The Dragonfly

Dragonfly

I have a friend who lost her baby boy shortly after he was born. It was an incredibly sad and gut wrenching time for her and her family, but she somehow managed to find great courage and a noble spirit from deep inside her soul during the frightening time when her child fought to stay alive. Her acts of love in the little boy’s final moments were touching, inspirational and heart breaking to all of us who know her. In a beautiful act of remembrance this devoted mother has never forgotten her baby boy who would have been six years old had he lived, a child who might have been entering first grade and embarking on educational and athletic adventures. With each passing year the family holds a celebration of his brief life with a visit to his gravesite and a birthday cake marking the passing of time during which they have never forgotten the blessings that he brought them with his very condensed life. This year was no exception, and my darling friend recorded the tradition with photos on Facebook and a lovely story that seemed to make the occasion even more special than ever.

This woman is a school administrator, and this is a very busy time of year for her thus she had waited until the last minute to purchase a little birthday cake to commemorate her angel son. When she went to the bakery at the grocery store that she frequents the cake decorators had all gone home for the day. The only available cakes were generic and she wanted so much to have her little boy’s name written on the confection. When she told her story to the employees they went into action determined to grant her request, even though none of them had ever written with icing before. They scurried around until they had found the frosting and the tools that they needed, and practiced scribing before finally feeling confident enough to place the baby’s name on the cake of remembrance. It was a moment of shared love and respect between strangers who had come to understand one another all because of a little boy whose life, however brief, had somehow transformed his family and friends.

Life can be glorious if we open ourselves to it, and my friend has certainly done that. She understands perhaps a bit better than many of us that we have to embrace and experience every possible second of the beauty of our existence. She has turned her hurt and pain into a model of compassion for everyone that she encounters. Her caring spirit is so apparent that she impacts people wherever she goes. She has learned through tragedy how truly important people and relationships are. She cherishes each precious second of every day, and turns her world into a moveable feast of joy.

We humans sometimes have a tendency to lose faith and bathe ourselves in anger and jealousy. We compare our lot to others and often find ourselves lacking, so we brood over our desire for things that we believe that we too should have. Rather than finding ways to enjoy what is present, we seek more and more. Sometimes that quest actually binds us to a never ending search for satisfaction that makes us anxious and unfulfilled. We somehow never stop long enough to take stock of the most wondrous aspects of our lives, and so we fret and worry and become convinced that we have somehow been battered by unfairness.

Our real riches are always found in those profound moments when we are able to connect in an almost spiritual manner with the people around us. The Sunday afternoon visit of a grandchild delighting us with her uncomplicated curiosity and discovery is worth more than a bag of gold. Hearing her laugh and observing her openness to the world reminds us of how we too should live. We feel the innocence and love that she radiates so unconditionally and we know that there is still great hope for the world, even in the darkest hours.

I suspect that those employees who went out of their way to help a mom who had experienced one of the most difficult losses that anyone must endure left work on that day feeling as though they had been given a special gift. They understood that somehow they had made a difference to my friend and her family, and that kind of feeling is the stuff of which our greatest joys are made. At the end of any day each of us needs to know that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, so we should always be open to the possibilities that are always there. The way we choose to react from moment to moment provides us with the opportunity to truly embrace life and the people that we encounter. If we smile rather than frown, strive to help rather than hinder, love rather than hate we make the changes that will ultimately bring us the happiness that we seek.

My dear friend has taken great sadness and disappointment and turned it into an act of supreme love. She has shown us all how to value and remember even the briefest moments of joy. She might have been bitter and enraged over the loss of her beautiful child, but she has instead transformed her hurt and pain into a beautiful lesson for all of us. the dragon fly has become her personal symbol of her angel child. Like that graceful and delicate insect, little Jhett was not long for this world, but in his brief time on earth he gave so much joy to those who loved him. Because of the realizations that came to my friend as she held that tiny baby in her arms she has gone beyond the superficialities of life and understands its deeper meanings. With elegance and grace she dazzles all of us with the clarity with which she has learned to view life by living so fully in the moment and appreciating every second of every day. We might all learn from her and begin to treasure what has always been all around us without our ever noticing. 

