The Three of Us

My medical school preceptors considered me a rather mediocre student; it was not necessarily a wrong assessment.  I kept my head down, I made no waves, I just wanted to be done . . . .  because being lower than whale dung really sucks.  Other students were much more savvy: look eager, ask lots of questions (especially ones you know the answers), flatter the attendings.  Get good evaluations, and you are on your way to the rest of your life.  

The rest of my life did not follow, but it is many years later now, and it is a reunion year.  The alumni reunion coordinator had no volunteers to be our class co-chairs, so I thought, “Why not?”  Why not, indeed.  This is not altruism, it is an experiment on myself:  I have time, I want to know if this could be my personal Creative Morning, and I am curious how my former classmates define success. 

I wrote a reunion letter so inspiring that am tempted to go to the reunion!  And then, the coordinator gets not one, not two, but three more volunteers:

The three of us are willing to be the co-chairs for the upcoming class of ’93 reunion. None of us have a whole lot of time . . .  blah blah blah . . . 

American_Beaver,_tree_cutting

Well gosh.  The Three of Us and Bisy Backson, all in one!  

The coordinator has sent my inspirational reunion letter on to The Three of Us, and is sure that they will “connect” with me.  She is so optimistic — but I suppose she has to be to deal with medical alumni. 

I am back remembering the day I realized that The Three of Us (or rather, The Six of Us, of which The Three of Us was a subset) and I had never been friends.  These women were a clique back then, and they remain a clique now.  And of course, the core truth of a clique is that while you-the-outsider can clearly identify them as the clique, they do not identify you as anything because they never think about you at all.  On that day I remember my truth: “How stupid am I?”

But there is hope yet for my inner Opie: the memories are vivid, but they no longer sting.  And that is very good news indeed because I am, of course, on tenterhooks waiting to see whether I will be noticed by The Three of Us Bisy Backsons!

Tenter_Frames,_Otterburn_Mill,_Northumberland (1)
Tenter frames, Otterburn Mill, Northumberland
Advertisements

Treasures

Almost three years after Mom’s death, I continue to find things she — and Dad — saved.  Yesterday was a day of days as I tackled cobwebs.   Mom feared open windows and closed doors:  open windows meant drafts, and closed doors signified  secrets.  So of course all the spider places are along window tracks she never used, behind open doors she never closed.  As I crawled around cleaning, I was distracted by cabinet doors Mom never dusted — but then, who wipes down cupboard doors, or any other doors, these days?

I found her sewing box in a wet bar cabinet.  It is a plastic multi-tiered affair of avocado green, and inside I found a mostly unused spool of lime green thread.  Mom bought that thread for the  pants I made in my 7th grade sewing class.  The pants were indeed lime green, high-waisted, flare-bottomed, with a zipper at the back.  I remember getting an A on the project; I was so proud of that zipper!  Mom, on the other hand, had nothing good to say about my pants:  she hated the color, the fabric, the cut.   A few years ago, Mom and I were talking about something to do with sewing, and I said I was too scared of zippers, and she said she remembered that I did a good job on the pants zipper.  I am sure in her memory, she liked the pants too!

In the wet bar, in a drawer that is a repository of obsolete remote controls and cordless phone sets, I found a small ziplock bag with a few bits of broken shells and rocks.  When  the College Student was 8 or 9, we stopped at a beach in Santa Barbara on our way to a family reunion.  The College Student forgot the bag when she packed to come home, then she forgot about the shells entirely.  Mom saved it, because she’s Mom.  She would  not have wanted to tell her granddaughter that she tossed her little treasures.

Kiri's shells

 

 

More Things I Forgot to Remember

During my medical training, attendings reminded us again and again to treat patients with dignity:  simple things, such as addressing them by title and last name, keeping them properly draped during physical examinations, sitting down at eye level when possible. The physical nature of the relationship between doctors and patients does not always bode well for that injunction:  there is no dignity in the rectal exam, or in dropping an NG tube, or in any of the many invasive things we do to patients during the acts of healing.  Nevertheless, there are certain things we can do that serve as reminders that our patients are adults, and that their bodies and minds deserve care with compassion and dignity.

So I had forgotten with my father.

“Dad, please eat the last few bites.”  I feed him.

“Dad, you need to take a shower.”  I undress him, I put him in the shower, I soap, I wipe, I dry, I redress him.

“Dad, time to brush your teeth.”  I put toothpaste on toothbrush, fill the cup, watch him brush.

“Dad, wash your hands.”  I give him soap, or hand sanitizer, and I watch to make sure he cleans his hands.

“Dad, please don’t use the stairs by yourself.”  I sleep on a makeshift bed, a human barricade on the staircase landing so that he cannot go downstairs in the middle of the night.

All these things that I think my father need to do, but that he refuses to do on a regular basis.  They are for his own good, right?  Why would he refuse to take care of personal hygiene, or to eat, or to get out of bed, or to do any number of other things that any reasonable human being does, as he did do for most of his life, but has stopped doing since Mom died?

My father is his own person, with his own reasons, making his own choices.  Who am I to try to force him on a course he doesn’t want to take? He wants to be with Mom, and as a thinking being, he is doing something about it.  And it’s about time I remembered the lessons of compassion and dignity.  No question it is a hard thing to watch my father dying, and to let him go on his own terms.  I choose to believe that is his gift to us:  that we are not his parents.

Conversation of the Month:

Me:  “Could you make sure after guests leave Mom and Dad’s house that you clean the                     toilets?  They were filthy after _____ stayed for 8 days back in May, and I had to                     clean them when I got here, 5 months after the fact.  Not fun.”

Brother:  “I did check the toilets, they were fine!”

Me:  “Did you flip the seats up and look underneath?”

Brother (in bewilderment):  “Why would I want to do that?”

In the Autumn of My Life

When white American men get angry and scared, they elect someone who is all they think they want to be.  He is white, he has gobs of money, he is a taker of women, money, property.  He is a racist, he is anti-intellectual, he is apparently amazingly potent — look at the much-younger beautiful-but-thick-as-a-brick wife, the many kids!  He would turn back the clock for all these angry and scared white men to a time when everyone knew where people of color belonged, where women belonged, where there were no such things as LGBT people (let alone rights for them), where Americans were home-grown and had a special relationship with God, where American military-industrial complex governed the world.

As a citizen, an immigrant, a woman, an intellectual, a believer in the rationality of science, a basically ethical human being, I am saddened by the election.  As a historian, I will take the long view, and I know America will survive this.  I don’t believe in American exceptionalism, but I do believe in American resilience.  I am happy to live in a state that did NOT vote him in, and I will do something I never really did before: pay attention to state’s rights.  As a doctor, I am glad that Colorado has become the 6th state to allow right-to-die measures for the terminally ill.  It was a sad election day, but with bright spots and hope intact for the future, for the next four years I will do my best to take care of my little corner of America.

In that little corner, I have other things to think about:

img_3650

It’s not just any old knife:  I coveted this knife for the last two decades, and almost two years after Mom died, I brought her knife home.  Today I took it to Jim, my favorite knife sharpener.  He has been retired for years, but he sets up his tools every year during the summer outside one of our local grocery stores, and the rest of the year he sharpens knives and tools out of his garage.  Every time I bring in my other Mac knife (swiped from Mom years ago), he tells me how much he loves these Japanese knives.  Dad took care of Mom’s knives the old-fashioned way, with a whetstone.  This knife was Mom’s everyday/everything knife, and in the last few years, Dad stopped sharpening it for her, much the same way he stopped doing various things around the house for her.  Since her death, he has also stopped doing things for himself.

Dad is down to skin-and-bones now; he can barely get himself out of bed, he needs help bathing, he has a walker he hates to use but has to because he fell and broke his wrist.  Dad was a skinny kid and a skinny young man.  After he came to America, he finally developed a belly.  That belly would go up and down a bit and up again, and when it got too Pooh-like, Mom would put him on a diet.  For 50-something years, he had that belly, and he lost it all in the last year.  I help him bathe, and I am shocked by all he is now.  No fat, no muscle, just skin and bones.  He is so brittle.

I wait for Mom to take him home.

