Save the Judgment

A few years ago, a friend of mine who was a recovering alcoholic got terribly drunk one night, screamed at her husband, went outside, slammed the door to her car, and put a pistol in her mouth. It was horrible. It was horrible to watch her slip back into alcoholism after nearly a decade of sobriety. It was horrible to hold her husband and have him tell me the last thing she ever said to him was, ‘you never loved me.’ It was horrible to watch the police investigate in what they quickly determined was a suicide complete with note, finger prints, and stigma. It was horrible to find out that her blood alcohol level was many, many times the legal limit, and enough that any normal person would have been dead just from alcohol poisoning. The whole experience was horrible.

In the mist of all the confusion and the askings of ‘why?’, one of my bosses who found out, and had the clarity of mind to respond by inquiring, “Tell me about your friend.” It was a beautiful moment in my life. There was no judgment; only an opportunity to recall the good things about my friend.

Since my dad got sick, I’ve gotten enough advice on how to ‘do this better’ to float the Titanic back to the surface. It is a very rare friend who will put aside wanting to hear their own opinions and voice rattle on and on, and just say you’re doing good, or thinking of you. As brutally honest as it may seem, the best intentions often come off as patronizing, and I’m know I’m not the first care taker to feel that way. If you haven’t been through it, be careful to judge so harshly.

I’ve got news folks. This is hard, sometimes dirty, heartbreaking, physically straining work, not some cutesy fairy tale that many of the patronizers have in their minds. So, did I remember to put protein in his pudding? Yes. Do I turn him often enough? Yes. Do I sing to him? Yes. Do I tell him I love him at every opportunity? Yes. Did I go through a master’s program in counseling and thoroughly understand my feelings are normal in a textbook? Yes. (And by the way, I still have the right to feel that way; it doesn’t make me weaker to feel the same things as the rest of the human population.) Am I aware of which medicines can and cannot go with each other, what time to give them, and how to use injections if necessary? Yes. So please, next time you have a friend going through a hard life event, save the judgment. Find out if you friend needs support, a listening ear or advice because these are very different ways to support a friend in need.

How to Protest- Lessons from Baby Matthew

The last few days have been a whirlwind.  My brother, his wife and my precious nephew came to visit.  Matthew was thoroughly disenchanted with traveling over 1000 miles in two days to come visit.  In fact, he voiced his protest in the only way a 9 month knows how to…  He pooped in his car seat 30 minutes down the road and proceeded to smear it all over the car, himself, and yes, the child ate some too.  This debacle all happened while my brother was towing a ton, literally, of household supplies to their new house in Tennessee.  My brother screamed, “SHIT!” and his wife Leighia asked “What?”  He repeated, “No really!  Shit!  Shit everywhere!  Get the baby!!!”  So, being a good wife and mother, Leighia did acrobatics to propel herself into the backseat to restrain the irate baby as he tried to further cover her in his excrement.  Apparently, it takes time to pull off the interstate when you’re hauling a trailer with a ton behind you truck, but they eventually found respite on the side of the highway.  Then they realized they were nearly out of baby wipes and the diaper changing station was no where to be found.  So, they began cleaning precious, little Matthew up on the side of the highway where he proceeded to crawl into a pile of fire ants.  After cleaning him up and getting rid of the ants, they looked at their pile of shit and shit covered clothing.  Leighia asked Rob, “How opposed are you to littering?”  My brother replied, “In this case, just get it into the woods.”  Ahhhh, the joys of parenthood.

So, that is the kind of excitement I’ve been living with for the last week.  I’m going to miss his mischievousness.  He loves climbing and is curious about EVERYTHING.  I love him so much.  And, while enjoying watching my brother handling baby debacles is sure to earn me some bad-future-baby-karma points, I think I’m just  going to have to laugh at them anyhow.

The Joneses Get Their Wings

This week my brother, Rob, got his wings.  Despite a couple PT debacles that culminated in his officer oversleeping for his final PT test, Rob’s commander pushed him through graduation in hopes that he could come home soon to be with our family.

So today, he graduated from flight school with the US Army.  He’ll be flying Mike model blackhawks for Uncle Sam. We were initially heartbroken to not be able to go to his graduation to celebrate his work and achievements.  But, sometimes there are plans greater than any individual could contrive.

My brother’s wife texted my mom and me today right when my brother was about to graduate.  I kid you not…  The very next moment, an Army helicopter (a chinook to be exact) flew over our house.  My cell phone started ringing off the hook from friends asking if we saw it, and the visitors at our house stood in shock.  The chopper was so close you could feel the house tremble.  It was the only way possible, given the distance between us, that my dad, mother, and I could celebrate my brother getting his wings, and in that moment, we all knew it.  It was an immeasurable gift that could only have come from those who fly without aid of equipment.

Congratulations Rob!  We are so proud of you, and I am so happy we could celebrate with you today in our own unique way.

A Bipolar Weekend: Joy and Sorrow

My brother was finally able to come home for the weekend. I am so glad he got here in time to say a few things to my dad, while my dad is still able to say a few things to him. I know it was hard on my brother. He basically had to come to terms with everything and say goodbye to my father in a little more than 48 hours. That’s a process that I’ve had over a year to come to grips with, and it’s still hard.

