Sunday, November 15, 2015

In Thanksgiving

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I’ve been researching for a blog on guns: gun violence in America, gun control and the Second Amendment. Convoluted doesn't even being to describe… and the research is time consuming. Mere discussion seems to ignite tempers. So as Thanksgiving nears, I thought a turn toward the genteel was in order.

I’ll start with the tale of two men and who they are for me. (Both have granted permission for this posting.)

Aw comon' Eddie, just PRETEND you love me!
Eddie Joe was a surgical resident and Army Captain in the large teaching program at Tripler Army Medical Center (TAMC). Our paths collided during my first days in the Army Nurse Corp. I stood tall (well, relatively speaking), straight and starched in a long, white dress with deep pockets and gusseted sleeves, white cap, white hose, white shoes - seemingly straight from the photos of WWII Army nursing. Eddie wore the drab brown that all uniformed services seem to employ. My Lieutenant’s rank collar bars were highly polished. His? Um… not so much. Eddie is from Arkansas, he speaks in the slow, soft drawl of the south. 
“Lets go change a dressing,” he said, “I’ll show you where the supplies are and how to get it done.” We quickly fell into a friendship that endures to this day. After Honolulu, Eddie was stationed at MAMC (Madigan) near Seattle. I landed in Anchorage, AK and finagled my reserve duty at MAMC. 
   Their girls were in grade school and I remember the back of one bathroom door covered in ribbons and bows and elastic bands and things that sparkled. “How do you want to wear your hair today?” Trish asked before braiding (with or without ribbons braided through) or pony-tailing or head-banding or beret-ing, fulfilling any number of requests. Me sporting my pixie-cut? Me fascinated.
Military obligations fulfilled, they settled in Nashville and I in Sacramento. Over the years, I’ve dropped in whenever my travels crossed the country. You wanna know southern hospitality? Eddie and Trish wrote the book, opening their home and hearts to me.

Some years ago, Eddie was forced into an early retirement by Parkinson’s disease (PD). “I could feel it in my hands,” he said answering my queries.
Learning of his plight, I vowed to visit frequently and regularly. In June 2014 he was stooped and shuffling; his exercise program somewhat erratic. I gently scolded, reminding him that walking is key to maintaining mobility for people with PD.
In September 2015, he was remarkably improved, so much so that I stopped mid-sentence to inquire. We walked daily for 60-90 minutes and joked about finding me a home in Nashville. Eddie is tall with long legs; I could barely keep up.
We reminisced over large bowls of popcorn. “Besides my family and a couple childhood friends, I think Eddie is my longest friend,” I asserted. “We’ve been friends since I was twenty-three. What is so curious to me is that you never know who will be your friends for life. I never expected that it would be you two and I’m so thankful. Thankful that you let me tag along and watch your girls grow - and share in your lives.”
Eddie fell in mid-October, breaking a hip. It has since been surgically repaired and now physical therapy and rehab continues from home. And I wonder what friendship and support looks like from 2300 miles away.

Michael - post transplant
Michael is a doctor at Kaiser. We became friends during Landmark’s Advance Course. Our work locations and schedules did not allow for hallway run-ins so our friendship was built slowly and deliberately through coordinated lunch breaks on the hospital campus, an occasional beer and joining his family to hike a 30-mile section of the John Muir Trail.
Some years ago Michael was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease that scars his lungs. After a long remission, it flared again - only to march inexorably toward his demise. Watching his decline up-close-and-personal has been sad and disturbing. He stopped surfing then hiking, stopped skiing then cycling. Much to my utter dismay, he gave away his backpacking gear. He lost weight, his color ashened, his energy waned and life ultimately became circumscribed by the tethering of a 100-foot oxygen tube. Secretly, I loathed his doctors and accused them of negligence for not doing more - as if there was more to do.

Early in 2015 he was evaluated for lung transplantation and in June, was hospitalized until death or transplantation. Most people awaiting transplant die, I thought, because Americans are generally adverse to organ donation. And I was not incorrect in that thought, statistics overwhelmingly favor death over transplantation. Most people die awaiting transplantation - not Michael.
Like mana from heaven, a pair of lungs arrived in a cooler and he underwent double lung transplantation. Friends and family breathed a collective, albeit premature, sigh of relief. His recovery continues to be complicated and protracted… and life will never be the same.

