Lost

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Some stories stay in a little corner of the mind and never go away. I suppose for me one of those is something that I read in Texas Monthly magazine years ago. No doubt my reaction was tempered by my experience of caring for my mother when she was struggling with mental illness, but even beyond that it was a cautionary tale that said so much about the state of mental health in our society.

A college professor was enjoying coffee and a lively conversation with her colleagues inside a little cafe on the Drag just across the street from the University of Texas Austin campus. She was having a relaxing time until a bedraggled woman entered the eatery and began yelling at the cashier in the front of the establishment. Virtually all of the customers including the professor stared at the commotion with a sense of dismay and embarrassment. It was obvious that the woman was inebriated, high on drugs, or out of her mind. She wore the strange rags of a homeless person, her hair filled with tangles and even bits of debris. Nobody knew quite what to make of the situation or what to do. It was left to the manager to escort the woman back onto the street outside before things returned to normal.

At that moment the professor looked furtively at her watch and explained that she had forgotten an appointment with a student, and had to leave immediately. She apologetically put two twenty dollar bills on the table indicating that they should take care of her share of the charges and rushed out in a noticeably agitated state.

When she reached the sidewalk she searched for the woman who had just been in the cafe. She was relieved to see the old lady limping slowly just a few feet away. The professor rushed to the woman’s side, smiled and implored, “Mama, it’s me, your daughter Elizabeth. Do you remember me?”

The woman paused and with a faraway look appeared to be attempting to remember something very important. She touched the professor’s face with her grimy hands and then grinned as though a warm memory had come into her mind. “Lizzie,” she whispered, “I’m so glad to see you. How have you been?”

The professor expressed her own joy in finding her mother and then suggested that they go to her home where they might have a more comfortable place to catch up on what had been happening in their lives. She guided the still somewhat confused woman across the street, into the campus, and toward the parking spot where the car awaited. While the professor drove she exchanged small talk with her mother and thought of all of the time that had passed since she had last seen her.

The professor’s mom had been a brilliant and beautiful woman, an accomplished artist and a stunning mother. Life back then had been so happy and devoid of any indication that tragedy was looming. Her mother’s illness demonstrated itself quite slowly. At first it simply seemed as though the woman was a bit depressed, but the depression led to mania and the mania exhibited itself in paranoia. Before long the professor’s mom was undergoing treatments for mental illness that worked until she refused to take her medications. Then one day she disappeared. All efforts to find her had been in vain. The professor became frantic and lost all sense of normalcy while she invested in private detectives and spent evenings and weekends driving up and down streets hoping to find her mother. Was she in jail or dead or in another town?

Eventually so much time went by that everyone told the professor to just give up. She was becoming ill in her own way from all of the stress. It was time to live again, which she did, but always with the hope that one day she would find out what had happened to her mother. Now here she was sitting next to this raggedy lady who was not anything like the once accomplished person that she had called Mom.

In the following days the professor took a sick leave from work. She cleaned up her mother, fed her healthy meals, gave her new clothes and a safe place to sleep. She made appointments with doctors and began to think that life was finally going to return to normal. The doctors agreed that her mother’s mental and physical health was so fragile that she needed to go to the hospital for a time. The professor visited her each morning and evening. The two women began to have conversations that made sense. They expressed their love and devotion for one another. They began to make plans for the future.

One afternoon the professor went to the hospital with a celebratory bouquet of flowers for her mom. She was over the moon with happiness as she went to her mother’s room until she opened the door and found the room empty. In a panic she rushed to the nurses’ station to find out what had happened. She was informed that her mother had been released earlier that day and nobody knew where she had gone.

The professor upbraided the staff demanding to know how they could have sent her away without any notification. She demanded to know what they had been thinking. Their response was that it was the woman’s right to leave without permission from anyone. The laws did not include making the professor a party to any decisions. They were sorry, but it was just the way things were.

The professor looked for her mom for weeks and then months all to no avail. Someone suggested that her mom might have taken a bus to another city like Houston or Dallas. The professor drove to those places on weekends in a fruitless attempt to find her mother. At the time that the article was published the professor still had no idea where her mom may have gone. She was lost to her once again.

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Finding Hope

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Statistics can be a powerful way of understanding trends in our society, but they can also be misleading. Learning the truth about the numbers that we see requires analysis, critical thinking. Since we are continuously bombarded with information regarding the state of our world based on statistics we need to consider what that data is actually telling us. Something as simple as the intervals of a graph has the power of visually changing the way we interpret the facts. So it is with the ever recurring claim that the lifespan of the average American has continued in a downward direction since its apex in the nineteen sixties. It’s important that we begin to understand what that bit of information actually means, and what we may need to do to halt the decline.

