Pickin’ a Guitar

Doc Watson, one of the great legends of American music, passed away yesterday.  Doc was a country man- simple and humble.  Yet in my opinion, he was the best flatpickker to ever fall upon my ears.  You see, what Doc has that so few others possess in their playing is wisdom.  Sure, he knows what notes to put in, but many flashy virtuoso players know that.  What is special about Doc is that he knows what notes to leave out.  He is from a generation of great bluegrass pickers, who I believe got the name ‘pickers’ not only because they used a pick to play, but also because they ‘picked’ the best notes to play.   That is a rare wisdom in music.

I had one of those days today…  You know, when life smacks you in the face and you wonder if you’re making any decisions right.  I rarely give up fighting for things that matter.  All the necessary notes are played in my life.  However, sometimes I fight too long to keep notes in my life’s song that really are superfluous.  I think I live a virtuoso lifestyle.  Playing every note because I can, and since I can, I feel I should.  But, these extra notes are just distractions from the simple, clear melody.  I know that playing all those notes doesn’t sound as pure and Doc’s pickin.

I’m not exactly sure how I’m supposed to purify the song of my life.   I know I should be kind and thoughtful, work hard and love my family as vastly as the universe, but I don’t yet have the wisdom to know when to let things go.  (To be clear, I am not letting go of fighting for my daddy; he is family, and those are notes I will play.)  Perhaps, I just need 89 years to figure it out.  Until then, I will strive to live as Doc played with all of the right notes and none of the excess flash.  Thank you Doc for the lifetime of music wisdom.  You will be in my heart forever.

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Wisdom, Luck and the Art of Passing It On

Do you ever wonder how much of your parents positive lessons were purposely taught and how much was just good luck?  When I was a little girl, my dad would always play me to sleep every night.  My bedtime stories were always accompanied with a guitar.  My dad would play his melodies using a Gibson guitar with hummingbirds inlaid on the pick guard.  My brother, on the other hand, was played to sleep using a far more masculine guitar, a Martin D-16.

There were three songs always in my father’s good night routine for me: 1) My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, 2) Catfish John and 3) Wouldn’t Change You if I Could.  Sure, other songs were often added to the mix, but I could count on these three being there.  Each held a different meaning and purpose.

My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean was in the mix to teach me who I am.  Not just that my name was Bonnie, but that no matter where I was, someone loved me, missed me and thought of me constantly.  A child needs to know these things.  And a daughter needs to know them infinitely more from her father.

I bet many of you aren’t familiar with the lyrics of Catfish John.  They go something like this: “Momma said don’t go near that river.  Don’t you be hanging ’round ol’ Catfish John.  But come the morning, I’d always be there.  Walking in the footsteps of the sweet delta dawn.  Born a slave, in town of Vicksburg.  Traded for a Chestnut mare.  Looking back, I still remember, and I’m glad to call him my friend.”  There were many lessons in this song.  The biggest was to push aside racism, judgement and fear of differences, and be friends with another person for their value as a loved one.  Some of the best people came from trying circumstances, and others with posher lifestyles often weren’t worth their weight in salt.  It also reminds me of who I am and where I come from.  To this day, a sunrise in Appalachia does my soul good and wells up strength inside me.

He also played, “Wouldn’t Change You if I Could.”  Now, I’m not sure I can even type these lyrics without crying, but I’ll try.  “I wouldn’t change you if I could.  I love you as you are.  You’re all that I would wish for, if I wished upon a star.  An angel sent from heaven.  You’re everything that’s good.  You’re perfect just the way you are.  I wouldn’t change you if I could.”  One time I was driving to the beach with my boyfriend, and this song came on the radio.  Without warning, I burst into tears.  I’m sure my boyfriend had no idea what was happening.  When I hear this song, it’s like having my dad sit down next to me, putting his arm around me, and allowing my head to nestle into his shoulder.  I am no angel, nor perfect, but every little girl should have a daddy who thinks they are.

Now I’m a social worker.  I know not everyone’s childhood is idyllic.  Even if your’s was not, I hope you can provide your child something that they can look back on, and believe in.  Perhaps you can pass it on in the form of wisdom, or perhaps you can just pass it along through luck.  But your family is the greatest gift you will ever receive.  Take a moment, pass it along.

Accepting the Unacceptable

Palliative care.  You don’t fool me with your fancy jargon.  I wrote the book on palliative care.  No really, my thesis was written about pediatric palliative care.  I spent years working in pediatric oncology.  I know that palliative care can be given to anyone regardless of disease state, but I also know that it is rarely given to people with much hope, unless you are under the age of 18.  My dad is not under the age of 18.

