Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Stuff and Nonsense

You have so much stuff!

That’s what I keep hearing from the 20-something guys that have helped me move, including my son. I look around at the two rooms that I live in and wonder why they think that. I have gone from a house of eight rooms to an efficiency apartment of two rooms. I have downsized and downsized and downsized until there’s not much left. Honestly. In fact, it took less than 45 minutes to unload all my stuff from the truck to my apartment.

Why does it seem like a lot then?

I think what they see are all the memories and the importance of the stuff that I have. When you downsize as much as I have in the last three years, you don’t carry much junk with you. If you have it, there must be a reason.

And the stuff I have is here for a reason.

My books, for example, we have talked about before. The Hardy Boy volumes published in the 1940s, a Dickens from 1935, Dostoyevsky, the 1878 Bible. Not so many actual, literal books, but so full of history and knowledge. Real books. Not comic books or love stories or fluff.

Pictures are another thing you would notice in my little house. You can watch my sons grow up if you take a minute to look. Tow-headed, smiling, confident and strong you can see their characters forming.

My collection of “others” who call me Mom. Graduation pictures, laughter caught while driving along, church chicks styling in New York. And so very much more.
Somewhere among them is a quote from some song I heard along the way, “photographs record the laughs between the tears.”

I like pictures. A lot.

Knick-Knacks take their share of space, too. The angels from Vanessa and snowmen from Ulanda and teddy bears from Amelia. They are special to me. I won’t bore you with their stories unless you ask, but I would share if I thought you wanted to know.

And of course the angels from Lopez. Glass, gold, ceramic, candlesticks, bookends, large and small. He thought I collected angels and so he bought them for me for every occasion.

Can you hear us laughing when I finally asked, “why do you always buy me angels?”

“Judy said you collect them.”

“I guess I do now.”

I’ll never have another boss quite like Lopez. I would say I miss him, but I’m so surrounded by his memory that I don’t miss him at all, really.

I guess these guys are right. I do have a lot of stuff. I’m a very blessed, rich woman. I hope if those boys ever lose everything they find themselves surrounded by wealth like I am.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Transparent Reflections

I had an interesting slice of life not too long ago, but long enough that I can consider it in retrospect.

It began on Mother’s Day, of all things. I knew I couldn’t face being in church on Mother’s Day without my kids. I could tell you why, but it would take too long and that’s not what I want you to remember today. I want to tell you about the other event; the one that started that day.

Well, to be honest, it started the day before Mother’s Day, but forced itself to be carried to the next day. Some instinct told me it would take more than one trip to convince myself I could do this. I wasn’t afraid of the place, but of the memory rush that it brought. It took me a bit to get my bearings.

Walking in gave me flashbacks of the many trips to the Welfare Office or Public Health Center or Energy Assistance Offices in another city in another life. It was the same sort of building which housed a Social Worker or a WIC-aid or a Public Health Nurse who would be too overwhelmed to really help me. It always bothered me that they never looked at me and would push me along with a “here’s-your-paperwork” sigh. “Next!”

The atmosphere sang a familiar song. The defeated hum of the clients in the waiting room, the constant rush and buzz of conversation clouding the air, the weary shuffle of people tired from the inside out. I knew it immediately.

There is a desperate hope that people cling to who are beyond their abilities. If you have lived among them, you know it’s almost tangible. It’s in their choice of words for greeting, “what’s up?” Strange positive twist when no news is most often the best news. Their dismissals are likewise different: “take care!” or “later.” Rarely do you hear someone say good-bye. Life is too fragile for such permanent bridge burning. Maintaining the precious connections to another life is of utmost importance.

I have spent a lot of time with millionaires in the last several years. I have become accustomed to the feel of a BMW. I have learned to like good food, Broadway performances, have been in several American airports for pleasure travel. I am in the midst of obtaining a degree from a prestigious private college known for its writing expectations. I have come to enjoy listening to brilliant minds battle over points of law or literature.

Within moments, all of that history was gone. “Hey,” I nodded with quiet respect to the tilted hats, sagging jeans and hip/hop songs covering the sidewalk.

They parted in like manner, “’Sup?”

“Ain’t nothin’, brother. All good.”

Inside, I feared the workers would be like the many I had met in these circumstances before. They would look over you, around you, past you, but never AT you. They would talk above you as if they assumed you couldn’t understand them because you were beneath them. You would be identified by your number, your name, but not your person. I was prepared for that.

Maybe because this isn’t exactly a public service, although it provides much needed cash for the clients; or maybe it’s the idea that this office is in business to provide something which ultimately saves lives. It could even be that all of the clients are not necessarily there only for the money. I’m not sure why, but I know the treatment is different. Even when very, very busy – there is time for a smile, time to joke, time to care. If they catch your eyes and see that you’re open to them, you will find a gentleness, a real concern shared.

Even in my hardest days living on welfare and existing on the streets, I had never gotten far enough down to donate plasma. I knew you could get cash for it, but I thought it would hurt and I was sure it would be even more demeaning than food stamps.

I was glad to find that I was wrong when my house of cards began to fall and I found myself without work. There are only so many options a woman of my age and history has to fall back on. There is the goodness of friends, the support of family and the kindness of strangers. But those have their limits when the chips are down for everyone.

I told myself I would try the “plasma thing” as sort of a good deed. I knew the plasma was used for some sort of medical something and that was a good thing. I didn’t want to face Mother’s Day alone again. I needed the cash, badly. It all made sense.

There I was. Looking in a room full of mirrors reflecting different stages of my life.

I spent many, many hours in that clinic over the next six months. My life went from bad to worse financially, but inside I grew exponentially richer. I watched the workers and clients sloughing through the sadness of their days. I saw them pulling good from one another like threads of gold. They didn’t know they were stitching a quilt of comfort around me covering me with hope.

Some were particularly good at being personal. Ubah, of course. Her strong, dry humor keeping the distances proper. William and Sam controlling the floor always watchful of who was needed where, but not without time to notice the clients. Dr. Brooks and The Marine, like odd twins, quick with a smile and distraction that made the girls forget the sadness waiting outside. And the many, many others whose names blend together in a cacophony of professional friendship, but whose faces and conversation have etched themselves in the surface of me.

I walked across the bridge of past and present time and again in those months.

Listening to men whose voices were filled with my father’s words and women whose eyes carried my mother’s worries. I saw young men, much like my brother, whose shoes my sons had never worn. I recognized myself time and again in the deep sighs of young women carrying babies when they should have been carrying textbooks.
I had nothing again. No prospects for work. No way to make money to support myself. I had already sold what I could and was left with value-less remnants.

The worst days came when even my body worked against me and I wasn’t healthy enough to donate plasma. I would not have the precious $20 that would fill my gas tank and get me to school. I wonder if any of my peers saw the bitter tears that my hopelessness bought? It wasn’t pride that kept me from telling them, but the knowledge that I had made my own way. I was at the bottom looking up again because I personally refused to sell out any longer to a world where I didn’t belong.
There, at that clinic, surrounded by faded life, I was reminded of who I am and where I’m from.

I’m not about having stuff. I’m not name brand or big cash or titles or location.

I’m about rich, real relationships colored by love and commitment. I’m about connections that aren’t broken, but strengthened over time.

I understand the musical language of the streets. I like the laughter and the foolish banter. It’s not too deep for me to wonder if I’ve missed something. I like the flattery and flirting of the ghetto. Outsiders think it’s crass, but insiders know it’s complimentary. I would take a blatant whistle and smile over a leering look any day.

I am real. I don’t have time to be fake because life is too quickly lived. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Don’t burn bridges. Those people around you might need you and you might need them, even if it is just for a bus transfer. It’s okay to ask. We are all in the same place and get it. We won’t be offended. We understand.

People not in the ghetto don’t get that. It’s not begging. It’s asking. They would just as quickly give to you as ask from you.

I thought I could get used to living with the “others.” I have found I don’t understand their rules. When to speak, when to be silent. When to laugh, when to smile quietly. When to ask, when to give.

I just don’t get it.

That’s why I’m still at home here among those who are living without. And as soon as people realize that I’m really one of them, they open back up with that smile and banter and generosity and goodwill. It’s not as scary as you might think. You have to be wise - that’s hard for me to remember. I always think the best of everyone and not everyone is in the best frame of mind.

I am better for having lived this slice of life. I hope I never forget its depth and blessings. If I have to cross this bridge again, I know I’ll be okay.

I can look in the mirror again and like who I see.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Arthur's Miracle

The post below is a couple of days late due to moving and angelbaby kisses and other important events. Better late than never . . .

I don’t want this story to get lost in the shuffle of life. This one must be told. Shouted from the hilltops, in fact.

My son’s youngest son is Arthur. He was born on a day in May without much fanfare. Being the third child, the second boy, will do that to a birth. Not that we didn’t anticipate him and enjoy him, but it didn’t have the same sort of celebration as the first. People have written books and done studies about birth order and lack of identity after the first or second child. There is some truth to that.

So Arthur joined our world in a normal sort of way.

On October 4, 2008, however, Arthur’s life ceased to be anything normal.

Melissa, my daughter-in-law, says he had been fussy for a couple of days. She was concerned, like mothers are, but not overwhelmingly. Although he was only 5 months old, teething was a possible culprit or constipation or something normal and ordinary like that. Her husband was going to be helping at church for the day so Melissa did what young mothers for generations before have done before with a fussy baby and small children to tend. She called her mom. Her mom did what Grandmas do, invited her to the farm for the day.

Very ordinary. Very common.

Within an hour of that phone call, ordinary was replaced with panic.

The listlessness, the crying, the fussiness was escalated with blood in the diaper. A fearful phone call to the doctor, a quick trip to the closest hospital only increased the drama.

They live in a small town in a rural area. Their hospital is accustomed to dealing with broken bones, stitches, heart attacks. Not infants with internal bleeding.

“We’re going to have to airlift him to the hospital in Marshfield. There is no room in the helicopter. You’ll have to drive.” Later they learned that there was room, but the hospital staff didn’t expect the baby to live through the 20 minute flight. They deemed it better for the young parents to be surrounded by professionals who would help them cope when they learned the news. Melissa’s Mom and Dad drove the parents to the hospital while the baby flew.

Texted messages, short phone calls . . .prayers began around the country. “Pray for Arthur. We don’t know what’s wrong. He’s bleeding inside.” Enough said.

The “big” hospital looked him over upon arrival. Alive, but barely. Immediately, they began checking for this and that as vital signs weakened and hope dwindled.

Moments after the arrival of the family in the car, the pediatric specialist ordered a CT scan. “We have one of three things happening here. A tumor which will need to be removed, telescoping of the intestines or an unknown event; perhaps he swallowed something. We will do the CT scan and then we’ll decide what type of surgery to do. I have to be honest with you. He is in shock. I don’t know if he’ll live through surgery.”

Prayers were piling up all over heaven. God, in His goodness, was teaching a short lesson in faith and truth. Not surprised by the turn of events, He had already set some key players in place.

Fearful parents followed the gurney with their baby through the maze of hallways to Radiology. Time conscious professionals monitored and ministered giving Arthur their undivided attention. No one knew exactly what to expect.

As they were about to lift Arthur from one table to another to do the CT scan a man of authority and distinction entered the room. “I’ll take over from here.”

Without looking up, without changing their directions, everyone continued working. One nurse glanced up and said, “who are you?”

“I’m Dr. Keith Oldham from Milwaukee Children’s. I’m assigned to this case and I’ll take it from here.”

The mention of the name and the importance it carried was lost upon the family members watching, but not upon the staff. In unison, they dropped their hands, stood back and waited for direction.

Later the family learned that Dr. Oldham just “happened” to take over that shift for a colleague. He had never worked there before. Having a broader patient base in Milwaukee, he had seen the classic symptoms of intussusception  many, many times. He knew what to do and how to handle it without surgery.

Two hours later, Arthur was in PICU recovering. A day later, he was eating normally. Now, a year later, you would never guess he had been so close to death.
God sets some things in our lives to help us learn to trust; and some so we can understand how great His is His love for us.

See, He loves us like a parent loves their child. Often, we take that love for granted. Parents know what’s best for their children. God knows what’s best for us. Parents love their children so that the fear of losing them is overwhelming. God loves us and the fear of losing us overwhelms Him.

It’s not an easy concept to grasp. It’s not a simple thing. It’s not trivial. Not everyone wants to know it.

As for me and my house? We will trust Him with all the details. After all, He gave us Arthur and then gave him back to us.

Thanks, God.