What can I do?

When horrific events occur – 9/11, Columbine, Sandy Hook and now Orlando – I find myself feeling helpless. The hurt is huge and the pain is impossible to comprehend. It ripples outward, circle after circle, and it touches us all.

But what can I do? I’m not a first responder. I’m not a member of a medical or ministerial profession. And as news outlets from around the world threw reporters and resources into Florida, I sat in St. Louis struggling to see how any action of mine could make a difference, could move the needle even the tiniest bit towards acceptance and peace.

In my role as creative director at Express Scripts, I’ve been working with a team developing materials to publicize the area’s upcoming Pridefest celebration in downtown St. Louis AND the fact that my employer will be a first-time-ever sponsor of the event.

I used to go to the parade when it was held on South Grand Avenue – nicely convenient to my home in Tower Grove South. But even though I’m very supportive of the progress my company has made regarding diversity and inclusion (I walked through the doors almost nine years ago to a very “white bread” environment.), I had no plans to participate in this year’s Pridefest. Too much hassle, too crowded, my weekends are precious, etc.

And then 49 people were brutally murdered. The injustice of what happened in Pulse made me realize how tired I am of feeling helpless. Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

So on Sunday, June 26 at noon I’ll be joining my colleagues from Express Scripts – gay, straight and everyone in between – and walking in the Pridefest parade. May not be much … but it’s something I can do.

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Thanksgiving Is A Middle Child

After being assaulted by Christmas carols all day yesterday while shopping in multiple venues, I just had to repost.

Today In Herstory

I picked up a Martha Stewart-ish magazine at my hairdresser’s – barely one week after Halloween – and was immediately informed of the pressing need to start my holiday baking. Turning the page didn’t ease the sense of published panic. The next article assured me it wasn’t “too late” to create the perfect home for all of my holiday entertaining.

When I got home, I found an oversized postcard on top of my mail with an oversized headline screaming at me to get ready for Black Friday! Excuse me?

I tossed the postcard on the kitchen counter, where it landed next to the tin jack-o-lantern that had so recently graced my front porch. (I refuse to kill any more pumpkins.)

It was then that I fully identified with Thanksgiving. Like me, Thanksgiving is a middle child. The once proud holiday has been reduced to a mere buffet stop between Halloween and Christmas.

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Redux: My Father Has Lived Long Enough

This past Sunday, I spent a pleasant afternoon with my parents and siblings, celebrating my father’s 84th birthday. Almost exactly one year ago, I watched my father struggle to sit up in a hospital bed, after which he muttered “I’ve lived long enough.”

The man blowing out candles on a pineapple-upside-down cake was more relaxed, alive and engaged than I can remember ever seeing him. Amazing then to think that last January I called my son in Virginia and told him it was probably a good idea to jump on a plane for what looked like his last chance to visit my dad – a father from whom I experienced precious little love and affection but a grandfather beloved by Michael.

My parents have been married for a very, very long time – not many years of which have been happy or even congenial. Their relationship over the past five years or so had settled into a routine of bickering, visits to doctors and rigidly scheduled meals shared in silence. My father spent his time in a chair in front of a TV. My mother spent hers staying away from him.

They stayed together because that’s what a Catholic couple from their generation was supposed to do. Growing up as one of six kids in a one-bathroom bungalow in a cookie-cutter subdivision, I watched my father go to work every day as a security guard in a GM assembly plant in the city. And I watched my mother try to find comfort in her role as a stay-at-home wife and mother – when all she ever wanted to be was a writer.

It all came to a head last year, when yet another hospitalization prompted my father’s doctors and the hospital’s social worker to gather the family together for a discussion that sounds like it turned into an intervention. I wasn’t able to attend, but my older brother finally spoke up about the everything-short-of-physical abuse that my father was heaping on my mother. My father declared that he had never liked “being around people” and my mother said she was exhausted. Shortly thereafter, the decision was made to move my father into what was described to me as “hospice care.”

No more trying to coax his failing heart into supporting his single kidney. No more discussion of the risks involved with yet another hip replacement that may or may not enable him to walk again. No more expensive prescription medication crammed onto the kitchen shelf with 15 other bottles. Mom would be relieved of her round-the-clock indentured servitude and Dad would be allowed to die with dignity. Or so we thought.