On this trip home, my brother also brought something else home with him, my nephew, Matthew. My 8 month old, giggling, teething, desperate-to-crawl, happy nephew. So the weekend was spent oscillating between extremes. Extreme joy. Extreme sorrow.
I could not have been happier when my sister-in-law told me she forgot to pack Matthew’s bathtub, and she would need to use mine for Matthew’s nightly bath. So, my sister-in-law and I settled in to give my nephew his first big boy bath, and it was EVERYTHING a first big boy bath should be. He learn how to splash, and he soaked both of us head to toe as he screamed in elated joy. Then, just as we were about ready to pull him out of the tub, he decided to poop and pee. I dropped his toys back in the water trying to find a towel to dry him off with before my sister-in-law dropped him back in the contaminated water. I had dropped in his toys though, so I spent the evening bleaching both the bathtub and his toys. Matthew found all this commotion laughable. It was perfect.

I couldn’t help but notice some of the contrasts between how I felt with Matthew and my father this weekend. I would change Matthew’s diaper and it would make me so deeply happy. I would change my dad’s, and though I am happy to do it for him, it also breaks my heart. I would feed Matthew. I would feed my dad. I would hug Matthew and tell him how much I love him. I would hug my dad and tell him how much I love him. There is obvious joy in starting a child off in the world surrounded by love and happiness. But, being with Matthew also reminded me that I should allow some joy in when doing these things with my father too. There is also joy in taking care of a man I love so deeply with dignity and respect in the final days or weeks of his life. Even though that joy can be so hard to let sink in during moments when I am so mad that I am loosing him so early. I guess my 8 month old nephew is already a genius. He’s already teaching me the most important lessons in life, and he’s giving me something to really, truly live for despite the heartbreak around me now. I love you Mattie Bug, and I love you Daddy.

Happy Birthday Daddy

Bitter sweet.  Today is bitter sweet.  June 13th. It’s my daddy’s 60th birthday, and barring a miracle, it will be his last.  I am sitting beside of him as many seconds today as I can.  We’ll have friends over to eat cake with him and sing happy birthday, and it’s mostly a happy day.  But, I’d be lying if I said today was all happy.

I think of the impact 60 years can have, and wonder if I’ll be able to have that much impact in 90.  About a dozen cards a day, 2000+ Facebook friends showering him with love and support, people all over town who attribute their lives being saved thanks to my daddy and their doctor, and hundreds of people that profess they are kinder, more thoughtful or better people just for having known my dad.  A dear friend, Kristin  once told me about what her husband, Wayne said about my father.  Kristin said, “your dad and Wayne’s grandfather were the two best men Wayne had ever known.  Your dad raised the bar for Wayne personally on what a man should be.”  Testaments to my father have poured in from every direction.  We have been absolutely showered with love, when many people feel very abandoned when they go through this process.  We have dozens of people stop by every day to visit with my dad or to help my mother in some way or another.  Laundry, mow the yard, do dishes, cook… you name it.  I am not completely sure of how you go about building so much rapport with so many people.  But I’d like to believe that my dad taught me something about it, and I hope that in 90 years I can begin to scratch the surface on having a similar impact.  But for today, I’m going to try to put aside the illness, and just celebrate my daddy.  He truly is a great man, and I am so bless that I hit the jackpot when it comes to family.  Happy Birthday Daddy!  You are my hero and my biggest fan, and I will love you for always.

A Powerful Load of Laundry

I am never on top of my chores, ever.  In the last year, I have hired a cleaning service because I am just too slack.  What would my ‘bootstrapping’ grandparents think if they knew that I, a 27 year old single women, had hired a cleaning service?  Sheesh.

I was not always a slacker.  It’s just been hard to stay on top of things recently.  It’s even harder to keep up when weekends like this happen…

Last night my dad was terribly sick.  His chemo just kicks his butt sometimes, and low and behold, the washing machine decided to gurgle its lasts bubbles.  Are you kidding me?  So, this morning, I sat out to find a repair man.  Each repair man had the same phone-based diagnostic– the washing machine is old.  Given the thoroughness of the washer’s exam, I’m sure this diagnostic was based largely on the fact that today is Saturday.  Of course, they could fix it for a price, but the parts would take awhile to get here.  My dad is sick now.

Plan B became searching for a new washing machine.  I grabbed my car keys and told my mom that I would be back soon.  As I locked up the house, I saw a mini van slam on the breaks, back up about a foot and pull in our driveway.  Out of the mommy mobile popped Beth, a dear friend and long time neighbor of my parents.  She decided to say a prayer for my family as she drove by our house on her way home.  She said that if someone would walk out of the house, she would stop and offer to do our laundry.  Out I walked.  The only person to leave the house all morning.  What Beth didn’t know was that our washer was on the blink, and we were in a heap of trouble.

What makes this story even more beautiful is how the circle really is unbroken.  About a year ago, Beth’s husband was in the ICU a few miles from my own home (not my parent’s home.)  She was exhausted, and I offered for her to come stay with me a few nights.  In some weird way this was really thrilling for me.  Here was a dear friend, and I was finally far enough along in life to offer her a bed, a shower, a hug and some hospitality, instead of some crusty air mattress on the floor.  Believe me, when you’re in your mid twenties, in your first home, with your first mortgage, and someone dear to you needs some comfort that you are now able to provide…  Well, that’s a warming feeling.  That evening she said she was going to have to drive back to her home the next day, 3-4 hours away, because she had run out of clean clothes.  I insisted that I wash her clothes for her, and she was able to stay until her husband was discharged from the hospital.

So here Beth stood today in our laundry room telling me how hard it was to have let me wash her clothes for her that night.  She said that it felt like it was imposing on me; yet I was genuinely happy to be able to wash them.  She stopped today because she thought it might take a little work off my mom if she could just run a few loads of laundry for her now to return the favor, and this too made her genuinely happy.  This small act of kindness was given at moments in each of our lives when we were hanging on by a thread.  And it is moments like this in which I believe that maybe the world and God has not completely turn their backs on us.  Now, that is a powerful load of laundry.

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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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.