Today, I was told that if my father’s medicine doesn’t start working in the next two weeks… well there’s not much else they can do.  Today has been one of the most crushing days of my life.  Today keeps company with the day I found out my dad had brain cancer, the long days of radiation therapy with him, and the day his brain cancer metastasized.  Today was hard.  And I know the coming days and weeks, and if I’m lucky, months, will be even harder.  Somehow I am supposed to carry on.  I really don’t know how.

My dad is my biggest fan.  My biggest supporter.  The person on earth that loves me the most.  Did I fail him?  Was there anything more I could do?  Should I have defaulted on my mortgage, quit my job, moved home?  Should I have done more?  I try to spend the weekends at home with him.  I took long vacations from work to be home with him.  In fact, I have not once taken vacation time that wasn’t devoted to his care.  I talk to him or my mother for sometimes hours every day after work.  Was it enough?  Why didn’t I diagnose him earlier? I felt something wasn’t right, but I thought it was just stress at his job.  Did I fail him, when he never failed me?  I just haven’t figured out how to carry on when you loose the one person on earth who loves you the most; the one person on earth who you love the most…

Sometimes I feel like we got this because we were too happy, too successful, too loving.  Nobody in my family is perfect, but our family unit was approaching utopia.  Until cancer cut us down that is.

I promise to compose more thoughtful blog posts in the future, but for today, I needed a post for me. I needed to scream at the top of my lungs that I’m hurting and this isn’t fair.  I needed a moment to rage against cancer.  I even need a moment to rage against God for taking such a wonderful man away early when he spent his whole life serving.

I’m not sure how, but I know the sun will come up tomorrow.  I know I’ll get up and go to work.  When I finish, I’ll head home to see my family.  I’ll have a long weekend there with my dad.  I know the world will keep spinning; although, it pisses me off that it won’t stop for just a second to let me catch my breath.  I know.  I know.  But for now, I just hurt.

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My Apologies to the Meatheads of the Gym

I try to be a fairly open minded, understanding person. I’ve taken numerous sensitivity classes, and spend lots of time personally reflecting on what it must be like to live in someone else’s shoes. I’m a social worker for heaven’s sake. But, I have my faults and my biases. When I see an attractive women walk by wearing less clothes than the washcloth I use in the shower, I admittedly want to shake her, and yell in her face that she would still have value if she dressed like a lady and not the tramp.

I also loathe those meatheads in the gym. You know that guy. The guy walking around after every rep, constantly looking in the mirror, and grunting in the corner. I usually mind my own business, roll my eyes and wonder if that ‘thing’ has a brain cell anywhere in his head.

In the past two weeks, I’ve been taking a class on weightlifting with a friend of mine. I mostly did it because I needed a hobby, and am burnt out on my old standbys– swing dance and martial arts. I love it. It’s empowering to look at something that weighs more than a child and sling it over your head. A few days ago, I squatted down in front of the barbell, set my position, and tried to force the barbell over my head. Out slipped a guttural, “Aaaaaaah!” What was that? Did I- miss prim and proper- just grunt? I struggled to lift it over my head, checking my position in the mirror, and promptly dropped the barbell to the ground. I walked away from it having just failed the rep, and strutted around the gym try to catch my breath. Grunt? Strut? Even staring at myself in a mirror? What has happened to me?

Lifting weight is hard. The goal is to thrust various amounts of steel over you head before a hemorrhoid pops out of your behind. You strut around after every rep because you desperately need to catch you breath. You look in the mirror because if your posture is bad, you WILL get injured. You grunt because, well, did I mention steel and hemorrhoids.

So, I need to extend my deepest apologies to the meatheads of the gyms. I am sure some of you are just going through the motions, but most of you are probably doing your best to get a good workout in. Who knows, maybe next month, I’ll be more understanding when a women saunters by in her washcloth.

Lessons in Blurting

Verbal vomit. They say honesty is the best policy. They are idiots.

I used to be rather reserved, private girl. A girl well versed in the do’s and don’ts of gentile southern ways. But lately, I’m a babbling buffoon of honesty.

I don’t mean to be. I wish I could revert to my private life. My former life was far less interesting, but the mysterious factor earned me some bonus points on occasion. Still, here I am. The social nincompoop who actually gives an answer to questions such as, “How are you?”

The ‘Gentile Southern Ways Rulebook’ definitively explains in chapter one that the answer to the question, “How are you?” is always the same… “Oh I’m doing just fine Ms. Emma. How are you today?” (Make sure to draw out the word ‘fine’ as you read the sentence. Inflections for the word ‘fine’ are quite important to gentile southern etiquette; although, this is an advanced chapter to be sure.)

I have an amazing job, but I do spend most of my workday alone with my computer, carpal tunnel preventives, computer-strained eyes, and of course, my super creepy office mate who hogs the window. Because of this I make frequent trips to the bathroom and kitchen hoping to run into someone, anyone. (I’m sure the man whose office is across from the women’s bathroom thinks I have a perpetual bladder infection.) So today, I stood in the communal work kitchen, starved for human interaction. Set up for failure, complete.

