought, this is way too simple, the idea that she didn't need to get a message from beyond because she'd already been there, herself having been the one she'd lost and found. Then I realized the film was confirming something Jessie's medical school adviser shared with her in chapter 10, The Beatles Connection: George Harrison. DO. Jessie tells how her first encounter with Bob left her feeling, not as she usually did with guys who were nearer her own age, like "mom" or merely a "girl," but very much like a grown and capable woman. Her adviser explained this was because Bob didn't need her to be anything or anyone other than herself and Jessie perceived this as liberating. The absence of need and the pressures it creates, formed a relational space in which she (and Bob as well, we discover later on) could be genuine and authentic. I think this is exactly what occurred between Damon's character and Marie.

One of the themes I wanted to reflect upon in Pink Hats was what constitutes the basis for the best kind of romantic relationships. There are some in which a person may become an inauthentic version of themselves. The expression of their true self is hampered by an unconscious willingness to take on a role, having gotten the sense it's what's being called for. As a result, one partner, often unknowingly, holds something back, something essential to them as an individual, something that makes them whole.

The soil in which love grows has to be richly fertilized with mutual acceptance, appreciation, admiration, and respect. Although Bob and Jessie naturally have different histories, as do the characters in Hereafter, they've each the kind of formative experiences that can produce stability and maturity -- Jessie lost her mother, Bob has been through a divorce -- enabling them to offer each other the gift of freedom, almost without exchanging a word. Jessie laid her hand on his arm the morning they met, scarcely knowing why, but it opened a door.

Sometimes a touch is all it takes.

(Creative Commons image by comedy_nose 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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