How to Fall in Love


Having gotten over my glow from dreaming about wearing a blue NASA jumpsuit to Mars after the announcement that NASA will be taking applications for the next astronaut training cycle, I came to a funny realization yesterday. Sometimes the things that seem closest to your heart and obvious, are not so obvious to those you know and love. My husband, whom I’ve known for over 20 years, who has been with me through deaths and births, friendships and heartaches, the demise of numerous TV shows, moves to 3 different homes and across the country, had no idea that I really, truly was serious about wanting to become an astronaut. He had absolutely no idea that it had been a lifelong dream. It’s got to make you wonder, just a tiny bit, how well people know one another.

This made me think of the New York Times article this year called “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” that spawned a whole series of columns and articles, and even it’s own downloadable app about 36 questions based on a study that “explored whether intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated by having them ask each other a specific series of personal questions.” The series of questions were designed to become more “probing” than the next one, and ends with an exercise in which the two people are supposed to stare into one another’s eyes for 4 minutes.

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I thought this would be a fun thing to do. This article came out in January, and we’ve never even answered one of these questions, as setting aside 2 hours and 4 min (which is apparently how long the writer of the article took to complete this experiment), is virtually impossible to do with 2 full-time and 2 part-time jobs (at least until July) between the two of us, children in soccer, karate, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, swimming, catechism, piano, and managing to keep our house from being put on the Environmental Hazards List, while setting personal records for achieving the Guinness record for tallest piles of laundry.  If we tried to stare into each other’s eyes for 4 minutes straight 1 of 2 things would likely happen: I would dissolve in a fit of giggles and highly unbecoming snorts of hilarity,  or he would fall asleep.

I wondered again if we’d managed to complete this, if this would have revealed what seemed to me to be an well-known fact about myself, given my love for science/science fiction, love of travel, and desire to see/experience everything possible.  After perusing the question list, I saw 2 questions which could potentially have revealed this:

“14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?  . . .

27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.”

Thinking further though, I’m pretty sure astronaut would NOT have come up.  In fact, as I read through the list, I know I would have answered a lot of these questions differently now than I would have when we were dating. And, maybe will answer them differently in another 10 years. So the question to ask is, do we truly every know anyone? Is it possible to know everything there is to know about someone ever, no matter how close we are?

I think the answer is no.  And I think that that’s OK.  One of the most illuminating quotes I read as a kid basically stated that in all lives but our own, we are but minor players.   No matter how much we think we know someone, they are the only ones who know everything about themselves, although for the less introspective among us, perhaps even this is not true.

Regardless, as entertaining as it may be to sit down and answer these questions, the premise that this might make you fall in love with someone is a trope that might be interesting in a movie or as the basis for a newspaper article, but the reality of falling in love with someone has less to do with knowing the answers to 36 questions, and more to do with how well we know ourselves. And the important question is not how to fall in love, but how to stay in love and how to continue to love despite the changes wrought by time and circumstance.

And so I’m not upset or surprised that he didn’t know this about me. Instead, I realized that it is more important that he cares to find out more, that he keeps asking and learning more than a mere 36 questions would ever tell him, and that even after all these years, we still have secrets and surprises to discover.  The authors of the study understood this, beyond the way the results have been hyped:  “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.”

Link to the article with the 36 questions:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/fashion/no-37-big-wedding-or-small.html?_r=0

 

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The Final Frontier


A snapshot into the crazy world of what being married to me is like, based on an actual telephone conversation I had with my husband today:

“Ok, I need to tell you something really big,” I said.

“Big, as in I need to sit down, or maybe just lean on something? Or are you joking?” he said.

“No, I’m not joking, it’s not bad, but maybe you should lean on something,” I said excitedly.

“Okaaaay, well, what is it?”

Now keep in mind that not only was I over-the-moon excited about this news, I had also had a whole handful of chocolate-covered espresso beans which for someone like me who generally avoids caffeine, made me talk even faster than I normally do, so it came out something like this: “NASAistakingapplicationsforastronauts, and I want to apply!”

“What?! Are you serious? No way! Do you know how many space shuttles or rockets have exploded in the history of space flight?”

Silence on my end, then “I can’t believe you’re not supporting me in this.  You’re supposed to help me achieve my dreams. They’re going to go to MARS!!!”