Enter stage left. Sudie. She immediately drops the bomb. “How are you?”

“You got this Bonnie,” I tell myself. I plaster a charming southern smile, and reply, “Oh, I’m doing just fine Ms. Sudie. How are you today?” “Rulebook chapter one. Check. I haven’t lost it yet,” I think to myself.

Sudie responds that she too is (not surprisingly) fine. Hmmmm, she must have read The Rulebook too. And then she makes a misstep. She continues and asks, “How is your dad?”

I feel it coming. Verbal vomit. More powerful than the worst case of food poisoning you’ve ever had. And for whatever silly reason I poor out, “Not good… He’s not good at all. In fact…” Blah. Blah. Blah. I rattle on. I babble on for probably 90 seconds, which I’m sure felt like 90 minutes to her. Remedial southern etiquette training, here I come.

I don’t know what prompted me to give an honest answer to a question that clearly was not asked with any interest in an actual answer. I guess I was tired after a long night spatting with my mother over the best course of care for my dad.

I know that I personally love when someone blurts an honest answer to a Rulebook question. I believe these moments are opportunities to connect with people who have value and rich experiences. I love blurting moments that happen in the grocery store when the unknown clerk pours out their entire life’s story. I love it. But, I’m not so foolish to believe that everyone else feels the same. Raw honesty in the form of blurting can be hard to swallow. It can be awkward, heart wrenching, frustrating… and few people are comfortable with these emotions, especially in the company of strangers or worse yet, acquaintances.

I also don’t know why I hold myself to such an impossible double standard– my loving to hear the blurtee, but hating to be the blurter. I guess that’s the reason I started this blog, to create some sacred blurting space. It’s also a space where you can choose to experience the blurt, or just pass by with a fleeting, “Oh I’m doing just fine Ms. Bonnie. How are you?”

So, how are you today?

Lightning

Some say lightning never strikes the same place twice. I know better. I know better because the words ‘brain’ and ‘cancer’ have entered my family’s life twice. The first time with my uncle, and then again on May 19, 2011 with my dad. About 1 in every 50,000 will hear those words together, but our family has endured it twice.

I knew my life had changed when I got a call from my mother while I was at work. She told me that she had brought my dad to the hospital after he rolled over to kiss her good morning and felt like he was flying out of an airplane. She told me they were hoping he had had a small stroke. Hoping it was a stroke. Hoping it was a stroke? What hell must we be about to face if the optimistic point on the differential diagnostic is a stroke?

First they did an CT Scan. My mom and dad both called me to report that the CT Scan was clear, and they were both relieved to know there was no ugly mass growing in his brain. They were still primarily looking for the source of the stroke. Then a few hours passed, and I got a call from my dad. I answered the phone, and heard my dad on the other end. “Bonnie, we got the results of the MRI, and I have, I have a brain. tumor.” My dad choked on the words and I searched for oxygen that wasn’t there. I’ll never be able to forget the way my dad’s voice sounded in that moment.

Of course, he had known that this was likely going to happen. Patients usually liked my dad as a doctor because he cared for them, but doctors he worked with knew he was an eerily brilliant diagnostician. He understood that medicine is mostly an art that had to be supported with science to pacify insurance companies. He had diagnosed his own brain tumor a week before any of the scans. His nurses reassured him that this was exceedingly unlikely, and he went on diagnosing and treating colds, allergies and the occasional bizarre diagnoses that walked into his clinic. He had even told me he thought he might have a brain tumor while I sat in a traffic jam on the way home from a week prior. I had passed it off because he was too healthy, too young, too happy, too special to me for such a diagnosis. But, he had intuitively known what even a CT Scan was unable to diagnose.  My dad is a great man; a great man with a brain tumor.

The year that has passed since the diagnosis has not been made up of the fairy tale ‘we shall overcome’ poetics that the cancer culture glorifies.  True, there have been moments of strength, kindness, hope…  But, cancer can be strangely normal.  People will find their way back to an equilibrium, a normal.  The differences from cancer come in abrupt moments, punctuated by intense periods of grief, anger, disbelief, and then it returns to its balance.

I don’t know what the future holds.  I try to envision the moment when the doctor tells us my dad is cancer free.  I also have moments of weakness when I cry helplessly because I can’t imagine walking down the aisle without my father on my arm or holding my first child, knowing that this precious baby will never know the one person who most influenced me.  For now my spark, my glow has faded a bit, but still smolders.

A year into this journey, I’m tired and scared.  I face each day with courage plastered on my face, and fear wading just below a thinning surface.  All I can do is continue to run the marathon, and hope beyond all hope that ‘cancer free’ arrives before my thinning surface is dissolved by the solvent of fear.