First Do No Harm

grayscale photo of man woman and child
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I live in Texas along the Gulf coast. My father spent his teenage years in Corpus Christi, Texas, a place where he met his best friends and from hence he learned his love of fishing. He longed to return there to live one day, but he was never able to find a job, so Houston was the next best thing for him.

I grew up visiting Corpus Christi often and hearing my dad’s stories of how wonderful the place was. On top of having it’s own unique culture and feel, it is only a hop, a skip, and a jump from Laredo, a border town with Mexico. As a kid and then as a young adult a trip to Corpus Christi sometimes was the gateway to a quick jaunt to the other side of the Rio Grande. Things were quieter and safer then, so families traveled back and forth between the United States and Mexico with little or no fanfare.

I was raised in a Catholic family which meant attending Catholic school. Back in the day our Catholic parents believed that it was their duty to send us to the nuns and priests for our education. We not only learned the three Rs, but also studied the foundations of our faith, which included discussions of the Ten Commandments and sin.

I sat in classrooms with many of the same kids for years. We became like brothers and sisters. I never noticed that our last names read like a roll call of the United Nations. I did not even think to classify my classmates as Italians, Hispanics, Czechs, Germans or such. We were all just peers seeing each other at school Monday through Friday and then again at church on Sunday. I was probably in my sixties before it fully occurred to me that names like Luna and Villagomez indicated Hispanic heritage of some sort. I seriously just saw people as people because of my upbringing.

My mom and her siblings were first generation Americans who were often taunted not just for their ancestry from Slovakia, but also for their religious beliefs. Nonetheless they eventually melted into the great big pot known as the United States of America, and followed both the customs of both their country and their religion quite earnestly. My brothers, and cousins and I were taught to love our nation and our church as well. Mostly we were cautioned to view life as beautiful and sacred. My mom always asserted that people are people and our differences are usually only skin deep. She believed that inside our hearts we are all pining for the same things.

I’ve been rocking along for my seventy years living the way I was raised with a devotion and gratitude for my country, my state, my church, my family, my friends, and all people. For most of my life I enjoyed a career as a teacher, and many of my students were recent immigrants just as my mother had been. Most of them had come from countries in Central and South America. They struggled with many of the same issues that my mom had faced, and so I felt a particular impetus to help them to feel welcome and beloved in their new home. I also realized that some faced the additional challenge of being so called illegals. They had been brought to Texas as children without any of  the proper papers. They grew up in a state of fear that they might one day be forced to return to a place that had become foreign to them. They were the “Dreamers.”

Of late politics have pushed two issues to front and center, namely immigration and abortion. Ironically those topics are at odds with the way I was taught to think, which is to value human life above all else. On the one hand, I worry about the people fleeing to our borders in attempts to escape hopeless lives, and on the other hand I am increasingly appalled by the almost blasé attitude of the murder of unborn children. The irony for me is that quite often those who are concerned about the immigrant issues think of abortion as simply a matter of choice rather than violence, while those who are adamantly opposed to the influx of immigrants without limits are often deeply saddened by abortion. Somehow I see the two has having much in common, and find it difficult to understand the inconsistencies in current thinking.

I was therefore rather excited to learn that there is a group of pro-life women known as the New Wave Feminists who are demonstrating their genuine concerns for all people and all life by raising funds to bring the immigrants now being held at the border the kind of supplies that they so desperately need. In other words, they are putting their beliefs into action rather than simply complaining about the situations. Their spokesperson, Herndon De la Rosa has expressed their thinking quite beautifully, “We are pro-life because we care about the inherit human dignity of every living person, inside the womb and out,” Herndon-De La Rosa says. She feels a heightened responsibility to not look away from people at the border because “as a Texan . . . it’s happening in my backyard,” she notes. “All are vulnerable and all are human beings.” (National Review, July 8, 2019)

We have too many politicians these days who seem to believe that being bipartisan or using consensus to solve problems is a sign of weakness. They think that there is only one possible way of seeing issues, and anything less than total victory for their causes is unacceptable. As  a result, much of the humanity that I was taught to treasure is being hurt while the fights between ideas rage on. We are indeed all human beings and all vulnerable. Our instinct should be to first do no harm, and then find a way to hammer out a way of dealing with our differences in a manner that considers the value of all humans.

