Doctor My Eyes…

girl's eyes

At the local community college where I teach English 111, freshman composition, I traverse the campus twice a day every Tuesday and Thursday. As a freshman there in 1984, I recall being delighted to be on campus with many different people – teenagers like me, straight out of high school, preparing for college transfer or training for a trade or a certification program. There were retirees pursuing paths they were interested in to fulfill curiosity or explore interests rather than to enhance careers. There were stay-at-home moms whose children were now in school, taking advantage of those precious daytime hours to complete programs they had postponed years earlier, devoting themselves full time to home-making. There were workers adding on certifications and training to advance in their workplace or business, or to increase income and support their families.  I remember sitting in classes beside people from all these walks of life, and more. We were all in school together, pulling in a common direction on our own journey, and we shared our experiences with each other.

Things are very different on campus now. In the intervening thirty-five years, we, as a society, have made our children wise to “stranger danger.” We have sent two complete generations through public school in an atmosphere of lockdown, drilling for where to hide when the unthinkable occurs. We have promoted bullying and racism to the point where the words don’t even have meaning anymore. We have grown accustomed to the fact that at any moment we could be attacked, by terrorists, by strangers, by coworkers, and as the entertainment industry tells us, by those we most trust for safety and security in our lives. Technology that has the ability to link us to the world through the internet and social media has so isolated us that I am inspired to play a game as I walk to and from my classroom looking into each face I meet. I count each day to see how many people, 1) will make eye contact with me, and 2) how many who look up from their phones will actually smile or speak a word of greeting.

Here are my results. Through the month of September and the first week of October, each Tuesday and Thursday, there has been one young man and two young women, who, when I see them, will actually make eye contact and speak. The young man I have known since birth and he knows me as his parents’ friend, so that is not unusual. One of the young women I taught at the local middle school years ago, so that is not surprising either. The other young lady is a complete stranger to me, but I feel a kinship with her simply because she will acknowledge me, smile and say hello. I haven’t decided when yet, but I am going to tell each of these three people what it means to me that they are willing to connect with another human, and dare to share that little bit of themselves – a glance, a smile, a word of greeting. Everybody else, and I mean everybody, no exaggeration and no exception, either stares fixedly at the phone in their hand, or if they turn their head in my direction, seem to be looking through me at some point in the distance, no eye contact. And they never smile. And they never speak.

No doubt, we want our children to be safe, to be aware that not everyone who smiles is a friend. No doubt we have to practice lockdown drills. I took these drills very seriously as a public-school teacher because, as I told my students, we may only get one chance to get this right and even then there are no guarantees. And no doubt, our phones have opened up the world to us. We have more information at our fingertips than all previous generations before us, and we can stay in touch with friends and family all over the world and see places and experience cultures we might never have seen or even known about had we lived just slightly earlier. We truly live in a breathtaking time.

This little experiment has reminded me how important it is to be intentionally present with my husband, children, family, and friends when we are together. It has prompted me to actually speak to strangers, most of whom seem glad for human contact once we start a conversation. Maybe it’s that I’ve hit that magical era called “middle aged,” and maybe I’m relieved that my children all made it safely, so far, to adulthood, or maybe I came to grips with my own mortality through a cancer diagnosis a few years ago, but there just doesn’t seem to be as much to be afraid of anymore. Maybe I’m so wearied of terror, fear, anxiety and dread, that I’m just numb to them, and maybe that’s good.

I will continue to look into faces, unobtrusively, but with a ready smile and greeting. I will take more time to talk, and listen, to the grocery checkout girl who is looking for a publisher for her first novel, the tattooed young woman who cheerily serves our meals at our favorite restaurant while chatting about her latest heavy metal concert experience, my 98-year old neighbor who enjoys his daily walk and nightly sip of bourbon, the tennis team member who struggles daily with depression and constant, paralyzing back pain, the young father who doesn’t want to leave his home or children but whose wife has made it clear the marriage is over and she’s moving on, the student who is working forty hours a week while caring for her younger brother and sister and carrying a fifteen hour course load, the choir member who is so confused she cannot remember from the beginning of practice to the end what music she should have in her folder.