If laughter is the best medicine, coerced participation in elderly reindeer games is a close second. Shortly after my father became a permanent resident at Mount Carmel, I sat next to his wheelchair during a visit and watched in amazement as he participated in a group discussion about what kind of vegetable garden was best.

On Valentine’s Day, I stopped in to find my father sporting a pink and red brooch that he had made during craft time – proudly pinned on his sweater. (This from the hands of a natural-born woodworker who had once made dressers and end tables and more grandfather clocks than I can count.) My point is this: confined to a wheelchair at the mercy of the aides who were determined that he was NOT going to lay in a bed and die and therefore spent the day wheeling him from sing-alongs to circus outings, my father was learning how to live again.

After his birthday party on Sunday, I spoke with a dear friend of mine who was very familiar with my family’s dynamics. A bemused smile spread across her face when I described the truly relaxed, congenial atmosphere in the room.

“My father actually participated in conversations. My mother actually spoke to him with warmth in her voice.”

“Your parents are separated,” she said. “And they’re happy.”

My friend is exactly right. What a change from when I first told my mother that I was divorcing after 30+ years. Her usual “The Queen Is Not Pleased” expression settled into the disapproving face I had come to know so well over the course of my childhood. This was four years ago, when Mom was still desperately trying to maintain the myth that hers always had been and still was a “good marriage.”

I know now that her disapproval of my decision masked her own deeply denied yearning to have a life of her own. Now, for the first time in HER 84 years, she’s living alone and loving it. And my father? He may or may not have much time left, but he sure is enjoying what he has.

After all these years, my parents have a happy marriage.

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My Great Fall at the Great Wall

I didn’t mean to cause an international incident. And unlike Humpty Dumpty, I wasn’t actually ON the wall before I took the dive that I’m blaming on the plumbing in China. (I know I sound like an Ugly American here – but bear with me.)

Everything started out so innocently: a beautiful drive with my friends and our guide through the Chinese countryside to spend the day climbing the Great Wall. When Mr. Lee, our driver, deposited us in front of the entry gates, we posed for the obligatory photos and went inside. To reach the ski lift that would carry us up to the parapets, we climbed up a lane lined with vendors hawking their wares. Our guide explained that the shop owners lived right there in the neighborhood and, when not busy bartering, they caught up on neighborhood gossip and news – both traditionally, via conversations in front of their shops and on their smartphones.

According to our guide, Facebook and other external social media sites are blocked in China but an app called WeChat is terrifically popular – and apparently allowed in-country. As I was soon to find out, it was also very, very efficient at ensuring that news traveled at the speed of light.

When we finally came down from the Wall – this via an alpine slide concourse that was just rip-snorting fun – I was starting to regret all the water I had consumed during our climb. We had a long drive back to Beijing ahead of us and, while I dreaded the prospect, I knew I needed to use the public restroom.

Public toilets in China don’t conform to our Western idea of hygiene. The toilet “bowl” is flush (pun definitely intended) with the floor. Rather than sitting regally on a “potty”, a “squatty” requires a wide stance (there’s another pun here but I’ll let you figure it out) in order to relieve oneself.

Chinese public toilets for the most part don’t provide toilet paper, either. No square to spare. You walk in with your own little packet of tissue or you’re SOL. And no hand soap either. Or paper towels. (I exited my first experience with Chinese plumbing flapping my wet, non-sanitized hands in the breeze, feeling as if I had just engaged in a pissing match – with myself.)

The facilities we found at the base of the Great Wall were very clean – but very Chinese. Stall door after stall door sported an icon of a squatting human. And then I spotted it. A single door at the far end of the row with the word “potty” written in English underneath a picture of a human figure sitting on a toilet. Practically giddy with excitement, I flew down the aisle and grabbed the stall door, driven by nature’s urgent call.

