Understanding Why

Health-Workers

On Wednesday, I had an opportunity to observe the world of doctors and nurses during the time of Covid 19 from a close up perspective. My husband Mike was scheduled to have a stent placed in one of the arteries of his heart. I had initially argued that I did not want him to have this procedure done at this time. I worried that he might be exposed to the virus and then have a difficult time recovering from it. My youngest daughter, a nurse, had a different point of view. She insisted that fixing his heart actually make him more likely to survive a case of Covid 19 if he were to become infected, and that furthermore it was time to get the surgery done now rather than later before the hospitals potentially become overwhelmed. Since my husband was eager to have the repairs done and my daughter supported his thinking, I did my best to overcome my many anxieties and fake the optimism that Mike had.

We arrived at the Walter Tower of Houston Methodist Hospital at the appointed time. The usual valet parking was unavailable, no doubt so that there would be no close interaction between employees of the garage and the patients. We found a spot to self park and proceeded to the main building where we were greeted by two nurses sitting at a table sporting surgical gowns, gloves, masks and plastic headgear with clear screens that covered the length of their faces much like I had seen during the ebola virus outbreak.

They asked us to stay at least six feet from the people both in front of and behind us. Once we reached the station they scanned our foreheads to determine whether either of us had a fever. If we had not passed that test both of us would have been told to return home and quarantine ourselves. Since our temperatures were normal we next answered a series of questions about travel and any symptoms of illness that we might have. I was honest in admitting that I have been coughing at night but noted that I do that all the time due to acid reflux. The nurse understood what I meant but nonetheless asked me to wear a mask inside the hospital.

There were few people in the hallways and every entrance was blocked and guarded by hospital personnel and security guards. Each incoming patient was allowed one and only one person to accompany him/her. Social distancing was being strictly enforced even as we lined up to check in at the admissions desk on the fourth floor where the catheter labs are located. The business administrators were kind and friendly and did their best to ease our anxieties and hide their own.

There were hundreds of chairs for patients and their families but fewer than twenty people who were waiting. We all kept away from one another with no problem and there was an unusually quiet and tense feeling overall. The smell of bleach was quite noticeable and a hard working woman circled about continually cleaning areas that people had left. The machines that might have provided us with coffee, tea or hot chocolate were unplugged. There would be no communal gathering around any part of the building.

We waited for quite some time and I observed that all but one pairing of patient and visitor was in what the world is now calling the elderly demographic. I sensed that nobody felt particularly comfortable about being there but understood that there were few other acceptable options. We simply stared blankly at one another pretending that the strange scene was normal.

Once my husband was called to prepare for his surgery I was allowed to accompany him to learn what was in store for both of us for the remainder of the day. The smell of disinfectant became ever more noticeable and the nurses and aides while very kind and determined to allay our fears became more clinical. I found out that once my husband left for the surgery I would have to return to the waiting room where I would stay until he was released later that evening.

By the time I found my way back to the holding area there were only four of us remaining and we avoided one another like the plague, no pun intended. In other circumstances we might have conversed about our common situation but on this day there was a more somber and silent tone to the environment. So I busied myself with my laptop and my phone until I would learn about the results of my husband’s surgery.

Eventually I was accompanied to a more private room where the doctor informed me what kind of damage he had found in my husband’s heart. I learned that all three of Mike’s main arteries were blocked at a level from eighty to one hundred percent. I could hardly breathe as I thought of how likely it had been for him to have an heart attack, a terrifying prospect in the middle of a pandemic. The doctor explained that he had opened up two of the arteries with stents and left the third as is because Mike’s body had actually developed new arteries around to compensate for the blockage. Then the cardiac surgeon indicated that he wanted Mike to get back home with me as soon as possible rather than staying in the hospital overnight as is the usual process. He noted that the times were strange indeed.

I went back to the waiting room and watched one after another person leave. Before long I was the only one left in the huge area that now felt eerie in its emptiness. A nurse came out periodically to assure me that my husband was doing well but apologized that it would be at least ten o’clock before he would be ready to leave the hospital. When I asked where I might get something to eat I was told that there were no open eateries in the hospital because of the virus and the snack machines were one floor below. I was cautioned not to go down because I might not be able to return to the floor where my Mike was recovering. Luckily I had brought two apples and an orange with me so I settled into a nice dinner of fruit while watching programs from Amazon Prime video with my laptop.