   

Remembering A Wonderful Life

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The classic movie It’s A Wonderful Life considers the difference that one individual might make in the world. The premise is that if the hero had never lived everything in his town would have turned out differently. It demonstrated that while each of us only touch a limited number of lives, our impact is nonetheless profound.

I was thinking about this when the new RAISE immigration plan was announced. I wondered what might have happened if such a law had been in effect when my grandfather first wanted to come to the United States from Austria Hungary. He had only minimal education and no real skills beyond a willingness to do the most detestable of jobs. His English was minimal. He came with little more than the clothes on his back and did the kind of manual labor that is brutal and dirty. He was frugal and saved money until he was able to send for my grandmother. She had even less to offer our great country than he did. She spoke no English and her education was virtually nonexistent. Once she had arrived she worked as a cook, a cleaning lady and at a bakery until she began to have children and then she rarely left her home again. My grandfather eventually settled on a job at a meat packing plant. He cleaned carcasses and equipment, hardly a grand career but certainly a noble way to provide for his family. From his meager salary he built a tiny house for which he paid cash and there he raised eight children.

According to the point system of the RAISE plan Grandpa would hardly have been a candidate for immigration. There was little to indicate that he would be of great economic use to the United States. I am rather certain that he would have been denied entry to our nation. What a loss that would ultimately have been.

All four of my grandfather’s sons served proudly in the military during World War II. During their lifetimes they worked hard at their jobs, rarely missing even one day of work. Two of them were employed by the United States Postal Service and two worked for Houston Lighting and Power. His daughters held a variety of positions that included teaching, doing research for a high blood pressure study, serving the United States Postal Service and working at a Naval Station. Their children, my grandfather’s grandchildren, were even more remarkable. Among them were accountants, teachers, managers, businesspersons, firefighters, and engineers. In fact my brother coauthored the program for the navigational system of the International Space Station. I wonder who would have done that if my grandfather had never come here?

It’s difficult to imagine how different the lives of countless individuals might have been had my grandfather never been granted permission to immigrate to the United States simply because his education was lacking, his skills were so basic and his English was wanting. On the surface he most certainly may have appeared to be a risk, and yet he was a proud American who encouraged his children to always work hard and be their very best. When many citizens were struggling to survive during the Great Depression he kept his family safe in a home that he had build one section at a time, paying for each addition as he went. He was frugal and refused to even accept even charitable gifts, insisting that he wanted to earn whatever he had. He was exactly the kind of American that has made this country great, but with a law like RAISE he might never have stepped on our shores.

With each successive generation his successors have become ever more important contributors to American society. There are medical doctors and those with PhD’s in public health and mathematics. There are teachers, accountants, nurses, electricians, business people, builders, athletes, ministers and scientists. The talent pool that has come from him has widened and the future of his great great grandchildren appears to be even brighter. His was the American dream and it was fulfilled beyond even his own expectations. Certainly it has made a difference to the country in a measurable way, but what if he had never been allowed to come?

My grandfather’s story is not that unusual. It has been repeated many times over in the history of our nation. Individuals who came with little or nothing to recommend them went on to build families whose impact was monumental. If we were to take away all of their contributions how different would our land be? How can we ever know who among us will be the teacher that we need, the inventor who will make our lives better, the leader who will find solutions to our biggest problems? Each of us traces our ancestry back to some distant place and in most cases the person who first ventured here was desperate to find a better way of life, but did not appear to be outstanding on the face of things. How can we use a point system to determine which people will ultimately have the best impact on our land?

I have taught thousands of immigrant children. Many of their parents spoke no English, but they were good people who did their share of work, often the dirtiest and least desirable. Like my grandfather they wanted a better life for their children and sacrificed greatly to make it happen, many times by working multiple jobs. Among my students from such families are college professors, medical doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, police officers, soldiers, fire fighters, mechanics, builders, accountants, biologists, chemists, mathematicians, physicists, psychologists, public health administrators, computer programmers, public administrators, school principals, counselors, lawyers and even politicians. In a single generation they have fulfilled the hopes of their parents and are actively contributing to society in thousands of ways. They are the true face of immigration, not the hopeless gang members and welfare takers that fear mongers sometimes portray them to be. 

I respectfully submit that we should carefully consider what we might be missing if we restrict immigration to our country as outlined in the RAISE bill. Skimming what appears to be the cream of the crop from various foreign nations may or may not be the answer to a better economy. Sometimes the desire that comes from someone desperate to improve his/her condition cannot be measured by a rubric, just as the worth of my grandfather might have been considered rather low. What made him a good candidate for consideration was the “ganas” burning inside his belly. All he needed was an opportunity to demonstrate just how valuable he truly was. Thankfully he was given that gift and what a difference it has made to the United States.

We certainly want the best for our nation but we need to consider the consequences of limiting ourselves to rubrics that fail to recognize the intangible values that make truly good citizens like my grandfather and his descendants. The issue is far too complex to delineate with numbers. Human beings will surprise us again and again. We need to be open to thinking outside of the box, because it is beyond the confines of our imaginations that the best things happen. Let’s keep our lives wonderful and welcome the tired and the beleaguered. From them may come just the people that we have been waiting for.

How To Be A Father

10433198_10204665991323147_2774262802798031590_nAs I was talking about this and that with a woman who was framing a piece of Mayan art that I had purchased at Chichen Itza, she casually mentioned buying herself a certain kind of tool for Father’s Day. She looked up from her work and let the comment hang in the air as though she expected me to have some kind of reaction. Of course I simply carried on with my babbling as though nothing unusual had been said. I didn’t even bother to mention that my brothers and I had always honored our mother with gifts on Father’s Day because she had been both our mother and our father all rolled up in one amazing person after my dad died.

In today’s society my family situation would not be considered unusual at all because there are huge numbers of children who are growing up with only one parent. My brothers and I are proof that it is possible to raise healthy and happy children in nontraditional ways. Still, I think that part of the secret to our mother’s success in rearing us was that she provided us with examples of exceptional male role models. Starting with stories of our father, she noted his best traits and explained how and why they had been so important. She encouraged us to watch and learn about goodness from men like Mr. Barry and our Uncle William. She took us to visit our grandfather regularly and noted the wisdom of his words that she prompted us to heed. She pointed out the loyalty of neighbor men like Frenchy Janot and took my brothers to watch Uncle Harold and Uncle Louie build and repair things. She created a picture of the exemplary father in our minds that helped me to find a man who would be kind and loving to our children and my brothers to successfully play a role that they had mostly seen from afar.

I suppose that because of my experience I have long observed fathers and mentally rated their abilities as parents. I am proud and happy to say that my son-in-law Scott is an exceptional dad who continually takes the time to interact with his four sons in loving and instructional ways. It has occurred to me as I watch him in action that he must have learned how to be such a great parent from his own father Gary, better known as Boppa to his grandchildren. Indeed as I have viewed Gary’s behavior around his family I believe that I have seen the actions of someone who literally revels in his role and exceeds the expectations that society has for fathers.

Gary grew up in Houston, Texas just as I did, but while I was living in the southeast part of town he was living in the southwest near the Medical Center. Still we experienced the world of childhood in very similar ways with adventures along the city’s bayous and games that filled our days with sheer delight. He still uses some of the same jokes and stories that I also heard and enjoyed when I was a kid.

Gary went to the University of Texas in Austin and became a die hard Longhorn and Chemical Engineer and met Barbara, the love of his life. They married and he began his life as a family man who worked hard to provide for Barbara and the two children that they would have together. It seems to me that the key to Gary’s personality was his insistence on making life fun. He saw the routine of our days as one grand adventure after another, filled with great wonders. Thus he made travel and learning and laughter the centerpieces of his family’s time together. Over the years they have gone all over the world experiencing the culture and flavor of different places right down to the smallest detail. At every juncture Gary was there patiently explaining the historical, literary and scientific significance of the things that they saw. Mostly though he made even the mundane seem exceptional and he had a knack for making the people around him feel very good about themselves.

Today I know Gary as a grandfather and he has continued his masterful abilities with his six grandchildren, taking each of them on grand tours and planning annual get togethers and traditions. He spares no expense because he sees such experiences as the stuff that sparks the imagination, so if the best way to view something is by helicopter then by golly everyone will have that adventure. He has ridden on the London Eye and trekked across Germany with the latest generation of young people who absolutely adore him. Even the children of my other daughter love being in his presence and laugh with delight as he plies his magic with them.

The true key to Gary’s success as a parent and grandparent lies in the unconditional love that he showers on the members of his family day in and day out. They are the center of his universe and they know it. He makes no bones about treasuring them just as they are with no demands that they conform to some preconceived notion of who he thinks they should be. He delights in their uniqueness and provides them with the confidence that comes from having such a nonjudgemental fan. He always seems willing to help them through rough patches in their lives with total support and he eagerly shares the wisdom that he has garnered from his own experiences. He continually shows them and all of us who know him what it means to be the very best kind of father.

Gary is fighting his own battles these days with an illness that has sapped his energies and sidelined him from the things that he most loves to do. Nonetheless he courageously steps up again and again to demonstrate to his family what it means to live life as fully as possible. He ignores his pain and pushes through at plays, sporting events, graduations and parties. He speaks little of his own struggles instead inquiring about the people around him and doing his best to make them feel happy. He is a very good man in every sense of the word and by example he has taught his son and his grandchildren and even those of us who are his friends how to be the kind of people who truly make a difference, the kind of people who love and are truly loved. He has shown us how to be a father.

Of Swamps and Other Watery Delights

ultimate-swamp-adventuresWe crowded together under the canopy of a flat bottom boat along with visitors from all over the world. It seemed a strange thing to be able to do in the middle of a bustling suburb of New Orleans just minutes away from the French Quarter. Under the shadow of concrete levees and three huge pumps we slowly drifted into a swamp filled with delights from Mother Nature hidden from the raucous tourists who flock to this strange below sea level area.

Cypress trees shaded the water and provided perches for the egrets who lounged on the protruding knees. Imported lilies triumphantly grew in spite of human efforts to rid the area of the plants intent on choking out all other forms of life. Maples and other trees lined and shaded our passage way as we drew farther and farther away from the signs of civilization. The only sounds were that of the motor on our boat and the occasional squawking of the feathered population. It was a strangely heavenly place in spite of the alligators lurking under the surface.

Occasionally one of the sharp toothed critters surfaced in hopes of garnering attention and a marshmallow from our guide. They came in all sizes and personalities. Some seemed to smile at us and others growled to chase us away. Now and again the our calm was intruded upon by other groups riding in obnoxiously loud airboats complete with guests shouting and cheering in what seemed inappropriate behavior for the almost sacred feel of the swampy environ. I was always relieved that they sped away quickly, vanishing into the undergrowth of one of the tributaries.

It was a cloudy day which somehow made our journey more spectacular. Without warning the sky opened up and a heavy downpour beat out a cadence on the roof of our conveyance. The spray soaked our shoes and spattered on our legs. A group from California jokingly asked what the precipitation might be, feigning an ignorance born from months of drought in their home state. As the laughter receded the questions centered on what hurricane Katrina had done to the watery preserve on which we floated. Our guide explained that it had been saved from any damage other than that from the power of the winds that blew through the trees.