Oars

From Anne of Green Gables (the Kevin Sullivan production of 1985):

Marilla to Matthew, while discussing Anne’s invitation to the Christmas ball: “Remember, in the beginning, I told you not to put your oar in.”

I should have remembered about the oars — and the fact that oars can propel one forward, or backward:

Woman_in_a_rowing_boat_(2780164539)
Image courtesy of National Media Museum, UK

I thought I would have a chat with the Bride-of-the-Century about being kinder to her mother.  This is the mother who went into debt to give her daughter the Wedding of the Century and then could not understand why said daughter ignored her on the wedding day.  This is also the same mother who routinely got the cold shoulder for inexplicable reasons, along with the “dumb as shit” eye-roll treatment when she and BOC got into (usually pointless) arguments.  Anyway, I didn’t get very far.  BOC went running to Mom to complain that I was “freaking her out” by wanting to have this talk, and furthermore, this future conversation was ruining her upcoming spring vacation.  Mom of Diva told me in no uncertain terms that really, I had no business trying to have a conversation with her daughter, and that she would never do this sort of thing with my daughter without clearing it with me first.  BOC is TWENTY-EIGHT years old this year, gainfully employed, a wife, a mother (unfortunately to budding Diva #2, but that’s another post). Who knew I could “freak out” both mother and daughter?   I genuinely thought I had been in BOC’s life long enough — watched her grow up and all that — that I could offer some minor words of wisdom.  I thought I could help.

I could not, of course.

BOC’s life is one of drama, and where there is none, she manufactures it.  We are all expected to be spectators, and I should have known all that based on her wedding production.  It did not occur to me that Mom was not only willing, but was in fact an absolutely essential participant.  I used to rag on BOC’s Dad for his seeming unwillingness to rein her in; I now realize that it truly was more than his life was worth to even attempt to interfere in the incredibly entwined mother-daughter relationship.  It is a dysfunctional relationship, but one that both need in their lives.

I regret all the times I told The College Kid that she had to babysit Diva #2, had to go have dinner, had to participate in some event or other . . . .  not because those things were not important, but because I should have let her to manage her own relationships.  I hope she would have done all those things anyway because she loves her godmother, but nevertheless I should have trusted her judgment, young as she was.

Now I sit in the back row, or perhaps I am actually up in the gods, but I am at least much more removed than I used to be.  The view from here is just fine, and of course too far to toss an oar.

Letting Go, Again

I am very slow to acknowledge the end of a friendship.  I think I know what the other person is thinking or feeling, and of course I don’t know anything.  I attach different meanings to the silence, a very silly exercise in futility.  In my own life, I never say to someone, “I know how you feel,” because that phrase (along with “I will pray for you”) is both presumptuous and meaningless.  So why do I try to figure out why my friend is silent?

Martha and I met the first day of medical school over “Petunia,” our shared cadaver in gross anatomy lab.  She was older than the rest of us: she really had been at Woodstock, she had a daughter in grade school, and she was divorced.  She had done this and that, and finally ended up in medical school, determined to go into Ob/Gyn.  She was hard-working but not academically gifted, and spent part of the four years on probation.  But she did graduate, and we both ended up in New England for residency.

We bonded over Petunia and late-night study sessions and nasty attendings and nastier residents.  She was my best friend.  After medical school we managed to stay in touch through the occasional letters and emails, phone calls, and visits.  Then she stopped.  All my communications went unanswered for several years.  I did not know she had moved state again, that her email address had changed, that her phone number had changed.  But one day, she picked up her phone and actually answered the voice mail I had left awhile back wishing her a happy birthday.

We talked, and it was as though we picked up right where we left off.  She said she had been “very bad” about keeping in touch, and I did not push for a better explanation. Sometimes there just isn’t a better explanation, and if you don’t want a real answer, you shouldn’t ask.  But I confess I was hurt: she had managed to keep in touch with some of the other women in our medical school class, and in fact was renting a house with them for our class reunion.  Why was I not worthy?