Jackson Browne, in his hit, “Doctor My Eyes,” pleaded,

Doctor my eyes have seen the years, and the slow parade of tears without crying. Now I want to understand.

I have done all that I could to see the evil and the good without hiding.

You must help me if you can.

You can help me. I can help you, and we can help each other, by sharing in each other’s joys, by encouraging hope, by passing on peace, and by letting our light shine.

Here’s to a brighter view!

 

 

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Into the Mystic…

landscape photo of pathway between green leaf trees
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

It has been a reflective summer for me, the first since 1970 I have not spent these precious weeks anticipating the coming school year, either as a student or as a teacher. I have had time to pull weeds and plant flowers in the beds Edward built for me twenty-four years ago. I have taken many morning walks accompanied by bird-song and lake breezes. I started playing tennis with  a very gracious group of ladies and gentlemen who have played forty or more years and who have been quite patient and encouraging with this beginner. I’ve had time to work in my vegetable garden, even though the deer have pillaged it twice.

My professional career as a teacher is ended and although I miss my students, my curriculum and the teachers I worked with, I am grateful for reduced stress, increased rest, and a healing sense of my own worth after feeling like an exhausted, cracking cog in the relentless testing machine (that used to be public education) for too long.

Our oldest daughter is learning my husband’s trade and looking to the future as a self-employed business owner while making forever plans with her boyfriend. Our middle daughter graduated college in May, has made several road trips with friends, moved out of our home and in with her older sister, and recently signed her first teaching contract. Our youngest daughter has completed high-school and will leave in one month for university life. Several times when we were the only ones in the house for a couple of hours, she and I have made a gigantic bowl of salty, buttery popcorn, iced down a large Coca-Cola, and put on a movie to watch, chattering through it as friends will do, enjoying each other’s air-conditioned company in these last long, lazy, hot days before she leaves.

So what now? I am in an area I don’t have a map for, no lesson plans, no papers to grade, no meetings to attend, no testing or technology trainings, no continuing education credits to earn, no certifications to renew, nothing on the horizon, no goals I am accountable for to any supervisor or administrator. The pavement has ended. There are no more street lights. No road signs. I’m not even sure there is a road. And still I am moving forward, into a murky unknown, wondering what the future will reveal to Edward and me and our girls.

And I’m okay with that.

There are things I want to do, things I am doing. Places I want to go. People I want to spend time with. I have never cared for the idea of a bucket-list, so I’m not making lists, nor am I anticipating kicking the bucket, although undoubtedly that is part of the misty future. Squared that away six years ago with a cancer diagnosis, and as my friend Kim says, “If that’s what gets me, at least I know how I went!”

My goals now would never appear in a Personal Development Plan like the ones I had to fill out and submit for approval every year of my professional life nor would they be acceptable if they did. They are not measurable by any test, and they don’t tie in to any standards except those of my own making. They can’t be bubbled in or scanned, nor are they observable to the infrequent clip-board or laptop-bearing visitor. They are:

Share joy. Seek hope. Pursue peace. Lift light.

It is so hard to not anticipate, when I have spent my whole life looking forward. Planning. Knowing in detail what was coming next, what was on the calendar. But this time is for the moment. The now. The future will come of its own and too quickly be the past. I like the way Van Morrison describes it in his 1970 recording, “Into the Mystic” :

Hark, now hear the sailors cry, smell the sea and feel the sky,

Let your soul and spirit fly, into the mystic…

Wishing you unexpected joy, unquenchable hope, peace that passes understanding, and reflective light for the murky places you may encounter on your own path.

 

I Need to Ask a Favor…

Chris's piano

I received the text February 22, 2016.

