His Great-Grandfathers’ Boy


“Why in the world would you let your son buy a book about war?” This was the question posed to me at a thrift store by the well-meaning woman behind the counter.  I looked down at my son, then seven years old, gamely clutching his pick with two hands.  The World War II Encyclopedia cover was graced with black and white pictures of tanks, uniformed men, and flags, and looked heavier than my son, skin and bones that he is.  His large brown eyes looked back at me, unblinking, sure that his mother would persevere in buying him a book, because when had I ever refused any child of mine a book?

IMG00247-20110301-0915

What she didn’t know was that unlike his sisters, for whom words are the keys to Neverland, incantations to the spell of transformation that leaves you blinking not to see wings when you stretch out your arms, for him books were still mysteries.  For me, reading meant figuring out how to get my constant-motion machine to sit still long enough for the magic to enmesh him.  That he had picked a book, instead of a gadget with moving parts or a brightly colored toy was a revelation to me, at least until I saw the title of the book.

You see, though my husband was one of three brothers, thusfar the weight of carrying on the family name rests solely on my baby boy. He has always known of the meaning of his first name, which is actually my mother-in-law’s maiden name, just as my name echoes my mother’s maiden name. I believe strongly in the power of names, and the legacy bestowed by the double burden of carrying both of his great-grandfather’s names (and his father’s) is one I think was worth passing on.

I never knew the benevolent gaze only grandfathers can give until I met my husband’s.  Our family is blessed with strong-willed women, and my mother’s mother is ever-present in my earliest memories, but the towering legends of my grandfathers were passed down in bits and pieces through stories of their fierceness.  My father’s father was stoic, unsmiling in black and white photos, a patriarch in war when his sons were pursued by Japanese soldiers through the mountains of Korea.  My mother’s father was a religious man felled by a stroke, then lifted up by inner strength and determination to walk again to the church the Communists worked to take away from him.  I never met either of these brave men, dead long before I drew my first breath.

My husband’s grandfathers though, were kindly, white-haired men who patted my hand, accepting me into their families without a word.  The Vietnamese word for grandpa was not even in my immediate lexicon, and my husband had a nickname for one of his–his PaPap.  He was a quiet man, one who never spoke of his service until shortly before he died, of landing on the beaches of Normandy the day after, of being part of the “clean-up crew.” I knew him only as the very quiet man who opened his home on Christmas Eve. I always felt comfortable with him, as he was reserved like me, an oasis in the maelstrom of preternaturally good-looking cousins whipping quips and insults with equal wit and precision at one another.  I cherish especially 2 memories of him, one of dancing with him at my wedding, and the last in which I was able to bring my baby boy to him at the nursing home before he died, so my husband and I could tell him that our little boy shared his name.

In my everyday work, I meet veterans who have served all over the world in many different wars, but I have a special place in my heart for World War II veterans.  This is because of my husband’s PaPap, but also because they are a special breed.  One veteran who was in the Battle of the Bulge spoke of being lucky because he was able to get a warm jacket from one of his Air Force flying buddies, while everyone else had summer gear in the brutal winter that ensued.  He was seeing me for frostbite 70 years afterwards, being treated for the first time ever for the residual effects.  He had mentioned it in passing to his primary provider that perhaps the numbness and tingling might be from the frozen toes he had suffered while in Germany by way of explanation, and not complaint. I was mesmerized by his stories, of men and boys unprepared for the long battle. Seeking words of wisdom, I asked him, “How did you do it?  How did you survive?” His answer, like so many other WWII vets, underscores what sets them apart:  “We endured.” There was no drama, no entitlement, just a simple, succinct statement in which he counted himself as part of the whole, doing what had to be done.

When the boy who would become my husband told me that if he could be like anyone, he would like to be like his grandfathers, impeccable in actions and words, I wondered what it would be like to have flesh and blood heroes.  I wanted that for my son.  And knowing this, knowing that he chose this book to learn more about what his great-grandfathers had experienced, I would not have spared him a “a book about war.”  My girlfriend’s first child is a boy. In the way all mothers have, she wished to protect him from the evils of the world, and so asked family and friends to refrain from giving him any toy guns or weapons. In the mysterious way of many boys, he fashioned guns out of paper and ran around the house shooting at imaginary enemies despite minimal exposure to these things. Neither her son nor mine are brutes or sociopaths, both of them animal-loving, gentle souls who love to be snuggled by their mothers.

wpid-20150307_145225.jpg

My little guy standing in the back of a C130, the plane in which we fled Vietnam.

