Friday, April 29, 2011

Brotherly love and marriage

The Royal Wedding has left me thinking quite a lot about brothers and sisters, and the tangled, loving, vengeful relationships that often exist between them. I watched Prince Harry with his twinkling eye and red hair whisper to his brother and the bride walked down the aisle with her sister following in the wake of her train and a royal marriage.

My own boys terrify me some days with the force of their affection and loathsome, oafish behavior toward one another. They truly define love-hate relationships. Like salt and pepper I cannot imagine them without the other, but there are so many moments where I wonder if they will both survive to adulthood without killing each other in a lightsaber duel or wrestling match. The truly disconcerting part is the way Nicholas appears to revel in the torment of his younger brother, Henry. If only he put as much time and effort into homework or housework as he does in plotting and pursuing his brother's breaking point.

Yet, when there is a moment that they are apart they look for one another to tell each other something, play action figures together, discuss Star Wars for the 5 millionth time, vex their mother in the car while she is driving and making useless threats against their persons. As impatient and irritable as they can be with one another, neither of them would want to do without the other.

I wonder if this is the true training ground for success in life and marriage relationships. The forced learning of how to simultaneously want to kill and protect, love and loathe another person to the death.  The learned behavior of how to be a team against outside forces that would destroy you:  annoying neighbor kids, bullies, parents and bedtime. The ability to celebrate and cheer for the success of another wholeheartedly.

There are so many things I'd like to do better as a parent, things I wish I had known, wish I had done differently, wish I could get a do-over on as a momma. But one thing I think I am doing right is forcing brotherly love, togetherness, family time, and forgiveness on the boys. "I know he is a pain in the butt-just go to bed and start over tomorrow." "Stop tormenting your brother." "Because he came to your performances last year and it's your turn to be supportive of him."

Like so much in life children learn more by observance than our words as parents. I forgive the boys, I apologize when necessary, I start over, I make amends. In other words, I demonstrate to them what it means to be in a loving, flawed human relationship. The vows couples take before marriage are the same kind we should take in all family relationships:
  • For Better or Worse-stupid boyfriend, bad perm, stealing my boyfriend, when you fart in  front of the entire church, forget to zip your fly up, or fall down at your ballet recital.
  • Richer or Poorer-and this doesn't just mean money-when things are going well and you are flush with optimism about your life I've got your back, when things are at their lowest and you need help in off the ledge I've got your back.
  • In sickness and health-I'll nag you to finish your antibiotics, get a pap smear/mammogram, wear a condom, and when you hit 50 I will force you to make a double date with me to get colonoscopies.
  • To love and to cherish-I will appreciate your obsession with Star Wars, turtles, Ben 10, and later South Park, blondes, Guinness on tap, and World Cup Soccer. I will appreciate that if I am ever in need of a quote from an obscure galaxy far far away-you will supply me with it readily.
  • Til death do us part-lovers may come and go, friends may come and go, but I am forever. I will stand with you when you get married or divorced, bail you out if necessary, check you in to rehab, go to AA with you, remind you why that girl is no damn good for you, and cry with you when she breaks your heart again.
Just as with all sibling relationships I am sure William and Harry, Kate and Pippa have had their trials to get through to a place where they can enjoy and celebrate one another without jealousy. But today there was no jealousy on display as one brother watched another marry in a worldwide circus the woman who will eventually be Queen.  The other sister, walking behind as her sibling's dreams came true looked every once as radiant as the bride, every bit as thrilled to be a spectator and not the center of the world's attentions.

Harry and Pippa will never have as glamorous a wedding as their siblings, but they will have something more dear, the knowledge that no matter where or when or what their brother/sister has their back, come rain or come shine and all along the way since childhood their sibling has been preparing them to be a committed, loving spouse.

Monday, April 25, 2011

mother in law

What a phrase, "Mother in law." It sounds sour, almost bitter, or perhaps that is because like my aversion to the use of stepmother, our society has come to connote ugliness with mother's in law. I was 18 when my own mother died, and over many years came to call  my dearest friend/sister Denise's mum, Mom Cormie. Knowing her and watching her and her husband Donald's marriage inspired me in so very many ways and made me believe in happy endings, even for me.

Then I got married and I got a mom, dad, two grandmothers, two sisters, a brother, and numerous extended relatives. Quite a shock to the system for a person who had been content to build a little family out of friends, but a welcome one. As a child, I never knew the joys or woes of extended family. My only living grandmother I met exactly twice, she was drunk the entire time we visited, and the tension between her and my own mother was palpable, even to a child as young as me. I imagined what it might be like to have a Daddy, to get to go shopping with a Grandma for an Easter dress or have a Grandpa fix my bike.

I longed for ridiculously large family gatherings where someone drank too much, burped at the table, or otherwise embarrassed their mothers. So when I married into the Morfeld clan I got that, I got obnoxious sibling relationships and the stress and strain of 20 something year old children and parents reestablishing relationships as adults. I became pregnant after Erich and I were engaged and met with out parish priest, but not before the actual vows, oops. To say I was humiliated about having to tell my soon to be in laws about, "my condition," would be an epic understatement. I was mortified, I knew how disappointed my soon to be mother in law, Mary would be in us, and frankly, I wasn't pleased with us or our libidos either.

But we got past it, and forged ahead, and got married. I loved them all, but they didn't belong to me, they were Erich's family. I felt like the police negotiator sometimes, trying to be a bridge between my often contentious husband and his family-but then I gave birth, and everything changed.

Mary, who had been reserved in some ways, sat holding my first born, her first grandchild, at the foot of my hospital bed, and looked up at me with tears in her eyes and said, "Oh Patti, this is so wonderful. I just couldn't imagine this." I felt the ice melt in my own heart, because I knew he wasn't mine or hers, he was ours. Common ground in 8 pounds and 6 ounces.

Time hurried along, I became pregnant with our second child so that they would be close companions, gave birth to Henry, and then like the spring wildfires in Texas, our lives became an inferno of grief and pain. Her son, my husband-dead at 31. Her grandchildren, my children-fatherless. How? Why?

Mary has always been an avid learner and teacher and so was Erich's dad, Dale. When I decided to return to college right away, I knew their support would be a given for me, and it was.   Mary and I survived on Henry that year-his sweetness and need for us kept our hands occupied, our hearts lightened, if only for a sacred moment. But the loss of a child is a wound that never heals. Long a practicing Catholic, Mary embraced the customs of old fashioned Catholic grief and began wearing all black, praying and meditating with committment. It's interesting for me now, because I never asked her what she prayed about, I can assume she prayed to understand, to hurt less, to heal. But those would be my prayers.

I know though that after a year of grief and prayer, work, finishing her PhD, and caring for Dale-she changed. She pushed through it, she still carries the wound to be sure, but it is part of her now-it doesn't define her or her life, but her willingness to slog through the pain has allowed her to see more in others and herself that I think she ever saw before.

I finished college, went to work, and hit a lot of potholes-most of my own making. I lived with her and Dale for a time and then ran away and tried to make it "on my own." I didn't. But, when I prayed and finally reached bottom, I realized that I didn't have to do it alone. No one was asking me to be Wonder Woman-there was a place for me to go to, I only need ask.