Hey Tamara. I have a kind of difficult question to ask and would like you to call if you could. Don’t be too surprised if the answering system comes on. If it does please try calling again over the next several days – I should be home soon. Thanks! Chris

I called Chris back three nights later, but he wasn’t home, and his mom answered his phone. I told her Chris had asked me to call and she explained that he was in the hospital for a follow-up after his January illness. I fumbled a bit, trying to explain that I knew nothing of what had happened in January. I had wished Chris a Happy Birthday on Facebook, January 23, and he had responded, no mention of illness. She told me he had been admitted to the hospital with pneumonia mid-January, stayed a couple of days and went home. And then, with continuing problems, had gone back mid-February and was diagnosed with a very aggressive lung cancer.

Chris had never smoked. He was employed by a local phone company out of college and worked in an office for years, tried substitute teaching but decided not to pursue education as a second career, and had worked on his family farm most recently.

In high school Chris and I had been very close friends, but not romantic. We were in classes together, sang in chorus together, were lab partners in Biology and Anatomy. Chris had good work ethic paired with academic integrity and lived by the rule that if he couldn’t say something nice, he wouldn’t say anything. He was kind to everyone, quiet and polite, and I liked to think we had a lot in common. We were both Sunday School teachers, accompanists at our respective churches, each had a younger sister, and we volunteered in the community.  But the fact is, Chris outclassed me, outworked me, and outshone me in every aspect of our lives, although it was not competition for him. He was just naturally a golden-hearted person. Sometimes I would tease him and tell him what a good monk he would make. He would smile and mildly reply that I’d make a lovely nun. The night we graduated was the last time I would see him for about six years, while our young adult lives took very different trajectories.

When I moved back home to take a teaching position, I began to run into Chris at charity fundraisers and volunteer events in the community. It was good to see my gentle friend again. Seeing him reminded me of the days when we were carefree and I had not yet made mistakes that I still regret, even now, almost forty years later. It was sadly sweet to reminisce when we were “the monk and the nun,” just for our brief social visits.

On Tuesday, March 1, I drove to the hospital after my school day ended. Over the weekend I had researched the kind of cancer Chris had. My own experience with cancer, taught me how a positive attitude was crucial to survival, and how vital it was to remain hopeful. A good friend, another survivor, had taken my hand the day of my diagnosis and promised to walk with me every step of the way, and I was prepared to walk this journey with Chris. After checking in at the nurse station I stepped into Chris’ room. His mother, father and sister were keeping company with him that afternoon. It didn’t seem the right time to ask about the favor he had mentioned in the text. We chatted for a little while and I asked if I could give him a kiss. On the forehead, of course. He smiled and said he would like that. His skin felt cool to me and he asked me to come back Thursday evening so we could talk.

Wednesday came and went, and before I could get to the hospital Thursday afternoon, Chris’ sister posted on Facebook, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” That could not mean what I thought it meant. I tried to call, but no one answered his phone. I drove to the hospital as soon as I could, but his family had already left, and Chris was gone.

What was the favor my friend had wanted to ask? Hot tears spilled over my cheeks as I began to grieve that I would never be able to grant him his favor. What could it have been? Why could he not just text me, or call me, or tell me when I went to see him? For all the years of kindness, respect and honor he had shown me, I would never be able to return those favors or even to thank him.  And we would never celebrate his survival.

My phone rang Saturday morning, and when I answered, I heard Chris’ sister say, “I need to ask a favor.” Tears spilled again, as I told her my anguish that I would never get to grant Chris’ favor, and she cried too as she explained that yes, I would, that was the reason for her call. On the previous Thursday morning, as she was caring for her brother, he took her hand and whispered to her, “I’m going to die soon.” She leaned closer to hug him and he asked her to ask me to play for his funeral. And then he closed his eyes and slipped away as quietly as he had lived. And that was it. That was the favor.

Wednesday morning dawned sunny and cool. The sturdy white church was brimming with family, congregation members, his college roommate, former co-workers, and several of our high school friends. A bagpiper stood in full regalia, ready to pipe Chris to his final resting place. The gospel quartet he had been a member of in life now lifted one of his favorite hymns to the heavens. The pastor told of a man who directed his choir, accompanied his congregation, mentored his young friends and nephews, visited his older friends, baked cakes and pies for his church and his community, and wrote devotions for fellow followers. She spoke of a steady man who honored his family, kept company with the lonely, honed his skills at the piano, and enjoyed much meditation before he passed into eternity, away from the noise of this life. He was not political, followed no celebrities, stirred no controversy, expressed no temper, never made the news, He was fifty-one years old.

All the hymns I played, “When We All Get to Heaven,” “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “Beyond the Sunset,” “Sweet By and By,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “We’re Marching to Zion,” spoke of a time in the future, when I know I will see Chris again, healed and whole. But for now, I need to ask a favor…

If you have a friend who has shown a kindness, tell them what it meant to you. If you have a friend who lifted you up in a dark time, tell them how their light shown a way. If you have a friend who made you smile, return that smile. If you have a friend who shed tears with you, marvel that their heart could feel what yours did, and rejoice at your human connection. If you have drifted from a dear friend, reach out a hand. Today.

We don’t have to have millions of dollars to bring joy to the world. We don’t have to be in an international spotlight to be a light. We don’t have to rub elbows with the politically powerful to bring peace to our corner. And we don’t have know the future to point each other toward hope.

Wishing you all these things today friends – joy, hope, peace and light…

 

And the song of the day is…

In 1989, I signed a contract to begin teaching in the county of my birth. A complete physical was required. I made the appointment, showed up, and was immediately chilled  to hear the LPN say she had detected a lump during my breast exam. I had recently graduated, separated from my husband, moved back home to accept this teaching position, and felt very alone and frightened. My friends were far away and I hadn’t really re-established myself in my former hometown. A mammogram was scheduled. I was 24.

A week passed until the test. Almost another agonizing week of waiting for the results, and then great sighs of relief. The lump was a cyst that would soon resolve itself. I learned I had very dense breast tissue and fibrous cysts that might arise occasionally to cause concern, and which I would need to monitor with regular self-exams. I had no family history and did not smoke, so I was happy to put all that worry down and move on. I didn’t do the self-exams, and figured since I went for annual exams, they would find anything that might need attention.

It makes it easier to understand then, why I was not alarmed to feel the little lump, about the diameter of a pencil eraser, right after my clear mammogram in August of 2012. By October though, it seemed a little bigger, more like a small pea. When I asked my OB-GYN to check it out for me in October, she ordered another mammogram, “just to be sure.” Again, I got the all-clear. In November it seemed more the size of a plain M&M, and again I called my doctor. She ordered an ultra-sound, which lasted for nearly forty-five minutes before I got up from the table, nerves frayed, and again she patted me on the shoulder, comforting me. “Let’s watchfully wait,” she suggested, “And if it gets any larger call me, since the technician really can’t see anything worrisome.” December came and went, winter finally ended, my 48th birthday passed, and the school year ended, stressfully as usual. When I went for my annual exam mid-July, she began the breast exam at the spot we were monitoring, and I saw her face change instantly. “Why didn’t you call me?” she exclaimed. And thus began the most frightening day of my life, July 31, 2013.

Because all three of my daughters were still in school, I was immediately concerned for them and how my illness would affect their lives. I was also especially concerned for my husband who was dealing with health issues of his own and his oldest brother’s recent unexpected death. My mother-in-law’s words came to mind, “We can either laugh or we can cry.” On August 1, I determined that each day I would look for something beautiful, good, cheering, positive, some silver lining that might ordinarily be overlooked in each day’s busyness. While washing breakfast dishes, I heard The Rascals on the radio, “It’s a beautiful morning. I think I’ll go outside for awhile, and just smile, and drink in some clean, fresh air…”.  It became a daily game. What song might characterize my observation or experience for the day, that I could share with my family and friends to encourage them to hope with me? It would be something to look forward to each day, and because my chemotherapy drugs made me nauseated 24 hours a day, for almost two weeks after each treatment, I looked forward to this mental game I could play to keep my mind occupied when the workday was finished, all the laundry done, supper dishes washed and night falling.

One day might be characterized by a hymn, another day, Aerosmith. One day’s inspiration might be Broadway, while another brought forth a medieval madrigal. There was never any predicting where the song might come from, or what time of day it would appear. And with each song came a reflection that I could share with friends on Facebook. The game lasted as long as my chemotherapy lasted, into the middle of December, and then with my father-in-law’s death, the songs stopped coming and the game ended.

While it was a dark time for our family, the light of hope burned, sometimes more steadily, sometimes barely flickering. Through mastectomy and thirty-three rounds of radiation, through baldness and pain and scars and sadness, still the previous joy of the game sustained me and bolstered me, until the burns healed over, the scars stopped aching, and a fine fuzz covered my head. It seemed with the longer light of the new spring, I too might emerge, like the delicate, pale leaves unfolding from the birch branches outside my window.

I don’t know what scars or pain you bear. I don’t know their origin, their purpose, or their destination. I only know we can laugh or cry, and both feel good in their time and both are needed.

Whatever it takes to get you from one day to the next, sometimes one hour to the next, and sometimes even one moment to the next, hang on to this miracle of life. For all its rivers of misery, there are great gushing waterfalls of inexpressible joy tumbling down over our heads, if we will only look up to drink them in. Joy may be in fireworks and raucous parties, but it doesn’t have to be. In my experience, joy is more often found in quiet moments and in still, small voices. Joy may be found in a delicious meal, in a familiar hug or a stranger’s smile. It may be experienced in pulling on a soft sweater, or snuggling into a comfortable pair of shoes. You may locate it in a banking cloud, or hear it in a bird’s chirp. Perhaps you’ll find it gazing into a candle’s flame, or taking a walk just after a summer rain.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll hear a song that lightens your heart, even for a moment, to give you peace enough to get to the next moment, and the next…

waterfalls

An Unlikely Source of Hope

man and woman holding each others hand wrapped with string lights
Photo by Anastasiya Lobanovskaya on Pexels.com

I have no idea how it came to be there.

Edward and I were taking our evening walk. We had enjoyed supper with our girls a couple of hours before and now the sun had set and muggy summer temperatures had dropped. We put on our shorts and running shoes, grabbed a flashlight, and headed out the door up Pleasant View Lane. We had followed the same two-and-a-half mile route around Lake Echo for the last two months, pursuing increased energy, improved circulation, better health all around, and time to hold hands and talk together, away from household chores. Across Firetree, up Edgewater past the fitness center, composition courts and the long flat stretch that curved downward just a few feet away from the lake, where we heard bullfrogs courting, croaking and plopping into the shallow water if we got too close. Then the road sloped up again past the stables and golf-ball water tower. Many nights we could hear the horses whickering softly as they munched tufts of grass next to the road. Earlier that day we received my doctor’s diagnosis – breast cancer. She had emphasized how important it would be for me to continue to exercise throughout my treatments and recovery, so we were proactively trying to stay ahead of the curve that would contain nausea, pain, scars, fear, loss and possibly death.

Turning left on Sunset Way we continued past our halfway point to a slight rise where the oak and ash trees leaned to meet overhead, and there, in the dark humidity, something glowed in the pine straw on the left side of the road. We walked toward it, assuming it was a piece of trash reflecting light, but as we drew closer it became apparent this was no reflection. Something was illuminating a nickel-sized area. Edward knelt down, and with a small branch, lightly lifted the luminescent semi-circle.

“It’s a glow-worm!” he exclaimed. Now I had read about glow-worms in James and the Giant Peach, but had never seen one. Edward declared he had never seen one either. This was a new experience for us within our whole range of new experiences – the threat of cancer, becoming intimately involved with the health-care system, facing chemotherapy, mastectomy, and radiation, and a life-time of waiting and wondering – and somehow this faint little creature attracted our attention in that one moment to remind us that hope was possible. With everything we were facing, hope would continue to shine in the darkness of our fear, pain, sickness and worry. A worm, a beetle larvae, had given us a great gift, beckoning us to continue the journey hand-in-hand, eyes alert, and looking forward to the future.