As I looked at this woman, I considered all of these stories, trying to figure out how best to answer her.  How did I tell her that if not for one war, I would never have existed? How to tell her that my parents grew up in war time, their parents figuring out how best to protect their families, and perhaps her parents doing the same, so that one day I might have the chance to stand here and debate with her about the appropriateness of reading material for my son? How to tell her that though peace is what we all crave and would wish for our loved ones, the reality is that war exists, and to pretend that I could shield him from this is to deny the sacrifices that better people than she and I had made?  How did I show her that though we have been blessed since the Civil War not to have war in the United States, it is through the remembrance of those battles and those veterans, that we can hopefully prevent bloodshed here?  Did I tell her that though I would never want my son to have to know what it is to spill the blood of another, I would proudly call myself the mother of a soldier if he so chose to follow that path?

Unfortunately, I did not. As is always true for me, the words sat in my mouth, angled edges weighing down my tongue. Instead, I said only, “His great-grandfather served in World War II.” She frowned disapprovingly at me, and reluctantly took it from my son’s hands to wrap it.  Today you can find this book on my son’s bookshelf. The pages are bent in some places where he has stopped to bookmark something compelling to his little boy brain. When he reads it, his brows furrow in concentration as he pores over the black and white pictures, and I can see the generations of men in the lines of those furrows, stretching far back into the past.

wpid-2015-03-28-07.42.18.jpg.jpeg

Today I am thankful to live in a country where little girls like myself can grow up to carry on their father’s names, for grandfathers and great-grandfathers living and dead who inspire us to be impeccable and fierce, and for the unique gift of being the mother of a son who has been blessed to grow up under the loving eyes of both his grandfathers and grandmothers.

Has a stranger ever questioned your parenting choices? How did you respond? Have you had qualms about what is and isn’t appropriate reading material for your children? Do you have a story about your grandfather or great-grandfather that you’d like to share?  If so, I’d love to hear it.

Advertisements

Triskaidekaphobia


The first time I was truly afraid of a patient, I was standing in an outpatient family practice clinic in Detroit.  If you’ve ever felt mind-numbing fear, you know that it creates a dividing line between that moment and the next. Strange details imprint on your brain, like the heft of the chart in your suddenly damp hands, and the musty smell of an exam room suddenly grown tinier.  Grown men have told me that part of the attraction for going to war is learning if they have what it takes when confronted with the fear that is part and parcel of combat.  When we watch movie characters stumble into bad situations, we have the prescience that comes with being an observer, and tell ourselves that we would never, ever go into the dark house after the psycho or get in the car with the charming serial killer.  In actuality, how often do we do dangerous things and not realize how close we stand to the precipice?  As my childhood friends will tell you, I had what I considered a charming unawareness for these types of situations (until, of course, I became a mother), and perhaps it came from my innate belief that all people are good.  When I was younger, I traipsed into places and talked to people that now I would never let my children associate with, but again, I really didn’t think anyone wanted to hurt me, and I trusted that I would know it if they did, but perhaps that was hubris or plain dumb luck that I never got hurt.

This time though, the analytical, writer part of my brain was coolly noting that, for once, I was actually not only assessing the situation accurately, but also responding in what I thought was a very calm and non-threatening manner, though the other animal instincts in my brain that had made the fine hairs on the backs of my hands prickle within the first 2 minutes of meeting this patient, were screaming “Run! Get out of there, right now! Do not pass go, do not stop! Get out!”  It was like, and I kid you not, the good buddy in movies, you know, the sensible one like Velma, or actually more like the hyper-panicky one Shaggy, tapping on my shoulder and whispering “I don’t think this is a good idea.”

Shaggy_scooby

Having grown up in the suburbs of Detroit, in a town where everyone looked so familiar I would have trouble placing the face as being someone I knew from church, the gas station, school, or work, going to PA school in “the city” was exciting to me.  I knew I’d be exposed to situations I’d never experienced, and like my combat veterans, wondered if I’d have what it took. I wasn’t afraid of the crack addicts or gang-bangers. I was afraid that I wouldn’t know how to react, wouldn’t have what it took in the face of an emergency to do what had to be done–chest compressions, suturing, bandaging, reading EKGs accurately. I thought I’d be most afraid in the ER at Henry Ford Main, or during my psychiatry rotation where I was on the inpatient consult service for Detroit Receiving and Sinai Grace, because of the out of my control aspect of those situations.  In an outpatient clinic, I naively thought, at least you could kind of predict what kind of day you were going to have.  Appointments are scheduled, and you can predict what kind of patients you will see, unlike in the ER, when you can have a heart attack, gunshot wound to the hand, and head cold all walk in at the same time.  It was a controlled environment, I thought, and control of my environment is key.