Except I didn’t step into the stall. I stepped squarely into a 6-inch tiled threshold that I hadn’t noticed, propelling myself, in a perfectly executed horizontal trajectory, into the stall with a 180-degree turn of my body. But that’s not all. Still clutching the handle of the stall door in an attempt to avoid a fall that I instinctively knew was going to be painful, I tore the door off its hinges and dragged it down with me – landing on my back and cracking my head resoundingly against the tiled wall.

The next thing I knew, two very excited Chinese attendants were trying to lift the door off of me as I lay spread-eagled and stunned, afraid that the door wasn’t the only thing broken. While I couldn’t understand a word the women were saying, their shocked expressions told me everything I needed to know – they’d never seen anything like this.

By the time I got to my feet, a small crowd had formed that politely followed me outside, men and women speaking quietly but urgently to each other. My head felt like it was full of mush. My ankle throbbed where it had been pinned between the stall door and its frame. My tailbone was starting to scream. But what I saw when I looked down the hill made me burst out laughing so hard I started crying.

Every shopkeeper from the stalls we had passed on our way up the mountain was gathered in a knot, staring up at me. WeChat had once again triumphed. Someone inside the toilet had WeChatted the news about the red-headed foreigner exhibiting super-human strength and klutziness in a public toilet.

I never did get to relieve myself.

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Lucy and Ethel Went on Vacation

At one point on the long, long flight to China, my dear friend with whom I was traveling shared that she had referred to our two-week trip as “Lucy and Ethel Go On Vacation” in a pre-departure conversation with some of our mutual colleagues.

For those of you too young to make the connection to a ’50s-era TV show that’s likely still in reruns somewhere in the world, suffice it to say that Francie and I proved that international travel can take place without international incident – unless you consider my Great Fall at the Great Wall. (But that’s a subject for a subsequent post.)

We are safely back home in staid St. Louis and, speaking only for myself, I miss China terribly. I wasn’t sure what to expect when the opportunity to visit Francie’s long-time friend, David, in Shanghai first turned from conversation to reality. I’ve read a lot about China – pre and post-Mao – but nothing prepared me for the level of energy in Shanghai, the depth of history in Beijing’s Forbidden City or the ancient tranquility of the 1000-year-old water town we visited.

David could not have been a more gracious host – introducing us to everything from lost neighborhoods and hutongs to basil-drop martinis and delicious mojitos. And killer cocktails weren’t the only new experiences we enjoyed.

China is an amazing country – filled with beautiful public parks, friendly people and construction that goes on around the clock. Literally. Anything resembling OSHA does not exist in Asia. We were told more than once that the crane is the national bird of China – both the elegant two-legged species with the long curved neck AND the erector-set-on-steroids monsters that crowd the landscape everywhere you look, in every city we visited.

China also has its issues, as we discovered in Tiananman Square when our tour guide shushed me when I asked about the Falung Gong movement or in Hong Kong, when we witnessed first-hand the barricaded streets near our hotel manned by student protestors in a stand-off with police and their riot gear – which had been described to us by our hotel concierge as merely “difficulties with traffic.”

We also had the moving experience of meeting and talking to one of the student protestors, who almost moved me to tears as he earnestly explained his belief that should have the right to determine who he wanted to vote for. (How ironic that back home our traditional mid-term low voter turnout had turned our senate from blue to red.)

In hindsight, I wish I would have lugged my laptop with me on the trip so that I could have posted our experiences as they happened: our introduction to hairy crabs (more later); night markets and the Terra Cotta Warriors; Hong Kong’s subway at 5:00 p.m. on a Friday. I’ve never seen such a roiling mass of humanity in my life or experienced such an intuitive, well-designed public transportation system. (Our Metrolink system looks positively pre-historic by comparison. Think Fred Flintstone in his little car.)

Someone told me that this trip would be life-changing in ways large and small. I think that’s about right. If nothing else, it’s certainly shaken me out of the cocoon of ennui I’ve been living in – witnessed over the past several months by the dearth of posts to this blog. I’m determined to catch up, to capture, in both words and drawing, some of the wonder and amazement we experienced.

If I learned nothing else on this trip, I’ve learned that big dreams can come true. It just takes time.