I am not so naive as to think that any of our problems will be easily solved or that our solutions will be perfect, but the reality is that both the living and the unborn are suffering even as we rant and rave with one another. Surely it is time to consider that we will ultimately be stronger by remembering to love while we determine how to honor the inherent dignity of all persons both living and unborn. Long ago we got it wrong when we allowed slavery to continue as we began our country. Perhaps it’s time that we learn from our mistakes of the past and move forward together. 

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Who Knows What The Future May Hold?

times change chart

I saw this chart on Facebook and laughed until my sides hurt. I’m not quite old enough to have undergone all of the listed changes, but I’m slowly moving in that direction. I worry the most about that new hip joint because of my osteoporosis. For the time being I still listen to acid rock while successfully treating my acid reflux with a little pill, and I often joke that if and when I do end up in a wheelchair I will be moving it to the beat of Satisfaction. In fact, I’m going to see the Rolling Stones in concert at the end of this month.

I have to admit to being amused that the members of that rock group are getting so old. I hand it to them for still having enough energy to go on tour, particularly Mick Jagger considering that he recently had open heart surgery. I have always liked his style and now he’s serving as an inspiration for all of us who are tempted to surrender to our aging bodies. If he can strut about for a few hours, then surely we can do those crunches at the gym and push ourselves to keep moving.

I’m happy to report that a cardiologist recently pronounced that he doesn’t think that I will ever need his services. My heart is strong and showing no signs of slowing down. When it comes to hair, however, I seeing major signs of thinning. I actually had someone recently suggest that I use a hair growth shampoo or consider adding some hair extensions or even investing in a wig. The truth is I had no hair when I was born and it took almost two years before I had enough to resemble a girl. I’ve fought and lost the hair battle for most of my life, so nothing is new in that regard. The good news is that even after five months of growth I have so little gray that most people would not even notice it. In that regard I appear to take after the people on my mother’s side of the family. Those women live long and with very few problems, but they usually end up unable to walk.

Recently I went to the nursing home where my one hundred year old aunt now lives. She looks remarkably healthy and has an astounding sense of humor even though she has a difficult time hearing these days. She laughed and joked the whole time I was there and but for the fact that she is wheelchair bound she doesn’t fit in the others who live around her. So many of the other people appear to be completely out of it, unaware of what is actually happening. I doubt that they would be able to hold a coherent conversation much less remember things the way my aunt can.

I suppose that if I am to live as long as the ladies in my family it won’t be so bad if I am as alert as they are. I’d pass my time reading and writing and watching a bit of television. I’d get some good hearing aides from Costco (Yes, I love going there!) and I’d manage to keep my mind busy. On the other hand, I have to admit that I don’t like the idea of being wheelchair bound but most people get there after a certain age. Having to roll around isn’t nearly as bad as losing memories or dealing with dementia. Besides my doctor tells me that some great therapies are on the horizon that will keep most people upright and moving much longer than people now do. He tells me that I may never end up confined to a wheelchair like everyone in my family has done once they reach a certain age.

I also have some of the genetics of my paternal grandfather who was a kind of superman. He lived to one hundred eight years of age and was clear headed and able to care for himself until his last few months. He was hanging wood panelling in his house and reading biographies of Thomas Jefferson well past one hundred. He only stopped driving because he felt that it was the appropriate thing to do. I have some of his same DNA in my body, so it’s likely that I will hang around for a quite a bit longer.

I’m not necessarily of the mind that long life is better. It all depends on what kind of life it becomes. I saw those poor souls sitting all alone in the living room of the nursing home, staring into the air and even making incomprehensible noises. I don’t know if they are suffering or not, but surely it must be difficult for members of their families to see them that way. I know that both my mother and my mother-in-law prayed that they would never have to be confined to months or years of being trapped inside minds unable to fully express themselves, and I have to admit that it seems quite sad when it happens to someone.

I suppose that none of us know how much or how little time we will have on this earth so the old saw that we need to make the most of each day becomes more and more true with each birthday. In 1979 I was thirty one years old and literally at the peak of my intellect, my appearance and my health. I laughed at the very thought of growing old. Now almost  forty years later I’m still going fairly strong, so I intend to make the very best of every single moment. I’m taking trips, attending rock concerts, enjoying family and friends. Who knows what the future may hold! 

