Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Loyalty


My father had a wide network of friends, but he was the hub: he knew all of them, but very few of them knew each other. So although my sister and I have called the people for whom we have numbers, there are a few people we know he'd have wanted us to contact who've been left out. We didn't know how to get in touch with them, and Dad's other friends don't know them (or only met them once or twice, through him).

One of the people we hadn't been able to reach is a woman named Dorothy. Dad knew her because, many years ago now, he picked up her son Bruno, who was hitchhiking. Bruno was something of a ne'er-do-well, but he and my father adopted each other. Bruno looked after Dad. Dad looked after him. When Bruno died of long-term health issues, eight years ago, Dad called Dorothy to give her his condolences.

They've been phone buddies ever since. They only met in person once -- I'm not sure whether that was before or after Bruno died -- but every year for eight years now, they've called each other on the telephone on their respective birthdays, to chat and pass along best wishes.

The phone rang tonight, and the voice on the other end said, "This is Dorothy. Is this Fran?" I explained that I was Susan, and I told her very sadly that Dad had died, and she said, very sadly, "It's my birthday today, and when Alan didn't call me, I knew something must be wrong."

Dorothy's eighty-one years old today. She lost her son eight years ago, and her husband died eighteen months later. But she's still in fine health.

May you stay healthy for a long, long time, Dorothy. Happy Birthday, and thank you for being such a loyal friend to my father.

Ground Floor


I was originally scheduled to teach English 101, the first half of the required freshman-composition course, again next fall. Yesterday, though, I got permission to teach 102 -- the second half, emphasizing research -- instead, and to do it as a course in Narrative & Medicine. I'm hoping to attract students planning to go into healthcare, as well as anyone interested in medicine from a layperson's perspective.

I'm really delighted about this. It will give me the chance to teach a lot of texts I've been eager to teach, and will also improve my work schedule considerably. Instead of teaching my writing workshop from 2:30-3:45, followed immediately by 101 from 4:00-5:15 (in a different building!), I'll now be teaching 102 from 5:30-6:45, which will give me a chance to have office hours, catch my breath, and maybe get some work done between the two classes. Yay! My current classes are back to back, and while that's doable -- I've done it before, and will undoubtedly have to do it again -- I prefer to have more space between them if possible.

I woke up at 6:00 this morning and started making notes for the 102 syllabus, which is some kind of record. I think the assignments will be fun; I hope the students agree!

My UNSOM colleague Marin and I are always talking about ways to introduce Narrative Medicine earlier in the curriculum. This is about as early as you can get!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mom and Dad

Yesterday my sister sent me some photos of Dad. Here's one with Mom, during Dad's birthday celebration several years ago.

Dad did love that shirt. And he refused to wear long pants anytime he could wear shorts. In this photo he's wearing his support hose, but later on -- and the entire time he was in Reno -- he refused even to wear socks.

Thank you, Jo Walton!


Yesterday, otterb alerted me that Jo Walton had posted a lovely analysis of Shelter over at Tor.com.

It is indeed lovely. Jo's one of my favorite writers, and it thrills me that she likes my work, too.

Thanks, Jo. And thanks, otterb!

Monday, April 27, 2009

I Seeeee You

Bali was Sauron's body double in the LotR movies. Betcha didn't know that.

Anne Marie Keaney


In college, I roomed with three other women. Ellen's my dear friend in San Francisco, the one who adopted the little boy from Russia. Our roommate Sumi committed suicide in 1988, during her third year of medical school. A few years before that, our fourth roommate, Anne, had been diagnosed with MS, which had claimed her aunt at a young age.

Anne became very withdrawn after her diagnosis; she lived with her mom, a nurse. I hadn't been in touch with her for years. Ellen and her son visited two years ago, during our twenty-fifth college reunion. (Anne lived in Princeton her entire life; her late dad was a professor there.) Anne was in very bad shape then, in a hospital bed.

This morning, lying in bed, I found myself wondering about her and decided to do a Google search. I found her obituary. She died December 20 of last year, the day after Gary's father died. I'd had no idea.

I called Ellen, who was much closer to Anne than I was, but who'd also had no idea. She'd been thinking about Anne and had been talking about her with someone just the other day.

Anne was a bright, vibrant, passionate person, bubbly and fun. She loved disco and old movies and classics, the field her dad taught, which was also her major.

Rest in peace, Anne. I hope you're dancing and enjoying Humphrey Bogart movies wherever you are now.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Achy Achy


I woke up very late this morning -- about twenty minutes before I would have had to leave for church -- with every muscle aching. So I decided to stay home.

I don't think I'm really sick (I feel somewhat better now that I've gotten up and had coffee, although my lower back's still cranky), but I didn't want to push it. I may be just be tired from yesterday's hospital shift and accumulated grief and stress, but if I've caught something dire from the Baby Chick of the Apocalypse, I don't want to spread it.