When I wrote and asked to come home, to bring the boys and live and work and get my shit together I was welcomed, but it was after the move that I realized that she had truly become my mother when she told me,"It occurs to me that you have never been a day to day part of a family. Made mistakes and been forgiven, wrecked the car, broken curfew, and still been loved. I don't think you understand that you will always be welcome here."

She was right. I have been blessed by many dear close friends I consider my relations over the years, but I never set up a family living arrangement with them and now at 39, I finally got it.

I am remarried now and she is widowed. We are separated by miles and the distance has been a painful adjustment. Our late night talks, her encouragement for me with the boys, her devoted example as a grandmother is lacking face to face and while I will see her soon, I know the visit will be too short.

She continues to surprise me and I think even herself by all that she continues to learn and the ways in which she has grown. I think the loss of Erich left her believing if she could survive that-she could survive anything and she might as try it all. What better example could I have in a mother? How grateful to call her mine.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


"I have no special talents.  I am only passionately curious."      -Albert Einstein


The eternal question of all humanity can be whittled down to one three letter word. Why? We add all sorts of things in front of it...

1.Why can't I eat all of the M&M's and get on the loop the loop roller coaster?
2. Why do I have to wear underwear?
3.Why can't I have sex before marriage?
4. Why can't I have a pony?
5. Why does his family get to take a neat vacation and we are staying home and going to the zoo again this year?

Now of course if you are a parent the why is almost always followed by,"How come? When? Where? Why not? What if?

The reality is that these questions never go away...we just get trained to stop asking for fear of being seen as irritating, nosy, pushy or some other less than ideal person. We allow that curious part of our human nature to be stifled by the onslaught of propriety and yet it is the very act of questioning convention that has led to every discovery humankind has ever made.

To be sure there is value in teaching and learning the timing of questions-it's OK to ask why Aunt June doesn't like Uncle Bill anymore-but not very empathetic to do it at the dinner table when they are seated across from one another.
It's OK to ask why your cousin isn't circumcised-let's just wait and discuss that when we are not at his birthday party.

I have struggled with my eldest son over learning the when and where of asking-but as aggravating and embarrassing as some of his questions have been I am still grateful for his curious nature because I believe it can serve him well if he uses it for good, not evil.

I have wondered recently if our society as a whole has become so complacent with bite-sized pieces of information from the internet and television that we no longer expect or look for "all the details."

Where would we be as a species if Galileo had said..."ocean, sky, edge...nah, nevermind."

The Wright brothers,"eh, we can walk"

Madame Curie,"Good lord, get rid of that blue bread!"

It's those souls who have been willing to risk embarrassment that have led humanity out of the Dark Ages and pushed, prodded, and agitated the human race of every generation.

The cure for boredom is curiosity.  There is no cure for curiosity. 
 ~Dorothy Parker

It's also those who were willing to say,"Why?" that have pushed for change in every conflict, every time a dictator has been defeated it was because a group of people were daring enough to say, "Why?"

As science and technology give human beings more opportunities to explore the boundaries of discovery these kinds of questions are even more important to prevent abuse and destruction-not to prevent the discoveries made in labs and experiments around the world but to have a full dialogue about the consequences of science and it's results.

As a nurse one of my greatest frustrations has been watching family members of patients demand all sorts of invasive and difficult treatments for patients who have limited life expectancy with or without the procedures. "Do everything you can." Many times, my experience has been that when we do "everything,"  we leave patients who are already miserable in more distress prior to their deaths and are typically not successful at prolonging their lives. Why?

Because healthcare professionals are scared of being sued, and because in some facilities where interns and residents are learning their craft, they need experience managing complex patient cases. What's most disappointing to me in these moments though is that so many of my colleagues in health care have become so impressed with our ability to use science and technology to prolong life at any means that they have stopped asking whether or not we should.

Asking questions and forcing difficult conversations about end of life and critical care is terrible, difficult work-but the rewards for patients, families, and our overtaxed healthcare system would be immeasurable.

Too many of us allow the world to spin on without every taking the chance to ask,"Why?" That question alone could help change the world, or at least your part of it.

So in the spirit of Why questions here are mine for today:
1. Why would you come to chemotherapy barefoot when you know you are at an increased risk for  infection?
2. Why doesn't the American public care about the mess in the Ivory Coast?
3. Why do people watch WWE?
4. Why would you own a Prius and chain smoke Marlboro Lights in it?

Nothing earth shattering, just a little random thought process. So your mission today is to ask a question you've always wanted the answer to-and ask more than one person. When you get the answer-tell someone else and pass the information along.

"Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why." 
~Bernard Baruch

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Church Giggles and Cowboys

I am a hospice nurse...when I tell people what I do for a living I typically get this type of response,"Oh my gosh you must be an angel, I don't know how you people do it, etc." Add on top of this the fact that I also care for pediatric hospice patients and I typically get elevated to sainthood before people have an opportunity to find out about my potty mouth.

In some professions people get to take fancy trips for conferences, go play golf with clients, etc. I get invited to funerals. Lots of funerals...big funerals,little funerals, impromptu funerals, city funerals, country funerals, funerals of every religious and nonreligious type, and then there are the funerals for children. Ugh...there is nothing quite as depressing as a funeral for a child. Unless it is one of those funerals I like to call, "giggle worthy."

These are the funerals that lead me to have inappropriately hysterical reactions that typically include stifled giggles and crying due to the perversely odd or eccentric goings on at what most of us believe should be solemn, moribund occasion. To begin with, the child in question was only a couple months old and had been born with a panoply of congenital defects that were incompatible with a healthy life. She never went home from the hospital and was only on hospice services for about a week prior to her death. She had large, loving family and the funeral was held at a small funeral home chapel.

The casket was wee tiny and pink and the baby was dressed angelically with a small rosary draped over her tiny hands. I paid my respects and sat down amongst the other mourners. It is relevant to mention at this point that I was the lone anglo person in the chapel and the only English speaker. Other than that it appeared to be about the usual for a funeral.

And then the gentleman who was providing the singing for the service stood up and everything usual went out the window...or should I say, "La ventana." Due to the large latino congregation it was safe to say there were an equal number of infants and toddlers to adults. All in various states of dress from the toddler brother of the decease dressed out in full cowboy regalia to the diaper clad amigo on my left. But I digress, back to the singing...

The gentleman singing appeared to be hovering around 80 years and carried an old rosewood guitar solemnly to the front of the chapel and began to strum it with no apparent direction. I noticed just as he opened his mouth to sing that there were only 4 strings on the 5 string guitar, but he did not allow that to deter him from bursting in to "De Colores" at full voice at which point every person under the age of three in the chapel began to cry, howl, or sob along like some sort of bereaved chicano wolf pack.

It must be said that I tried really really hard not to laugh, I even forced myself to stare at the deceased to try and avoid mirth...but as he continued to passionately sing, I began to giggle, discreetly of course. The song ended or he gave up because he was tired of being drowned out by the wolf pups and he took his seat.

The chaplain stood and began the funeral and out of the corner of my eye I noticed the woman next to me rifling through her diaper bag with the kind of desperation that means only one thing. Poop. Sure enough, within seconds I caught the scent of the diaper clad bambino on the floor between us as the flowers on the coffin began to droop. God bless her, necessity being the mother of invention she found a diaper and a baby wipe and since she didn't want to miss the service, plopped down on the floor in the aisle and changed the diaper...and nobody noticed.

Nobody but me of this point my giggles had subsided and I was now fighting back stinging tears from the stench and hoping my overactive gag reflex would not resurface. She finished her work-which quite frankly was amazing-she cleaned the entire surface of that child with one baby wipe-it was like watching da Vinci paint the Sistine chapel with a set of Prang watercolors...I was duly impressed and she thankfully excused herself to deposit the gag inducing diaper in a trash receptacle.

We had now arrived at the scripture readings and the crowd was getting restless...lots of wiggles, stern looks from the mamacitas, etc. Except for the parents of the baby we were there to mourn...they were entrenched in their grief and didn't seem to notice or be concerned by the fact that the previously mentioned two year old cowboy had started undressing in front of the casket. God bless him he even removed his boots and put them back on after getting his pants off. At which point he grabbed the rosary out of his sister's coffin and began swinging it around his head like a lasso.

At this point I was chewing on my tongue hard enough to draw blood and thinking every morbid thought I could to stifle the belly laugh within when one of his older sisters got up and gathered his clothes and pointed sternly at the family pew where he marched in all his glory back to sit.

Another song, "Amazing grace" again with the crying babies, I have now been given a handful of Kleenex by a woman in the pew behind me who evidently thinks my shaking and holding my face in my hands are due to grief as opposed to mirth. Tears are now rolling down my cheeks and I join in with the other mourners and the crying babies and sing along as best I can in an effort to distract myself.

The service appears to be winding down and I have regained my composure when a late arrival makes his appearance. Uncle of the decedent. Walking sideways. Carrying an open can of Lone Star Beer.

At least he kept his clothes on.

Short Priests

Easter week and every person in Christian ministry is running like a rabid wolverine from one Holy Week activity to the next. In the Catholic Church the activities really hit the high point time wise starting on Maundy Thursday and running through the overnight vigil into Easter morn. It's amazing any of our parish priests are left standing on Easter night.

The Catholic media will bemoan the shortage of priests this week, and the church itself will want parishioners to add a few extra prayers on top of the liturgy for vocations to the priesthood. All nice ideas to be sure, but there is are a couple of glaring solutions to the shortage of qualified, hard working, spiritually devout priests in the Catholic faith...married people and...women.

I am not a scholar, I am a protestant turned Catholic that is a member of a very diverse and theologically liberal Franciscan parish. I do not portend to know all of the reasons and rhetoric that the Vatican continues to espouse as reasons for leaving the priesthood to single abstinent men. Frankly, I no longer care. The reasoning behind the omission of women and married persons from the full priesthood in the Catholic Church has ceased to make any sort of sense and hanging on to the fallacious reasoning associated with it will only leave the church whiteknuckling it into obscurity by the dawn of our next century.

What I do care about is the Catholic Church remaining vibrant, alive, diverse, and multifaceted. There is room for more than one kind of priest, and there is more than enough room for the thousands of people turned away because they are married or like me, female. They want to serve the church, they are willing to make the sacrifice of ministering to the flock and losing much of themselves in the process-but they are not willing to sacrifice the gift of marriage, their sexuality, the creation and blessing of family.

Much has been written about the sex abuse scandals that have devasted millions of lives and alienated millions of Catholic faithful and it should be acknowledged that pedophiles can be protestant too and that there are certainly ministers and religious leaders of every faith who have abused their positions of authority to take advantage and wound the most vulnerable of their community. I don't for a moment think priesthood causes pedophilia-but I do believe there is something inherently wrong in having individuals commit to a life of denying not just personality traits like greed and lust, but actual parts of their human makeup, in this case, their sexuality.

All mammals are sexual creatures and sexuality is an undivisable part of humanity. Not to be shamed or denied, but to be embraced, valued, treasured. I think denying this whole part adds stress and tension that is entirely avoidable, and places further distance between priests and those they minister to by making them less approachable, less able to understand the innerworkings of a sexual relationship.

I understand priests should be separated from those they serve based on their behavior, etc. But the reality is, having priests removed from the real emotional lives of those they care for leaves parishioners less apt to seek counsel, comfort, solution. Priests who are able to marry would benefit not just from having the emotional support and companionship of a spouse, but the balance of continuing to see themselves as fully human and part of the body of Christ, rather than the ones draggin the rest of us along.

As for women, well we chicks are a problem for the Vatican. Heck we were a problem way back before the Vatican in the days of Mary Magdalene. Women have, by and large been the ones keeping many small parishes open during the last several years. Nuns have been able to provide the eucharist (after it is blessed by a priest) in many parishes throughout the U.S., and it's women who run Catholic schools and parishes. It is predominantly the women of the church who clean the linens, manage the day to day operations, lead religious education, and...oh yeah-give birth to new parishioners.

In the days when the priesthood was established the role of women in society was markedly different. Women were not necessarily considered human, certainly didn't lead their families or communities, and were not given the type of education that led to a profession. One of the things I cherish about the Catholic Church is the fact that it has continued to evolve, albeit at a glacial pace, but as time and science continue to move forward the Church has acknowledged error in the ways scientists were disregarded and persecuted.

The Church has acknowledged the world is no longer flat and that speaking in Latin was antiquated in the setting of everyday mass for the majority of the world's people. With each admission and clearheaded, honest assessment the church has moved itself closer to its' people. Closer to acknowledging that just as all of humanity is flawed, all of humanity is capable of forgiving and forgiveness.

There is no true shortage of priests, there is a shortage of single abstinent men willing to be separated forever from those they serve and that is nothing to be disappointed about-but a dawning opportunity for the Church alive to reconsider rules that disregard and limit the power and purpose of the whole church and all of its' people to move closer to God. There are hundreds of thousands of people willing to serve as priests, they just need the invitation.

The Graduate

She looked a bit like a plucked chicken when she arrived on Planet Earth. Frankly she sounded like one as well-she was red faced and scrawny and she was my first real one on one experience with a newborn. She came a little early to what we now call, "A mother of advanced maternal age" the maternal in question was my college adviser, Nadia, and the baby girl she let me hold that long ago April day was a miracle for me then and now.

Nadia and her husband Ed are both academics with doctorates in Religion. They are brainy to the nth degree and they met and married amidst the heyday of their academic journey at Vanderbilt. I had never contempleted them being people who might actually want children and so the day Dr. Lahutsky called me into her office after class-I was not expecting a birth announcement-I was expecting a thorough ass chewing for the pitiful excuse for a term paper I had turned in. I was never close to being the scholar I could have been at age 20-not even in the ballpark, and I have no doubt, my lack of academic temerity was perplexing to Nadia.

To her credit though, she cared about me, regardless of my grades, and she extended herself to me after my own mother died midway through my Freshman year. She challenged me and what I believed, she fussed at me when I needed it, and on that day when she called me in to her cluttered office it was not to tell me what a poor specimen of the written word I had turned in, but rather to tell me, somewhat conspiratorially, that she was pregnant and would be needing a babysitter.

I was amazed, delighted, and thoroughly overjoyed that she had brought up the topic of childcare-with me! Good Lord I couldn't manage to write my way out of a box, but she wanted me to care for her child?

When the little chicken arrived I started going over to their house to sit and rock and feed and coo while her mom and dad went about teaching and researching. We developed a routine and over time I started singing "Sweet Baby James" to her as a lullaby-but I changed the cowboy to a girl and her name was Jean. By the time she could say my name she called me,"Pa" and she would request,"Cowboy" at naptime for her song.

She wandered the campus with me and as she grew older I would take her for outings in my car and become hysterical when she would sing along to her Father's oldies station. Roy Orbison was a favorite, and a three year old bellowing, "Mercy" at just the right moment in Pretty Woman can certainly make your day complete.

By age 6 she would tell people she intended to become a herpetologist, and most anyone who spent more than 5 minutes with her didn't doubt she could become one. I met and married my first husband with her as my flower girl and still treasure the little present she made for me on my wedding day.

But she is no longer that little chicken. She is all grown up, or at least well on her way, and about to graduate from college next month. She is brilliantly smart, poised, speaks Russian, will graduate with honors, and most important she is a lovely young woman who will leave her part of the world far better than she found it.

She hennas her hair, has had her heartbroken, knows how to curse and when not to, has traveled on her own to Russia, and knows from firsthand experience that she does not want to work at IHOP for the rest of her life. (I actually told her that before she took the job, but waitressing certainly does make the stress of college appear very appealing after a couple of weeks.)

What I like most about her though is that she is thoroughly and uniquely her own person. She likes herself and it shows. She exudes a kind of respect for her ownself that demonstrates to me that whereever the feminist movement may have missed the mark-we have made some progress in the years since her own mother graduated from college and had to push and prod her way into academia and overcome the sexism of her own family to become the mother she has been to Jean.

Jean and the other women she graduates with don't know a world without Title IX athletics, without women in every profession or leadership role, women who don't have to choose to have either a profession or a family. To be sure there is plenty of room for the world to continue placing women on equal footing-but for Jean and her comrades-they expect to be treated fairly and they expect to be treated that way regadless of their ovaries.

That alone gives me hope that the world can continue ever so slowly to change for the better and that one little girl, now a woman, will remember the journey her mother traveled to make it possible and one other girl who got to grow up taking care of her too.

"There is a young cowgirl who lives on the range, her horse and her cattle are her only companions, she works in the saddle and she sleeps in the canyons, waiting for summer, her pastures to change. As the moon rises she sits by her fire, thinking about fellas and glasses of beer, and closing her eyes as the dogies retire she sings out a song that is soft, but it's clear, as if maybe someone might hear. She sings, Goodnight you moonlight ladies and rockabye sweat baby Jean, deep greens and blues are the colors I choose, won't you let me go down in your dreams? and rockabye sweet baby Jean."

An entirely different kind of D Day

It's interesting working in the world of cancer treatment. Like so many things in healthcare and medicine the sexier ailments get the attention and it's hard to look around my clinic without seeing something with a pink ribbon slapped on it. The ribbons are so ubiquitious now I find them a bit disingenuous and prefer the t-shirts that say,"Fight like a Girl!" or "Save the Tatas!" Both very worthy sentiments. Especially if you have tatas or someone you love has tatas.

Because of all the funding and research though breast cancer treatment has become much more refined to the point that specific types of breast cancer has been identified and methods to treat them developed. Women have more options every year for how they can be treated, what kind of surgery they want to opt for, what kind of reconstruction they have (if any) and no one looks at them as if they just landed from Mars if they request a prophylactic mastectomy due to their family history.

All the advances though don't really address the frustration of having your body turn against you though, especially a part of your body that is so finely attached to your sexuality, femininity, and even your maternal abilities. For better or worse getting your first bra is a significant right of passage for a girl and so is the constant compare and contrast of breast size that begins about the same age.

I have a dear friend who went through a double mastectomy and reconstruction. Intense pain and a long recuperation left her questioning the decision to do the full surgery instead of a lumpectomy, but as she wryly observed many months later when it was time to get her new nipples tattoed on, " I'm going to get them light enough so if I want to wear a tshirt braless I can!" Since she had actually been to hell and back to get the new, sag free, bra less boobies I resisted the urge to call her a bitch and cheered.

I ponder myself what I would do if ever the big C comes to visit my set of tatas. My gut says I would not opt for reconstruction-mostly because the idea of taking out a foreign body and putting in a new one doesn't thrill me. But then I consider my husband and family and wonder if seeing me with a pretend bosom would be better than no bosom at all.

All this was called in to sharp relief one recent morning when I had a lovey 70 year old woman in my section. She was exquisitely turned out for her chemo treatment, hair (wig), nails, makeup, Talbots outfit with coordinating spring shoes, etc. Her daughter accompanied her and patted her hand while I prepared her for treatment, which in her case meant having her port accessed.

A port is a small device that is surgically implanted under the skin and allows quick venous access to a patients bloodstream while protecting smaller fragile veins in people hands and arms. Most patients who have a port have it in the upper part of their chest wall and when they come in for treatment we use sterile procedure and a large Huber needle to access the port. Once the needle is in we can remove blood for lab work, start IV fluids and prepare for treatment.

Ports are a Godsend for patients with nausea and vomiting and the nurses who care for them. No fishing for veins, X marks the spot and and allows you to start hydrating a patient immediately if possible. Completing the sterile procedure can be tricky sometimes because people have to keep their hands and clothing away from the area and there is a certain amount of jockeying to get in the right spot. Most patients learn to wear a button up blouse/shirt on chemo day, we pull a curtain for privacy and within 5 minutes all is well.

Well for Mrs. Talbots her treatment began with lab work and having her port accessed. She complained about feeling hot and then acknowledged she was having lots of problems managing hormones and that might account for her level of discomfort. Other patients came and sat in our section and Mrs. Talbot became progressively more irritable and disheveled as the morning went on,"Good lord no I don't need a blanket are you crazy it's like an oven in here."
Her daughter offered water and pats on the hand, and attempted to change the topic multiple times with no success. Until finally, the patient proclaimed, "THAT IS IT!"

Her daughter sat and gaped at her prim and proper mother while I hurried over to see what was going on. "I'm done," she said and she began unbuttoning her blouse. "Done?" I asked. "Yes my dear, I am done. I am no longer going to sit here and sweat, that guy over there is unbuttoned down to his navel and he (she pointed at the 22 year old surfer dude sitting bare chested in the next section) is half naked." "Ok, well what can I do to help you feel more comfortable so we can finish your chemo?"

"Hold these," and she handed me her prosthetic breasts. By the time her daughter had recovered the power of speech her mother was topless. "Mom, what are you doing? You can't do this, you just can't sit here naked." "I am not naked. I am topless. I no longer have breasts, hell I don't even have nipples-that guy over there looks like a walrus and I am sick of pretending to be all pretty and quiet. To hell with it, I no longer have any legitimate reason to cover up-so I'm not going to."

Her daughter sputtered, gasped, gaped, pouted and attempted to draw the curtain around her mother's chair. "Nope, you leave that curtain open or leave and I'll let you know when to pick me up." At this point the three other patients in my section (walrus, surfer dude, and retired baptist preacher) offered their subdued appreciation with a small round of applause and a "Right on Granny." I simply put her bra, blouse, and breasts in a pile on the counter and continued my work.