On what should have been a hot and humid day we were cooled by a steady breeze and the continuous falling of raindrops. Somehow it seemed to be perfect weather for our exploration. Thankfully ours was a rather quiet and respectful group of humans who displayed our awe for the glorious sights we were seeing with silent reflection.

All too soon our tour was over and we were disembarking with a far better sense of our own places in the grand scheme of things. Our guide had helped us to understand that we are in many ways only visitors on our planet and as such we have a responsibility to leave it as pristine as we possibly can.

Next to the business offering the swamp adventure we had just taken was an open air fresh seafood market. In stalls lining a huge parking lot there were bins filled with shrimp and crabs just delivered from the boats we had seen in the harbor. We were taken by the friendliness of the vendors and their knowledge of how to cook and preserve the lovely gifts from the sea. We purchased five pounds of exquisite shrimp from a woman named Jerri whose Cajun accent delighted us as much as her warm and open personality.

One of Jerri’s customers was a man who had lost most of what he had owned in Katrina. His wife and children had moved to Houston and never returned. He still lived and worked in New Orleans and commuted back and forth on weekends between the two cities. He was unceremoniously proud that his daughter had just graduated from high school with honors and had received a full scholarship for college. In between guiding us in the selection of the best shrimp and explaining how to use it, he boasted that his girl wanted to be a doctor and had the smarts to achieve her goal.

That night we boiled some of the shrimp and froze the rest in the manner prescribed by the helpful folks at the market. There was something so special about sitting in our trailer munching on the lovely pink seafood while reliving the day’s remarkable events with our grandson Ian. I can’t say that I have ever in my life tasted better shrimp but I wonder if the gloriousness of our experiences had somehow colored my impressions.

I’ve got more of the shrimp that we purchased just waiting inside my freezer for a planned celebration with my family later this week. I’m certain that as we enjoy it I will think back on that lovely day in the swamp when I somehow felt an unlikely kinship with the beauty and the glory of a place so unfit for human habitation that it had managed to survive even as people carved up the surrounding land, sometimes damaging it with their hubris. It was a hidden world where things were as they should be, and it felt just right. The seafood market also spoke of a different kind of era when vendors gathered in a public place to hawk their wares in a friendly and intimate kind of business agreement. There was time to talk and get to know one another while making deals that made everyone feel good. Somehow we had stumbled onto a perfect day that we will undoubtedly never forget.

A Memorial Day

american-flags.jpgThere was a time when Memorial Day was celebrated on May 31, regardless of when that day fell on the calendar. Thus it was in 1957. I had just completed the third grade after a rather adventurous year of moving from Houston to San Jose to Los Angeles to Corpus Christi and back to Houston. My father had begun working for Tenneco and we were living in a rented house in southeast Houston. My parents were thinking of closing a deal on a home in Braes Heights and we were all excited about meeting up with all of my aunts and uncles and cousins on Memorial Day at the beach.

My mom had spent most of May 30, preparing foods like potato salad and baked beans as well as her famous homemade barbecue sauce that my father would use on the burgers that he planned to grill the next day. We were beside ourselves with the anticipation of launching our summer vacation with our relatives. We knew that it would be a day of playing in the waves, fishing and crabbing on the pier, rollicking on the playground and listening to stories from our hilariously funny family members. It felt so good to be back in Houston after having been so far away for so many months.

My brothers and I went to bed before our father arrived home that evening. Mama explained that he had to complete a project that was due right after the holiday. He was a mechanical engineer and I was so proud of the work he did. I knew that if he failed to come home for dinner what he was doing had to be very important. I twisted and turned for a time but finally fell into a deep slumber with dreams of the fun that lay ahead. I did not awake until the sun peeked through the blinds in my bedroom window.

When I opened my eyes and acclimated myself to the new day I heard my mother talking on the phone in the hallway of our house. She sounded as though she was crying and her voice broke now and again. She seemed to be answering questions about my father and her answers were strange. She used past tense verbs which immediately alarmed me. Somehow without ever asking I had the idea that something dark and terrible had happened. I lay in my bed listening and grew ever more worried.

I finally crept into the kitchen searching for a glass of water because my anxiety had caused my throat to become dry. I was both surprised and alarmed to see my Aunt Valeria puttering about. Now I was convinced that this was not a good sign. I sat down at the kitchen table without saying a word while she nervously began attempting to explain to me that my father had died. It was difficult for her to get out the words and her eyes were filled with grief. I sat motionless and stunned as though I had not understood what she was saying, but truthfully I had figured things out before ever entering the room. I felt for my aunt because she literally did not have any idea what to do and I had no energy to help her. I suppose that we were both in a state of shock.

There have been few days in my life as terrible as that May 31, 1957. It has now been exactly sixty years ago since my life changed so dramatically. I was one person on May 30, and became someone completely different on May 31. I was only eight but I felt eighty, and in many ways forced myself to become an adult so that I might deal with the tragedy that so altered my world. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to lock myself in my room forever. I wanted to run away. I wanted to tell my father one last time how much I loved him. I wanted to scream at him for going away from us. My emotions were a jumble that left me bereft for months. I wanted to know exactly what had happened but never really would. I could only draw inferences and surmise what might have brought his brilliant life to such a crashing end.

Based on conversations with my mother and stories in the newspaper my best guess is that after working late my dad went out with some of his coworkers and had a few celebratory drinks. I suppose that my mother became angry when he finally came home and they had a fight. Perhaps he left in a huff to attempt to calm down. He decided to drive to Galveston. He was on his way back home on a freeway system that was still under construction. Instead of being on the main road he was on the feeder. There was a deep unmarked ditch directly ahead of his path. He was driving as though he was on a highway when he was in reality heading to a death trap. Too late his car slammed into the cavernous depression. The front of the auto was crushed and caused the steering wheel to slam into his chest stopping his beating heart. He died instantly and so did a little bit of everyone who loved him. It seemed such a meaningless end.

Of course I eventually adjusted to the reality of the situation but a profound grief lay under my thin veneer of courage. I was never quite the same after that. I worried more and often found myself avoiding adventures lest I be the source of more pain for my mother. I grew up almost instantly while somehow being in an eternal childhood. A piece of my heart would always be eight years old and every Memorial Day it would hurt again. I would experience a lifetime of questions and what ifs. I learned the importance of empathy because I had needed it so on that day and there were special people who provided it for me when I most wanted it.

I have friends and acquaintances who have also suffered unimaginable losses. I suspect that those who have not had such experiences don’t quite understand how we never really and truly get over the pain. Our wounds heal but now and again something triggers an ache. In my own case I have so much more that I want to know about my father. I would give anything to experience an adult relationship with him. I wonder if the images that I have of him are just a creation of my mind. I want to hear his voice for I can no longer remember it. It would be nice to share stories with him and see his reactions to my accomplishments. I would so like for my children and grandchildren to know him.

I have a friend whose husband died suddenly. She has young sons who are suffering. When I read of their hardships I literally feel their pain and cry for them. They are lucky to have a wonderful mom who allows them to express their feelings, so I believe that like me they will one day have the courage to move on with life. It is what we do even when we think that surely we too will die.

Sixty years is a very long time. I am almost twice the age my father was when he died. My memories of him are all pleasant for he was a very good man. They have sustained me again and again. It doesn’t really matter how or why he died, but only that he set the world afire while he was here. He loved fiercely and squeezed every ounce out of life. He left his mark and I have told stories of him all throughout the years. He still lives in me and my brothers and our children and grandchildren. Sometimes I see him in my brother Pat or my nephew Shawn. His life had great meaning and we continue to keep his spirit alive.