All of us desire control. It begins when we’re learning how to talk and walk.  This is where the terrible twos (and threes and fours for some of us) get their name.  The desire to exercise our will on the environment is innate.  We want to be able to choose our path. We want to believe that we have control, though in reality, we have very little. Today is Friday the 13th, a day many fear, though most of us find it superstitious.  We scoff at people who would have “silly fears” of things like the number 13, but in reality, don’t we all pause for just half a second, if we have an interview or date that gets set for Friday the 13th or we’re placed in hotel room #13? It doesn’t stop us from continuing on with our lives, but given the choice, just to be on the safe side, wouldn’t we change the date or room number, if we could?

As children, many of the sayings that we grew up with enforce those beliefs: Step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back–so we avoid walking on the cracks, just in case. It’s part of the mistaken belief, these superstitions, that we can control our destiny. We believe that by following all the rules, we can control our circumstances.  As children we pray, if I promise to do all my homework next time, please let me pass this test. As adults we pray, if I promise to be a better mother, please let her be OK.  Fear is irrational, it compromises our illusion of control, because it shows us how little power we actually have.  When we see through the eyes of fear, nothing is in our control, and that is the most frightening thing.

The unkempt woman in the musty exam room looked right through me.  All of us want to be seen, truly seen for who we are, and when others do not see, it can be frustrating, and make us doubt ourselves.  When she did not respond to me, I wondered for a brief second, did I not speak loudly enough? I had read her chart before coming in the room. It was supposed to be a routine follow-up for her annual gynecological exam.  Her list of medications gave me clues to what was missing in the 1 sentence description of why she was there.

“Have you been taking your Clozaril?” I asked.

“My mother has blue hair. Do you see them? People walk on buses,” she said.

Being alone in a room with a schizophrenic patient off her medications is not a place for a green PA student.  My very first rotation was psychiatry on the inpatient wards. Ingrained in us were several rules: Make sure to always be between the patient and the exit.  Make sure that someone knows where you are at all times.  Make sure that you wear long hair pulled back so a patient cannot grab you.  I had seen schizophrenic patients on their medications, discharged them home to the loving care of family or friends, after seeing them admitted off their medications, when they could not distinguish between their reality and ours.  Most were not violent, but what was frightening was their inability to see us. To them, I could have been a 300 lb body builder threatening to take away their most prized possessions, and as anyone who’s ever been threatened knows, fear will make us strike out to protect ourselves.

Fear will take a perfectly reasonable person, and turn them into a knife-wielding, gun-toting, hate-speech throwing part of a mob like those we’ve seen on the news.  It turns off the reasonable, logical parts of our brains, and takes us back to the child we all were once, vulnerable and at the mercy of others.  When we point our fingers at others, tsk at the behaviors that we, of course, would never engage in, scoff at superstitions and phobias, we forget to look at what prompts them.  We forget to look deeper. We forget to ask ourselves what are they really afraid of–and what am I afraid of that I am too blind to see them for who they really are.

“You know what? I think I left your bloodwork outside. I’ll be right back,” I lied, and briskly walked out of the room, straight to my preceptor’s office, and explained the situation to him.  I never saw that woman again, but I’ll never forget her eyes or the trembling of my hands afterward.  Have you ever been truly afraid? Do you have any phobias or fears that may seem irrational to others? I’d love to hear about them. I discovered an irrational fear of heights when I climbed up on a ladder to explore an old B52 bomber, and could not make my legs work to climb back down the ladder I had just ascended 10 minutes prior.

Today I am grateful for reminders that all of us have fears that lie behind the facade of control we all cling to. I am thankful for the friends who kept me from making irrevocable mistakes in my innocence when I didn’t have enough fear, and hope my children will have such good friends as they make their way through a world filled with too many choices.