"But mother? What will people say?" Her daughter attempted reason, tears, and even bribery at which point my patient looked at her and said,"I am no longer following the rules for good southern ladies. If I want to misbehave I intend to."How liberating at age 70 to get cancer and finally free yourself from the idea that any part of your body defines who you are as a whole. Like Eve before the apple she no longer felt any shame in her body and there simply wasn't any good reason to cover up anymore for this Talbots girl and if someone didn't like it, well that was no longer her problem, it was theirs.

"Right on Granny."

Talk Dirty to me

I got sent to the principal's office in Kindergarten for saying, "shit." My mother came, sat down and faced the music, heard the details of my offense and walked me home without saying a word. She had a famously dirty mouth and it was most often on display for me in the backseat of our 1968 VW bug. I was too small to see the traffic, but I knew exactly what was going on based on my mother's play by play of curse words.

There was no punishment that day, she knew all too well where I had heard that "terrible word." She was probably just glad I didn't tell the principal how often she used it in the car.
I got older and learned that most mothers tried not to use these sorts of sailing words in front of their impressionable children. Most mommies still didn't work outside the home then either so maybe that accounted for her sounding like she was on shore leave after a particularly bad tour of the Phillipines.

Nevertheless, these words became a part of my vocabulary. Once in college I expanded my dirty word lexicon to include words even my mother wouldn't have used-just for shock value. I had one friend who delighted in joining me in saying the MOST vulgar things to one another in an effort to horrify our roommate. She has now become a fundamentalist Christian. I have not.

I did mature a bit though and once I had children I worked very very hard not to be potty mouth in front of them. Not because I don't still curse-I do. However, I did not want to have the edifying moment of humiliation in the Kindergarten classroom when Nicholas' precious little mouth invoked the word, "asshole," at a particularly offensive classmate.

Recently however we have hit our stride in the cesspool of middle school and Nicholas appears to be hellbent on diving into the deep end. He has been a passionate reader for many years, an ardent eavesdropper since toddlerhood, and has a vocabulary well beyond his years. This combination is a blessing as well as a curse for me as a parent. I don't get the occasional use of a four letter epithet to raise my hackles, I get in depth discussion and dissection of curse words and nasty names so he can feel like he can use the word (later) to it's full potential. So proud.

When he was wee tiny my sister would begin conversations with me in the minivan and I would say, "stop, the kids are listening." Her children, however, were not, they were enjoying the view, making faces at one another, etc. Only my little fennec fox was sitting with a sly look of discovery on his face waiting to hear the juicy details.

So of course, he is the one who picks up on every nuanced conversation, nasty word, or naughty phrase. True to our relationship he never fears asking for definitions. True to his personality he typically does this at the least opportune moment.

7 a.m. Friday, time for breakfast, clothes, off to school..."Mom, what's a camel toe?"
(Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee...)
"Really Nick? This is how we are starting the day?"
"Let's just deal with it and get on with the day, shall we?"
So we discussed camel toes...very briefly and without detail. he knew immediately what I meant. Some friends have asked, "What do you tell him when he asks these things?"
So here it is: I tell him and his brother the TRUTH.

I do not elaborate, give substitution words or suggestions, I always stress the inappropriateness of the word, stress time and place, and if it is a word or phrase that has any kind of uniquely pejorative meaning (racist, homophobic,etc) I sternly admonish them to remember that we (our family) do not use those types of words and that words can wound just as deeply as a sword or light saber.

This is the same approach I have taken with sexuality. All honest all the time and for heavensake please do not bring this up in front of your poor grandmother. Time and again I have reinforced that I want them to ask and so they do and for that I am grateful. I want them to get the straight dirt-from ME. I want them to know the truth about STD's, condoms, sexting, petting, dating, love, marriage and everything in between. I want them to see the correlation between sex and being impaired by alcohol. I want them to know that they can come to me FOREVER when they are scared, confused, worried and I will listen and acknowledge, and tell them the truth, no matter how ugly it is or how hard it is for me to do it without turning beet red.

When they are older I will tell them more about why I think it's better to wait and have an emotional connection with a partner before you have a sexual connection with them. When they are grown and married themselves I will reinforce how hard it is after a woman gives birth to feel like being Tarzan and Jane in the bedroom again. Again, no gory details, just the reality of life.

Sexuality is part of the package of life, and it can be a lovely Tiffany blue box or a ticking time bomb if children and parents don't have truthful heartfelt conversations throughout their lives. Cursing doesn't have to be part of the package-but being honest about it continues to pays off for our family-even if it only means that Nick can add to his vocabulary.

Not Mine

There are days where I feel like I have an extra weight on my head...a brass crown with the title, "evil stepmonster" engraved on it for good measure. Mind you, no one has actually called me this, but I feel that way just the same.

Too many Disney movies with the wicked stepparent, or comedies with the much younger second wife being sorority sister to her new husbands children. I have been a mother for 13 years, a stepmother for only a year and a half and I am still trying to find the balance between meeting my bonus daughter's needs and my husbands expectations. No easy feat, and not necessarily one I feel very qualified to perform most days of the week.

She is about3 and a half feet tall with dark bushy hair and blue eyes, exactly like her Daddy's. She furrows her brows and attempts to give me the evil eye every now and again and then I remind her I have gotten the same look from her much bigger and more imposing father and she is going to have to work harder to impress me.

She is feminine and giggly, awkward and silly, and not just a little obsessed with stuffed animals, donuts, and "Despicable Me." She is 100% Daddy's girl and even though she knows me now, she wants to ride in his car and hold his hand and have him read the bedtime stories and do the goodnight kisses, and that's OK with me. She is confused some days about who I am compared to who her mommy is and has told my husband, "You have two girlfriends, Mommy and Miss Patti." He corrected her, quickly, but really how do we explain it all?

She likes my boys and is coming to understand why they call Bob, "Dad," but overall she still remains unsure of her place in the picture-just as I am unsure of my place in her family picture.
What I know for sure is that she needs all of us, and she deserves our best effort to be grownups, behave responsibly and be kind to one another and that isn't always easy. I hope she to come to see me as an extra, extra ally, extra set of hands, extra woman for girl talk, extra shoulder to cry on, extra parent to be pissed at in adolescence. I call her my bonus daughter because "step" just doesn't work for me.

When I hear the word stepchild or stepparent I think of a staircase with two people removed from one another by one step or flights of stairs. One of them below or above the other-never on the same level. Ick. Not my vision of family. Even though I am definitely in a different role in my family with my biological children I believe very firmly that their feelings are equal to mine in ever conceivable way.

Her feelings count and her voice matters-right now we have made a foray into friendship with her long dark hair. Having had boys I missed out on braids and bows so she is delighted to have me fix her hair in "mouse ears" or "two ponytails" or a simple braid. Her mother is less delighted and in one of her more snarky moments when her daddy returned bonus daughter to her other house her mother told her she looked like a dork. To say I thought less of the exwife after that is an understatement.

Life isn't fair and unfortunately children in divorced families learn this lesson all too soon. Bonus Daughter only gets stolen weekends with her Daddy and she has to share them with this strange lady that makes her eat something other than french fries and sleeps in the same bed as the man who is supposed to be wrapped around her finger alone.

Divorce isn't fair on the Daddy either-he misses her, painfully, on a daily basis. He wishes for more time, more stolen moments. We tried for full custody and were unsurprised when we lost. I reassure him that what is important is that we tried. I want him to be able to look her in the eye in 20 years and tell her unequivocally,"I wanted you with me full time and so did Miss Patti and I did not replace you with Nick and Henry."

So here we are 18 months in and navigating the current of failed marriages, new beginnings, adult strain, and custody one stolen weekend at a time. My hope is that she will look back on this time as one where she got extra love and affection from a bonus family and we were never a step away from her.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The imperfect blessing of parenthood

"We never know the love of a parent till we become parents ourselves."Henry Ward Beecher

I have a friend who is preparing to welcome her third bundle of joy into the world and a brother and sister in law who have just delivered their second. The former is weary with the load she bears and some amount of anticipated dread at the sleeplessness to come, the latter are learning the balancing act of a two daughter household and walking zombielike through their days.

We saw our newest family member this weekend and oohed and aahed and cuddled and fed and attempted to the soothe when the furies took over little miss 8 pounds of fire. She is luscious, rosy, soft skinned like the petals of a spring flower, with soulful blue eyes and a lovely upturned nose. In turn we all made overtures to her and I delighted in every moment of watching the boys make over her and delight in her contentment or occasional passing of gas. "She tooted on me!"

These are the same boys who tell me, "I love you more mom," when I tuck them in to bed at night. Each night I tell them, "No you don't-inconceivable." Which inevitably leads to a Princess Bride type back and forth ending with, "Anybody gotta peanut? Arrrggghhh."

I have told them time and again that no matter their love for me-they can never know the depth of my love for them-at least not right now. Someday, when they are fathers they will understand I was not being pretentious or ornery-simply stating the fact that without taking this strange trip called parenthood you don't get the extra baggage of love.

Of course you love and are loved. I would never presume that those who do not have children do not experience great love-in fact I imagine they can and do experience a deeper love in some relationships than I can imagine. But just as when I was pregnant and became increasingly annoyed by the people who felt it their responsibility to share the story of their sisters 83 hour labor and subsequent 4 inch long tear up to there and the people who told me to sleep in while "I could," I know Nicholas and Henry cannot understand the joy and sorrow of parenthood until they take the plunge themselves.

My own childhood was fraught with the tumult of alcoholism, sexual abuse, and mental illness. But after the birth of my first child I experienced a profound sense of gratitude towards my mother, with all her flaws and frailties. I finally understood the concept of, "just doing the best I can do," and I remembered with some amount of guilt the times she would say those words to me as she cried. On my darkest postpartum days, I would remember her and think,"If my own mother, with all of her obstacles and lack of coping skills could do this-surely, I can do it too."

When in the throes of pregnancy you cannot imagine that a creature weighing less than many a house cat will manage to completely up end your life and cause you to ponder your sanity, your level of intelligence, and sterility. When you are a child your parents are very often the center of your universe and your love for them is unparalleled.

As you grow into puberty and young adulthood you recognize more of the flaws in your parents and you love them, but you also "love" your Ipod and you "love" your new sneakers, and that boy with the brooding stare and hoop through his eyebrow in third period. Then, there is the moment you become a parent.

In a flash the life you knew before is gone and your capacity to love and be loved is changed forever. This creature, helpless and pink, wrinkly and fussy, is part of you and you are part of this seamingly perfect little person. You feel a love so deep and boundless you can no longer imagine a life without it.

I consider myself politically progressive, and until becoming a mother I never believed I could kill another human being. Now I not only know I could, but I do not doubt that I would take another human life if my own child's life were threatened.

That is not to say I do not have moments wherein I consider the merits of animals that eat their own young. If I thought I could eat him before he turns rancid I might nibble on the 13 year old every now and again, parenthood is the ultimate in bitter and sweet. No one person, thing or experience has left me as exhilarated or humiliated as being a mother.

Nothing has prepared me more for what comes next in life like parenting, and nothing has fueled my passion for life like my children and seeing the world anew through their eyes. I imagine, true to its thorny beauty, nothing will hurt the same as the grief I experience when we transition to an adult relationship and I no longer hear, "I love you more," every night or have requests for tuck ins.

Then again, by that time I will get to look forward to being a grandmother and taking the ride all over again-waiting for the day when my boys tell me,"I get it now Mom, and you were right."

Serving the community, harvesting compassion

Saturday morning I plucked two grouchy boys out of beds and away from the Wii to go work at a local food pantry. "Why do we have to go Moooooooom?" I started with the usual reasons,"Because you have never gone hungry and you have a responsibility to help others," and I ended with,"Because I said so."

In the last several months I have begun looking for a variety of opportunities for the boys to get out of their comfort zone and help others. It is a constant struggle as a parent to provide for your own children and want for them to never know hunger and yet raise them to not be spoiled and entitled creatures.

How do you teach them compassion for those without when they have always had the basic necessities of life. Never known the fear of having nowhere to lay their heads or no food to fill their bellies? I try to remind the boys frequently that they have led very blessed lives. That while we have lost people close to us to death, most importantly their father and paternal grandfather, we have never been without what we needed: food, shelter, love and support.

Both boys are at an age where they are keenly aware of who has what and what they don't have but "need." All too often they hear the phrase," Is that something you need or something you want?". Nick, at age 13, sees the world as fair vs unfair but is beginning to see more of the shades of grey that adults understand exist in all of life. Henry at 11 just wants people to be kind to one another.

We got to the church pantry and got our assigned tasks and began sorting and stacking, preparing the foodstuffs for patrons to choose from. There were a myriad of adult helpers-my sons the only youth volunteers, and we were the only white people in the building as well. We sang a gospel hymn led by a client in a rich deep baritone and started the grocery distribution. The boys worked hard and were rewarded with chili dogs by the pantry chief and chocolate donuts by the pantry cupboard.

Late in the morning as we cleaned up and discarded moldy bread another adult volunteer commented, "Your sons worked really hard today and they are so well mannered." I looked around trying to see if she was talking about two other stray imps that I had not had to warn repeatedly about appropriate conversation, swiping donuts, and tormenting one another, but no, she met my thing one and thing two.

She must have missed Nicholas' loud stage whisper about one patron, "Mom that guy is white and where are his teeth?" Horrified, Henry said, "he should see our dentist." That was the only time I had to remind them that white people can be poor too and that poverty often means bad teeth. My sons see a dentist every six months because I can pay for it and for clothes, and housing. Learning that the twice a year torture seesion at the dentist was a luxury startled my often petulant teenager.

But the adult volunteer complimenting the boys saw past their less than stellar behavior to the core of who they are: she saw Henry struggling to lift a box of potatoes twice his size and she heard him speak Spanish to an elderly Nicarauguan abuelita. She watched Nicholas tickle every toddler that came through our line and make sure the little ones got to pick an extra treat from the baked goods.

When we left the pantry with a promise to return in two weeks I asked the boys what they thought was the best part of the morning. 'Nothing," said the sullen teenager now in my backseat. Then, "I'm kidding Mom, it was pretty cool, there were a lot of nice people and I learned a lot." Henry was quiet and said,"everyone was so nice and cooperative here Momma, I wish the real world worked like that."

Exactly right, I thought to myself and that is why my husband and I will continue to seek out ways for our family to be of service to others: because we live in the real world and our children will have the opportunity to make their part of it more cooperative and nicer, one canned good at a time.

Why Primetime smooching matters to me

So this week kurt and Blaine finally smooched on "Glee" and it was everything you could hope for in a first kiss: tentative, anticipated, sensitive, sweet, and not just a little passionate. Sigh. For fans of the show it was past due, for me it provided another jumping off point in conversation with by sons.

I don't watch Glee because it makes sense or is going to change the world. I watch it because it is entertaining, funny, silly, has some fabulous one-liners:"I don't even remember putting that in there." But Tuesday night when my boys were cuddled up beside me in bed after their upteenth outpatient ear surgery I watched because I couldn't stand one more episode of anything scifi or animated.

So the episode started, the damn bird died, and then the kiss. "It's just weird Mom," said my 13 year old. Weird or different I asked? So the boys and I talked for a while about how it would be different for them to see two men kiss simply because they haven't ever seen it before. But is that kind of love weird? "Nope", my 11 year old said- "everybody ought to be able to be loved, right?"

Glee isn't important because it's going to change everyone's attitudes about sexuality or politics, music or scary cheerleading coaches. What's important and useful to me as a mom is that the episode and the context of the smooch gave my 11 and 13 year old sons a safe opportunity to talk about something different, weird, new-and the chance to think about how they feel about it. How to process through the lens of their own burgeoning adolescence and all the assorted misery that entails.

How to stand up for the rights of the weird-when their peers only value the same. Even how to disagree with their mom. As they continue to grow and change I know we will not always agree-my job as a parent isn't to raise automatons-but thinking, responsible and compassionate adults. Already I see how they treat others, how they stick up for the underdogs, and reach out to those in need of help. They are loving, funny, surprising, and thoughtful creatures (most of the time).

Most importantly they know, "Everybody ought to be able to be loved right?" Indeed.

Radical Religion and the House

So Congressional leaders have gotten bullied into having hearings on the "Radicalization of U.S. Muslims" and the bully is, of course, one of their own.

Representative Peter King, who has proudly admitted supporting the IRA, convened these hearings out of "concern." FYI, Pete, I'm concerned you may not realize the IRA is a radical terrorist group, and they aren't hiding behind a cross. That these hearings are even taking place in a country that espouses freedom of religion is disturbing, but more so because of what is being left out of the hearings.

The hearings are focused solely on those Americans who are becoming radical Muslims. You don't have to look very hard to realize how fallacious this kind of process is when you live in the South-everywhere you turn there are all kinds of homegrown nut jobs espousing the name of Jesus Christ to sell their particular brand of hatred. How about the group of protesters from Westboro Baptist Church that protest funerals and decry all manner of individuals who don't practice their particular brand of "faith."

Who gets to define radical? In this season and this Congress it seems that Mr. King gets to set the bar but I'd like to let him in on a little secret. I'm a religious radical.

So's my husband, some of my neighbors, most of my family, and lots of my friends. If I had to guess I'd say there are millions of religious radicals in America, and most of them are Christian. I'm also raising my three children to be religious radicals who think for themselves, speak for the poor and forgotten, and defend the rights of others to practice their own faith tradition.

I'm Catholic. I was baptized Catholic (don't know the specifics, but I was told about it so there you go.) My family never went to a Catholic Church and over time I became a Protestant and attended youth group and summer camp throughout junior high and high school. I went to college Protestant and became Catholic the time I had a deep admiration for the campus priest and as the semesters passed and my attendance at the campus Mass' continued I realized that the liturgy felt like home to me and so I joined.

Now, to be fair I wandered away for a while in my twenties, but by the time I met and married my first husband I was firmly back in the church and worshipping in a Franciscan parish. Here's where the radical part comes in...I was pregnant with my first child when I got married in the Catholic Church. Not a little pregnant, a lot pregnant-there wasn't an empire waist dress around I didn't try on that autumn-but I didn't hide it and yep, I wore white. I also wore white when I remarried at age 41-9 years after the untimely death of my first husband. I wore white and I married a man who is also a Catholic convert (twice divorced) and he's pretty radical in many other ways.

At our first mass in our new parish in North Carolina the priest mentioned that he thought "The church could do more to reach out to divorced and single parent families," Bob and I looked at each other and smiled, we had found a home. I love my parish, but I do not agree with the larger Catholic Church and by many who describe themselves as Catholic I would most certainly be described as a radical. I believe married men and even women can competently serve as priests, and for that matter gay and lesbian ones could get the job done. I believe in contraception and gay marriage, and in some very unfortunate cases, abortion on demand.

I also believe in the sanctity of the cross, the eucharist, baptism, forgiveness, and life everlasting. I also believe there are many paths to God and that the Catholic Church doesn't own all of the spiritual real estate available.

If Congress is going to actually focus on something radical how about getting a federal budget passed maybe a week before it is actually due? Or how about figuring out a way to make sure our country never goes through another housing debacle? Want to get really radical-how about fully funding healthcare for all Americans-starting with prevention and treatment and see how much we could accomplish as country focused on the possibilities of radical change instead preying on the fears and myopia of an American public too involved in the every day goings on of Charlie Sheen to learn the difference between Islam and Buddhism.
So with just about the regularity of a PBS fund drive here comes the annual attack on including public broadcasting in the federal budget. Whether or not the more conservative amongst us decide to play fair is up for grabs.

As usual the arguments are trickling out,"They make money on the Muppets", "most people have a TV and most have basic cable we don't need public television", "our resources are limited we can't afford to pay for television."

The reality is that the Corporation for Public Broadcast provides 10% of the funding for PBS and NPR-that's it. The rest is left for listeners/viewers, sales of Sesame Street videos, private donors, and the like to come up with-and that is exactly how PBS and NPR want to keep things. We all benefit from having public television and radio that are funded my multiple sources-not advertisers.

If the government was the sole source of funding for PBS Charlie Rose and Bill Moyers would have been unemployed long ago and NPR's Scott Simon would be out trolling his wares on a corner. The Muppets are not owned by PBS, neither is Julia Child, the Boston Pops, or This Old House. Sesame Street is produced by a nonprofit that reinvests every dime it earns in providing educational programs without junk food advertisements. Julia, the Pops, and This Old House all make money too-but their PBS productions are for a broad audience that may only see the inside of a concert hall during the Pops productions.

Second, the spread of cable and satellite television could be called a blessing or a curse for most Americans. However, that spread is most common in major markets not rural areas. There are still many parts of the American landscape that do not have the 24 hour roll call of drivel and cartoons available-and for those Americans PBS provides preschool friends like Elmo, a broader view of the world through Nova, and the symphony to boot.

Third, and maybe most importantly-while all media is biased; no matter how well intentioned or earnest the journalists and producers may be NPR, and PBS programming is blissfully free of violent, sugar coated animatronic ads and when you are the parent or grandparent of a little American-that makes a difference. It also makes a difference for those children who don't get to go to preschool or whose only exposure to spoken English before grade school is "Clifford the Big Red Dog." Additionally, the Sesame Workshop Nonprofit and other public broadcasting entities bring programming to people around the world to share with them and about them to the millions of Americans who may never travel beyond our nations borders.

My sons are long past Sesame Street age and feign torture every time they get in the car and hear NPR. But the reality is both of them have been shaped by listening even passively to the programming on both NPR and PBS. Programming that celebrates the American experience in all of it's messy and imperfect glory, welcomes a view of America that is wider than the one displayed in popular culture, and asks tough questions about what we really value.

Jesus rides my shuttle bus to work

I saw Jesus on the park and ride shuttle yesterday.

He was tall and painfully skinny with the stoop shouldered posture some who are very tall adopt as a way to appear less threatening. His skin was the darkest brown I have ever seen and his smile was so bright and broad I could have sworn there was a glare off the bus window.

It was dusk and everyone getting on the bus was heading to their cars after a long day at work at the hospital catering to the ill and infirm and sometimes those who only think they are one or the other. It is tiring work, often thankless, and emotionally draining.

The time on the bus and my drive home usually allow me enough time to decompress before I am greeted by the needs of my children, the neurotic border collie, and my messy kitchen. So I understood why the woman seated across from me on the bus was annoyed that the tall gentleman talking to the bus driver in broken English was taking so long to understand the directions he was being given.

The bus driver to his credit, was patient beyond measure and used gestures, hand signals and a piece of scrap paper to get the fellow, newly arrived from the Sudan, to the right bus. Meanwhile the woman across from me sighed repeatedly. After the third sigh, I looked across at her and noticed the large gold cross around her neck and I said, 'I'm tired too and cold-I imagine a man from the Sudan must be very cold on a day like this..." She just looked away and ignored me.

When I got off at my stop I thanked the driver and told him I thought he had done a really nice job with the new bus rider. He looked at me quizzically until I said,"You know the tall man who said he was from the Sudan?" The bus driver just smiled and said, "Well, I'm just doing my job and after all, if Jesus got on the bus and asked for directions I'd certainly make time to give them to him, right?" Amen.

In the midst of our contentious political climate and all of the anger and misunderstandings about immigration it would be nice if we could just simplify the argument to this,"If Jesus (or Muhammed, Buddha, etc) asked to come to America I'd certainly let him in." Time and again a large portion of the American people forgets that our country is a nation founded by immigrants-that no one that call themselves an U.S. citizen actually got their genetic start here, save for those few who are truly Native Americans.

The rest of us are part of the "melting pot" mixture that makes the U.S. the frenetic, fantastic cultural mish mash it is today. The argument that immigrants are stealing jobs and committing crimes is falacious at best, outright fraudulent at it's worst. The vast majority of individuals who immigrate to the U.S. do not expect anything from this country, rather they want the OPPORTUNITY that comes with being American. The opportunity to work hard at more than one job and save and send their kids to school in the hope that someday those kids will work hard too and be able to call themselves Americans. There is no great white majority sitting around out of work because immigrants took their jobs. In point of fact, the jobs many recent immigrants are willing to take are often low paying, and are often jobs that caucasian citizens of the U.S. consider beneath them.

Congress recently had the opportunity to pass the DREAM Act, giving children of illegal immigrants the opportunity to apply for citizenship without prejudice and go on to college and receive Financial Aid and so forth, like all of the other students in the U.S. who did what they were asked to do. Stay out of trouble, get good grades, etc. Now, however, these individuals who are 17 and 18 years old are being told they can't go to college because they aren't citizens-even though they had NO choice in their cross border transport as infants or children. Kind of like my sons had no choice about where or when they would move when they were wee small-and even a year ago when I remarried-their opinions were not the deciding factor in whether or not I moved us cross country. I

t is beyond time for sensible immigration policy in the U.S. Policy that recognizes our history as a nation of immigrants, pays tributes to the value of adding to our rich cultural landscape, and doesn't penalize individuals for their parents legal or illegal behavior. Stop wasting money on border fences and shipping people out. Declare amnesty and start anew with immigration policy that is fair and sensible. Recognize that our country-flawed and incomplete in many ways, continues to be a beacon of hope for the hopeless, and that same hope remains for a country that regards it's differences and diversity as the threads that make our American quilt sturdy enough to weather any kind of tumult-including an immigration debate.

The Sheen of Compassion

At this point more than enough has been said by and about Charlie Sheen to insure that not even Howard Stern would be able to testify for him in a child custody case and keep a straight face.

But what about Martin and Janet Sheen and their other less infamous sons? Watching the drama of Charlie Sheen's implosion began as simple celebrity addiction gone bad nonsense. Nothing particularly earth shattering-an other worldly size flameout but he didn't appear to be covering any new ground here. But then we started to hear about the warlocks, and "winning", and lest I forget to mention them, "the goddesses". Also known as porn stars and willing participants in the circus that is currently on tour in Southern California.

One part Scientology, one part Anthony Robbins infomercial, and three parts Jimmy Swaggart. It's no longer about addiction and arrogance for me. It's about Martin and Janet and what I imagine has been the road to hell and back they have traveled countless times in the hope that they might be able to help Charlie before he finally does that something that can't be repaired. That something may be his death, or worse the death of an innocent bystander.

I believe the Sheen's have thought about what they will do when that call comes in the middle of the night. How they will handle the deluge of press feeding on their sorrow and shame. How they will handle the guilt they feel at being grateful he is no longer suffering, and no longer torturing everyone around him. What's different for the Sheen family is that they will have to do it all in the very public eye of an American society obsessed with celebrity-but ignorant of the reality that is mental illness.

Everyone, yes every single person in the United States, knows someone with a major mental illness. But unlike cancer, we don't talk about it at church, or work or the PTA for fear of being judged, shunned, misunderstood. Mental illness, specifically, bipolar disorder, affects 10 million Americans and the very nature of the disease prevents long lasting effective therapies. The highs can be intoxicating and the medications can be devastating, numbing, and leave the patient longing to feel "normal" again. These patients take themselves on and off medications frequently, and are at a higher risk for suicide then patients with other mental health diagnoses.

But here is the kicker-those 10 million Americans have families-just like the Sheens-families that struggle to get them to see a psychiatrist or stay on their meds, or go to AA. Families that watch them lose jobs, marriages, children, and have to decide when is enough enough? So what of Janet, the woman who held him and kissed his wee little toes, change his diapers and dreamed for him to grow big and strong and healthy? What of Martin, the man who watched Charlie become a fine young actor and then self immoliate while all he could do is watch and pray? How many times have Charlie's brothers lost the attention of their parents to his behavior, illness and addiction? How many family dinners have been ruined by manic attention seeking behavior and sibling rivalry at the boiling point after years of abuse and neglect by a brother they simultaneously love and abhor?

Charlie Sheen may never be able to save himself and his family may never be able to either, but rather than a constant stream of gossip and useless twitter feeds we could use the downward spiral of his life as a springboard to a conversation about mental illness and family and mental healthcare in the United States.

A conversation like that would be worth writing about and might actually change something other than the channel.