If I keep improving through the morning, I'll go swimming this afternoon. That's always the best cure for muscle aches.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Random Observations


I realized during a conversation with some colleagues yesterday that ecstatic and mystical experiences have a lot in common with traumatic ones: mystical events are usually unpredictable and uncontrollable, turn previous belief systems and ways of making meaning upside down, distort space and time, and overwhelm our ability to communicate them by language, even if people want to hear about them -- which people often don't.

This is true even, or especially, in church. I know plenty of clergy who've had intense, and intensely inexplicable, spiritual experiences, but they always talk about being afraid to share these incidents with other people, who may think that both the encounters and the individuals experiencing them are crazy.

This has always seemed very sad to me. If you can't talk about encountering the divine in church, where can you?

Anyway, I'm wondering if trauma and ecstasy are so similar simply because they're both so out of the ordinary, or if there's some deeper connection. Has anyone seen any work done on this anywhere?

Meanwhile, speaking of trauma and church, evidently there was a bit of a blow-up last week when I wasn't there; someone made a mistake and was publicly rebuked, and was hurt, and is now seeking an apology and a way to fix the systemic issues that caused the problem. Everyone's handling this very sensibly, and the person who was rebuked feels supported, I think, which is great. And of course such things happen in all human organizations; you can't live in any kind of community without errors, lapses in communication and hurt feelings.

But reading the flurry of e-mails about this particular issue did bring up painful memories of my own church fiasco, which was actually a series of fiascos that hurt all kinds of people. That extended nightmare was worse because there were so few people I could discuss it with when it was happening; one of the good things about losing a parent, I've discovered, is that so many other people have lost parents and completely understand, and everybody else is at least willing to extend sympathy. The griefs I suffered before were much harder to explain, much more disenfranchised. (And one of the players in that whole mess has now rewritten history to make my father's illness the reason I withdrew from ordination. Well, no. . . . although certainly, once Dad moved here and got sick -- months after I withdrew -- I was delighted that I didn't have to handle clerical duties on top of caregiving ones!)

I'm babbling: pardon me. Anyway, my not-such-a-huge epiphany today is that church folk in general (all church folk, both lay and ordained) seem to have a lot of trouble saying both "thank you" and "I'm sorry." We're great at thanking others, but when they thank us, we get all squirmy, because we're being thanked for God-given gifts and it's not right for us to take credit for them, or something, because that would be a form of pride. Meanwhile, of the people who've behaved badly towards me in the church, I can only think of one who said "I'm sorry" when I tried to talk about the problem (and that didn't seem very sincere, for reasons too complicated to explain here). The others, both lay and ordained, deftly sidestepped my efforts to address underlying issues and kept on as usual, evidently assuming that if they just avoided the problems long enough, I'd get over my hurt and anger. To the extent that this behavior has a theological component, rather than just being plain old-fashioned human avoidance, I suspect it goes something like, "Well, God's already forgiven me, so I don't need to go through the steps of making sure that other people have, too."

Have I mentioned that Episcopalians are masters of passive aggression? Maybe other denominations are, too, and maybe this is just a human trait that has nothing to do with faith background.

Nertz. It sounds like I'm church-bashing here, and I hate church-bashing, and I really don't want to do that -- or encourage it in other people. I don't think church dynamics are any better or worse than those that govern universities, corporations, or communes. I'm really proud of the person in my parish who's talking about a painful experience and trying to get support in dealing with it, and I'm really proud of the other people in my parish who are being supportive.

But I'm also wondering if the thank-you/I'm-sorry antipathies are linked. If Episcopalians, or at least the ones I know, were better at saying, "Thanks! I worked really hard on that, and I'm so glad you noticed!", would we also be better at saying, "I'm sorry; I really screwed up; please tell me how I can fix it"? If we were better at taking our share of credit, would we be better at owning our share of blame?

Pet Therapy


I volunteered at the hospital today for the first time since Dad died. It felt great, although I only had one really satisfying visit. One of my favorite nurses asked me to talk to a patient who was feeling very spiritually disconnected. I spent a long time with this person, who's had a very difficult life, has an extremely challenging medical condition, and feels profoundly stigmatized and rejected. "I feel like there's a huge black hole inside me."

It turns out, though, that the patient loves dogs. (Indeed, during the early part of our conversation, I thought the patient's dog -- at home with a friend -- was a human child.) I said to the patient, "I want you to close your eyes. Imagine that hole. Now imagine that dogs are streaming into it. Does that help?"

The patient, grinning, said that yes, it did. It helped a lot.

After that exercise, we worked on finding an image of God that would work better for this patient than the standard Jesus-in-a-bathrobe portrayal. Just so you know, it turns out that God is a tri colored Australian Shepherd puppy.

Works for me!

The doctor came in at that point, so I had to leave. The ED was out of stuffed animals, but I went upstairs to Pediatrics and -- with the help of a friendly and obliging nurse -- found a beanie-baby puppy. This one was a Pug, not an Aussie, but the patient appreciated it. "Pugs are great too."

The ED nurse thanked me repeatedly. "You rock! I knew you'd be able to help!"

Meanwhile, the waiting room was full of little kids. I went out there with a bunch of crayons and coloring paper, and discovered that a woman had come in with a baby chick. She explained that she has thirty of them, but this one was getting picked on by the other chicks, so she separated it from them. I never figured out what she was doing at the hospital, but she let some of the kids hold the chick, showing them how to cup their hands around it to warm it, and they were absolutely enthralled.

I crossed the room to offer crayons to two other kids who were waiting with a cranky parent. The parent, who was the patient, explained that they'd been there forever. "Don't bother to give them crayons. I'm just going to leave. I can't sit here anymore!"

I went back into the ED and told the nurse who'd referred me to the dog lover, "Hey, there's a woman out there with a baby chick!"

The nurse squealed. "That's so cute!"

But when I told another nurse, she scowled and said with a glare, "Chickens are disease-bearing animals! No one should bring a chicken into the hospital!"

Oh, crumb. Had I just gotten the chick owner in trouble? (Although I'd been wondering about the germ factor myself.) "It's a very small chicken," I said, thinking hey, at least it's not a rattlesnake.

"It doesn't matter! Chickens carry diseases! But I'm not out there, so I'm not going to do anything about it."

Still toting the crayons Cranky Parent had turned down, I went back out into the waiting room, wondering if I should tell everyone to wash their hands. Should I pass out hand gel? Should I call security to eject the Baby Chick of the Apocalypse and its person?

Cranky Parent, transformed, was cradling the chick and beaming down at it, while the two kids looked on happily. I gave them the crayons.

"You just couldn't resist the crayons, huh?" Cranky Parent said with a chuckle.

"I like giving out crayons," I said. And so I do. Since CP was in a good mood now, I decided not to be the Handwashing Police. If this were really a public-health emergency, Nurse #2 would have charged out there, right? And it looked like CP was now going to stay and get medical care. Yay!

In other news, yesterday I met with a doctoral student who, among other things, is studying social work and interning at one of the psych hospitals in town. I told her about my work in the ED and about how I'd love to work with psych patients. During my shift this morning, I got an e-mail from her saying that she'd spoken to her supervisor; they've recently hired a part-time chaplain, but they'd love to have someone volunteer to talk to patients on weeknights.

Cool! Of course, I don't know if they'll want me when they find out that I'm neither ordained nor a CPE grad, and then there's the time issue: I don't have time for everything I'm doing as it is. But I've wanted to do this for so long that I'll probably at least try it, if they'll let me.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Best. Story. Ever.


Today I picked up this week's issue of The New Yorker and was absolutely blown away by this story. The faerie king and queen, Titania and Oberon, adopt a human changeling who comes down with leukemia, and they stay with him in the hospital, trying to make sense of what's happening both to him and to themselves. It's beautifully written, intensely moving, lyrical, and often funny. I can't remember the last time I was so enthralled by a piece of fiction.

I've now ordered two books by the author, Chris Adrian, who's currently a pediatric oncology fellow at UCSF, has studied at Harvard divinity school, and attended the Iowa Writers Workshop. What a resume! No wonder I love this guy's writing: he shares all my preoccupations.

Read it. Then let me know what you think!

Two Journeys


My latest column is up at Hope and Healing. Dad died a month ago today, so it seems like a fitting time to post the link.

Gary said last night over dinner that it feels like Dad died much longer than a month ago. To me it feels like years ago, on a different planet. I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing; it just is. I'm sure the pain will sharpen again on significant days: Father's Day, his birthday, the anniversary of when he moved out here, and certainly the anniversary of his death. But for now, the haze covering the memories is a relief.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Wisteria Behind the Lodge

A nearby road is named Lorien Way. It's very apt. My narrative medicine session went well, and I've asked to be invited back next year.

Beach!

We're hanging out here on the beach at Santa Cruz, which is full of people and seagulls and pelicans, and sailboats -- which my father would love -- on the water. The beach doesn't have rocks or shells, a demerit in my book, but it's still lovely.

Moth

Jillian found this gorgeous critter sunning himself on the outside of my cabin this morning.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Welcomed


This afternoon was a lot more intense than I expected. The woman who taught us about Ayurvedic medicine -- she's also a Western-trained physician -- was terrific, very down to earth and realistic when telling the students what to expect during their residencies, which will begin July 1. She told them, for instance, that there's pretty much no way to avoid being sleep-deprived. She split the students into five small groups to discuss different scenarios that might come up in residency: the one in the group I sat in on involved an exhausted resident ordering a drug to which the patient was allergic, and being caught in the error by a nurse.

I'd told myself I was just going to sit, listen and knit, but I wound up making comments in the small group, and then, later, in the large group. One of the scenarios involved a pregnant resident fearing for her baby's safety during a swarm of hectic admissions, and that led into a discussion of maternity leave (or lack thereof) in residency. I spoke up, mentioned that my father had just died, and said, "How do residencies handle bereavement leave?"

People blinked at me. "They don't," one of the faculty said. "I've never heard of it."

I was already feeling a little shaky from having talked about Dad -- I'd prefaced my comments with, "I know I'm the outsider here, but I'm wondering . . . " -- and after the discussion, I went to talk to the instructor to tell her how much I was enjoying her presentation. I asked her if I'd been talking too much, and she said no, and Jillian came up and said sternly, "Susan, you have to stop this! You aren't an outsider!"

The instructor told me that the entire elective is indebted to everyone who works in medical humanities, and furthermore that the philosophy of HEART is to welcome everyone. "If you aren't welcome here, none of us is welcome," she told me.

We'd been sitting outside for the small-group exercise. Back inside, everyone settled into a circle. My chair was behind the circle, where I could watch, listen and knit comfortably. The instructor looked at me and said, "Susan, please join the circle!" Then she said, "As a matter of fact, there's something I want to do. We're going to do an exercise with you. Come here, in the middle. We're going to do an exercise called a HEART attack."

Slightly nervous, I stood in the middle of the circle. Everyone else got up and stood around me. The instructor said, "Okay, everybody, HEART attack!" and they all rushed forward and hugged me.

All of this left me feeling acutely self-conscious and as if I was about three years old; at the same time, though, it brought up powerful and painful memories of all the other places where I haven't been welcomed unconditionally, or where I've thought that I was, only to fall into the same old pattern of being told to shut up, be quiet, stop talking so much. This has been especially true of my church relationships over the last five years or so, and all of that got retriggered (although in a minor way) by something that happened last week.

I realized that in most of the environments where I operate, I'm suffering from some form of "impostor syndrome:" I'm not smart or critical or productive enough as an English academic, I'm not really a chaplain, I've foresworn ordination in a church setting where Total Ministry's becoming a thing of the past, I can't possibly claim to be a real member of a medical faculty because I'm only adjunct and teach a subject perceived as "soft," even though I fervently believe otherwise, and so forth and so on.

Intellectually, I know that none of this is true, that I'm fine the way I am (although I have plenty of room to grow!), that I do a lot of good work in a lot of places, and that my lack of "official" credentials in various settings, especially the hospital, often makes me more effective in my work, not less. Intellectually, I know that the "shut up" messages I get are usually because I've touched on some truth that other people don't want to think about. But for all my intellectual understanding of these dynamics, I'm carrying around a lot of emotional baggage -- who isn't? -- and that got triggered today.

I'm trying to think of any other setting where I've been told, "If you aren't welcome here, none of us is welcome." I can't think of one. Church comes cloest, at least in theory, but too much of it is still hierarchical and credential-based. Various therapy groups I've been in have come close, but there are always power dynamics operating there, too.

Of course, I've been at HEART less than a day, and I'm sure it would look less utopian over time. But still, there's just something about that formulation -- "If you aren't welcome here, none of us is welcome" -- that haunts me, especially in a setting based on a shared professional background I don't share.

I'm sure I'll be processing this more over the next few days. Time to go eat dinner now, and then go to bed early, I hope. We're all staying in cabins perched among the trees. The cabins are accessible via narrow dirt paths, and we need flashlights at night. The cabins are tiny, but luckily my roommate's very nice. I hope I can get my CPAP to work, so my snoring won't bother her!

I didn't get to the waterfall today. Maybe tomorrow.

Redwoods!

I'm at the retreat center. This place is indescribably beautiful and feels very holy. Jillian's going to take me to a waterfall after this afternoon's session (on Ayurvedic medicine), and after my session tomorrow, we're going to the BEACH!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Berkeley


The weather was gorgeous today, and despite lots of roadwork on I-80, I got to Berkeley in time for plenty of shopping. As it turned out, I only bought things at two stores: a necklace at the ACCI Gallery, and five pieces of clothing (four of them 70% off) at Bryn Walker, whose stuff I adore. Her clothing's loose, stylish and comfortable.

I spent way, way too much money, but all of it came from Dad's cash, so it won't even show up on our credit cards. I'll definitely use the clothing (and yes, Gary, I promise to throw out or donate as many things as I bought). The necklace was a bit of an extravagance, but it's a river rock in a funky cross-like setting -- the silver holding the rock forms a cross pattern -- and I have a thing both for rocks and crosses, so it will get worn, too.

Before I started shopping, I zipped up to Holy Hill to see if I could find my friend A, but I didn't see him in his usual spots. I'll try again tomorrow, if I wake up in time to get up there before I have to hit the road. I hope he's okay.

My hotel room is basic, but comfortable. It has a microwave and small fridge, but, oddly, no coffee maker. Luckily, I brought my own, since I wasn't sure I'd be able to get sufficiently strong coffee at the retreat center in Ben Lomond.

After I'd checked in, I went to the very nice Thai restaurant next door and pigged out on appetizers and a dessert. I always like appetizers better than the main courses, and it's fun to eat a lot of small things.

I haven't, alas, gotten any grading done, and given how tired I am, I suspect I'll crash after I finish this post. Yeah, yeah, I know: I should've graded instead of blogging. As usual. But it will all get done somehow, because it always does.

Tomorrow: redwoods!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Suitcase Cat

He obviously wants to go with me, even though if I tried to put him in the car, he'd, er, have kittens.

Getaway


Tomorrow morning, I'll be attending a dissertation defense in another department (I'm the outside committee member). Tomorrow afternoon, I'm leaving for a weekend in California. My ultimate destination is Ben Lomond, where I'll be presenting a Narrative Medicine workshop at the HEART elective for medical students. (I love the photo on their homepage of the medical student hugging a tree!) Tomorrow night, though, I've reserved a hotel room in Berkeley. I hope to get there early enough to hit some of my favorite stores and galleries before closing time.

Friday I'll drive down to Ben Lomond, arriving around lunchtime. I'll spend the rest of the day getting acclimated and catching up with my student Jillian, who very kindly got me invited down there. Saturday's the two-hour workshop. I'll probably stay over until Sunday morning, when I plan to leave early and drive straight home to Reno, weather permitting. The weather's supposed to be better than it has been, though, so I hope to avoid trouble in the mountains.

I have to lug a ridiculous amount of stuff along with me: my laptop, since Jillian says that cell reception's iffy down there and I need e-mail access for work, piles of grading (I got a bunch done this morning, but it just keeps coming in again), my CPAP, my teaching stuff for the workshop, knitting, a pillow and towel for Ben Lomond (since Jillian advised me to bring my own), and, of course, clothing. I calculate that I'll have to bring three bags for four days. Oy! And, of course, we'll see how much grading I actually get done. I don't feel safe leaving it behind, though.

In any case, both Berkeley and Ben Lomond should be fun and relaxing, which I sorely need right now. I wish Gary could come, but he abhors long car rides and also wants to go to a concert tomorrow night, since two of our good friends are performing. I'd ordinarily want to go to the concert too, but right now, getting out of town takes priority.

Saturday evening will be four weeks since Dad died. I suspect HEART will be a good place to be for that particular anniversary. Jillian's been following the Dad saga from the beginning, and has been very understanding and sympathetic. She's going to be a fabulous physician.

This afternoon, a former student stopped by my office hours to give me his condolences. He's been reading the blog! (Hi, Charles!) And this morning before I left for work, the hospice chaplain called me to see how I was. I explained that I was frantically grading, and that while I'd love to talk to him, I really won't have time until May. He said that he won't pester me, that he'll let me call him when I'm ready. Nice guy.

I can't wait until classes are over. It's been a brutal semester. Right now, though, I'm still in miles-to-go-before-I-sleep mode.

Ben Lomond's supposed to be gorgeous, so I'll post photos if my BlackBerry cooperates.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gray Day


It's cold and gray here today, with snow and rain and heavy clouds, and I've been feeling gray and heavy in consequence. The weather was like this the day after Dad died, and I think that memory is making me sad. Can weather be a grief trigger? (Why not? Anything can be a grief trigger.)

One of my students makes a point of checking in to see how I'm doing at the beginning of every class. Yesterday she asked me how I was, and I told her that I'm more behind on grading and other work for school than I've ever been.

She said gently, "You've never been through this before."

You're right. I haven't. Good point.

Meanwhile, today my sister called to say that she had to have one of their cats euthanized. That's sad enough, but worse, it turns out that this kitty had not only diabetes, but also FIP, which is contagious and incurable and may, therefore, have infected the other six cats in the household, including one my sister's been keeping for my nephew during a housing transition.

The upside to my mother not caring much about cats anymore is that she isn't devastated by this situation, as she would have been until a few months ago. My sister says her dementia's getting worse; on the other hand, she's on an appetite stimulant that's been very effective, and all her lab values are a lot better than they were, probably because she's eating well. Mom's doctor even called to congratulate her on the results.

Given the dementia, improved physical health may be a mixed blessing: one of my nightmares would be mental deterioration within a strong body, but I guess we have to take what we can get.

On a slightly less dire note, the liturgical types at my church are trying to figure out how to get more people to attend Holy Week services. There are suggestions afoot that would shorten Good Friday, or move it to the evening -- although Maundy Thursday and the Great Vigil are shorter evening services, and they're equally sparsely attended -- or try to educate parishioners about why Holy Week's so important. We've done a lot of education, though. My theory is that people avoid those services because they're gloomy and because it's just too much church in one week (I disagree, obviously, and so do the other diehards), and we can't change any of that without gutting Holy Week completely.

Last year, I preached on Maundy Thursday about how the foot-washing isn't optional. Our congregation is very foot-phobic -- hardly anyone comes up for the washing -- and I wanted to try to change that. People said the homily made them think, that maybe they'd participate this year.

This year, fewer people participated than usual. Sigh.

There's part of me that's tempted to suggest a really hardball tactic: "Jesus said that if we don't let him wash our feet, we have no share in him, so if you don't get your feet washed, you can't take communion tonight." But that would probably only drive away the people who do come to the service, but who refuse to take their socks off.

Anyway, are any of you in a parish where Holy Week services are mobbed? Do you have any suggestions for us?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Three Endings


Alan at the Tiller: location, date, photographer unknown.

Here's this evening's homily. I love the Great Vigil and hate Easter Sunday morning -- there are too many people, and it's all too sickly sweet (not least because of the incense, which sets off my allergies) -- so I'll probably skip church tomorrow.

I've been going through Dad's photos, trying to find one of him on Red Jacket, but so far, no luck. There are lots of photos of Red Jacket, in various states of repair and lack thereof, but none include Dad. So I settled for this photo. Since the boat's actually on the water, and since the color scheme's yellow rather than red, this must be another boat, but I like the looking-into-the-distance wistfulness on Dad's face, which is a bit like how he looked before he died.

The woman who taught my preaching class always told us not to use personal stories in our homilies, because we're supposed to be talking about God, not about ourselves. But I got away from that rule pretty quickly, and nobody at church seems to mind. It seems to me that it's hard to talk about one without talking about the other, too.

The Gospel is >Mark 16:1-8. If you want to read the rest of the readings for the Great Vigil, you can find them here.

*

The Gospel of Mark, the shortest and oldest of the four Gospels, has three endings. Scholars believe that the Gospel originally ended with the passage we just heard, with the “terror and amazement” the women felt at the empty tomb. The second ending is a short paragraph in which the women tell Peter and the other disciples what just happened; it adds that “Jesus himself sent through them, from east to West, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” The third ending, the longest, describes post-resurrection sightings of Jesus, his final instructions to his disciples -- “Proclaim the good news!” -- and his ascension.

These three endings create a powerful portrait of Jesus’ followers struggling to make sense of a miracle. The first conveys the sheer bewilderment of the first witnesses to the resurrection, who went from the grief of the crucifixion -- an event they could at least understand -- to the terror of a world turned upside down, a world in which God has reversed death. In this ending, the women are promised that they will see Jesus, but they haven’t seen him yet. They’re left struggling with, and fleeing from, an impossible story.

In the second ending, we’re told that Jesus works through his followers, but we don’t hear about any post-resurrection appearances. The phrase “Jesus himself sent out through them” could, it seems to me, just as easily mean that they were inspired by his memory. Only in the third ending do we learn that the disciples saw the risen Jesus at various times and places, and that he spoke to them before being taken up into heaven. In this third ending, we see the Gospel writers making sense of that empty tomb, replacing terror and amazement with mission.

This progression feels very human to me, very realistic. When we are faced with miracles, with events that defy the rules we know, our first response is bewilderment and even fear. From there, we work to make sense of the impossible, to turn it into a story that will fit into and enrich our lives, that will give us purpose. And make no mistake, we see miracles all the time: resurrections from illness, from desperation, from despair. We catch a glimpse of the risen Christ whenever we learn that some ending we’re grieving wasn’t the end at all, that the story isn’t finished. A dead body on a cross is the end, but no, it isn’t the end. A tomb is the end, but no, this empty tomb isn’t the end. The women telling Peter what they’ve seen isn’t the end. Jesus’ ascension to heaven isn’t even the end. This story isn’t finished yet. It’s still going on, and all of us are called to proclaim the good news of the small pieces we have seen and heard.

To see resurrection, though, you must first confront death. That’s why Good Friday is so important, and it’s why the first witnesses to the resurrection, in all four Gospels, are women, doing the everyday and necessary task of anointing the dead. Miracles arise from the ordinary.

Many of you know that my father died three weeks ago this evening. Many of you also know that he was a committed atheist, fiercely contemptuous of God and church and religion, although his Catholic upbringing left him with a lifelong passion for social justice. He agreed with me, and with Jesus, that our purpose here is to love each other. He just didn’t see why anyone had to believe in “a fairy tale” -- his term for religious faith -- to figure that out.

In the last few weeks of his life, though, this decidedly unspiritual man began having the kinds of odd experiences that, according to hospice professionals, often occur before death. Several times I walked in on him when he was chatting with dead cousins. In the days before he died, he kept reaching out his right hand and making a movement that looked like turning a doorknob, and his gaze repeatedly traveled from the foot of his bed up to the ceiling. I asked him what door he was opening and what he saw, but he couldn’t tell me. I consciously fought the urge to impose my own story on these gestures. I knew what door I wanted him to open and who I wanted him to see, but I respected my father too much to force my beliefs into him.

On Saturday, March 21st, the hospice nurse told me that Dad had at most a week left. We moved him into a private room at the nursing home, and I decided to bring a camping cot to his room that evening and stay with him until the end. I sat with him that afternoon, trying to decipher his few words, which were fragmented by heart failure and garbled by morphine. But somewhere in there he said, very clearly, “He’s working on the boat.”

The boat was Red Jacket, the thirty-foot wooden sloop my father bought for $2,500 cash when he retired. At the age of sixty-five, he and a friend brought this dilapidated vessel, via rivers and inland waterways, from Chicago to the Gulf Coast. That trip was the grand adventure of his life, and the eleven years he lived on Red Jacket afterward were his happiest, even though the boat was in such bad shape that he never got her away from the dock. All of his time, money and energy went into repairing her. When his health got worse and he couldn’t live on the boat anymore, he sadly sold her to his burly, bearded friend AJ.

Sitting next to him in the nursing home, I said, “Who’s working on the boat, Dad? AJ?”

“Yup,” Dad said, his voice strong. “He’s working on the boat.”

A few hours later, I went home for dinner and to pick up the camping cot. When my husband and I returned to the nursing home, we learned that Dad had died peacefully half an hour before, while the nurses were turning him in bed. Hospice had called me, but I’d missed them.

In my shock and grief, I focused on the date. The days around the Spring Equinox have always been very hard for me. I’ve suffered many losses on, or around, March 21. Dad’s death was only the latest and most painful example of that pattern. The timing was not good news.

A few days later, Gary and I started going through the things in Dad’s apartment, and I tackled his file drawers. Naturally, he had a file devoted to Red Jacket. It contained the bill of sale for the boat. Dad had bought his beloved sailboat on March 21, 1988.

This is not an empty tomb, not a bodily resurrection. But it is a reminder that my father had his own story, very different from mine. In my story, March 21 is a day of dread. In his story, it’s the beginning of a grand adventure. He began one grand adventure in 1988, and I believe he began another three weeks ago. And while I know my father saw a strong, bearded man working on the boat, I’m not at all sure it was AJ. I think perhaps the figure was someone else, someone who knows a lot about boats and even more about facing death, and overcoming it.

Many people would call this sequence of events coincidence, instead of miracle. All I know is that I’ve been given good news: a new way to make sense of my father’s death, a new way to believe that his story isn’t over. If I had been unwilling to sit at his bedside as he died, if I hadn’t gone on to do the everyday, ordinary act of cleaning out his apartment, I never would have arrived at this new understanding. Only through Good Friday could I arrive at Easter.

I’ll miss Dad every day of my life, but now I can also imagine him sailing on Red Jacket, under clear skies with warm, following winds. The boat’s shipshape and seaworthy, as she never was while he lived. His companion on this voyage has the very useful skills of being able to calm storms and walk on water. And if I am once again imposing on my father a story he would have hated, well, at least the tale has given me a new sense of mission: to embrace grand adventures, even in unlikely circumstances, as exuberantly as my father did.

This Easter, may all of you find good news: pain transformed to praise, wounds healed by wonder, and grief lightened by grace.

Christ is risen. Allelujah!

Dad and Boats


Shortly after Dad died, I promised I'd post some photos my sister had sent me. I'm finally doing that. Maybe this means that soon I'll be able to get around to writing the obituary. I haven't felt up to tackling that, and it's not urgent because we won't be having any kind of service for months at the earliest.

So, anyway, here's Dad with boats -- his favorite things in the world -- in the background. This photo was taken in 2007, so I think he must have been in Pennsylvania already. (Later: My sister tells me the picture was taken in Cape May, New Jersey, where she, her husband and son had taken Dad for a whale-watching trip.)

He's wearing his favorite hat, which you'll also see in the next photo. I sent it to my sister, and also sent her the red satin-finish jacket you can see peeking into the photo. The name of Dad's own sailboat was Red Jacket, so his bright red jacket was fitting.

The shirt he's wearing was one of his favorites, although not his absolute favorite (you'll see that two photos down), and I have it now.

He's been dead three weeks today. It feels like a million years have passed since then.

Old Homestead


Here's a photo of Dad in 2008 in Hopewell Junction, New York, where he and my mother and sister lived before I was born. My sister took him on several drives there to see the old family home -- you can see a corner of it behind him -- which functions as the Garden of Eden in our family memory. I'm sorry I never lived there myself.