She has stopped again.  It has been a year since I wrote to her, a year of silence.  I know where she is, I have her contact information.  I will be on a 2-week break near her neck of the woods, and I have been debating whether to try to get in touch with her.  Until today.  Today, my massage therapist (who is also a good friend and a very smart woman) told me something pretty simple: I cannot act based on how I think someone else will react.  Silence is just silence, but if I must have some sort of explanations, I should think about the nature of relationships and how people manage them: sometimes, the “I do not have the time” becomes “I cannot be bothered” becomes “I will not be bothered.”  The friendship is a burden and has been one for a long time, though I had been too obtuse to recognize it.  What I need to accept  is that I no longer serve any function in her life: she has others to love and care for, to love her and care for her.

I love The Parting Glass,  the traditional Irish farewell song.  So, in honor of what once was, I remember the best of times, and joy be with her always.

My Mom, the Pope, and Me

I have been reading the Pope’s encyclical letter Laudato si´: On Care for Our Common Home.  I am not Catholic (nor do I subscribe to any particular faith or religion), but this particular document is one for this age.  I have not read all of it.  It is slow going because in true historian fashion, I write margin notes as I read.  And as I read, I realize how very privileged I am:

45. In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. In others, “ecological” neighbourhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquillity. Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called “safer” areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.

We moved to a house next to a multi-use trail that runs along a natural creek.  The city owns much of the open space, and property owners observe an easement  along the creek itself.  It is a natural area, or as natural as is possible in middle of a small city.  A couple of months ago, I watched a hawk eat his meal on the roof of a not-quite-finished house in our very small subdivision.  Earlier in the winter, we followed a tail-less fox on our bikes: he ambled along looking like a rather large corgi from behind, and we were happy to note that he looked healthy.  I am delighted by the many dragonflies zooming through our neighborhood; I am hopeful that they (or even better, their larval stage) are doing their best to control the mosquitoes.

The real estate agents tout the wonderful location of our neighborhood, and it is indeed wonderful.  From a historic point of view, it is also a surprisingly diverse area.  Within a 1/2 square mile of our house are wood-framed 1890s to 1920s farm houses, minimal traditional 1930s and 1940s cottages, tiny brick post-war houses, expansive mid-century architect-designed ranches, less interesting 1970s and 1980s condominium complexes, and late 20th-century and early 21st-century post-modern homes.  Many of the houses verge on the decrepit, but gentrification marches on.  Even run-down shacks start at $300 thousand, and people are apparently quite happy to snap them up and turn them into their “open concept hardwood floors granite countertops stainless steel appliances minimum 3 bedrooms 2 bathroom large yard” dream home.

This is my neighborhood.  If I congratulate myself on being “green” because I can (and do) walk/bike everywhere, the Pope reminds me it is because I can choose to be green.  I have the economic wherewithal to choose to walk, to bike, to have expensive LED bulbs, to have high-efficiency plumbing and mechanics, to have solar panels, to have environmentally sustainable wood floors, to have a finished basement to escape the worst of the summer heat because I also choose not to have air conditioning.  And outside my door, I can enjoy a protected green space.  I use the trail everyday, and while I see the low-income apartment complex a couple hundred yards down the trail from my house, I also know its days are numbered.  The diversity that interests me on my walks is disappearing, and I am of course a contributor.  It is all very safe, very sanitized, very middle-class, and I am guilty of complaining that I still do not have the promised landscaping around my new house.  Luckily, I have the Holy Father and Mom (who would be appalled to know she had anything in common with a celibate white man who lives in a marble palace) to chastise me.  Who knew she would be the Pope’s enforcer in reminding me to be humble?

I sweep the (sustainable bamboo) floors everyday, and because I am compulsive, I do it on my hands and knees.  It is how Mom used to clean her floors, so it is how I do it.  It is actually quite efficient, and I can wipe down pretty much the entire house in about 20 minutes.  I hear Mom telling me not to be afraid of manual labor: “Do it right,” she says, “and no shirking.”  And she reminds me that our fortunes were built, quite literally, on the back of her grandfather, the day laborer who started the upward mobility of his family by hauling salt for a living.  I may have three degrees, but the floors still need to be cleaned.

I clean the floors, and most days I cry.  “Don’t cry,” Mom says.  “If you keep crying, Ah-ma is going to lecture me on how I didn’t raise you correctly to appreciate and understand the cycle of life.”  Remember your roots, remember your privileges, remember to be humble.