Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Visiting Dad, Day 2

Today I saw Dad at 10 this morning but he was asleep and stayed that way for the 20 or so minutes I remained with him. I left a note for him, saying I'd be back at 1:30. When I returned, he was awake and being wheeled to a bingo game. We sat in the little soda shop at the end of the hallway. In contrast to how he was yesterday, he wasn't sure either who I was, and as I realized a little later, who he was. He did ask whether I was his son, and I told him yes. He asked more questions about his brothers (I had told him yesterday his next eldest brother had died last year, which his daughter, my cousin, had told him shortly after the event but didn't think he'd understood), and finally asked, Are you Harold? I said, No, you're Harold. I'm Bobby, your son.

We were offered sherbet and he ate about half the cupful. It seemed to make a change in him; he had been itching and when I came back with lotion from his room, he called me Bobby and said he was tired and wanted to lie down. I agreed, but said first we should look at the bingo game. We did; he said he'd still like to lie down. On our way to his room, two RNs asked him to walk for a bit with his walker. Dad agreed, reluctantly. He stood with help and used the walker to walk, slowly and with some pain, about 15 or 20 yards down the hallway. I told him I was very proud of him and he said, My legs hurt. So I took him to his room, helped him into bed, and he sank into deep slumber. But before he did he reached out for my hand.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Visiting Dad, Day 1

He didn't recognize me last night when I arrived.

My dad has been in a nursing facility for nearly three years, since he had his first series of strokes a few years after my mother died. I get out here in the Thick a few times a year in order to visit him. In addition to his illness he also has a mass growing on his brain, which may or may not be cancerous. It's not in his best interest, at his advanced age and physical frailty, to have it surgically looked at or removed, so his dementia, which is advancing and may or may not be connected to the mass, takes from him small bits of memory and control daily.

I last visited him early last summer, before my detached retina limited my ability to travel, and planned to visit again in late November for two weeks. However, I've been covering two regions since September when another chaplain left, and so there was no one to cover my vacation. So I have waited until January to come here. I'm here for two weeks and may take note of each day or I may not. Like so much of life after a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, I will take it all a day, even an hour, at a time.

To be fair, he had been asleep when I arrived, although per his aides, he had been talking with them about my visit all day. But he looked at me like he might look at any stranger who showed up in his room and it took at least fifteen minutes and several hints before he said my name himself. Even then, he seemed unable to accept or understand that I was there. But he let me help him back into bed and kiss him and tell him good night, and he said he loved me too.

I left a note beside his bed telling him when I would return today, a practice I learned helps lessen his anxiety and confusion as to whether I had been there or he was dreaming, whether I was returning, or if I had gone home yet. I went back there at one this afternoon. He was asleep again--as he's aged he spends a lot of time sleeping--and woke immediately when I touched his arm and said his name. This time he not only knew me, said my name at once, and struggled to sit up. I helped him sit up and then to make it into his wheelchair.

I asked if he wanted to go to the hallway to look out the window and talk, but he shook his head and said, Stay here. So for the next couple hours we sat in his room together, sometimes talking, more often just sitting quietly. Occasionally we both fell asleep for a bit, after which when he woke he asked me to help him into bed again. He lay there, falling asleep a few more times while I sat in the chair next to his bed reading.

Finally, we had the period I'd hoped for. He woke, looked at me, grinned like he used to, and hit my arm on that side, saying, You! Then he talked about growing older and getting sicker and how difficult it was. I'm tired, he said. I'm tired. I knew he meant more than just at the moment. It's the same "I'm tired" I've heard from dozens of hospice patients. "I'm tired of suffering indignities, I'm tired of pissing and shitting in my pants, I'm tired of living life a few waking hours at a time." I told him I figure I'll say the same when I'm his age and he grinned again, like he used to, and said, Yes, you will.

It was a good conversation for the little while it lasted, maybe ten minutes, and then he drifted off again. But before he did I told him I'd come back in the morning and spend time with him again.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Giving Praise in a Quiet Way

I've been thinking about how to welcome--and I do mean it, the welcome--in the new year with some positive spark lighting up the void surrounding it, and this song does it for me. I've written a sermon about it before, but here I'm just going to post the video and lyrics. Let it wash over you and see if you can stop from smiling.