And because I’m a giant nerd who loves words:   Triskaidekaphobia is derived from treiskaideka, the Greek word for thirteen + phobia, fear of = a fear of thirteen.Pi

Holding Hands


My father has hands like bricks, reddened and hard, fired through years of tilling Michigan clay, lifting dirty tires in February winds on the narrow shoulders of freeways, and sanding smooth the doorways of the house in which he has lived since 1977. I never thought much about his hands, except as a kid when I’d done something wrong and feared his wrath. In the days before time-outs and worrying about self-esteem, my father’s hands were scarier than a belt or a “wisdom stick”. My grandmother and mother used switches we had to pick ourselves from the two oak trees in the front yard, but my father’s hands were tough enough to make us think twice. Punishment meted was swift and painful which we earned often enough between the four of us, mischievous and curious as we were. We didn’t view it as abuse, given the nature of corporal punishment at the time, in fact, preferring a swat on the behind to being grounded or other non-corporal punishments.

My hands look more like my mother’s, slim with longish fingers for the small hands that I have. I always wanted bigger hands with longer fingers, thinking them elegant and more agile for things like playing piano or building things. Having small hands can be advantageous though, as I discovered the first time I participated in an exploratory abdominal surgery. Surgeons will frequently talk and joke during surgery, but during this one, as I stood very still trying not to contaminate the sterile field while holding retractors, one of them asked who had the smallest hands in the room. Surgical gloves are sized from 5.5 to 9 and specific to right and left. OR techs and nurses know what size and type a surgeon prefers to wear and everything is set out prior to the procedure. If you are new, they will ask you what size glove you wear, then help you to put them on to maintain sterile fields. I wear a 5.5 or 6 depending on what is available, and so the nurses pointed to me. Because I had the smallest hands, they asked me to insert my hands into the patient’s abdominal cavity to break up adhesions around the liver. The feeling of sliding my hand around someone’s liver was incredible, smooth and strangely slick, and thrilling to me.

I never thought much about anyone’s hands until the day my future husband asked to hold mine. When I was young and dreamed about the man I might someday marry, I never thought much about what he would look like, let alone what his hands would look like. As little girls, my next door friend Amy and I would hum the marriage song as we processed across the family room, holding a worn bunch of plastic flowers. The husbands we married were incidental, a necessary part of the process to get to the next step which was stuffing a baby doll up our shirts to pretend we were going to be mothers. This would be followed by pretending to be Princess Leia or Lady Jane from GI Joe. Our summers were filled with acting out fanciful scenarios of heroines and heroes with our brothers. I never pretended to hold hands with anyone though, never realizing what a lovely part of being with someone that it is.

In romance novels, a lot of the descriptions center on kisses between the main characters. Rarely do they talk about the sweetness of holding hands.  It is said that the handshake evolved from the ancient custom of a showing of hands empty of weapons. I think the knowledge ascertained from holding another’s hand in yours can be greater than just knowing they do not hold weapons. In my present work, I check hand-grip strength on patients regularly. It is a part of our diagnostic tool set, telling us if there is weakness or tremor, but patients will look at my hands, concerned that they will squeeze too hard.  I’m learning not only about grip strength though when I hold their hands. I can tell what kind of work or hobbies they do, if there are lesions that haven’t healed, if they bite their fingernails, or if nerve damage is present, among other things.

When I held hands with my husband for the first time, I was struck by the similarities between his hands and those of my father’s.  Though we were largely strangers to one another, his hands were familiar to me.  I understood instinctively what kind of person he was, though I could not have put it into words at that moment as young as I was.  Once while we were dating, he apologized for the state of his hands, rough from the work he had been doing.  I told him what I still believe today, that there is no shame in hard work.  His hands are never raised in anger to our little ones, though they are just as mischievous as I ever was.

The church in which we worship holds hands during the Lord’s Prayer, an act which always makes my children a little wary.  They don’t want to hold hands with someone who is not part of our family, and I never force them to, but they are frequently rewarded with a smile from an elderly person who might be sitting near our less-than-angelic children.  Some might call this practice unhygienic, and in fact, there are times when they are ill or someone else is that we don’t hold hands, but in that there is still a lesson about how we care for others in the community by respectfully declining.   They are learning too what it is to be connected, to know the feel of someone else’s hand, to be gentle in the way they grip arthritic fingers, and not to fear the unknown.