We are often told of the need to improve medical care in this country by the use of this astounding statistic. For most of us it simply seems almost impossible to believe that we have such phenomenal medical facilities and still are losing the battle of saving lives, and yet it is real. A deeper analysis demonstrates that the downward trend is related mostly to alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide. It is not so much that our country is lacking in quality medical care as that we have an epidemic of self harm that results in deaths from overdoses, cirrhosis of the liver, and increasing numbers of suicides, especially and shockingly among our middle age population. It is a quiet and grim trend about which we say little, but it is prevalent all across the country and most particularly in areas where businesses have failed and lifestyles have drastically changed.

HBO in conjunction with Dr. Sunjay Gupta filmed a documentary called One Nation Under Stress that attempted to get to the heart of why so many are turning to drugs, alcohol and even death as answers to problems. We know that addictions can be difficult to overcome, but what attracts people to chemical means of coping with anxiety in the first place? Why are ordinary middle class individuals in so much pain that they feel compelled to shut out their sadness with chemicals that alter their brains and damage their health?  What is really happening?

Dr. Gupta and the experts that he consulted note that our society is continuously and relentlessly changing, particularly in small towns that often rely on particular industries for the welfare of the populace. Many of the old avenues for work are being eliminated and in the process people find themselves suddenly left with no meaning or income in their lives. The losses that they incur both physically and emotionally drive them to seek solace in harmful ways or to despair entirely. Additionally our society has lost many of the support systems that were once so prevalent. The extended family units and neighborhood associations that were once so common have crumbled in many ways leaving individuals feeling alone and unable to cope. In fact, a certain irony is that recent immigrants are actually doing better than long time citizens because they cling to one another in communities that emphasize care and support.

Those in the middle of the economic spectrum are the most likely to feel the weight of stress. They are subjected to a kind of collective pressure and worry about losing their status and all of their comforts. They often feel quite alone in their struggles and so the abuses to their bodies and minds begin. They are reluctant to share their concerns, and often feel that they have nobody whom they trust enough to do so anyway. The anxiety bears down on them both mentally and physically.

I experienced a kind of microcosm of such feelings during the rains of hurricane Harvey which so inundated my city. My husband Mike and I were alone in our home hearing reports of devastation that was affecting both strangers and dear friends and family. Mike had suffered from a stroke only a few weeks earlier and we had been told that his chances of suffering from another attack were at their highest during this time. I was quietly frantic with worry, so much so that I was hardly sleeping and had to keep my mind occupied by preparing my home for the possibility that it might flood. When my daughter and her family had to leave their neighborhood for fear that the levee that protected their home high fail I felt incredibly alone with the realization that they were now so far away and Mike and I were so isolated from everyone. It was a series of reassuring texts from a former student who assured me that he was on alert if Mike and I needed a rescue that kept me from totally losing my composure. The lifeline that he gave me quelled my fears as did the random meetings with a neighbor across the street with whom I spoke as we both assessed the drainage system that was working to keep the water away from our homes. Facebook also gave me a way of knowing what was happening to friends and members of my family. It provided me with a way of expressing my anxiety rather than bottling it up inside. Ultimately I made it through those horrific days, but I found myself wondering if it would have been possible without those human connections that kept me grounded.

What happens when a person feels that there is no one to help? How does one cope when the pressure is not for just a few days but over a long period of time? What might each of us do to help those who have lost their way? Do we sometimes underestimate the power of a text, a message, a phone call in changing the tenor of a person’s thoughts? Have we emphasized independence so much that we have lost the emotional support of multi-generations living and working together?

Mike and I were recently discussing the Great Depression. Our parents were children during that time. It was our grandparents who bore the full brunt of that era. We noted that they survived by sharing responsibilities and resources. Whole families of sons and daughters and cousins and grandparents pooled their funds and their food to keep afloat. It was a cooperative effort that brought our ancestors through the tragedy. Hidden in their efforts was a great deal of love. Our people understood that the were going to make it because so many cared about the welfare of each individual.

We would do well to reinstate the power of family and neighbors to ease suffering. Old people should feel assured that they will find the care that they need if they become sick. Young folk should know that they will have the encouragement and support to launch themselves as adults even when they make mistakes. Those in the middle should never be reluctant to ask for help when things go awry. If we open our hearts and begin to embrace the people for whom we care perhaps we can stem the tide of self medication and self destruction that is literally killing people in our midst. The change that we need is to be found inside our relationships. If we focus on strengthening them many of our problems will be solved.

Hubris

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Elizabeth Holmes has been featured in an episode of 20/20 and in an HBO documentary. A movie starring Jennifer Lawrence is in the works as well. Her story is rather amazing. She founded a company at the age of 19 that at one time had an estimated worth of billions of dollars. She was a young woman with a vivid imagination who graced the covers of magazines. Her ideas began to unfold when she was still a child drawing detailed diagrams of a time machine, and other flights of fancy. As a freshman at Stanford University she came up with an idea for a patch that would be able to detect an infection and then administer a dose of antibiotics. She applied for a patent for her idea but sadly such a mechanism was entirely infeasible and came to naught. She moved on the the big invention that would make her one of the youngest CEOs and billionaires in the country.

Elizabeth wanted to create a simple way of testing blood for disease. She hated the way blood is drawn with needles and multiple tubes. She wanted to create a machine that would be able to perform all of the necessary tests from only a pen prick of blood. She imagined a way of getting the blood and then testing it in a machine so small that it might be carried into a battlefield. She was so proud of her idea that she called it” the Edison” in honor of the famous inventor who had inspired her from the time she was a child. She called her company “Theranos”, an amalgam of the words therapy and diagnosis. She saw her invention as a revolutionary way of delivering diagnoses that would change medicine all over the world. Her backers were so excited by the possibilities that they gave her hundreds of millions of dollars without securing any evidence that she was indeed capable of creating the needed technology.

Elizabeth hired a team of experts and filled her board of directors with some of the biggest names in the world. She built a magnificent headquarters in the heart of Silicon Valley and staffed it with brilliant and  innovative young minds. She fashioned herself as a new Steve Jobs dressing all in black and creating advertisements for her company that were sleek and exciting. Unfortunately even after years her idea did not work. In spite of all of the assertions that she was on the cusp of a whole new world, she was chasing after a dream that was probably never going to happen. After an journalistic expose revealed that “the Edison” did not work her company began to collapse. In the end it was worth less than zero.

When I heard about Elizabeth Holmes I wondered how she was able to muster the confidence to scam people with little more than an idea and nothing to prove that the technology would be effective and reliable. A bit of research into her background gave me some insights into the workings of her mind, or at least provided me with some theories about what made her tick.

Elizabeth was the granddaughter of a physician who founded a hospital and enjoyed a notable and productive career, so there is little doubt in my mind that she is a highly intelligent woman who came from intelligent stock. Her genetic background as well as her education seem to prove that Elizabeth had great potential. She lived for a time in my city, Houston, while her father was a vice president at Enron, a company that was built on smoke and mirrors that ultimately collapsed. She attended St. John’s School, an elite institution with a long waiting list that only the best, brightest and wealthiest children are able to attend. The school exists in  a rarified atmosphere of influence and power. It would be easy to see Elizabeth developing an exalted opinion of herself from being one of the chosen few able to go to such a prestigious place. Being accepted to the Engineering program at Stanford University would have reinforced her feelings about her self worth.

Elizabeth must have seen herself as someone who was going to change the world, and she was in a big hurry to do so. Her professors realized that she was brilliant and even one of the top students that they had ever met, but for some of them she was annoying in her insistence that she knew more than they did. She sought them out as mentors and then ignored them whenever they honestly critiqued her ideas. She often spoke of how Thomas Edison had to make ten thousand mistakes before some of his inventions worked. She truly believed that she was able to see the world more clearly than even her more experienced teachers.

She parlayed her connections and her confidence into a business that fooled even brilliant people like Bill Clinton who was one of her admirers. It’s possible that she believed her own press for a time, but at some point she had to realize that her company was little more than a scam much like Enron where her father had once worked. If she did continue to believe that she was on to something big, then she was quite deluded because it was clear to many of the employees that nothing was working as it should even as she advertised untruths. Evidence seems to indicate that she knew exactly what was happening and did her best to cover for the lack of progress by instituting an atmosphere of secrecy.

Most children have fantastical ideas. Some even make those ideas become reality. My brother dreamed of sending humans to the moon. The work of thousands of talented scientists and engineers made it happen. We need people who think out of the box and take us into uncharted territory, but they have to be honest about what they are actually achieving. Elizabeth Holmes was not. She lied again and again perhaps to keep the funds rolling in because she really did think that one day a eureka moment would occur, or maybe she was just hiding her failures. Sadly her actions hurt every person who attempts to find support for a reasonable idea.

I know some young men who worked very hard to find backers for what might have been an amazing tech company. I have rooted for a man who wants to make wind power a reality for anyone who wants to install his equipment in the backyard. Most people provide evidence that their inventions will actually work before they ask for funding. To make untrue claims in the hopes that they will one day come true is a fraud.

Elizabeth Holmes is a fascinating young woman, but also someone who seems to have little concern for all of the people that she scammed. That is the definition of a sociopath. While her idea was grounded in good intentions she was unwilling to do all of the hard work that is usually required of anyone who wants to change the world for the better. Perhaps her grandiose opinion of herself along with a great deal of immaturity lead her to her ultimate failure. Somewhere along the way she might have done the right thing by admitting that she was stumped. Instead she lied and even sent faulty test results to patients who were grievously harmed. She has yet to admit her responsibility for a fiasco. Her hubris is a tragedy not just for her but for everyone who believed in her. She has cast a shadow of doubt on anyone who is attempting to launch the next truly great idea. Who will now believe?

Kindred Souls

Some people in this world are larger than life and my Uncle Bob was one of them. I was only six years old when he died at the age of thirty, but he had left an impression on me than never faded. He and my father had met in Corpus Christi, Texas when they were in high school and along with a third friend named Lloyd they became like the Three Musketeers, eventually attending college together at Texas A&M University. To everyone’s delight when my Uncle Bob met my mother’s sister, Claudia, the two of them fell in love and married. That’s how my father’s best friend officially became my uncle.

Uncle Bob was an athlete who played tennis and climbed mountains. When World War II broke out he enlisted and became a bombardier flying missions over Germany. When he returned from battle he completed a degree in Geology from Texas A&M and found love with my Aunt Claudia. Together they were a stunning couple, young and beautiful and brilliant.

Uncle Bob next enrolled in the South Dakota School of Mines to earn a masters degree in Geology. Before he had finished his studies he was diagnosed with cancer that required the amputation of one of his legs. True to his unflagging spirit he never missed a beat, studying during his recovery and graduating on time with the other members of his class.

After graduating he and my aunt returned to Corpus Christi where he landed a job in a small oil and gas company. At first his bosses gave him a desk job due to his disabilities, but he was itching to work in the field and finally convinced his superiors to give him an opportunity to demonstrate his prowess. He proved to be quite capable of doing the sometimes strenuous work at drilling sites, often being more adept that those without the constrictions that he bore.

Uncle Bob and my dad were quite the pair, two highly intelligent young men with big plans for the future. I remember them laughing together and enjoying each other’s company like two brothers. I loved the times when he and my aunt would stay at our house during their visits from Corpus Christi and we in turn often found ourselves traveling to Uncle Bob’s home which was filled with a museum worthy collection of rocks and minerals as well as his paintings of places he had been. 

Uncle Bob was planning to enter a program for a doctorate when he was once again diagnosed with cancer. This time he endured surgery to remove one of his lungs and was quite sick. While he was in the hospital in Houston my parents were visibly upset and our home was uncharacteristically in a state of turmoil. My mother had just given birth to my youngest brother and my aunt was also expecting her first child. There was a great deal of furtive whispering in those days which culminated in my being quickly enrolled in first grade at the age of five. The adults seriously thought that I had no idea of what was happening, but I was all too aware that my Uncle Bob was not doing well. He had already prepared me for such an eventuality during one of his visits when I discovered him attaching his wooden leg. He treated me with so much respect when he told me about his cancer. I loved him for his honesty and his understanding.

After Christmas of my first school year Uncle Bob died. My parents attempted to shield me from what was happening so I did not attend any of the memorials or funeral events, but I knew all too well that I was never again going to see the remarkable man who had so enchanted me. I also noticed a profound change in my father who would grieve for his friend for what ended up being the rest of his own short life.

My family moved on just as people always do after such tragedies, but in my heart there would forever be a special place for my Uncle Bob. My image of him never grew old, but remained frozen in all the glory of his youth. It was only when I began tracking my ancestry that I began to learn even more about my incredible uncle, and only recently I uncovered a newspaper article about his father that touched me to the very center of my heart.

I never knew anything about Uncle Bob’s childhood or his parents, so I was stunned to learn that before moving to Corpus Christi he had spent much of his boyhood in Chicago. There his mother became ill and died while he was still rather young. Like him, she too had cancer that ended her life far too early. Nonetheless he was the apple of his father’s eye, an only child who brought great joy to the man who guided him through his childhood.

Uncle Bob’s father was a machinist and was apparently rather skilled in his trade. At one point he created a unique steam engine for his son’s train set. He used scrap metal from junked cars and dental tools to build tiny parts that made the details of the model realistic. Over the years the man had kept the treasure which had been loved by his son. When the father was in his seventies and retired he decided to donate his creation to a museum, and the local newspaper ran a featured article about his work.

As I read a copy of the piece I felt a tinge of great sorrow for my Uncle Bob’s father. There was a look of sadness on his old face and the story of how he had worked so hard to please his little son was filled with so much pathos. There he sat gazing wistfully at his creation and possibly thinking of all of the might have beens. Somehow I felt a deep connection to this person whom I had never met because I knew that he had loved Bob even more than I did.

I suppose that there is nothing quite like losing a person who seems far to young to die. The pain never really heals because of a lingering sense of unfairness. I would eventually undergo the even more sorrow only two years later when my father died, and as a young mother I would see my Uncle Bob’s daughter, my cousin Sandra, die at the age of sixteen. Somehow I feel as though these three souls and that old man are linked with me in a primordial connection. I am now a seventy year old like Uncle Bob’s dad was in the article that so touched my heart, and I sense an unexplainable closeness with him. Somehow we are linked as humans through our spirits, kindred souls wandering through life’s experiences. 

The Humanity

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The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana is now the third most visited museum in the United States. The attraction has become one of the most popular in the Big Easy and its expansion continues. I’ve been going there since well before hurricane Katrina when the place was still being called the D Day Museum. At that time it was dedicated mostly to the big event when the Allies first reclaimed French territory from the Germans. The site of the museum was chosen because it was a New Orleans manufacturer who had designed the Higgins boats that were used in the assault on Normandy.

I’ve found something new every single time that I have walked through the exhibition halls. On one occasion I concentrated on understanding the geography of the battles. In another I was most interested in the timing of battles and the equipment used by each side. In my most recent visit I found myself mostly thinking of the human aspect of World War II and in truth it was my most moving encounter yet.

Each person who comes to the museum is given a “dog tag” that outlines the personal story of someone who participated in the war. As each guests moves through the displays there are opportunities to scan the dog tag to learn what part their person played in the era. Since there were five of us in our party on this occasion we got a wide spectrum of interesting histories, including the record of James “Jimmy” Stewart, the lovable actor that we all know from some of Hollywood’s greatest hits.

My dog tag belonged to a young American girl who was living in the Philippines when the Japanese overtook the island. Her father was in the military and had been sent elsewhere but her mother was a teacher who felt she must stay at her post. The Japanese sent the young girl and her mom to a kind of concentration camp along with countless others that they deemed untrustworthy. Life in the camp was difficult for a child and the girl remembered how frightened she felt when her mother became ill and was sent to a hospital. She was all alone in dealing with the horrific conditions. She spoke of eating gruel for virtually every meal and being set to work with only a minimal amount of time for education or play.

One of my grandson’s drew the Jimmy Stewart dog tag and we learned that Jimmy had been an actual hero in the war. When he first signed on Louis B. Mayer did everything to keep him from going into battle because Jimmy was one of the biggest draws in Hollywood. Jimmy nonetheless insisted that he wanted to serve the country and soon enough was leading squadrons on air raids that helped to turn the tide of war.

Another dog tag belonged to a Marine who won countless medals for bravery. His feats were almost unbelievable. We expected to learn that he had been killed but in fact he went on to serve with honor and distinction in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars before retiring from the military.

Yet another of our stories was of a man who had been in the OSS, a precursor of the CIA. He did some of the most audacious things imaginable and somehow his luck held out even when he probably should have been captured or killed. He was incredibly brave for sure.

What really caught our attention were the telegrams informing families that one of their loved ones had died. We realized that there were people who saved those horrific notices for all of the years since the war, sometimes along with sympathy cards. It was beyond touching to see how dear those lost in battle had been to people back home. It made me think of my mom’s fiancé who died in the battle for Saipan. It was hard for her to speak of him even years after. Even though she had found love with my father she never completely forgot the man who had first asked her to be his bride.

All of the sacrifices that entire populations across the world endured became so real as we listened to the voices of survivors and gazed at the items and photographs that had been so intimately tied to them. We felt one touching moment after another as we looked at the images of young men who were fighting in the war when they were as young as my grandsons. It had to have been an incredibly difficult and frightening time across the globe. The sheer humanity of learning that the world lost more souls in World War II than in any other conflict in history moved me to tears.

I suppose that the museum is dedicated not just to providing facts about the war but also to helping us to understand the enormity of what was happening and its impact on everyone from the boy next door to a major movie star. So many of those who were alive during that fateful time are slowly leaving this earth. It is important that we remember their stories and their sacrifices. The National World War II Museum is insuring that we will not forget.