The Sing by Bill Callahan
Drinking while sleeping strangers
Unknowingly keep me company
In the hotel bar
Looking out a window that isn't there
Looking at the carpet and the chairs
Well, the only words I said today are "beer" and "thank you"
Beer, thank you
Beer, thank you
Giving praise in a quiet way
Like a church
Like a church
Like a church that's far away
I've got limitations like Marvin Gaye
Mortal joy is that way
Outside a train sings its wail song
To a long, long train long, long fone
Then silence comes back alone
High as scaffolding
'Til the wind finds something to ping
When the pinging thing finds the wind
We're all looking for a body
Or a means to make one sing


Saturday, November 18, 2017

On the necessity of our bastards

I have never been a fan of the gay, right-leaning columnist Andrew Sullivan, although I have read individual things he's written and agreed with him. This is one of them. It's a well-written, well-thought out, well-argued and ultimately disturbing examination of what it means to look past your own blinkers to seeing the timber in your own eye. I'm just as guilty, maybe even more so, as anyone else of counting myself on the right side of history (especially when I admit my liberalism is in some ways a distinct counter to William F. Buckley's definition of conservatism as "stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop").

Of course, it's possible to read Sullivan's column as his own attempt to place himself on the right side of history, since he made his name in the late 90s as a Clinton scold (having been himself, earlier, a Clinton advocate), and the whole both-siderisms of the 2010s leading to the current imbroglio of accusations, denouncements, Me Toos, apologies (and non-apologies) coming together in the wash to give us such an Interesting Time as the contemporary one. His essay was published the day after the accusation made against Al Franken but was obviously written before that, because he makes no mention of it, and it would have been an interesting spanner to throw in the work.

Be that as it may, even discounting every reason he gives for why he comes to the conclusion that he does--"No party, no cause, no struggle, however worthy, is ever free from evil. No earthly cause is entirely good. And to believe with absolute certainty that you are on 'the right side of history,' or on the right side of a battle between 'good and evil,' is a dangerous and seductive form of idolatry. It flatters yourself. And it will lead you inevitably to lose your moral bearings because soon, you will find yourself doing and justifying things that are evil solely because they advance the cause of the 'good.' These compromises can start as minor and forgivable trade-offs; but they compound over time"--his conclusion is nonetheless correct. Considering yourself on the right side of history is dangerous precisely because it's so seductive, and because, like evil itself, it's the easy way. 

This is why it troubles me. I hold Trump and Roy Moore in utter contempt for their actions and their allies' easy way of denying, attacking, and ignoring their accusers. I am a little more forgiving of Bill Clinton and Al Franken's misbehaviors because both have since owned up and apologized (in Clinton's case, after far too long a period, during which I found lots of reasons why it couldn't have happened; and in Franken's case, immediately). If I look at these cases objectively, am I any different than the worst of Trump's and Moore's attack dogs?

I don't know. That seems too big a question for me to answer, maybe for anyone to answer. There are certainly important differences, and in my mind those differences lend favor to the Democratic perpetrators. But maybe that's what it means to live in Interesting Times, to have events demand responses that are just too big to try to answer then. 

As if in response, Sullivan writes "No party is immune from evil; no tribe has a monopoly of good. If these bipartisan sex-abuse revelations can begin to undermine the tribalism that so poisons our public life, to reveal that beneath the tribes, we are all flawed and human, they may not only be a long-overdue turning point for women. They may be a watershed for all of us." He is right about that. But there is another consideration.

And that's this. A major difference between the Republican and the Democratic responses is that one side denies that the events happened and that the accusers are in it for the fame, for money, or out of pure evil. The other side admits (maybe a bit later than we'd like) that they did happen and that the accusers have told the truth. There have been well-intentioned calls for Franken to prove Democrats are the more responsible party by stepping down from his seat. The rub in that, of course, that there's no demand by the other side that their offending member step down (although there are some who note that Moore should step aside, mostly to avoid controversy tainting the election). 

The thing here is that this is a purity test, a Shibboleth, that only one Party is party to. Democrats and liberals held their candidates to a purity test last year which is partly why we're in the situation we're in. The opposing side, for all its bluster, for all its talk of American and family values, is not going to withdraw itself from power or influence. To whom might Democrats prove they are more responsible? To future historians? To themselves? Because it is not to the other side, and certainly not to anyone who is somehow undecided between these two parties. 

I had a friend who was a realtor and he was my realtor in two house purchases back on the rim. He had a tendency to bend if not break the rules, to go back on promises he had made that weren't written down, and to find all kinds of reasons for the buyer or seller, whichever he was representing, to receive better deals (and inflate his commission). In one instance, on the morning of our signing, he negotiated the buyer to pay upfront costs, and then had the gall to demand an extra few thousand added to the already negotiated cost. He had talked with us about doing this the day before, saying, "If it works, you're ahead. If it doesn't work, you're out nothing." The buyers, who had already sold their previous home and needed the new place, accepted the new negotiation. We looked like bastards. My realtor friend is a bastard. But he was my bastard. He worked on my behalf. Bill Clinton and Al Franken may be a lot of things, but if they are bastards they are our bastards, and if we are going to admit we are on the right side of history--and a lot of things, from abolition to desegregation to women's rights to gay rights to trans~ rights, are unambiguously on the right side of history--then we need to keep our bastards. It is, as Sullivan suggests, a slippery slope, but sometimes the future requires that you slide rather than march into it.  

Sunday, November 12, 2017


It's fitting I write this post now, the weekend we observe Veteran's Day and nearly a week after the incredible wins by members of the transgender community to important local and state offices.

I was driving between patients when I received an email that we had a new admission to hospice. Nothing struck as different until I saw both that she was nearing the active phase of dying (yes, there is such a thing and it is different from the state we are normally in), and that, while a cousin was her Power of Attorney for Health, there was otherwise no family involvement. It's true some people prefer to die alone but everyone should have the option of dying with someone who cares.

I had a conference call and another patient scheduled for the afternoon, but as the other chaplain covering that area was conducting a funeral, I offered to reschedule the patient. The hospital was 90 minutes from my area, so I listened to my call while driving; my other patient was eager to reschedule as she was feeling ill.

Over the course of the call I found the new admission was transgender, probably the reason for lack of family involvement, and was dying from pneumonia and was MRSA positive. This means gowning and gloves both for our protection and other patients. She was still in the ICU when I arrived and was unresponsive until I sat beside her and touched her arm, at which point she jolted awake. She was bony and angular and her clavicle stood out above her hospital gown.

I explained who I was, touching my ID so she could read if she couldn't understand. She motioned for a wipeboard near her. She couldn't speak any longer. She asked if I could speak up. I said of course. I asked if she was afraid and she didn't respond or look my way, so I asked if she'd like to hold my hand. In response she put her large bony hand in my gloved one, which I then covered with my other hand.

That was the only time I was to see her conscious. She drifted off to sleep a few minutes later and I held hands with her until she twitched hers away. A short while later the nurses came to move her to another room, outside the ICU, and she fidgeted several times in what seemed discomfort rather than pain. I made plans with my family fellow chaplain to relieve me at 9.

Imagine then my surprise when a small woman walked into the room room and said hello. She turned out to be a friend of the patient who was called by the cousin. She had driven from work in Stevens Point, about an hour west, to sit with her for the night. I got her up to speed, contacted the rest of my team, and headed home.

The next morning I called her friend, with whom I'd exchanged numbers, and found her friend had lived through the night. But she hadn't regained consciousness and wasn't likely to. I arranged to relieve her at 1. But when I arrived she had been replaced by another friend who had brought with her a local minister. He agreed to provide a memorial for her. I offered to continue to sit with her but they wanted to remain beside her another few hours.

I sat in the hallway and made phone calls and emails. Eventually they left for food and some rest. I sat holding my patient's hand. I had found things about her in the meantime, that she had been dishonorably discharged from the Navy, she had served during Desert Storm, and had prized the jacket she retained. She had been married and divorced twice, and had done something that put her beyond the love of her siblings and children. There would be no sudden appearance by family.

When I sat with her this last time I told her she was surrounded by people who love her enough to be with her. There might be an afterlife and there might not. But there was nothing she could have done to put her beyond the love of what she might join after her death, God, The Eternal, the universe, whatever it might be. She was as worthy of love as anyone.

Her friend and the pastor returned at six and I made ready to go. Before leaving I held her hands again and repeated her worthiness. She squirmed a little, perhaps saying goodbye. I left while they sang to her. A few hours later I received an email that she had died with her friend at her side.

This is why I do what I do.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Me, too

I want to add my voice to the #MeToo movement (or potential movement), but not in the way of my women friends and my wife and a few men friends. No, I can't identify as someone who has been taken advantage of, but as someone on the other side.

My "Me Too" comrades are Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump.

It's a hard thing for someone to admit, that he has been an asshole, pressing someone to have sex. But it's imperative in the Beloved Community that we own our mistakes and own them without pretense. I can't fathom the notion of Weinstein's "That was the culture" excuse, because really, even in the midst of the worst of the excesses of the last fifty years, if we were listening we could hear women telling us it wasn't the role they wanted in the revolution. In that culture there was a resistant strain of American machismo that allowed men to mouth changes for society but still left room for the worst forms of cocksmanship.