“But, honey, don’t you know how dangerous that is?”

“Um, hello, firefighter/SWAT medic? Seriously?!”

“Uh, right. Point taken. ”

Big sigh on his end of the line, then “OK, fine. I didn’t even know you wanted to be an astronaut.” (Really, he’s such a good guy, isn’t he?)

“I’ve only wanted to be an astronaut my whole life.  It’s SPACE!  Who wouldn’t want to go to space?  How cool would that be?!”  Actually, it was one of several things I’d considered.  Almost a year ago, I posted my dream list of future occupations when I was a kid which included “Supreme court justice, Shirley Temple stand-in, crime-fighting assassin/journalist, astronaut, and finally, Nobel Prize-winning brain researcher.”

As I was talking to him, I had been scrolling through NASA’s website, looking at the requirements in more detail.  The article I’d read said only a bachelor’s degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) field (CHECK!), at least 3 years of experience in that field (CHECK!), and the ability to pass the astronaut physical (Well, going to have to investigate that further). What I was looking for specifically was the one thing I knew I couldn’t overcome based on will alone:  The height requirement.

“Oh no! It says 62 inches, ” I said despairingly.

“Well, that’s probably based on–”

“Hah! Wait, that’s only if I want to be a pilot or commander, plus they need over 1000 flight hours as pilot-in-command.  But I only have to be 58.5 inches tall if I want to be a mission specialist, and I’ve got that beat by a whole inch and a half! I could be a mission specialist.”

“A whole inch and a half, huh?”

I was so elated, I pretended not to hear the gently sarcastic tone in his voice. Then, as I continued to read the requirements to him, I dropped back down to Earth. Vision was another requirement, and I’m famous in my family for having horrendously thick glasses starting from age 8, until the miracle of contact lenses came along.  I had been told by one well-known eye surgeon, “We have no surgical options for you. Perhaps you’ll develop cataracts early.”

“Oh no, there’s a minimum vision requirement. 20/200 or better uncorrected. Hmm, maybe I should look into getting Lasik done anyway. Oh wait! It says correctable to 20/20, each eye. Ok, I’ve still got a chance. Or I could be a payload specialist.”

He quietly listened to me as I continued on in this vein for another 5 minutes, up and down the spectrum of excitement, as I came to the realization as I read further, that the likelihood of actually getting picked to go to astronaut candidate school was only about 0.6 %.

“Well, it would be cool just to get a rejection letter from NASA, right? I’m going to apply anyway. You never know! I could be the first PA in space. My collaborating physician would be available. . .on Earth!”

My son’s reaction when I told him NASA was taking applications for astronauts, and that I was going to apply, was even cooler.

“You’re going to be an astronaut?  Wait, how?  Can you take me with you?  I want to go to Mars, too!”

“Sweetie, you’re not old enough yet.  But if you want to be an astronaut, see how important it is to get a college degree in one of the STEM fields?” (I know, I know, not everyone needs to go to college, but seriously, Tiger Mama training dies hard.)

We surfed the NASA website together, and oohed and aahed over pictures of rockets and astronauts.

“Do you think they get to keep the blue jumpsuits?”

“Yep, pretty sure they do.”

“I want one.”

“Me too, buddy.”

We read more in depth about the physical requirements with him saying “I could do that!” and me saying, “Hmm, not sure if I can pass the swimming test (I have this horrible fear of drowning) and my little guy saying “I can though!” and right there, I watched the dream blossom in his eyes, and saw the final frontier open up for him. No limits here on Earth.  Not if you think you can be an astronaut.  And who doesn’t want that for their kids?

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Here’s the actual description of astronaut requirements if you’re interested in one of those blue jumpsuits, too:

http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/postsecondary/features/F_Astronaut_Requirements.html

Liberation


Forty years ago today, Saigon fell.  It is a date engraved upon the hearts of many Vietnamese people, as well as many veterans. If you were old enough to remember, the images of helicopters, crying people with outreached hands, and flames are forever linked to this date. It is thought of as a symbol of leaving, of endings, and for some, of failure.  It has been called Black April and rebranded by those in power in Vietnam as National Liberation Day or Reunification Day. My veterans express regret and sorrow about leaving Vietnam like this, mixed with the relief of being able to go home. Some remain haunted by the images of those left behind, bound by the ghosts of the past, while the diaspora are reconciling the Vietnam they left in 1975 with the changes time, politics and money has wrought.