When I examine my friendships with these men, I ask myself, What does it mean to be a good friend now? By necessity, the nature of our relationships has changed and here is what I noticed.
For the immediate post-operative period, Michael was sequestered in a home near Stanford to facilitate multiple visits to the transplant and rehab teams each week. Los Altos is easily a 6-hour roundtrip from Sacramento. Friends and family streamed to Los Altos on the weekends in love and care. And after a 3-hour drive, none want to take their leave after just a few minutes; right?
Avoiding the weekend treks meant I didn’t visit as often. There’s the rub. How do I show my love and care without adding to their to-do list? How can I ensure my visits are not burdensome? 
I called to check-in. Sometimes Michael cancelled my scheduled visits. In my upset, my conversations with myself turned “young.” Well how come they got to visit and I didn’t? When is my turn? I noticed that I angled for my-fair-share as if he were a commodity at auction. I’m not proud of these inner conversations but it IS helpful to notice them. Noticing prevents me from pressuring an ailing friend to assuage my fears.
I confessed these juvenile conversations to Michael. “We have rules and agreements about how our relationships work. By necessity, you are breaking all the rules and everyone has to adapt. I notice that my inner conversations about your rule breaking are sometimes very young. Like I’ll think, Well how come they got to visit and I didn’t? I’m sure I’m not alone in this. And I notice that I still want my-fair-share-of-Dr.-Michael-GM-thank-you-very-much!”
“Oh my God,” he said, “Thank you for saying that. I’m sure you’re right; that you are not alone in this.” 
“I’m positive I am not alone. In putting my attention toward what would be helpful,” I continued, “You get to tell me what that would be. You get to say; not me - and I get to deal with it. But I have to tell you, it takes something to be in a conversation beyond What’s-in-it-for-me?

Wisdom Course instructor Joan Bordow says, “When you get really straight with how much your life is all about you - something else is possible beyond your small, selfish, little life.” Whoa!

So for most of 2015 I have planted myself in generosity and a conversation bigger than myself, looking for what could be supportive and what might be helpful, asking for input and fulfilling upon requests.
Saturday, I drove to Berkeley to take ex-mother-in-law Sarah out for her 85th birthday. She loves sports cars, so I retrieved her in one. She loves cut flowers, so I brought a vase filled with them. We dined at Chez Panisse, a swanky Berkeley fixture that is known to be one of the finest eating establishments in all of northern California. Chez Panisse tops her list. Not how I would choose to spend my birthday but… its not about me. Sarah said it was her best birthday ever. Mission accomplished.

“I’m lucky that I can be generous with my money, my time, and my attention,” I told Michael. “I can blame that on you. You are teaching me to move in the world with graciousness and grace. Sad that my friends must suffer catastrophic illness for me to shift my focus… nonetheless I am ever grateful.”

It makes me wonder about all the people I shut out, all the people I ignore and pass over. In looking there - my attention is drawn to those we collectively and justifiably exclude - the homeless are one such group. 
A few years ago, I was in San Francisco for a long weekend. San Francisco has so many homeless and they are everywhere: holding signs on street corners and straddling intersections, lurking in doorways, laying along walkways, loitering near ATMs, sleeping in parks, lingering near public bathrooms, like e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e.
Before embarking to the city, I stopped in my bank and withdrew fifty one-dollar bills. As a practice in generosity, I decided to give $1 to every beggar until my cache was exhausted. In the gloom of that early Sunday morning, I found a sizable roll of cash in a crosswalk. It was more money than I had gifted.
Now I keep an unobtrusive pencil case in each car, stuffed with $1 bills. (Mahalo Shea GM for the conversation that inspired this.) Fireman were passing-the-boot at Costco over the weekend; I had money for them. A man held a sign at a freeway off-ramp; I gave him a dollar. Its not much but its something, and it allows me to engage in a way that is comfortable for me. I acknowledge their humanity and they are no longer invisible to me. My sonar seeks and pings on them now. Its not much - its a start.

We never know who will touch us in ways that change our lives. I would have never put money on Eddie or Michael - and yet, each man has touched me deeply and altered my path.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am reflective and thankful for their touch. I am thankful for the ways my life opened with their input, friendship and love. I am thankful they allowed me to tag along and watch their families grow. I’ve been moved by sharing in their wins and losses, their struggles and disappointments with disease. Each has left an indelible print on my heart and opened me to my Mother, my family, to Sarah, to friends and coworkers, to fellow yogis, the homeless on the street and to you. I opened to you - and you opened me more.

A heart broken open that spills forth in love is a beautiful thing. Thank you all for cracking this hard coconut open. In Love and Thanksgiving ~ lb

Will you allow your heart to be broken open?
Oluolu ka hoaloha’loha ana = Happy Thanksgiving