Sigh.

If you ask the retired man I live with how I am, he’s likely to answer, “Mean as a snake.” And you, most likely, will laugh, thinking he’s just being cute.  But he tells the truth, at least a partial truth.

I have a wicked streak in my personality that not everyone gets to see or hear.  Sometimes it comes out as sarcastic comments under my breath during a meeting or workshop.  Sometimes it’s a look exchanged with a friend who knows which person gets under my skin anytime she or he speaks.  Sometimes I just sigh.  I sigh a lot in October.

A week or so ago, my WHOLE daily newspaper was pink. Even the comics and the horoscopes.  I sighed, several times.

A few days later, I walked through the den while the retired man I live with was watching a pro football game.  Pink tights and pink Nike cleats with tight white football pants is not a good look for a beefy offensive lineman.  Or anyone else, probably.  I sighed.

My mother-in-law died of breast cancer, as did 2 of her sisters.  My sister-in-law lives with that genetic legacy.  So do my 2 daughters.  One of their friends had a preventative double mastectomy in her 30’s because of her family history.  I have friends who are breast cancer survivors.

I’m jealous of the Pink for Breast Cancer marketing juggernaut.  Who turned my newspaper pink?  And who talked football players into wearing hot pink tights?

Most families have faced some kind of cancer.

My brother had melanoma twice and died of metastatic cancer of unknown origin.  He had it everywhere and chose not to have treatment and go ahead and die swiftly a year ago.

My mother had throat cancer.  After radiation that killed her salivary glands, she ended up with no ability to taste food and lost all her teeth.

I am a cancer survivor.  I know what that means and how it feels. Nine years ago I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Surgery removed one malignant lymph node and another disappeared (??).  My cancer has been in remission since.  I try to forget that it could come back.

My newspaper printed an article recently by Pat Trotta, a local breast cancer survivor.  Here is an excerpt:

Recovery [after her mastectomy on October 1, 2012] was swift and painless, with my biggest problem being cabin fever. As soon as my surgeon gave me the OK to get out of the house, I just put the bulb of my drain tube in the pocket of my jeans and did what most women would do: I went shopping. I was thrilled at the prospect of a little retail therapy so I could quit thinking about the darn cancer.

My first stop was my favorite home improvement store, where the first thing I saw was a display of Pink Ribbon door knobs. My second stop was my favorite office supply store, where I was bowled over by a huge display that ranged from “Pink Ribbon Uni-Ball Gel Pens” to a pink-handled No. 8 scissors that claimed to “raise awareness about breast cancer.”

I was shopping to forget my breast cancer, but instead there were reminders everywhere I looked. I felt like I was in a frantic recurring nightmare, running from store to store, with more pink items ready to attack me behind the door of every retail establishment.

I had to get away from all this pink! I decided to watch a football game, surely a no-pink haven. Wrong! I thought I was having hallucinations when I saw NFL cheerleaders with pink pom-poms and football players with pink cleats. Apparently it has become politically incorrect to ignore pink in October. Employers are forcing their employees to wear pink shirts for a month.

This has gone too far…

I did some research and found that there are 48 colors and color combinations of “awareness ribbons” representing 221 types of cancer. So what about the other 220 diseases? What do their ribbons look like?

My solution is to start referring to October as “Cancer Awareness Month” and include all types of cancers. I actually feel selfish that all the focus and attention is on my type of cancer.

As retailers consider Pinktober for next year, my wish is that these displays would include products in all colors, reflecting all types of cancer.

One of my daughters started making tie-dye shirts last week.  I’m going to ask her to make all of us October shirts using these cancer awareness colors (the ones that have affected our family): Pink (breast), Dark blue (colon), White (lung), Lime (lymphoma), Black (melanoma), Burgundy (head/neck), and Plum (for caregivers).

What colors will you use?

 

 

 

 

Published in: on October 15, 2014 at 3:52 pm  Comments (4)  
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Bigger, Faster, Better? Must I?

Must I update or upgrade or retrofit?  They all mean the same thing;  I looked them up in the dictionary: “one thing is replaced by something better, newer, more valuable, etc.” I’m usually okay with things, especially my electronic things, just as they are–Good Enough.  Bigger, faster, better, newer, shinier, cooler–it’s getting harder to keep up.