Birthday Boy


Here I am with Dad on his birthday in 2006. The shirt he's wearing was his all-time favorite: he was a big fan of loud plaids, the brighter the better.

Fifteen Minutes of Fame


Photo: Liz Margerum, Reno Gazette-Journal

My church has opened its doors to a Lutheran congregation across the street whose sanctuary was damaged by a fire. On Maundy Thursday, I washed the feet of the Lutheran pastor. We wound up on the front page of yesterday's paper, as part of a nice story about interfaith cooperation. Friends at church were teasing me about it.

Thursday I was tired and droopy, although I felt somewhat better after swimming for an hour. Yesterday I was hideously depressed all day, partly because the weather was gloomy -- rain and snow -- although I guess that's appropriate for Good Friday. I knit through our three-hour service and got some schoolwork done afterwards, although I still felt, and feel, oppressed by how much is left.

This morning, though, I'm feeling better, thank goodness. I'm preaching tonight and still have to write the homily, so I need all the energy I can get.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

A Little Less Cranky


Well, I'm feeling a bit better than I was when I wrote my last post, because a) I've caught up on at least some grading and b) I've engaged in aggressive retail therapy. I now own several new red objects. They make me happy. Also, my friends Arthur and Sherri went to London and brought me a charming photo book of cathedral cats. Cats make me happy, too.

On the less positive side, yesterday I got a jury summons -- I'm one of those odd people who enjoys jury duty, but they never seem to call me during the summer when I have free time! -- and also got a referral from my dentist to a periodontist for possible gum graft. He's been making noise about this for several years, but this is the first time he's said, "Yeah, so you should actually go see this guy so he can look at your mouth."

Everyone I know who's had gum grafts says they're hideous, although probably not as hideous as losing teeth. My dentist tells me this fellow is conservative and errs on the side of not doing the procedure, which is fine with me. Among other things, I don't particularly want to have to deal with huge dental bills right now.

The periodontal consultation is in a few weeks. Today I'm mailing back my jury questionnaire, and they'll send me a postcard telling me when I need to show up. I begged them not to call me until after classes are over, but I don't know if they even read those notes, or if they put that little white space for "comments" just so people can blow off steam.

And now, back to catching up on grading . . . .

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Empty Space


After conferring with my sister, I deleted my post about the kind, lovely, extraordinarily compassionate thing that one of Dad's healthcare providers did for him, and us, because -- as several readers pointed out, and as my sister had wondered -- that kind, lovely thing was, technically, Against the Rules, and we don't want this wonderful person to be punished. I don't think that's likely from a blog post, but as my sister observed, "Some people are just mean," and I didn't want to have to worry about somebody reading the post and narcing on the person who was so nice to us.

May I observe here that HIPAA sucks? I know the reasons for it, and I know the people who instituted it did so with good intentions, but they've created a monster. The mere fact that anyone would respond to an extraordinary act of kindness with, "But Rules Were Broken!" shows the extent to which HIPAA has twisted the heads of everyone in healthcare.

And please don't post comments defending HIPAA, okay? Like I said, I know the reasons for it. I'm not interested. Aside from the fact that people stand to be punished for being nice, just think about how many continents we've deforested having to sign all those freaking forms. Ugh!

In other joyous news, I realized today that the three-month anniversary of Dad's death falls on Father's Day.

Yes, I'm cranky right now. Try to talk me out of it. I dare you.

Two Weeks Out


Today's two weeks since Dad died. Yesterday and the day before I was really feeling quite well, but today I'm heavy and sad again. This will be a cycle for a while, I guess.

Yesterday I picked up eight death certificates and mailed four -- along with some of my Dad's things that she'd requested, or that I thought she'd like -- to my sister. The funeral director had advised me to get multiple certificates, since they're more difficult to acquire later on, but I'm not sure I'm going to need any. I think everything's just about done now, except waiting for the last medical bills to come in and ploughing through the boxes and bags of stuff from Dad's apartment.

Since Dad's latest hospitalization, I'd been keeping a separate wallet in my purse with his cash and ID cards. Yesterday I put the ID cards (Social Security, VA, expired Mississippi driver's license, pacemaker card) in the "Dad file" and put the file away in my closet. Then I combined his cash with mine.

I guess I should destroy his ID cards, but I can't quite bring myself to do that yet. I did, with some pangs, delete his phone numbers from my cell phone. I'd already deleted all the caregiver and facility numbers, except for the main number for the Reno VA, which I may still need to call about bills.

I'm grateful that his affairs were (so far, knock wood) so simple. But it's also disconcerting to be able to "close out" eighty-six years of life in two weeks, you know?

Friday, April 03, 2009

Can You Find the Bunny in this Photo?

Taken through the kitchen window yesterday morning. The cats didn't even see it: great camouflage!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009