I am too young to remember leaving my birth country. I was a baby in my mother’s arms when we hurriedly boarded the C-130 that would take us to the refugee camps in the Philippines and Guam.  As with all immigrant stories,  ours is both the same and different from the thousands of other Vietnamese families that came to the US.  The date our family left Vietnam was actually April 26, 1975. My parents, grandmother, aunts and I were blessed to leave on an airplane, compared to so many others at the mercy of the seas who fled on boats, though this airplane had been stripped of all of its seats in order to fit as many people on board as possible.

My baby boy descending the ramp of a C-130.

My baby boy descending the ramp of a C-130.

When we finally arrived in the US, my parents set about making a life for all of us, though they had little resources.  My father’s first jobs were working for RCA as a repairman, and for a steel mill where he worked until he retired in his late 70s.  Because they had only 1 vehicle, my father would drop her off before the bakery opened before the sun rose, recalling today how hard it was to leave her there in the cold darkness alone so that he could make it to his 2 jobs.  She made so many pies, that to this day she refuses to make pies from scratch.

A pie made by me, and not my mother.

A pie made by me, and not my mother.

She then did back-breaking work in a nursing home, enormously pregnant with my little brother, lifting and bathing patients.  Under the watchful eyes of my grandmother and my mother’s two younger sisters, I learned English from watching Shirley Temple movies and Underdog cartoons, and reading Little Golden Books about Cinderella.

Eventually, our family saved enough money to bring my mother’s two brothers and their families here to the US, but not until almost 20 years later, after reeducation camps and deprivation at the hands of the Communists.  I had the advantage of growing up in America, with the constant reminder that I had cousins in Vietnam who were not as lucky, and so I, like so many other Generation 1.5 children, was pushed to succeed though hard work and education by my parents, who had left all they knew and loved behind with the hope for a better future for their children. Exactly 22 years later, surrounded by the entire reunited family, I was married on April 26, the date my wedding was changed to through a series of unplanned and unexpected events.  Now 40 years later, as a physician assistant, I am serving some of those same veterans without whom I would not have existed.  If not for the war in Vietnam, there would have been no need for a Korean firefighter to come to Vietnam.  If not for the American army base where my parents worked and met, there would not have been any seats for us on a C-130 to fly us all away from Vietnam.

Today, as we look back on this date, I was struck by the photos of this baby miraculously unearthed from the rubble of the earthquake in Nepal.  Pictures of helicopters, outreached hands, and flames are featured on news stories across the internet. Thousands of families have been separated, lost loved ones and their homes, and the date of the earthquake will forever separate their lives into before and after. And in the midst of all of this tragedy, we focus on the life of one small baby, liberated from the dust and ashes, surviving despite the tremendous odds against it.

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http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/25/world/gallery/nepal-earthquake/?sr=fb042915nepalbaby1030aGalPhotos

We rejoice in this story of life arising from the rubble and ruins because we all share stories of liberation, some more dramatic than others, but no less important in the way that they link us all–from the ashes of a fallen city, to a road not taken, a life left behind, and still we learn to build again.  True healing begins with that first turning towards the light of home, which is wherever we make it. This then is the true meaning of liberation, not that spun by those who would have us forget the struggles and the sacrifices of those who reached down and pulled us from darkness to true freedom.

Today I am grateful for my parents’ bravery and courage in the face of overwhelming chaos and tremendous odds.  I would not be who I am or where I am if not for all of their sacrifices. I am thankful for all of my family and for the astonishing grace of not having lost a single family member to the war.  And I pray for all those in Nepal, that someday, they will look back on these days, and be able to say they are stronger for having survived.

Please pray for the many medical and relief workers as they work tirelessly for all those affected by the earthquake, as well as the family members of Marisa Eve Girawong, a physician assistant who was killed there.  If you would like to donate, check out the Better Business Bureau’s website which has a list of charities providing aid to Nepal that meet the BBB’s standards of accountability, as well as InterAction Nepal’s website which can allow you to direct your donations to specific needs, such as medicine, food, or shelter.

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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


7 Reasons Why I Love Working at the VA


If there is a word that means the opposite of a news hound, that would describe me. I get my news in small bits on my drive into work, but lately because I work at the VA, the news has been coming to me. People I barely know have been asking me with furrowed brows, real concern and almost prurient curiosity in their voices, “Sooo, how’s everything going at work?”

The funny thing for me is that not much has changed. I still listen to my patients’ stories and examine them with the same amount of care I always have. In fact, I would say, other than the comments I get from others because it is all over the news, there has not been much change in my practice. For everyone else I know that works at my facility, I would venture a guess that this is true for them as well. We are all doing the work we came here to do, despite news media reports, despite protestors, despite changes in leadership, despite insufficient staffing and budgetary concerns, because it must be done.

Coming from private practice, I will admit I had some trepidation about coming to work at the VA. As with any large hospital system, I was worried about fitting in after coming from a small community office. My fears were allayed on the first day of orientation. I knew very little about the military before coming to the VA even though my parents met on a US Army Base in Vietnam. I expected to get educated about rankings and how best to address people. In fact, none of this occurred. Instead the emphasis was put on serving veterans, those who have put their lives on the line for our freedom and our liberties. It didn’t matter where they served, in what capacity, what their rank had been, if they were a part of our military, they had in the (paraphrased) words I heard for the first time in orientation, “in effect, given the United States a blank check, payable up to and including their very lives.” Sobering, isn’t it? I have always admired those who were in the military, but after working here I have an even greater respect for them. As a PA, I owe my career to those who served in Vietnam and World War II. With the job market for PAs in its boom phase, I could get a job anywhere, so why do I work at the VA?

I work at the VA because:
1. There is nowhere else I’ve ever been where patriotism is not only seen everywhere, it is expected. I believe despite all the detractors, sarcastic comments, and negative reports, that this is still the greatest country in the world. There is a reason everyone still wants to come here, a reason why people risk their lives trying to cross borders and flee across seas filled with pirates and rapists to get to this country. Are there countries with less crime? Yes. Are there countries with better educational standards? Yes. Are there countries with less poverty? Yes. Is there any other country in the world, where we can have people protesting outside the gates of a hospital where we are taking care of our wounded warriors, and the only comment made by hospital administration is, please don’t stop to talk to the protestors as it will impede traffic through that gate. Why? Because these wounded of ours fought for our rights, including the right to free speech, even if it is to used to say they think you are wrong. As an immigrant, I am proud to call myself an American, and proud to serve our veterans.

2. I love working at the VA because I am surrounded by others who love taking care of veterans. I am blessed to work in a place where people are happy to be here. Many of them will be even happier once we get more providers to help take care of the many veterans who are signing up every day to be seen, but even despite being overworked, patients tell me everyday that they can sense how happy everyone is who works here. These patients talk about the smiles on the faces of workers here, the friendliness of all the people who stop to ask them if they need help. It is bred into the culture of this hospital, from the very first day of orientation, that it is our job to take care of all veterans, whether they are sitting in front of us in an examining room or wandering looking lost in the hallways. Many of the employees here are veterans themselves, so patients feel a kinship with them, bonding over stories of boot camp and battles.

3. History comes to life at the VA. From World War II veterans who endured the Battle of the Bulge to Gulf War veterans who were there when they pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein, I’ve met so many people who were part of history from patients to administrators. Just walking through our hallways is a history lesson. Though we have our fair share of generic abstract hospital artwork, these are far-outweighed by the pictures of veterans, memorials and other landmarks that commemorate their accomplishments. And if you are willing to listen, there is nothing like hearing first-person accounts of what really happened behind the scenes by the men and women who had boots on the ground

4. The world becomes more global at the VA. Hearing their personal stories of exposures to radiation on Bikini Atoll, trudging through days of pouring rain during the monsoons in Vietnam, and life on board ships in the Pacific brings the world into my little office. Most veterans have been stationed in places I’ve never had the pleasure of going, and just asking them their favorite place to be stationed always yields surprising answers. I’ve learned about clear cockroaches on Marshall Island, hamlets in Germany found intact after the bombing ended, and blinding dust storms in Iraq.

5. Good quality health care is given here. When I worked in private practice, it was my responsibility to keep countless algorithms and guidelines for clinical practice in my head. A 65-year-old man with any history of smoking? I had to remember to schedule his abdominal aortic aneurysm screening, EKG, and cholesterol check. Here at the VA, electronic alerts for recommended screening pop up to remind us. Providers with years of experience are coming to the VA, tired of the same dwindling fee for service, pressure to succumb to the almighty dollar, and rising malpractice costs that are driving people away from and out of medicine in general. People forget that innovative research and groundbreaking discoveries were done first at the VA, including the first implantable cardiac pacemaker and the first successful liver transplant. In the wake of all the negative media attention, I’ve had countless veterans making a point to thank me (!) for helping them. Two of these veterans shared their stories of how their lung cancer and colon cancer was diagnosed early here, after coming from private practice, essentially saving them from much worse outcomes. Our hospital is a teaching hospital, like the one in Detroit where I did my internal medicine rotation, and the one in Ann Arbor where I did my first undergraduate research with the University of Michigan. Everyday, eager students from nursing, medicine, OT, PT, psychology and countless other disciplines come here to learn from people who are taking the time to teach others how best to care for our veterans.

6. The electronic medical records system here actually helps me to get my job done as opposed to impeding it. That is not to say that I love EMR, but being able to easily access records for a veteran who is sitting in front of me makes my life and the patient’s life a lot easier. I get alerts about patients’ labs, imaging, and consultations sent directly to my account on my desktop. This is more efficient than keeping a list in my head of all the patient results I needed to check on throughout the day. Veterans also can sign up for a program called MyHealtheVet which allows them to look at their own labs, notes, and reports through a secure gateway, enabling them to take charge of their own health.

7. And most importantly, I get to help heroes every day. In the grocery store, you and I might walk by these men and women without a second glance as we run in to pick up a gallon of milk. Every day I have the privilege of meeting, talking, and hearing from people who though most of them would not call themselves so, are heroes. They have saved lives, built bridges both literal and figurative, done acts of diplomacy under scrutiny in foreign countries, and done this for those of us who get to sleep peacefully in our beds. I look at the world very differently, realizing there is a story inside every one of us ordinary-looking people.

I know there will be many, and have been many who say this system is damaged. My answer to that is that all of medicine needs to be revamped, and if closer scrutiny is what it takes to make our healthcare system more efficient, then it is a good thing and I am thankful for it. This scrutiny involves recognizing what works and fostering this, especially so those who are doing the work don’t lose courage to keep fighting for good healthcare for our veterans. What does not help, and will never help, is negativity without action. And so, I ask all of you to share your stories of what works and what does not, and perhaps then we can use those pointing fingers to lift the burden instead of making it harder to bear for those of us doing the best we can.

The Ides of May for Those Who Grieve


It is there in the quiet lament of drooping branches after the tsunami.  We find it in the jagged edges of chaff in the harvest.  The echoing stillness of new-fallen snow in the dawn tells its story. Iridescent rainbows in brackish puddles of fuel and mud reflect it.  It stalks us through dreams, tracking our movements in stealth as we move unknowing away from moonlight.  Like the lightning on the mesa, it crackles through each hair like fire, leaving us bereft in its wake.   The cry of an infant in darkness waters its bloom in the hollow chambers of our chests.  The wedding toast is sour on our tongues because of it. We listen for the quiet flutter of salvation’s wings, and the silence burrows into the marrow of our bones.  The chill of untouched sheets bites the tips of our fingers.  Where can we find solace when everywhere our eyes rest and every sound the earth makes reminds us of it?

Each inhalation then is an act of courage, a willful acknowledgement of its lack of power over us.  We exhale into the grey mist that threatens to submerge us, and emerge drenched and stained, but standing.  And when we have gained the strength to open our eyes, we see the hordes of trembling others on this shore, and know we have never been alone.

Today I am grateful for those who stand beside us as we mourn, who hold our hands when we grieve, and for those who have been on that shore too many times and still have strength to teach us how to breathe.
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Tough Love–My Messy Beautiful


In the dark, a child’s cry stirs the most primal of instincts, even reaching into the deepest sleep.  It pulls me from vivid dreams of suturing bloodless wounds long ago in PA school.  Half-asleep, my hands still fluttering through the muscle-memory of years gone by, I hurry down the moonlit hallway to the sounds of my littlest one crying.  His big brown eyes are wide, staring sightless at invisible monsters.  I gather him to me, his limbs shaking with fright, kiss his tousled head, and murmur wordless, susurrant sounds of comfort.  Lately, these episodes occur more frequently, and some nights I startle awake from the feeling of someone standing close to the bed.  In the soft light, his tear-streaked face is all I need to see before I open the covers, and enfold him into safe harbor.

My husband and I have very different approaches to these nights.  Having experienced these night terrors as a child, he knew instantly what to do when our son started screaming in the night.   He strode into the room where I was holding him trembling at the tender age of 2, flipped on the light, and spoke loudly to him in a firm, though kind voice.  “Wake up, buddy. It’s just a dream.” Roughly stroking his arms and legs, his goal was to awaken him, telling me that once he was awake, he would not slip back into the grip of whatever made him shake and cry in the middle of the night.  Strangely, it worked every time, and he would sleep soundly the rest of the night.  If my little ones do creep into our bed at night though, Daddy is sure to make sure they go back to their own bed in short order.

In a family where children went from sleeping with their parents, to sleeping with grandma, and then to sleeping in a room with other siblings, this approach is antithetical to what I feel no matter how much better we all sleep in our own beds.  Because of my husband’s schedule, on the nights it is just me, I never end up sending my little guy back to his own bed, partly because neither he nor I end up waking up again until the alarm clock drags us both from the depths of sleep, and partly because I know he is my last child.  For those women who have not yet made this decision, I envy you the possibilities of dreaming of what your next child might look like.  Though I know that having another child would likely be impossible given my health and situation, it was not a door I closed lightly.

My little guy is an only son.  I wanted him to have a brother.  His sisters have one another to commiserate with someday, as my sister and I do.  My husband and his brother are very close, and I imagined the two little boys getting into mischief together, having adventures and coming home covered in dirt. He is all boy, and does all of these things on his own and with his sisters, but he is also quick to ask me if I’m all right when he sees my furrowed brow or hears tears in my voice.  Like me, he cries when he is angry. He is still in the cuddly stage, asking me still to carry him up to bed.  Last night, because he is on spring break I let him stay up after prayers to read.  Then I heard, “Mama! Mama, come here, please!”  Leaving my book, I hurried down the hall, then stepped gingerly through the minefield of Lego blocks littering his floor.  “Come here.  No, closer,” he said.  As I neared his bed, he reached out and hugged me.  “I just needed some more love that’s all.  You can go now,” he sighed as he snuggled into his pillow.  I laughed, and headed back to my bed, and marveled at the openness of his heart.

I pray for him, and my daughters as they make their way in this world of men.  I know that this sensitivity that is in all of my children makes them more of a target in a country where strength and power are valued.  My husband who moves easily in and through the world of men doesn’t tell them not to cry or to toughen up, but doesn’t seem to worry for them as I do.  He has the confidence in their ability to navigate in this world, and to adjust to what may come that I have never learned to acquire.  Though we are both confronted with acts of senseless cruelty and heartlessness in our work, he has somehow managed to overcome the fears that haunt my sleep.  Though our daughters have never been conformists to the norm (whatever that may be), he seems to challenge the world to accept them on their own terms so long as they can do what he taught them to do.  He taught our oldest daughter how to change her own tires and maintain her car, and expects her to try to solve problems before coming to him, though he is always available to give advice.  Living on her own now, she fixed her clothes dryer by looking it up on YouTube, mentioning it in passing to me, the mechanically inept one in the family, as if it were no big deal.  “That’s my girl,” he crowed when I told him.

He calls it tough love, and for those of you with children, you know there is no other kind.  Why is it so difficult for me then, this tough love?  I want to shield my children from all that is horrible and unkind in this messy, beautiful world.  Perhaps it is because when I look at them, instead of seeing them as they are, I remember the sweet smell of their baby heads as I held them in the night.