 

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To My Sistahs, Sisters, and All Women of a “Certain Age”

Debbie was buried on Wednesday. Her husband chose to bury her in the deep blue dress she would have worn to her son’s wedding last Saturday. Debbie had been planning the wedding of her older son, Matt, for more than a year. The night before the big event, chatting with her neighbor, Elaina, over their backyard fence, Debbie’s excitement was palpable. Their sons had grown up together – their sons and mine.

 

The phone call from my son, Michael, telling me that Debbie had collapsed two hours before the wedding and never regained consciousness hit hard. Debbie was 63. 

I went to the wake on Tuesday evening and stood in a long, long line of friends and family. That’s where Elaina found me. Elaina was still mourning the death of her youngest son last fall in a similarly shocking and unexpected manner (he went to bed not feeling well early one evening and never woke up) and I could tell that Debbie’s passing had hit hard. 

From Elaina, I learned the details of the call placed to 911 at the wedding breakfast and the subsequent ride to the ER,  but it was a detail I soon learned from Debbie’s younger son, Mark, that turned an already sad story into a tragic one.

Raw emotion ripped across Matt’s face when he shared what had happened five days prior to the wedding. On Tuesday, Debbie began experiencing pain in her upper arm and jaw, severe enough that her husband, Gary, insisted on taking her to the ER. But Debbie angrily refused. She didn’t want anything to interfere with the wedding on Saturday and she didn’t want Gary to say another word. 

As Matt shared this awful detail, he looked at me in anguish. “Do you know what I would have done if my dad had told me? I would have picked her up and carried her to the doctor!” As he said this, he glanced over at his father and anger briefly flashed into those dark brown eyes.

The moral of the story here is obvious – so obvious that a reader of this blog would be justified in saying “Really? You really needed to write this?” And just as obviously, the answer is “yes.”

Debbie did what so many women have done and are doing right now. We ignore the signals from our bodies, letting what we perceive as the “important” needs of others supercede the single most important need of all – taking care of ourselves first. That’s not being selfish. That’s not taking anything away from our loved ones. That’s choosing life. 

The “what ifs” of Debbie’s choices pile up faster than I can type. What’s left is a family struggling with grief and anger and regret. I don’t want a single Sistah anywhere to be the subject of another story like this.

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My Father Has Lived Long Enough

Those were his words, not mine, spoken during a hospital visit in the fall. He sat on the side of a hospital bed, his swollen legs showing beneath one of those dreadful standard-issue gowns. My understanding was that he was in for three days. But the sense I got from him – an 83-year-old diabetic with congestive heart failure confined to a wheelchair due to bad hips – was that he was ready to go.

My visit was part perfunctory, part caring. I have a complicated history with my father. My merely being able to share the same physical space with him is testament to the power of therapy and the grace of forgiveness.

We spoke very little. My father was never one for conversation with his children. He was the prototypical Breadwinner Father with a wife – my mother – who upheld his place as the head of a Potemkin-village family. An outward-facing facade of perfection masked a whole lot of hurt. His expectations were clear – unquestioning obedience and dinner on the table when he walked in the door.  As a girl child, I was expected to be seen and not heard. As a female adult? It’s complicated.

We are all products of our past, whether we choose to confront our individual demons – or not. None of us are all good or all evil. It’s when we try to bury or deny our dark side that the trouble starts. Generational dysfunction is the sad legacy of denial.

***

Since I first started writing this post, my father was hospitalized twice more with a stint at a rehab facility sandwiched between. Last Thursday, the decision was made to remove  the plethora of medications that have been keeping him alive. Moving forward, he will be given pain medications only. It’s a decision he’s accepted and it’s afforded my mother a huge sense of relief.

Two of my sisters – who have done more than their share of heavy lifting over the past two years – spent the greater part of Friday dealing with the bureaucracy surrounding end-of-life care in this country and getting my father settled into the small room where he will wait for the end of his life.

It’s a humbling prospect and I can’t imagine how he must be feeling about it – or if he’s even letting himself feel. Feelings never counted for much in my family so the likelihood that my father and I will have the kind of soul-baring conversations that are standard fare on the Lifetime channel are slim. I don’t know who my father is and my window of opportunity to make his acquaintance is inexorably closing.

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