And I'll admit, I took part in that assumption of male power too. Why not, it often got me laid. Such acts are a giving in to the frailty of our egos and the humbling admission that what we think we deserve we really don't. I didn't have the influence of a Weinstein or Trump, but I was still a man and in this world that's often power enough. There are big holes in my memory, whole years, but I remember two instances when I pushed beyond acceptable flirtation to flat-out hands-on-the-body coercion, and while neither woman actually said "No"--both in fact ignored my clumsy pawing--their body language certainly did, and I plunged on as if it didn't matter. It didn't work in either case, by which I mean I didn't get laid, so there's that.

But I can't apologize personally to either of them because, no surprise, after we parted the next morning we never saw one another again. So if you're out there, I'm sorry I was an asshole. What happened wasn't your fault, but mine.

And this is why I can demand of a Weinstein and a Trump that their excuses, whether held up as excesses of the culture or of locker room talk, are limp and mealy-mouthed. Because there was a third instance. For whatever reason, although I hope it was a growing awareness what other people meant to me, this time I agonized over what I'd done, knowing even as I put hands on her it was wrong, and when I saw her again I apologized in public. In front of friends and strangers I owned responsibility and asked her forgiveness. She gave it and never contacted me again. I did the right thing.

It has to be done. Men who do this, women who do this, anyone who tries and succeeds or tries and fails to take advantage of someone through coercion or intimidation or reliance on being in a more powerful position, are responsible to make amends and apologize to the person they've tried it with. Understand, doing so isn't brave or cleansing. It is embarrassing and humbling, but it should be because what we've done is crossed the line that divides the playfulness of wooing and the seriousness of pressure. To do so, we know, is wrong, and as bad as we might feel in confessing it and asking forgiveness, we should feel worse for having done the act in the first place.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

God doesn't play favorites

If it's true, as Albert Einstein famously observed, that "God does not play dice with the universe"--and I would submit, so far as we can agree on what "God," "play," "dice," and "universe" means, that he was right--then it follows God does not play favorites either. That runs contrary to how we'd like to think it, that America is a chosen land, Americans are a chosen people, and American religious people like to think they are specifically, so far as this is the generation out of the millions and billions of previous generations, that will experience the Rapture, the End of Days, the Second Coming, the Tribulation, the Final Revelation, however we want to think of it, that they are the final, most glorious, most sunk in depravity and thus held highest by God. But it isn't so.

Neither the United States, or Christians, or American Christians--indeed, or Americans or Twenty-First Century peoples or Jews or converted Jews or Muslims or, well, or anyone you'd like to name--none of these are chosen or favorites. When it comes to natural disasters, we all drown or are dashed against rocks and trees exactly the same. When it comes to man-made disasters, we all crumble after being hit by bullets or have our organs ruptured from being trampled exactly the same. The only difference lies in that some of us experience this and some of us don't. But the ones who don't really have no cause to proclaim themselves somehow better than the ones who do, because when it's all said and done, no matter how it comes, death is something we all experience.

So does it mean anything when a middle-aged white man opts to take out whatever frustrations or psychoses or hatreds he may have by shooting at least 550 people, outright killing nearly 60 of them, with whatever combination of semiautomatic guns he could collect and spitting bullets like watermelon seeds into a crowd composed of, mostly, other white middle-aged Americans enjoying a type of music endemic to America while having its roots in African and Celtic sounds? It doesn't. And it does. 

When I say it doesn't matter I mean it doesn't matter that it happened in Las Vegas, Nevada, any more than when it happens in Myanmar or the Democratic Republic of Congo. It often seems as if massacres, the purposeful slaughter of large groups of people by other groups or individuals, is the default setting for humankind. That fact should give us pause.

But when I say it does matter what I mean is that any slaughter of people is reprehensible, and I suspect to God it is all populicide, the killing of people.

It matters too because in Las Vegas, Nevada, unlike in Myanmar or DRC where there are often great, sudden outbursts of violence, often by the authorities, there is no excuse for it happening.

This isn't another anti-gun or anti-weapon or even anti-Second Amendment diatribe. We've all heard those and we fall on one side or the other often depending on our use or non-use of those same weapons. What it is is an observation. As others have pointed out, Americans decided gun control was a non-issue when we decided (and we did decide, make no mistake, we decided as firmly as if we'd fired the shots ourselves) that 20 grade school children were a tolerable sacrifice to have greater access to guns than at any peaceful time in history. We will bury our dead, we will cry and lament over them, and then we will pretend to be shocked when it happens again, bigger, louder, with greater loss of life and perhaps with our own children or parents or cousins or friends among the dead. We will go on as if we have no more determination than the dice in Einstein's quote.