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I want them never to be hurt, despite knowing that learning how to walk tall also means learning how to fall and stand back up.  I hope they know that their daddy and I will always be a safe harbor for them. I want them to live with open hands and hearts to all that is good, knowing full well that living like this is tantamount to a body walking around without skin, defenseless and exposed, and no amount of suturing will banish the scars that will remain. And yet, I know the rewards to being open to joy are immense. And so, I raise my sensitive little boy and tough little girls to be lovers and leaders, and their daddy teaches them how to fix things, and we hope this tough love will be enough.

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Today I am thankful for my three messy, beautiful children; I’m grateful for a partner who helps me to balance my fear and over-protectiveness with laughter and practicality, and I’m thankful to be part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project.

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This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn more about the book about this project, CLICK HERE!

Don’t Dig up the . . .Lilacs


I tell everyone that once I got married, I realized how different men and women truly are, but I didn’t realize until I had a son, that men are born different.    Many years ago,  a good friend shared with me a book about how a couple’s love language can affect their marriage.  I, mistakenly, apparently, thought that my husband and I shared the same love language.  I mean, I speak English and he speaks English, and we love each other, which is a whole lot easier than couples like my parents whose shared language is not their native tongue.  Or so I thought.  In fact, perhaps because we assume we know what the other is talking about because there are no obvious language barriers, it sets us up for miscommunication.

So we sat down and took this quiz about love languages that my girlfriend had shared with me, and I fully expected us to be at least somewhat compatible.  Not true at all it turns out. My primary love language is gift-giving.  It gives me great joy to give gifts to others.  My happiness and anticipation in giving a gift is almost as good for me as I hope it is for the recipient of my carefully selected gifts.  My husband’s primary love language on the other hand is service.  He likes to do things for other people, and shows his love for others by doing.  Now this quiz not only identified primary love languages, but also laid out in descending order of importance the other love languages.  At the bottom of mine was service.  At the bottom of his was gift-giving.  So we were, in fact, complete opposites.

All of this is leading up to a conversation we had recently about the Valentine’s Day present he had bought for me.   As always, I am inherently practical, and so even though I love receiving flowers, in the back of my mind, a little part of me thinks about how they will be dead in a few days.  So this Valentine’s Day, my husband really nailed it.  He not only bought me my favorite flowers, he went one better and bought me 2 lilac bushes, live ones that needed to be planted in the ground. I was pretty impressed considering our past history of gift exchanges (remember, his lowest rated love language is gift-giving).

And so, I set them down by the back door.  And there they sat.  So last week, we had the same conversation we had been having for a month.  “So what about those lilac bushes?  Where do you want to put them?” my husband asked.  “Right across from the patio doors so we can see them when we are sitting at the dinner table,” I replied again.  But here the conversation took a little turn.  “So when are you going to plant them? They’re going to die if you don’t get them into the ground,” he said.  I turned to look at him quizzically.  “When am I going to plant them?”

“Yes, when are you going to plant them?”

“I thought you were asking me where I wanted you to put them, ” I said.

“Me?  They’re yours.  I gave them to you, and they’ve just been sitting there.” he said.

“Yes, you gave them to me and then kept asking me where I wanted them, and then you never planted them.  I thought it was because you’ve been so busy.” I said.

You see, in my family, when you give someone something that needs to be planted, you plant it for them.  That is part of the gift.  That is not, however, how it works in his mind.

“No, I’ve been asking you for weeks where you are going to put them,” he said, shaking his head.

That is not at all what I heard when he asked me the question.  And my response told him I knew where I wanted them, so he could not understand why I didn’t get on with it and put them in the ground already.  Is it any wonder that we can’t get the world to agree on anything when we can have such clear miscommunication within our own households?

And so we had an impassioned discussion, involving much hand-gesticulating, exasperated chuckles, and poll-taking of others in which we discovered this key difference between us which we had never known.

So, what ended up happening?  My loving, service-oriented husband accepted his wife’s viewpoint as strange, but agreed to plant them with me, and has probably vowed never to buy me anything that needs planting again.  🙂

Today I am thankful for a marriage that can still surprise me even after all these years.  I’m grateful that I have a partner who is willing to sit down and hash out in a non-judgmental way all the issues that can come up between two very different people, and I’m thankful to have my very own lilac bushes in this high desert place that we now call home.

Here is a link to the quiz for the 5 love languages established by Dr. Gary Chapman:  http://www.the-relationship-coach.com/five-love-languages-quiz.html