There is something powerful in the act of holding hands. It is an act that literally and figuratively connects us. As mothers we have known the secret feeling of children dancing within our wombs, like stars slowly spinning within the nebulae of our own personal gravity, but for our men, it is the grip of their baby’s tiny hand around their finger which shifts time and space.  As I watch my children grip their grandfather’s hand walking with him on a mountain hike, his other hand gripping the walking stick shaped with loving care by my husband’s hands, it occurs to me that I stopped holding my father’s hands after childhood, when I no longer needed his help to walk.  I remember the feeling of my hand in the crook of his arm as he walked me down the aisle of our church and the way it felt when he put my hand in my husband’s, like a blessing and an absence all at once, and I know it is too soon to let go.

wpid-2015-03-09-01.45.33.jpg.jpeg

My little guy hanging onto his grandpa.

Today I am thankful for all the hands that shaped my life along the way. I am grateful for silly internet pictures of otters holding hands to remind us that we are all connected, and pray for the strength to hold on, for as long as we are blessed to have those we love in our lives.  I’m wishing my father a blessed 80th birthday, and praying for many more birthdays like this.

Love, Despite


 

Before I married my husband, I told him to make sure that he was marrying me for who I was that day, and not for any future changes he hoped to have wrought in me through the “transforming” power of marriage. Though we were both young, I had seen enough unhappy marriages to make me wary of the institution, and who wants to be institutionalized, really?  I had no question that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, but I wanted us to start off with as little illusion as possible.  I wanted to know that he saw me, and not some airbrushed version of a girl to be placed on a pedestal.  It is easy to fall in love if you believe all the fairy tales and movies.  Beautiful women with flowing hair and flawless skin meet muscled men with pure hearts and chivalrous intentions and they ride off to his manor with servants aplenty to watch the perfectly well-behaved children gambol across the lawn.

Image result for disney gifs

Real life, though, is grittier.  The muscled boy that you met at 18 will have to help you get to the bathroom after giving birth to an almost 9 lb baby, change that baby’s first meconium-filled diaper, and not comment on all the broken blood vessels across your face from pushing to get that giant-headed child out. Those flowing locks that you used to have time to tame into submission, will subside into their normal frizzy state, then fall out during pregnancy so you look like an alien who accidentally swallowed a giant watermelon.  The manor will actually be a tiny little starter home surrounded by other tiny little starter homes where you can hear your neighbors argue and flush their toilets. Those perfectly well-behaved children will kick a soccer ball right through your basement window after being sent outside so you can think in silence for 2 blessed minutes before you erupt into acid-spewing dragon mama mode, yet again.

What is not easy, is staying in love, loving, actually choosing to love, when face it, there are times when we are not lovable.  When we are angry at the burned beef stew and there is not a single, flipping thing ready to eat in the house and everyone is hungry.  When we are frustrated at piles of bills and broken car innards, and then the dentist says your child needs braces and it’s going to cost you exactly what you planned to spend on the car repairs.  When we are already late to church for the umpteenth time, and we scream hurry up at the child who has to go to the bathroom right now.  When we slam the phone down multiple times, because once is just not enough.  And does anyone else agree that hitting the end button on our cell phones multiple times is just not the same?!  We are so often not at our best, so often not that serene  image of our best self that we aspire to, and carry around in our heads.  And yet, and yet, we continue to love one another, despite. We continue to hold on, in a world that does not value the sanctity of marriage or family or friendship.

Last Sunday’s Gospel described Jesus’ tranfiguration on the mountain.  Every time I hear this passage, I giggle a little to myself at Peter’s response to the incredible change he is witness to, but then wonder myself at what I might have said or done in his shoes. In reality, though, we see one another every day transformed. We see past the imperfections and flaws–frizzy hair, receding hairlines, extra pounds, impatience, frustration, and love one another.  That is the tranfigurative power of love, and we do not have to look to the mountaintops, or what others refer to as those thin places where the divine is closer to us mortals, to see that transfiguration.  We see it everyday when we choose to love despite and not because. We do it everyday, when we call one another Mình ơi, or sweetheart, when we are definitely not being sweet nor acting like the best reflection of our selves.

2012-11-24 16.48.31

Today I am thankful for love that echoes the divine, that transforms us into our most ideal selves. I pray for the fortitude to keep trying to love despite and not because.  I am grateful for the lack of illusions that makes marriage a safe harbor despite all my fears to the contrary, and for books which not only enthrall us, but also give us inspiration through words of wisdom which are gifts unto themselves.

“It had flaws, but what does that matter when it comes to matters of the heart? We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because. That’s as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them too. That is rare and pure and perfect.”
Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear