We Are Not the Enemy

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When the news of Covid-19 first sent warning signals I decided that I would write about its effect on my little slice of the world each day. I have often wondered what life was like for my grandparents who were young adults during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and it occurred to me that if any one of them had recorded observations and thoughts about the deadly virus our family would have a priceless treasure. I love reading first person accounts of historic events. They provide an emotional context to factual renderings. Hard times come alive with stories of everyday life and survival. Thus I pledged to devote my blogs to our current situation until things simmered down and we began a process of returning to a more normal state of affairs. It never dawned on me that I would still be recording commentaries about the pandemic in the later weeks of July with no real end in sight.

I suppose that I believed that we might somehow slow the spread of the virus by shutting down for a short time. I hoped that the heat of summer would somehow burn the virus out giving us a reprieve until the winter months when hopefully we would have a vaccine. My daughters were not nearly as optimistic as I was but I tended to believe that they were viewing the world as though the sky was falling. They insisted that because we were not working together as a nation things would surely go awry. They witnessed guidelines being ignored, people believing in all manner of crazy theories, and a president who preferred to paint a happy picture of our progress in fighting the virus rather than facing the facts.

I hoped the purveyors of gloom were wrong but even the doctors that I consulted cautioned me that the trends of contagion were still moving in an upward direction. They advised me to hold steady to my isolation and safety procedures until the end of June and then I saw an exponential explosion of positive cases and hospitalizations in my own backyard. I had to face the reality that the new Covid-19 world order would be with us for many more weeks and possibly even months unless we find a way to bury our divisions and work as a united country. Unfortunately I see no way forward with that idea and so I am gravely disheartened.

I hear people turning to prayer and I certainly do my share of talking and listening to God, but I do not think that there will be a sudden miracle to make all of this end. Neither God nor the virus play favorites which is why bad things sometimes happen to good people. God has instead given us our minds to think things through and determine a good course of action. He has taught us to be unselfish, never ignoring the most vulnerable among us. He exhorts us to be loving in our care of one another. These are the things I believe him to be telling us.

My mother and my grandmothers taught me that God is present in every human soul. My mama said that when we ignore or mistreat even the most seemingly deplorable person we are slapping the face of God. I have grown up believing that idea and attempting to be a peacemaker in times of trouble. I believe that we desperately need someone who has the power to bring us together, not drive us apart. When our scientists and medical experts are accused of lies and greed with respect to Covid-19 we are indeed far away from my desire of walking together in our time of great sorrow. When people defy the dictates to dance in a bar while people are dying in nearby hospitals my heart cries out. I wonder where the common sense and compassion have gone.

It should be apparent to everyone that we are in trouble on multiple fronts. There are refrigerated trucks in several states waiting for the bodies of the dead. The military is setting up field hospitals. Our medical workers are being pushed to the limit. Our hospitals are running out of protective equipment. Our teachers are fearful of the chaos that may ensue when schools reopen. Crime is on the rise in our cities. Our minorities are bearing the brunt of essential work and illness. Our criminal justice system is sick. Millions have lost their jobs and will soon see their unemployment checks end, not because they are too lazy to look for work but because they cannot find employment. People are on the brink of being evicted with no place to go. Businesses are failing. Our once strong nation is badly wounded mostly because we have been unwilling to patiently take measures to stop the spread of the virus as a group. It is so widespread now that we cannot even keep track of where it is attempting to go. We fight and bicker and unfriend one another rather than joining in a nationwide effort to stem the tide of Covid-19 no matter what sacrifices it may take to do so.

Now I am truly worried. Politics rather than rationality have overtaken our response to the virus. Our progress has been set back by weeks, maybe even months.Our situation is the worst it has been. Winter is coming and we have yet to speak of what that might mean. I wonder if our lack of a unified effort will result in a destruction of our healthcare system, our economy and our educational infrastructure that will take decades to repair. My happy instincts are being pushed aside by reality. I want to climb to my rooftop and warn everyone of what I see happening but I suspect that I will not be heard. I don’t know what it will take to bring our country to its senses but I believe things will become even more grim before we get there. Perhaps this is a time of reckoning that will either crush us or demonstrate the moral character that we have mustered in tough times of the past. I surely hope and pray that we will sooner rather than later understand that Covid-19 is our enemy, not one another. 

We Are Losing Some Good Ones

 

Life goes on even as we struggle through days of watching the virus find its way into every corner. We continue our routines even as we watch protesters crying out for justice. Birthdays come marking the completion of another year of life. Easter reminds us to be hopeful. Graduations in different forms than we are accustomed to seeing celebrate hard work and accomplishment. Our planet dutifully rotates on its axis bringing us new days and nights. We revolve around the sun moving from spring to summer just as though everything is as normal as can be. People whom we have loved and cherish die, some from Covid-19 and others from disease or accident.

We muddle along for the most part, adapting to our present situation, but death gives us pause. It is perhaps more difficult to accept than ever. It is a kind of insult added to our injury. Covid-19 forces us to endure it without the rituals or the comfort of hugs and human touch that we have come to expect in such moments. Of all the things that we miss about our days of isolation and uncertainty people are surely at the top of our list. Most of us are working so hard to keep the ones we love safe and virus free, so when one of them dies no matter the cause it is almost too much to bear. 

I have watched from inside my living room as people very special to me have endured the deaths of loved ones. I grieved for a teaching colleague who lost her beloved mother at the beginning of the pandemic, not from the disease itself but from the completion of a long life. My friend continues to long for the beautiful woman who taught her how to love and gave her a lifelong and beautiful relationship with God. So too does another friend long for her sister who left this world all too early only this week. A young man that I know is heartbroken over the death of a dear friend who will not be able to share the joys of senior year in high school with the rest of the class. 

I watched with great sorrow as two of my high school classmates and friends lost their beloved brother, John King. He had been sick for a very long time but he had overcome his disabilities again and again with a valiant spirit. He was a dedicated and admired teacher, a man who devoted forty eight years of his life to guiding the young into wisdom and grace. His students adored him just as his family did. He will be quietly laid to rest this week but his legacy will be celebrated for years to come by those who knew of his dedication to education and creating a better world. He was an optimist in a time of great cynicism and his example will live in all of  the hearts that he touched. 

A man who attended my high school while I was there has also died. I did not know him well but I knew of him. His name was Steve Waldner but his friends called him Wes. He was a member of one of those large Catholic families from the Baby Boom era. He lived across the street from Our Lady of Mt Carmel Catholic Church and School. He was a sweet and happy fellow, someone people called a nice guy. My husband, Mike, would eventually meet Steve and learn just how amazing he had turned out to be.

Mike was loaned out to the United Way one year as part of their program to use the talents of executives from businesses to help with the various causes that it supports. That’s when he met Steve who was the director of the Bay Area United Way. The two of them hit it off immediately. Both had attended Catholic schools and both were avid alumni of the University of Houston. Steve had first graduated from the University of St. Thomas and then earned a Master’s of Social Work at the University of Houston. He and Mike shared a love of Catholic education, the Basilian fathers, the University of Houston, and the work being done to help the less fortunate in our midst.

Mike learned of the devastating consequences of addiction and homelessness from Steve who worked tirelessly and compassionately to be of service to those who are often ignored and misunderstood. Mike was impressed with Steve’s optimism even in the face of human tragedy. Here was a man so incredibly devoted to the causes of those who were lost and broken. I began to learn so much about someone who had shared the hallways of my school with me without our ever getting to know each other. I was humbled by the stories of his work and his dedication.

Steve Waldner was eventually recognized for his contributions to the downtrodden of the city of Houston. The Department of Social Work at his alma mater, the University of Houston named him as one of their most outstanding graduates. He even taught classes for a time at the University of Houston campus at Clear Lake. He continued to give of his talents in work that focused on those with disabilities and disorders of the body and mind. Like his father before him he was dedicated to being a point of light in some of the darkest corners of our city.

John King and Steve Waldner will be missed for their magnificent contributions to the betterment of our world. In our dark days we long for such shining lights of selflessness and devotion. Both men used their time on this earth to touch the minds and hearts of countless individuals who became better for knowing them. We might all take a cue from them for leading our own lives.

It is difficult to lose good people anytime, but somehow it is doubly so in a moment like the present. It saddens us to know that we are losing the best among us when we need them so dearly. We will remember these good souls and use the models of their lives to guide us and we will comfort their loved ones who have been left behind. May these angels who dedicated themselves to love and service rest in peace.   

In Memoriam

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Memorial Day is always a pensive time for me on so many levels. This year I felt the spirit of all of the souls who lost their lives in the service of our country more than ever. I also thought of those who made it through wars but whose lives were forever changed by memories of battles that they fought. War is a terrible thing and we have generally tried very hard to use it as a last resort. Nonetheless even now we have soldiers serving in war torn countries knowing that they may lose their lives at any moment. Such courage is difficult to understand but many who served in the military have told me that in the heat of a battle the focus becomes the preservation of the members of the corps. It is all about attempting to insure that everyone survives and leaves the battlefield alive. That profound human instinct to protect takes over to create magnificent acts of heroism.

I am a pacifist by nature but I understand that there are indeed times that require humans to defend themselves, their families, their country. If I had my way diplomacy would be rational and powerful enough to end war forever but I know that somehow people have a very difficult time setting aside their differences in a spirit of compromise. Throughout history we have found ourselves engaged in combat again and again and our young men have been called upon to fight. On Memorial Day we remember those whose lives were cut short and while we honor them, we also silently wonder why they had to much such a profound sacrifice for the rest of us.

I spent time this past weekend watching some movies about the brave men who have fought for our cause. First I viewed Glory, one of my all time favorite films. I cannot watch it without ultimately sobbing. It encapsulates the mixed emotions that surround the history of our country including perhaps the worst political mistake we ever made in allowing slavery to coexist with the ideals of democracy. While the nation was growing and prospering the politics of slavery that divided the people became more and more inflamed ultimately pitting state against state, region against region, brother against brother.

My great grandfather who was living in Kentucky chose to fight for the union forces. He spent four years first as a foot soldier and then a calvary man. The war placed a toll on his health. Somehow he was never as robust as he had once been and surely the horrors that he witnessed must have haunted him. His unit was tasked with collecting the bodies of the dead and wounded soldiers after the battle of Shiloh. It had to have been a gruesome sight that haunted him even as he settled into a somewhat normal existence had began a family. I think of them often and feel both pride for his service and regret that he had to endure such a thing. 

I also watched We Were Soldiers another film that brings out emotions from my youth. It takes place during the Vietnam War in the year when I was a senior in high school. Seeing the brutality of the battle it depicts only reinforces the sorrow that I felt whenever I learned of the death of someone who had been a classmate or a friend. While many of them had enlisted, others were drafted into service. The country was conflicted about the necessity of our involvement in what was essentially a civil war in a place so far away from home. While it was touted as a stand against communism it became clear over time that somehow we were outsiders attempting to protect Vietnam from a war that the Viet Cong was determined to win no matter how long it took.

The wall in Washington D.C. lists the names of all of the almost sixty thousand souls that we lost in that effort. I am haunted by the humanity of it each time I visit and run my fingers over the names of those that I knew. They were brave individuals who believed that theirs was a just cause but to this very day I wonder if losing them might have been prevented if we had known beforehand how the conflict would ultimately end. How different would their lives and the lives of those who loved them be if they had never gone to Vietnam? 

History, and particularly military history, is riddled with questions. It is easier to see the might have beens in retrospect. An armchair general can consider what went wrong with great clarity but the reality is that we will never really know what would have happened if we had chosen different routes. Wars are caused when humans cannot agree on how the world should be. Our young people go out to fight the battles for the philosophies of politicians and sometimes tragically lose their lives. I consider how wonderful it would be if we never had to engage our youth in such horrors ever again while realistically understanding that such an ideal will never come to pass.

This Memorial Day was haunted by the growing divide amongst us regarding Covid-19, a virus that has taken close to one hundred thousand souls in a span of  only three months. While the disease stalks the world in search of bodies to invade we argue with one another and point fingers at those who are attempting to lead us. We choose sides and sometimes even viciously attack those whose beliefs differ from our own while our courageous essential workers have been drafted into the role of keeping us safe. It is a new kind of battle with so much uncertainty that none of us can truly know exactly how to react.

I cannot understand why we humans choose to argue with one another so often and why we so seldom choose to find a road that eschews hostility. Perhaps it is in our natures, something that we have never been able to totally control. We have gone to war with one another in an endless loop of death and destruction that rears its head more often than we wish and yet we still work at odds with one another and follow those who actually encourage us to do so. We repeat the mistakes and the sins of our ancestors because in the end we are not so different from them. Memorial Day should always remind us of the cost of disagreements that become so entrenched that we no longer communicate. The spirits of all of the lost humanity should spur us to find ways of loving instead of fighting. 

I Have Seen

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I will be seventy two years old when my birthday rolls around in November. In my lifetime I have seen:

  • Black men and women forced to sit in the back of a bus in which I was able to move around freely.
  • Signs on water fountains and bathrooms designating “White” and “Colored.”
  • Areas of my city designated as the “black” part of town.
  • Little Black children being sent to separate and unequal schools.
  • Restaurants and lunch counters where Black citizens were not allowed to eat.
  • Poll taxes and tests that restricted Black adults from voting.
  • An unspoken rule that Black people needed to leave certain places after sundown.
  • The lynching of Black men.
  • Groups of Black people protesting peacefully to procure their rights.
  • Black children courageously undergoing anger and derision for daring to integrate schools.
  • Black leaders being jailed and assassinated.
  • Black families being ignored and derided for moving into formerly white neighborhoods.
  • Black people enduring insults while taking full advantage of the educational system once it was finally open.
  • A Black man inaugurated as the President of the United States, loved by most and reviled by some.
  • A Black woman becoming one of the wealthiest and most highly respected people in the world.
  • Black people living on my street in harmony with the “United Nations” of our cul de sac.
  • Black people being stopped for traffic violations on an avenue near my home where officers seem to look the other way when the same infractions are committed by whites.
  • Black people ending up dead when they are stopped or arrested for minor non violent infractions.
  • Black people being shot by rogue citizens taking the law into their own hands.
  • A renowned Black professor being arrested and harassed for entering his own home.
  • Innocent Black souls being shot while they worshipped at church.
  • Black athletes kneeling during the National Anthem to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter.
  • A Black man being shot while jogging through a neighborhood.
  • A Black man pleading for his life while a police officer kneeled on his neck.

Even as I write this incomplete list of the history that I have witnessed my chest contracts and my stomach clinches while I fight to hold back tears of both sorrow and anger. Somehow I feel complicit in the unfair treatment of our Black population because I have watched it unfolding but done so little to make it go away. Now I see that we all must do everything within our power to eradicate the virus of racism that continues to fester in our midst. We can no more ignore the devastating death and destruction of discrimination than the we can pretend that Covid 19 is a hoax.

We cannot change history but we can undo the foul stench of prejudice in our midst. We have to call it what it is and quit pretending that it no longer exists. There is nothing good about self appointed vigilantes who shoot Black teenagers or joggers simply because they appear to be up to mischief. There is nothing good about police officers who hold a Black man down with a knee on the neck for five minutes while the captive cries out that he is dying and can’t breathe. There is nothing good about demonstrations of white people carrying guns and Confederate flags who are left alone even though their behavior is threatening. Somehow a Black man attempting to sell loose cigarettes ends up dead from an arrest but white people carrying Tiki torches and shouting Nazi slogans walk free and are even described as “good people” by the president.

Surely we can see how wrong these things are and how they fester and grow when we ignore a racist comment or refuse to admit that a problem of discrimination is still alive and well. Surely we must understand how frightening it must be for a Black mother to send her Black son out into a world in which an encounter with the wrong person may lead to his death. Surely we can understand the frustrations that an entire group of people in our country are feeling because the evidence is clear that there are people among us who only see color, not a real person with feelings and accomplishments and a loving family. Surely it is becoming clearer to us that for some Black lives don’t seem to matter as much as white ones. Surely we must work as hard as our Black friends and neighbors to eradicate prejudice and to celebrate each individual with dignity and respect.

I watched the movie Glory Memorial Day. There is a single scene in that movie that seems to encapsulate the fear and degradation and anger of the Black experience. The character portrayed by Denzel Washington is being punished for an infraction by being whipped. As he bears the pain of the lashes the camera zooms in on his face. His lips twitch and his nostrils flare as he attempts to control his feelings and demonstrate his courage and his pride as a man. Then as though he cannot control the emotions that lie within his heart a single tear rolls down his face. His humiliation is complete.

This week as I watched the killing of George Floyd I was stunned. For five minutes the cruelty that was inflicted on him was almost too horrific to watch, but I made myself endure every single second. Mr. Floyd begged for his life. He could not breathe. His body hurt all over. He pleaded that he was dying. Finally he called out for his Mama. All the while the loathsome police office who was pinning him down had his hand in his pocket and at one point he even appeared to apply even more pressure on Mr. Floyd’s neck. The other officers did nothing. Nobody came to Mr. Floyd’s aide.

Now it is up to us. We must all demand justice for Mr. Floyd. We must end the hate and call it out wherever and whenever we see it. The disease that continues to fester in our nation must be eradicated wherever we find it.    

Life Will Go On

lv-circle-of-life920I’m reminded every May 31, just how difficult life can be. Of course that is the anniversary of my father’s death. I might have forgotten exactly when he left this earth but for the fact that his fatal accident coincided with Memorial Day of 1957, a time when it was celebrated on May 31 rather than the last Monday of May. I have not celebrated that holiday from that fateful time. Having it roll around each year is like rubbing salt in the wound that scarred my heart back when I was an eight year old child.

I am essentially an optimistic soul. I learned soon enough after my father died that our little family would survive. My mother kept us safe and sound and family and friends continuously rallied to our sides whenever we needed anything. My youth was idyllic save for the loss of my dad. I adjusted to the new normal but never really got over the void in my life that his death created. With each passing year after he was gone I found myself wondering what he would have been thinking about how my brothers and I had developed. I felt his influence on us genetically and in the memories that he left for us. Somehow he was always a factor in our lives even in his absence.

As time has passed I see my father in my brothers and in my nephews and even some of my grandchildren. I suppose that unbeknownst to me there are also hints of ancestors whom we never met in me and my brothers. The circle of life on this earth is an infinite loop that may at times appear to be bleak but the progression and evolution of humanity always finds a way to continue.

I have been cautioned by the doctors in my family to wait out the reopening of the country for another three or four weeks. Covid-19 still restricts me but i refuse to allow it to overwhelm me regardless of how it presents itself in the future. I have learned that I am capable of dealing with great sorrow and even fearful moments. I know that I will handle whatever blows the virus sends me and the members of my family.

If all of us are very lucky we will be laughing and celebrating our good fortune as the weeks and months go by and Covid-19 vanishes with little more than a whimper. If instead the virus battles on with a vengeance I am prepared to do my part in fighting back with everything that I have inside me. Experience has taught me to be patient when times get tough. I have learned that there is light even in the darkest hours. When I battled the mental illness that infected my mother I would sometimes become angry and frustrated, but I always knew that determination and time were on my side. Over and over my brothers and I were able to get her the therapies and medications that she needed to become whole again.

Life is littered with ups and downs and in this moment it feels as though the downs are overtaking all of us. Nonetheless as I look around I see the points of light that will guide us to better days. Our future joy is not to be found in false promises that are unlikely to unfold but in the quiet work of people whose goal is the betterment of all of us. The doctors and nurses and aides and researchers who continue to provide us not just with care but with facts and truths about how we should contend with the virus are heroes with no hidden agendas. They are not running for office or lining their pockets with profits. They are driven by the sole purpose of keeping us safe. When I think of them I believe that we may be wounded but we will not be crushed. This makes me smile.

I see stories about ordinary citizens making masks and little children raising funds to help those who are in financial trouble. I watch the good news from John Krasinski and I see the kind of hope that has guided me through every juncture of life. I smile at the earnestness of people all over the globe who are doing phenomenal jobs of dealing with the health and economic blows that have been inflicted on them. I laugh at the jokes that lighten our spirits remembering all the times that my father roared with delight over a good cartoon or satire. I feel him telling me to lighten up and look around at the positives that are everywhere.

I’ve made it through one more Memorial Day. I’m now more than twice as old as my father was when he died. I’ve overcome one crisis after another. Like my father I have a great interest in history. I read all of the time. I have learned that the world has been on the brink many times over. Somehow we have overcome evil, war, disease and natural disasters each and every time that they have threatened us.

While I tend to think that we have not yet seen the worst of the effects of Covid-19 I revel in the thought that we will find a way to extricate ourselves from its deadly grip. Life will go on. Memorial Day will return and my father’s spirit will be part of future generations. It has always been the way we survive.