This morning, I allowed my iPhone 4 to upgrade itself to iOS-7.  I don’t think it’s required.  So why do it? Because my phone keeps telling me an upgrade is available.  Because the retired man I live with keeps asking me if I upgraded yet.

“It’s so cool,” he says.

“What’s so different?” I say.

“The way the icons look,” he says.  “Plus, they fixed some bugs and it will work better.”

“Okay, ” I sigh.  Maybe it is better.

And so I surrender to “progress” again.

On my deathbed, will I check for new upgrades for my phone or my computer?  Lord, I hope not.  Will I wonder what upgrades and new stuff my grandchildren will see?  Maybe.

They are young.  They have energy.  They are curious about and excited by anything new or different.  They will participate in the evolution of our culture and our globe.

As “Amma,” as grandmother, I help nurture each child’s unique true self.  I model (I hope) love, honesty, compassion.  I remind them we are all, everyone on this earth, God’s children and, therefore, we all have value. They will need those traits and that knowledge, no matter what new stuff appears.

Published in: on October 6, 2013 at 5:51 pm  Comments (6)  
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A Buddhist Nun Told Me To Chill

Pain in my feet might help.

I had foot surgery a little over a week ago.  General anesthesia, both feet, outpatient surgery.  The hope was to repair or modify some of the damage from 26 years of rheumatoid arthritis so I can walk better.

The challenge is not walking on them now.  Since the first couple of days I’ve had no pain so I was up and moving around.  I saw drainage on one of the bandages four days after surgery, went to see the doctor and was told to stop walking on my feet so they could heal.  To the bathroom or to get something to eat is okay.  Sitting with feet up on the ottoman is good.  Lying on the couch is better.  For the next week and a half.

I started a 3-year-term on a non-profit’s board of directors this month.  Triad Health Project provides HIV/AIDS services, education and support to those infected and affected by the virus.  I got involved as a volunteer in the mid-90’s.  You know that Bucket List thing?  I always wanted to say, “I’m on a Board of Directors.”

Last month, I missed the social get-to-know-each-other gathering at a wine bar because I had horrible back spasms.  Now this month, the first for-real meeting, I have healing feet so I can’t go again.

With all my free time, I am reading Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun.  This morning I read about how we get caught up in 8 worldly concerns:  pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and disgrace, praise and blame.  While I was reading, the other track in my brain was struggling with whether/how to get to the 5:30 THP board meeting.  (It gets busy inside my head.)

I am used to being the good kid.  I generally follow through on commitments and am pleasant and helpful to have around.  My reputation matters to me.  A lot.

I do not like that my disease may shape others’ first impression of me.  I want to be seen as competent.  Not needy, not vulnerable, not disabled.

Pema Chodron says, “If we don’t act on our craving for pleasure or our fear of pain, we’re left in the wide-open, unpredictable middle.  The instruction is to rest in that vulnerable place, to rest in that in-between state, to not hunker down and stay fixed in our belief systems but to take a fresh look with a wider perspective.  The truth is we’re always in some kind of in-between state, always in process…When we’re present with the dynamic quality of our lives, we’re also present with impermanence, uncertainty and change.”

I think that means I’m not in control.

She describes three commitments or vows Buddhists take.  First, the commitment to cause no harm.  Second, the commitment to take care of one another.  Third, the commitment to embrace the world just as it is.

I emailed the THP director and told her I would not be at the meeting.  (Do no harm to myself.)  I want to be able to help with the big fundraiser in early Dec. If I let my feet heal, I’ll help more. (Take care of one another.)  As my brother used to say, “It is what it is.”  (Embrace the world just as it is.)

I will be present to the discomfort that washes over me every time I imagine my empty chair at the THP conference table.

Sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t feel good.

We Loved Lucy

The retired man I live with and I fell in love with her.  We loved her enough to let her go.

Lucy had a respiratory infection at the shelter, which they had treated with an antibiotic.  She coughed some the first night, Wednesday,  so we took her to our vet the next morning.  Dr. Syska said it was pneumonia and prescribed a much stronger antibiotic.  Lucy was pretty droopy all day Thursday but would go outside and pee when we took her.  She was no better on Friday and spent most of the day with her head on my lap. She didn’t want to eat or drink any water.

Saturday morning she was worse and struggling to breathe.  We took her back to our vet, who was visibly concerned.  We decided to take her to the emergency specialty animal hospital to talk about admitting her for IV antibiotics and fluids.  We saw her lung x-ray compared to a normal one.  Both lungs were almost full of fluid.

We talked with the vet about possible outcomes, looked at each other, and I said “I think it’s time.”  Deciding to treat her in the hospital felt like agreeing to torture her, with no assurance that she would ever really be well.  The vet told us we were doing an unselfish thing.  Doing the right thing sometimes feels awful.

Lucy was lying on a fluffy, soft, blue rug on the exam table.  I wrapped my arms around her as the vet started the injection.  Her body relaxed, finally, and she was gone.  No more gasping for breath.  She was at rest.

We loved her, even if it was only 3 1/2 days.  We believe she is in heaven, happy, healthy, running and playing.  And waiting for us to come play.

Published in: on February 17, 2013 at 9:15 am  Comments (15)  
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UNSHAKEABLE LOVE, BROKEN HEARTS AND PRAYER

(for Sarah, Nadine, Betty, Judy, Kay and too many others)

Yesterday, a young man killed his mother and then drove to the school where she taught kindergarten and killed 20 kids ages 5-10.

Why?

How could anyone do that?

I’m kind of glad I don’t understand.  I don’t want his actions to make sense to me.  I don’t want my brain to work that way.

I have more than one friend whose adult sons and daughters live with mental illness.  Sometimes medications help, sometimes they don’t and sometimes they just make people feel weird and they don’t take them.  Sometimes nothing helps.

My friends, their moms, are left with unshakeable love, a broken heart and prayer.

My cousin spent 20 years wandering the country in the grips of schizophrenia.  His illness began in his mid-twenties.  My aunt and uncle knew of no way to help and were afraid to tell their friends.  For most of his years of wandering, my aunt and uncle didn’t know if he was alive or dead. *

They were left with unshakeable love, broken hearts, and prayer.

My friend has spent thousands of dollars trying to find help for her daughter’s bi-polar illness.  No combination of medications works well or for long.  Her daughter, now in her 30’s, lived on the streets at times and now lives with her mom and her teenage daughter in a big house in a beautiful neighborhood near the university.  My friend has legal custody of her granddaughter.

She is left with unshakeable love, a broken heart and prayer.

Last winter, as I sat in front of my gas log fireplace and listened to freezing rain, I wondered about a man I know who had no home.  He was unable to manage an apartment, bills, and grocery shopping, although he wanted to.  He hated going to the shelter.  It’s hard to sleep in a room full of not-so-clean, snoring, farting, crying men who at any moment might start yelling or take your shoes or go through your stuff.  Many of their brains don’t work right.  They are ill.

I learned not to blame.  Schizophrenia and bi-polar illness are diseases of the brain, as surely as my rheumatoid arthritis is a disease of my joints.  I’m lucky.  My medications work.  I have medical insurance to help me pay for non-generic prescriptions and doctor visits and surgeries.  I know people who have no money and no insurance.  They don’t get better.

Mental illness is a powerful force.  It is real.  Medication may or may not help.  Crack and heroin are easier to get and seem to help.  Then they create another set of problems.

Even doctors and physician’s assistants and nurses who really care run out of things to try.

I guess they, too, are left with broken hearts and prayer.

We need to do better.  The mentally ill man (boy, really), begging on the corner of Madison Drive and Market Street is someone’s son or brother.  Yes, maybe he’ll take your $2.00 and buy beer or cheap school wine instead of food.  Why not?  It lessens the pain and stops the questions, for a moment.

Why would anyone walk into an elementary school and kill 20 little boys and girls?  I don’t know.

I do know he was once a baby boy, just like my cousin, just like my grandson.  A child of God, just like all of us.

Jesus said we are to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.  Some of us need more and we are failing them and their parents and brothers and cousins and daughters.

Surely we can offer more than unshakeable love, broken hearts and prayer.

*My cousin, in his 50’s, is okay today, living in an assisted living apartment and helped by an exceptional support agency in Minneapolis, where his brother lives.  My aunt knows that today he is safe and warm.  She is one of the lucky moms.

Published in: on December 15, 2012 at 9:26 am  Comments (8)  
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A Rabbi, A Sheikh, and A Pastor…

…waited for the room to fill.  They had a story to tell.

Don Mackenzie, Jamal Rahman, and Ted Falcon were leading a break-out session at the 2010 Spiritual Directors International Conference in Atlanta based on their book, Getting to the Heart of Interfaith: The Eye-Opening, Hope-Filled Friendship of a Pastor, a Rabbi & a SheikhThese three men came together in their community after 9/11.  First they got to know each other;  then they  included others in their interfaith discussions.

I could have listened to them all day.  Their well-practiced “act” was informative and funny.  They laughed at each others’ jokes and listened carefully to each other as they taught. The speakers described their faiths, emphasizing how each incorporates compassion (the theme of the conference).

The Book of Mormon Girl  filled my morning reading time last week.  Joanna Brooks, the author, is a Mormon mom who supports a woman’s right to choose and gay marriage, not the usual Mormon positions.  Her book describes her childhood as a Mormon in Southern California and the evolution of her faith as she matured.

Julie Peeples, my pastor, suggested  Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong.  These Twelve Steps include:  (3) Compassion for Yourself, (4) Empathy, (5) Mindfulness, (8) How Should We Speak to One Another?, (11) Recognition, (12) Love Your Enemies.  Armstrong never says the Steps are easy, just necessary.

I watched the Republican convention and the Democratic convention is on as I write.  I know who I will vote for in November and why.  As a lifelong learner, I enjoy listening to and reading about others’ values and beliefs, even when I strongly disagree.

We are all children of God doing the best we can.  We may worship differently (or not at all).  We may take different stands on issues.  We must all live together on this planet and in this nation.

Everyone has a story to tell.  Listening leads us to our commonalities rather than the contentious issues.

Please, listen to each other, respect each other, get to know each other.  We can and should let go of the anger.

Children are watching and listening.

Published in: on September 5, 2012 at 9:38 pm  Comments (6)  
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Oh Say Can You See–From Below?

Crowds are hard for me.  I have a mild claustrophobia–I need to know I can get out, get to an exit.  I’m short and can’t stand on my tiptoes anymore, so I can’t ever see much beyond my body space.

When we went to Washington, DC, in January, 1993, for Bill Clinton’s Pre-Inauguration, I upset my family when I refused to push up into the crowd to get closer to the concert and speeches.  I told them to go ahead and I would wait by the big tree and they could find me afterward.  My daughters, 12 and 14, started walking off.  (Surprise.) My husband called them back, asking me if I was sure I couldn’t go closer.  He told them we all needed to stay together.  The girls glared at me.  We could kind of see everything on one of the big screens.

My friend Sarah asked me to go see Michelle Obama at UNC-Greensboro.  She lives within walking distance (for her not me) of Fleming Gym.  After some discussion of my limitations, (we needed to walk about 5 blocks and then stand for several hours) she offered to push me in a wheelchair.  She offered because she wanted me to go.  I was humbled by her generosity.  I really wanted to go so I swallowed my pride and said yes.

Sarah and I started on our Michelle Obama adventure.  The doors opened at 11:00, we got there at 11:10 (she was to speak at 1:15) and got into the line for disabled people.  They let all of us in first and guided us to a section to the right of the stage.  The other line stretched for blocks in the hot sun. Sarah and I ended up in the front row. She sat in a chair beside my wheelchair.  A railing, 10 feet of floor and a (female!) Secret Service agent separated us from the stage.  All the people outside our “fence” had to stand crowded together and many couldn’t see well.

I felt guilty.  I knew I couldn’t walk 5 blocks and then stand on my own for several hours. But I don’t usually think of myself as disabled so I felt like a cheater.  Until the end.

After her speech, Michelle Obama came down from the stage and started working her way around, shaking hands with the volunteers who had special tickets to be up close.  When people figured out she was headed for our section, they slipped under the little barrier and filled in the small open space in front of the wheelchairs.  Four rows of people slid in front of me.

I felt my mild claustrophobia stirring– I sat in my wheelchair, completely surrounded by standing people.  They stepped over my foot rests (almost falling on me) and rarely even looked down at me or spoke.  A few said “I’m sorry” but they still stood in front of me.  Rude.  I saw the top of Michelle Obama’s hair and her bald Secret Service agent’s head.

Ride in a wheelchair sometime in a public place.  You’ll see our world in a very different way–from below.  You will be invisible to many other people.

I learned curb cuts and level sidewalks and automatic door openers matter.  A lot.

So do compassion and courtesy and genuine concern for others.

Not my mother, not my father, but it’s me O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer. *

I’ve always had my mother’s hair–wavy or curly, depending on the humidity, and lots of it. Mom greyed early and never colored her grey.  In the 1960’s people asked who “frosted” her hair; women actually paid money for the grey highlights that Mom grew naturally.

I was afraid to iron my hair so I tried Curl Free for my high school graduation.    It was June, 1970, in Raleigh, NC, and Dorton Arena at the NC State Fairgrounds was not air-conditioned.  I just wanted long, straight hair down the back of my blue graduation gown.   The pictures from that night show beautiful waves that got bigger and bigger in the humidity.  I hated it.

For a lot of years I judged my mother harshly.  I didn’t like the way my dad treated her and I couldn’t understand why she didn’t resist.  When my dad retired early and then went into a nursing home at 63 (the result of drinking, diabetes, and a stroke), she lived alone for the first time.  We moved them from Ohio to Greensboro and helped her buy a one-level 2-bedroom town house close to our neighborhood.  She spent her time reading and watching CNN.  I felt sorry for her.  Her life was disappearing and she hadn’t accomplished anything.

“I think I’m turning into my mother!'”

The same wavy grey hair circles my head.  My chair sits beside the aquarium with the huge catfish in the living room. I read the paper or The Hunger Games and drink my tea. Sometimes I watch MSNBC or Dr. Oz. My cell phone and the home phone are on the table beside me.  I’m ready if one of my daughters or a friend calls.  My body requires rest.

I wish I could tell my mother I understand now.  It’s okay to rest and reflect. She died in 1998.  Maybe she wasn’t depressed.  Maybe her accomplishment was getting to a resting place.

Peace, Mom.

* “Not my mother, not my father, but it’s me O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.”  (Click here and then on the title to listen to the hymn by John P. Kee)

Published in: on June 1, 2012 at 8:53 pm  Comments (10)  
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Do It Anyway

People are often unreasonable,                                                                                                                                                 illogical and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind,
people may accuse you of selfish ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.

If you are successful,
you will win some false friends and true enemies;
Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank,
people may cheat you;
Be honest anyway.

What you spend years building,
someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness,
they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.

The good you do today,
people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have,
and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis,
it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

Mother Teresa
1910-1997

[Reportedly inscribed on the wall of Mother Teresa’s children’s home in Calcutta, and attributed to her. However,  an article in the New York Times has since reported (March 8, 2002) that the original version of this poem was written by Kent M. Keith.]

Published in: on March 4, 2012 at 6:31 pm  Comments (10)  
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Where I Come From

I began in Iowa, land of flat cornfields

and people I love,

of honesty, integrity, loyalty, and peace.

The willow tree was in Iowa,

at Aunt Nadine and Uncle Phil’s.

I loved it, I climbed it and sat there by myself.

No one seemed to wonder where I was.

Did no one think to worry?

Or was I never really noticed at all?

Emily calls us “The Frozen People.”

I learned in my 30’s how to hug.

I’m flustered and shaken

when a friend says “I love you.”

I can never say “I love you” back,

even when I do.

I come from a family who likes to drink.

I was into my 20’s, already a mom

 when I named it alcoholism.

In later years it damaged Dad’s brain,

leading to strokes and a blessed death.

It destroyed my mother’s spirit

and left her an empty shell.

I swore I’d never be like either one.

I’m not, of course, but I came close.

So, I come from Iowa.

I value honesty and compassion.

My spirit’s thawed somewhat.

I will reach out and hug.

I laugh a lot.  It’s that or cry.

I’m probably a smartass,

but my friends don’t seem to mind.

Now I am where my kids are from.

“Don’t lie, don’t cheat and don’t be afraid.”

I talk about no expectations

and I share my trust of God.

Everyone has a story, I say,

and you can’t tell by looking what it is.

I pray for them and I love them.

That’s all there really is to do.

A day at a time, I co-create my lifetime.

God and I are on an adventure,

together we make a pilgrimage.

It starts out where I’m from

and ends up in infinity.

Amen.