About the time that I began to believe that I would be spending the night in the cold and abandoned room a nurse came out to announce that we would soon be able to depart. She walked with me to procure my car because she feared that I would not be able to find an exit. In fact, we had to walk around the hospital for about twenty or thirty minutes before we were finally able to find a way out. All of the entrances and exits were locked up tight so that nobody might enter or leave without notice.

It was with enormous relief that I got into my car and drove to the main entrance of the Walter Tower where I texted the nurses to let them know that I was ready to take my husband home. They told me to be safe and to take it easy because everything was so crazy right now. I had an urge to hug them but knew that I could not. As I drove away I had a sense of their worry and their courage in overcoming the fears that were so obviously in their minds. I thanked them profusely for all that they had done and literally prayed that they would be okay.

Following their instructions my husband and I stripped off the clothes that we had been wearing as soon as we got home and put them immediately in the washing machine. I wiped down my phone, my laptop, my glasses, and the handbag in which I had carried everything. We were exhausted and literally collapsed into bed but I could not sleep as I thought of those wonderful people who had so lovingly cared for us all day long.

They are no doubt back at it today, not knowing how bad things may ultimately become. I will be rooting for them and doing my part to self isolate in an effort to prevent them from being overcome by sick and dying patients. I now understand their concerns and the processes they want us to follow that may save many lives. It’s not about me at all. It’s about everyone. 

Personal Bests

success

In spite of our best efforts to the contrary much of life becomes a competition. We observe from a young age that winning not only sometimes brings us personal joy but often defines us as someone worthy of notice. We are cautioned to be individuals and to follow our own purposes and beliefs but somehow we find ourselves trapped in comparisons over and over again. We hear that learning is more important than grades but are then ranked in an insidiously rigid fashion. We strive to quietly live moral purpose driven lives but watch louts and bullies being lauded as great people for accumulating wealth. We hear that accomplishment should be measured by how well we manage to take responsibility for our own personal outcomes in life but equate it with money and power instead. So what is this thing that we call success and how do we measure it? Who attains it and who does not? Why do we draw comparisons for something that should be so personal?

A strict definition of success describes it as attainment of a goal, a eureka moment when we use our resources to achieve a desired outcome. From a developmental standpoint it should be founded on a personal aim that is attainable with a bit of effort. It’s not a simple idea to define with preconceived standards. For someone suffering from depression the mere act of getting out of bed, dressing and attempting to seize the day can be daunting. Making it from hour to hour without giving up takes sheer determination and yet we rarely credit anyone who engages regularly in such struggles with the badge of accomplishment.

To think that each of us is born with exactly the same set of abilities is absurd and yet we often act as though we are. Some children come to school with intellects so keen that they barely need to pay heed to their teachers while others are riddled with learning difficulties that make achieving benchmarks painfully hard. We heap praise on the naturally gifted and dismiss the child who plods along as being irritatingly slow. Even our universities that are filled with professors who should know better award coveted spots on their rosters to those who excel on one time tests rather than basing such decisions on traits like grit.

Within the small communities of our individual lives we laud the person who accumulates wealth or titles but rarely commend the person who chooses a path of quiet service. We don’t think to equate the torturous act of overcoming an addiction with success on a job, and yet the personas who free themselves from subservience to deadly habits are as courageous as war heroes. Our society honors the women who excel in the world of work but overlook those who devote their lives to the care of family and community. Was my grandmother who taught eight children how to be upstanding citizens any less than a woman who decide to run for President?

Defining success is a tangled web of contradictions and questions that are not easy to answer. In our hearts we know that it is never just about a one size fits all definition. There are many versions of achievement that cannot be measured by preconceived notions of what that means. My grandfather spoke broken English, had little more than a sixth or seventh grade education, and lived in what would be defined as poverty for all of his life and yet it would be unwise to view him as someone who accomplished little. Indeed in might be argued that he was a giant of a man, someone of amazing attainment.

Grandpa found a way to escape the demeaning oppression of his native Slovakia. He worked and saved to bring his bride to freedom as well. His children attested to his never ending work ethic, noting that he never once missed a day on the job at a meat packing plant in spite of pains in his legs that made standing all day long a torture. With a ridiculously low income he paid for and owned his home. He kept his family fed and safe during the Great Depression. He sent his children to school and taught them to be loyal and productive individuals. Most of his neighbors viewed him as little more an outsider who spoke with broken English and struggled to keep his family afloat.

I see him as the successful man that he was. With no financial help from anyone he carved out a life for himself and his family in a land that was not always kind to him. He went to his job each and every day without complaint and worked hard while he was there. His children were sheltered from rain and cold each night and went to bed with food in their bellies. He raised them to love God and country and to be honest and productive. There is little more honorable and outstanding that any man might do. He was a great success.

My grandparents’ children became successful in their own right. Their children raised the bar even more and their children continue to push themselves to reach goals in athletics, science, mathematics, engineering, medicine, education and business. They have overcome handicaps and realized dreams that began with a man who was unnoticed by the world in which he lived. Such is the stuff of true success and reaching it is not a matter of some artificial measure, but the reality of day by day determination until each personal best is achieved. 

Do I Dare?

child_survivors_of_auschwitz

The seventy fifth anniversary of the liberation of the people imprisoned in Auschwitz touched my heart. Somehow I realized for the first time that the horror of that place only ended four years before my own birth. What had always seemed like a far away event was actually something that happened shortly before the beginning of my lifetime. It hit me hard to think of the people who had endured the horrors of that place and I found myself wondering as I have often done how I might have acted if I had been caught up in the maelstrom of evil that overtook so much of Europe in those years.

I had always believed that I would have been safe from any of the repercussions of the Nazi terror, but a DNA test proved me wrong. I indeed have a small percentage of genetic compatibility with those who are descended from Eastern European Jews. Would I have been classified as someone who needed to be erased from society? Would the fact of my grandmother’s and mother’s mental illnesses have further increased my likelihood of being sent to a concentration camp? Who knows? I shudder to even consider such a consequence just for being born, and yet that was the fate of millions who had done nothing more than bear the mark of traits that Adolf Hitler and his crazed followers deemed unworthy of human respect.

More important to me than the possibility of being among the numbers herded onto trains and sent to an unthinkable hell is the question of whether or not I would have had the courage to do something to help those whose human rights were being abused in the most savage ways. I’ve always wanted to think that I might have helped them in some way either by speaking out or taking part in some sort of underground movement intent on providing aide. It’s easy to imagine such a thing in theory but actually being brave enough to risk everything would have been daunting. I’m honestly not certain that I would have mustered the courage to to the right thing.

For that reason I was incredibly inspired when I learned the story of Stanislawa Leszczyńska, a midwife who resided in Poland during the Nazi occupation. Stanislawa and her family were quite active in helping the Jews who had were living in abysmal conditions in the overcrowded ghetto where they had been separated from the rest of the population. For a time their work went unnoticed but eventually they were discovered and Stanislawa ended up a prisoner of Auschwitz.

While she was there she offered her services as a midwife, doing her best to improve the unsanitary conditions that lead to many childbirth deaths. The routine way of doing things was to kill the babies as soon as they were born and to force the women to watch their newborns being drowned in a bucket. Stanislawa refused to participate in such murder and it is believed that she managed to save at least a thousand babies who might otherwise have been killed. Many women who gave birth in the camp credit Stanislawa with keeping both them and their children alive. 

I cannot even imagine the kind of fearlessness that it took for Stanislawa to threaten the safety of her life and that of her family in an effort to do what was morally right. She might easily have turned away her gaze and pretended that she was unaware of the monstrosity of what was happening to the people in her town. She and her family would never have seen the inside of Auschwitz had they simply protected themselves through inaction. When she was caught and sent to a camp she might have chosen to quietly follow the rules in order to insure her own survival but once again she challenged authorities and ignored commands that she knew were immoral. How she got away with her brazen actions is a kind of miracle.

There are amazing people in the world who refuse to worry about negative consequences in the crusade for justice. They literally risk their own lives in the pursuit of right over wrong. It is never an easy thing to do and while I want to believe that given the same circumstances I would be willing to surrender my own freedom to help those being wrongfully abused, I wonder if I would instead quietly accept the status quo out of fear. Being a Thomas Moore, a Martin Luther King, Jr., or an Oskar Schindler is risky and often deadly business. It’s so much easier to just look away and pretend that nothing is happening.

The world is riddled with problems even today. Dare I talk of them or do something constructive to correct them? I have friends willing to speak their minds while I often shudder with the fear of being misunderstood or ostracized if I were to openly do or say what I believe to be right. Stansilawa Leszcynska inspires me. Do I dare be like her?

The Best of the Best

rough-collie-dog-names

When I was a child we had exactly one dog. His name was Buddy and he was one of the finest pets ever.  Buddy was a beautiful collie that we rescued from the local animal shelter. He was still rather young when we decided to make him a member of our family. He already had his name and we decided not to change it lest he be confused. We saw that he was already a bit nervous about coming home with us and we wanted to let him know that he was going to be safe.

Buddy was smart and always gentle. Even though he was a very big dog we sensed that we did not need to be afraid that he might harm us. Back in those days most animals lived outside all of the time and so it was with Buddy. We let him inside the house for short visits but mostly his domain was inside the fence that marked the extent of our property behind the house. Because he was an energetic dog from a breed known for herding sheep he enjoyed running around the perimeter as though he was a sentinel watching over us. Before long he had created a grassless pathway marking his exercise track.

We always felt quite safe with Buddy acting as our security system. While we understood that he was as mild    as a lamb, outsiders were afraid of his ferocious bark and his tenacious insistence that nobody that he did not know should get past him or dare to enter the yard. We never worried about marauders intruding into our home when Buddy was on guard.

It did not take Buddy long to learn how to climb the chain link fence so that he might explore the neighborhood. In the beginning we worried that he might never return when he wandered away but he always found his way back home before dark, waiting patiently at the gate until we let him back inside his province. After a time Buddy became a celebrity of sorts in the neighborhood. Everyone seemed to know and love him. They watched over him when he took his strolls and guided him back in our direction when he appeared to be a bit confused about how to get back to his little empire.

Our garage was attached to the house but we had to cross under a little covered porch to actually get to an entry door that went directly into the kitchen. Our mom kept Buddy’s food and water under the roof of the porch and always left the side door to the garage ajar so that Buddy would be able to find shelter from rain or cold weather conditions. Mama kept a quilt in there for Buddy to use when he was sleeping but he generally slumbered right in front of the back door to the house as though he was our protector.

My brothers taught Buddy a few tricks but mostly he was just a good fellow who loved us with every fiber of his being. When our friends came around he was as sweet to them as he was to us. I recall a time when I found a little neighbor boy of no more than about three years old hitting Buddy with a thin board that had a nail on the end. Amazingly Buddy endured the pain that the boy was inflicting on him as though he realized that the child was too young to understand what he was doing. Buddy was always like that. He loved all of the kids in our neighborhood.

In the summers my mother had Buddy’s hair cut so that he would not be too hot. He always looked a bit like a lion because the groomer left his mane intact and kept a little ball of hair on the end of his tail. Years later I would learn that he was probably better off with his coat intact but so much was different then and people didn’t possess as much knowledge about how best to care for dogs. They thought that dogs were simply animals who belonged in the great outdoors. I don’t think I knew a single person who kept a pet inside the house unless it was a hamster, a fish or a snake.

Eventually my brothers and I grew older and so too did Buddy. His coat that had once gleamed with a healthy sheen became mostly gray and white, especially around his muzzle. He walked rather than ran and his fence climbing adventures ceased. He spent most of his time sleeping under a big fig tree. He ate less and less and had to make more and more visits to see the veterinarian for little problems. Still he defied the odds of having an exceptionally long life by easing into his twelfth year of faithful service to our family and fourteenth year of life. One day when I was about nineteen I noticed that he had not touched his morning meal. I found him panting under the fig tree and he was unable to even lift his head to acknowledge my presence. It looked dire for him and I knew he needed medical attention quickly. Since nobody else was home and I did not drive I called on help from a friend who quickly came to the rescue.

We drove Buddy to see the vet who had always cared for him with a sense of deep sorrow and foreboding. His breathing was shallow and he seemed unable to move. An aide had to carry him inside for us and the face of the doctor was grim as he surveyed Buddy’s condition. I suppose I knew all along that Buddy was dying but I kept hoping that some miracle might cure his condition. Sadly it was not meant to be. I stood in a state of shock as the kindly veterinarian announced that the only compassionate thing to do would be to put Buddy to sleep.

That was the first time that I had to let go of a beloved pet. Even knowing that it was the most humane thing to do it tore at my heart. Buddy was so good, so faithful, so innocent and I could not imagine our family without him. He was our animal brother who loved more deeply and loyally than any human is capable of doing. I hated being the one who had to end his beautiful life.

My brothers and I would have other dogs over the years. They were wonderful in their own right but somehow they never quite gained the status that we reserved for Buddy. He was our childhood pet at a time when our family needed stability and love, two qualities that Buddy gave us without reservation. He was the best of the best, our most beloved and beautiful pet ever. 

Always An Angel

80448396_2854843364566015_9201299645869850624_o (1)

I’ll never forget a magical moment when my Aunt Claudia came to visit our home when I was still a very young child. She arrived in a Studebaker, a rather trendy car for the era. As she stepped from the passenger seat she resembled a movie star in her fitted white dress and high heels that emphasized her natural beauty. Her dazzling smile lit up her finely sculpted face and her eyes twinkled with a kind of delight for life. I was playing with a neighborhood friend at the time and when my buddy expressed her awe of the vision of my aunt I felt a tinge of unmitigated pride. Aunt Claudia was a rare beauty indeed and she had come to spend time with me, at least that’s how she made me feel.

My lovely aunt was a twin who had been named Wilma Elizabeth by her parents. Perhaps she grew weary of having her moniker mispronounced by people who did not realize that the W in the name was pronounced like a V, or maybe she just thought it would be fun to choose a name more befitting of her essence so she became Claudia. The new designation didn’t stick for long because her family gave her the nickname, Speedy, because she was an uncannily quick typist. While everyone else referred to her as Aunt Speedy, I always thought that Claudia was the name that suited her.

I adored everything about my aunt. She was incredibly bright and both able and willing to talk about quite interesting topics. I loved sitting with her because she never treated me like a child and she always made me feel wonderful about myself. Somehow we were always kindred spirits who understood one another in an almost psychic way. She would tell me that I was very much like her and I loved thinking that maybe it was true that I carried a bit of her intellect and personality in my veins.

Aunt Claudia had once been married to my father’s best friend, Bob. They lived in Corpus Christi, Texas in a thoroughly modern mid-century home that was filled with excitingly sleek furniture. One room of the house held a collection of exquisite rocks inside glass cases. I loved nothing better than viewing those samples of the earth’s variety but I was terrified of my aunt’s English bulldog, Thor Darling. Looking back I realize that Thor was just a very affectionate pup but at the time he overwhelmed me with his friendliness.

Aunt Claudia and Uncle Bob came to visit us in Houston quite often. I loved that they stayed at our house just down the hallway from my room, The two of them always took the time to do something fun with just me which always made me feel rather special. Sadly Uncle Bob died from melanoma before he was even thirty. I was in the first grade when it happened and I grieved so for my aunt. Joyfully she had a little daughter named Sandra to care for and she did so quite lovingly and without ever making me feel that I had lost our special relationship.

Eventually Aunt Claudia found love again with one of the nicest men that I have ever known. My new Uncle Bill was perfect for her and for our family. Aunt Claudia bloomed again in the warmth of his love for her and before long she had another child, a sweet baby boy who looked like a clone of his dad.

I didn’t see as much of my aunt after that. We both got busy living life. Nonetheless we always felt a special connection each time we were together. I rarely felt as wonderfully content as when I was with Aunt Claudia. She was my soul sister despite the difference in our ages.

Shortly after my first child was born my Aunt Claudia’s daughter died rather suddenly at the age of only sixteen. I literally felt her pain as I watched her weakly going through the motions of the funeral. I cried for her for so long without stopping that I felt sick but somehow she rallied with her characteristic strength and I was once again in awe of her and wanting to be just like her.

Time passed and tragedy struck again for Aunt Claudia when her beloved husband, Bill, died. Overtime she herself was weakened by osteoporosis, a disease that I would eventually share with her just as we had shared so many things. In spite of her own troubles she faithfully checked on my mother every single day with a phone call and an optimistic and loving patience with my mom’s bouts of mania that sometimes became ugly.

As Aunt Claudia grew old I continued to see her as the beautiful woman that she always was. I cherished every occasion that allowed us to be together and I watched her bravely fight the crippling effects of the disease that left her bound to a wheelchair. Somehow she managed to smile and have fun in spite of her pain. She loved to play cards and dominoes and eventually came to Houston to live with her twin sister.

She was quite frail and approaching the age of ninety five when her sister died a few months ago. We all worried and wondered if she had the wherewithal to keep going. On New Year’ Eve she breathed her last and joined the loved ones who had gone before her. I imagine them welcoming her when she flashed that beautiful smile of hers that was always so mesmerizing.

I have to admit that I am particularly bereft over losing her but somehow I still feel her encouragement surrounding me like armor. If I am truly like her I will bravely carry on just as she always did and I will be happy that she is reunited with so many of her loved ones. I can imagine her delight in seeing her daughter again and I’m certain that her husbands and siblings are overjoyed to be with her as well.

Vilma Elizabeth Claudia Speedy Ulrich Janosky Robinson has always been an angel. Now she will officially get her wings.