An Ounce of Caution

eye of the storm image from outer space
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Here in Houston we get hurricanes from time to time and they are capable of causing great damage from both wind and rain. I worry during the long hurricane season that runs from about June through October in this area. I get especially anxious around the middle of August until the middle of October because that seems to be the time in which we are the most likely to get a violent storm. I’ve learned how and where to hunker down if I decide to stay in my home until everything blows over. I prepare myself both mentally and physically in July while there is still time to get things in order without a rush at the last minute.

I’ve learned to have plenty of batteries, flashlights, lanterns and water on hand along with a supply of nonperishable food. My mother-in-law taught me to fill all of the bathtubs and big pots in the house with water ahead of the hurricane so that I will have a good source of that life saving liquid for some time. I’m always happy that I have a gas stove because even if the electricity goes out I am still able to cook. I store away anything that might blow around in my yard and put tape on my windows. Then I usually go to my father-in-law’s house in the Heights. It’s been standing there for over a hundred years and is rarely affected by anything other than the loss of electricity.

There are more precautions that I have wanted to take but somehow I just never get around to accomplishing the necessary tasks. I have friends who cut and store plywood to cover windows. They have each plank numbered according to the area of glass it is designed to protect. There are many years in which the custom designed works of caution do little more than gather dust in the rafters of the garage, but when a storm threatens in the Gulf of Mexico they are ready to prepare their property while everyone else is scurrying around like folks gone mad.

My husband and I have looked at various generators from time to time as well, including the ones that are permanently affixed to the natural gas supply and designed to automatically kick into gear the moment that the power goes out. The folks who have those experience a small blip and then everything continues working as though nothing had happened. The rest of us with no backup system might find ourselves operating like our ancestors with candles and oil lamps until Reliant Energy gets around to repairing the lines. It can be miserably hot and humid, not to mention cut off from information since none of the electronics work. I’ve tried to encourage my husband to make an investment in some kind of generator, but so far he has not seen a reason for purchasing an expensive item that may be used once in a blue moon.

The hurricanes that I remember are Carla, Alicia, Ike and Harvey. We stayed with my Aunt Polly during Carla when I was just entering the eighth grade. The storm did a great deal of damage around the area but our home suffered nary a scratch. For Alicia we went to my father-in-law’s house. Again our own place was high dry and untouched but the electricity stayed off in part of the neighborhood for weeks. I was a teacher then and the schools did not reopen for quite some time. Ike sent us back again to my father-in-law’s place. I was awake when the storm passed over Houston and I marveled at the strength of the house. It was like watching a hurricane in a movie. The windows barely moved in spite of the power of the storm. For Harvey we stayed in our own home. We had no idea how devastating that event would be for so many of our friends and family, but we luckily came through unharmed. Nonetheless I recall becoming uncontrollably anxious as I watched images of my city going under water. I was certain that we would have to bail at some point, but somehow the water kept miraculously draining.

There is something quite serendipitous about Mother Nature. It’s difficult to predict where she will aim her fury, but there is enough time with the approach of a hurricane to get a fairly good idea of the path that it will take. There are ways to prepare and usually time to do so. The only trick is to get things done early because once it seems certain that an area will bear the brunt of tropical fury  most of the needed supplies will fly from the shelves of the stores leaving only blank spaces for those who have procrastinated.

While I become anxious each summer lest a powerful storm come to our city, I know what I need to do when the threat is clear. Tornadoes and earthquakes are another thing entirely. They come with little or no warning which to me makes them doubly frightening. Living under a constant threat of such things would no doubt make me a basket case just as it has done for those in Houston whose homes flooded with the nonstop rains of hurricane Harvey. Now when thunder and lightning roar in the sky they worry in ways that they never did before. I suspect that living in an earthquake or tornado area might have a similar effect.

My family lived in both northern and southern California for a time when I was eight years old. I recall real estate agents instructing us in what to do in the event of an earthquake. We even had periodic drills at school. I was terrified because we learned that such incidents are rarely predicted. I feared that I would be away from my parents when one struck or that some enormous piece of furniture might fall on top of me. I found myself checking out buildings for strong areas and ways of exiting and wishing that I might return to Texas where such things were exceedingly rare.

My daughter often experienced tornado warnings when she lived in a Chicago suburb. She kept a closet under the stairs cleared so that she might readily run inside with her babies whenever the sirens began to blare. It was nerve wracking because things happened so instantly. I suppose that none of us ever know when we will become entwined in the wrath of nature but it’s always a good idea to have a plan of what to do and how to keep in touch with friends and loved ones when such events come our way.

My brother was a first responder and always told us to check for exits in movie theaters and hotels. He cautioned us to use stairs rather than elevators in an emergency situation. As a teacher I took part in planning and drills for all sorts of possibilities. I learned to be ever alert. I’d like to think that I am ready for just about anything, but I also understand that the world is filled with the unexpected most of which we luckily never experience. Still I am reminded each summer to be prepared. An ounce of caution never hurts. Maybe this year I’ll buy that generator just to be sure.

Finding Beauty In Life and Death

red rose flower
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I’ve seen more than my share of death. As the calendar moves relentlessly forward I have had to watch the passing of my elders, the people who loved and guided me when I was a child. Of late I have seen far too many of my peers leaving this earth as well. Death is inevitable and yet still such a frightening and unwanted state for most of us. We cling tenaciously to life even as we understand that not one of us is immortal.

A friend posted an article that defined the ways in which one might experience a “good” death. It was filled with all sorts of ideas that might work if one has the luxury of knowing that the end is near because of an illness that points in that direction. For many death is more sudden and unexpected, making it impossible to take charge of the event as described in the article.

My mother always spoke of being ready to die at any moment. She did not broach this topic in a morose manner, but rather from the standpoint of living life in such a way that no matter what might happen she would be ready whenever her time on earth was over. She did this with several routines from which she rarely diverged and from open discussions about her preferences long before there were any signs that her death was drawing near. As a result her passing was beautiful, and done on her terms just as she had always wished.

Mama never let a single day end in anger or hurtfulness. She asked for forgiveness for her transgressions which were always of the very minor variety anyway. She communicated her love for the people that she knew daily. There was no need at the end of her life for her to make an act of contrition to either God or family members. We already knew as I’m sure God did as well that she was sorry for anything that she had done that hurt anybody.

My mother expressed her desires to refuse all artificial means of prolonging her life on many occasions. She only hoped to be as free of pain as possible, but beyond that she insisted that we not take any extraordinary measures. We therefore felt comfortable conveying her wishes to her doctors who all smiled in agreement with her wisdom.

Mama lived a faith filled life that never wavered. She believed with all of her heart that our earthly home is only temporary and imperfect. She looked forward to an eternity of peace and happiness with God. On her last day of life she had an angelic glow and a beatific smile as she motioned toward heaven whenever we asked how she was feeling. She believed that her reward for a life well lived was coming soon. She had no anxiety and her peacefulness spread to each of us who visited with her in those final hours.

One by one the people who had meant the most to her came to pay their last respects. She made each visitor feel her love as she held hands and did her best to help them to accept the inevitable. She orchestrated final moments that none of us would ever forget, and gave us a gift of peacefulness that is unimaginable. In fact, even the nurses who cared for her in the ICU felt the joyousness that she projected. One of them cried as she left her shift, telling me and my brothers that she had never witnessed such a blessed ending to a life. She understood as we did that my mother had chosen this way of spending her final hours by living her entire life in preparation for the end.

My mother was always a caretaker who sacrificed for the needs of others. She asked for very little for herself and she certainly had moments when she was filled with all of the human frailties that we have. Somehow she always found her way back to a kind of inner peace and a total dependence on God to comfort her. She never asked Him for things or even to take away her sorrows or pain. All she wanted from Him was a bit of help in managing her attitude toward whatever was happening. Sometimes it took awhile, but always she found the serenity that she sought.

Mama’s life was difficult from beginning to end and yet she was one of the happiest people that I have ever known. From the time that I was a child she explained her joy by reasoning that she was able to tackle any challenge because she always knew that God was not going to leave her to act alone. Even, and perhaps most especially, in death she had a certainty that He was with her and that the best was coming. She was never angry with Him for the difficulties that mounted at her door. She accepted her travails as being a part of life.

I understand that it is difficult for many of us to curtail our anger, resentments, suffering and sorrow. Life can appear to be very cruel and death is often prolonged and painful. Keeping the faith and finding a way to smile even under the worst of circumstances can seem impossible, and yet I saw firsthand the power and beauty of my mother’s unwavering determination to be in charge of her life and her death by choosing an attitude of trust, faith, hope, and joy. She showed me and those who knew her how to have a beautiful death. I only hope that I will be able to follow her lead whenever that day comes for me.

Finding a Long Lost Friend

Kathy

I met Kathy at a local Tex Mex restaurant. It had been well over fifty years since we had seen each other in person. She and I had both once lived on Belmark Street in southeast Houston. Both of our mothers were widows and both of us were products of an education at Mt. Carmel High School. I was in the Class of 1966 and she was a member of the Class of 1967, the group with whom I might have shared my teenage years had my parents not decided to send me to first grade a year early. We had both lived through a lifetime of memories in the years since last being together and it was only through the miracle of Facebook that we had reconnected once again.

I adored Kathy’s mother. She was a tiny woman who was nonetheless a giant in my eyes. She seemed capable of staring down the devil if need be. She was incredibly courageous and one of the few women that I knew who actually pursued a career even after she became a mom  and her husband was still alive. Kathy’s mom and mine often attended dances and events sponsored by Parents Without Partners, a social group that gave them a place to be with people who understood what it was like to raise a family alone.

When I knew Kathy on Belmark Street she was known by the nickname, “Candy.” She was stunningly beautiful even as a child and only became more lovely as she grew. She had the same spunky spirit as her mom and I so enjoyed doing things with her. She was the perfect counterpoint to my shy and reserved nature. When I was around her I felt at ease and able to just be myself. She was a fun person who helped me push aside the awkwardness that sometimes made me wonder if I was ever going to find my way in the adult world. Her joyous nature rubbed off on me, and she made me forget all of my childhood angst.

One of our favorite activities was playing dolls on my driveway. Kathy had one of the very first Barbie dolls and I was in awe of the model like figure of the toy. I stuck with my Madame Alexander doll that was lovely in its own right. We collected milk cartons and boxes and transformed them into furniture for our dolls. We used scraps of cloth to make rugs and pillows. My mom showed me how to design a four poster bed for my doll out of a cigar box and four clothes pins. We set up our make believe homes and pretended that our dolls were stewardesses living in exotic places around the world. It was more fun than almost anything else that I did in those days. I treasure the memories and the things that Kathy taught me when we were together.

Sometimes our play was interrupted by earnest discussions of how we might actually become hostesses in the sky once we were old enough to apply for jobs that we considered highly glamorous. It was after all still in the days of infancy for mass air travel and anything associated with the industry appeared to be quite exciting to us. We had so many hopes and dreams about being independent women like our moms but on a far grander scale.

Kathy’s home was different from mine. There were no beige walls or conservative ways of decorating. Instead bright colors transformed each room into a happy place that made me smile. Kathy’s mom kept a bowl of candy on the dining table and always urged me to take whatever I wanted when I visited there. I could not imagine such a tempting treat lasting more than a few seconds at my own house, and yet it appeared that Kathy and her younger siblings rarely even touched the sweets. I decided that making something routine and commonplace made it less enticing and thought that Kathy’s mom was a very bright woman indeed for thinking of such a thing.

Kathy and her family moved away when I was a freshman in high school and while her mom and mine continued a fast friendship, I had become devoted to my studies and a small circle of classmates with whom I spent my rare hours of freedom. Kathy and I saw less and less of each other even as we no doubt passed one another in the hallways of our school. Life took hold and we went our separate ways marrying, raising children and working. The years went by one by one, slowly at first and then at a rate so fast that we hardly noticed that a whole lifetime had passed.

Suddenly we were older women, retired from our jobs, enjoying our grandchildren and finding more and more free time on our hands. Then we found each other on Facebook and began to enjoy the commentaries that we each posted. I realized that somehow even with all of the changes that had taken place in our lives at heart we were still those young girls with dolls and dreams and incredible moms. It seemed time to have a reunion, and so we decided to meet for lunch and to reminisce.

I am never quite certain how it is possible to reconnect with a long lost friend so quickly, but we had no problem whatsoever keeping a conversation going. In fact, we devoted an hour to speaking of our past, present, and future for each decade that we had been away from each other. I was a bit shocked when I finally glanced at my watch and realized that we had been chatting away for nearly five hours and I suppose that we might have continued even longer save for the fact that other responsibilities were calling us home.

It was grand seeing Kathy again and knowing that our shared experiences had somehow carried us through every challenge that came our way. Like our moms we are survivors who have seen both the good times and the most horrific and yet we are still standing. Kathy is as beautiful as she ever was and she still has the ability to make me smile. She has become a font of wisdom from whom I learned so much in just a few short hours. I’d like to think that we will continue our meetings now that we have found each other again. We share something quite special and I suspect that our mothers are smiling down on us from heaven, happy that we have found to connect again.