Where Were You on 9/12?


Images of planes crashing into the Twin Towers flash behind my eyes, as I listen to the veteran before me haltingly describe his flashbacks from the IED explosion that changed his world forever. Years have passed for all of us, and nothing remains the same. It is the question of our generation: Where were you on 9/11?

I was a physician assistant student. As anyone who has survived PA school will tell you, there is no lower person on a medical team than the PA student. Scut work and long hours are the norm, and I had not yet even earned the privilege of standing in scrubs as the lowliest member of the team. I was still in that first long didactic year, where Socrates’ words held sway: I was learning all that I did not know. Navigating the streets of downtown Detroit, inhaling the acrid perfume that cadavers wear, and desperately memorizing the biochemical pathways that make us human, I despaired of ever knowing all that I needed to know to care for others.

Back in class on 9/12, a Wednesday, my helplessness multiplied. There were so many hurting, and in need, and I was a lowly student without the tools to help anyone. Like everyone else, I had spent the day before numbly watching the unlikely images of planes gliding into skyscrapers, gaping holes in the Pentagon, and ash-covered firefighters kneeling in prayer. I stared at my hands, pen in hand, aching to grasp the skills that could bandage or suture or make a difference, somehow. Laying my hand on my daughter’s head that night, I wondered what the world would bring for her, and for all of us. I resolved to learn all I could to make the world a better place for her and others.

The question we should ask of ourselves, and others today is this: Where were you on 9/12? If 9/11 was the day the world changed for us, 9/12 was the day each of us took stock of where we stood, and took the steps into a new future. What resolutions did you make that day? What changes did we make that have led us to where we stand now? And now, so many years later, I wonder at the journey that we as a nation have made, and look back at the person I was, and marvel. Since that day, my husband left his lucrative, but unsatisfying job to become a firefighter/paramedic, and I, like all firefighter’s spouses, lie in bed waiting for the call that he is safe. I know there is more innocence and laughter in the world, because I have brought two more children into it.

And today, I sit before this veteran who has served our country in the fight against terror, and the tools I use every day, are the tools I had then, though I did not know it. I did learn how to suture, and bandage, and administer medications that will heal and soothe, but what I have learned since 9/12 is this: The single greatest thing I, and anyone else privileged enough to be present in the healing process can do, is listen. Though these hands have finally acquired the skills I so longed for as a student, today they grasp the hands of the soldier in front of me, in gratitude, and somehow, it is enough.

Today, I also had the privilege of handing out awards to PAs from around the state. As part of my committee work for my state PA society, I learn about all the good work being done by PAs around the state through nominations by other PAs. It is humbling and gratifying to see all that others do every day, without thought of recognition. I am proud to be able to recognize all these paragons of our profession, and share their good work with others. Many are working in rural clinics, taking care of underserved populations, and making a difference merely by their existence. It truly is a blessing, and I am grateful to be surrounded by such inspirational people. It gives me hope for our world to be in the presence of all these good people. Our state PA conference honored them, as well as all those we lost on 9/11. All of us reflected on where we were on 9/11, and we had several PAs who are either veterans or are currently serving in the National Guard. Perhaps it is my own bias, but I feel blessed to work in a profession where serving others is our priority. Many tonight spoke of the same resolve to be part of the change to make the world a better, more peaceful place. Please feel free to share your story of where you were on 9/11, and what you changed on 9/12 that led you to where you are today.

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Flight


Embed from Getty Images

“I’m not leaving without my mother.”  Each time I hear those words in this story, the hairs on my arms stand up.  It is the story of the day we left Vietnam.  My brother says we are doomed to lead less interesting lives then our parents.  I think instead we are blessed. Recognizing these blessings is part of this burning away of all that drags us into the mire of living the unexamined life.

I am grateful today not to live in a country where we are in fear of bombs blowing up our homes, where we have to decide what country we should flee to, or worry about never seeing family members again.  This was what passed for normal for my mother and father in Saigon in 1975.  My parents worked for the American military at Tan Son Nhut airbase.  It was a dangerous position to be in, a liability if the wrong side won the war, a risk that could put my parents, and my mother’s family in danger for supporting the cause of freedom from Communism.

The fall of Saigon is officially April 30, 1975. A few days prior, my father came to work and was told to return to Tan Son Nhut Airport with only his immediate family–my mother and me, and one suitcase within a few hours time to insure a safe departure from Saigon.  My grandmother and my mother’s 2 young sisters had come to stay in my mother’s apartment in Saigon after they could not board a boat in Vung Tau to leave the country.  No one knew what would happen next, but my mother insisted that she would not leave Vietnam without her mother.  And so, all of us made it onto that airplane through the grace of God and sheer force of will.

Because of this, I have always been surrounded by strong women–women who have survived war, cancer, and heartbreak.  Because of this, I have always had the example of how to be a good mother, sister, daughter, and wife.  Because of this, I have seen the saving power of grace and forgiveness. For all of these things, I am grateful for a mother who knows how to bend with change, who has been broken and made whole again, and is still beautiful.  She is the woman who has always told me that she gave me wings so that I could fly.

My mother leading the way.

My mother leading the way.

As we start this 40 day journey into leaving behind fear, I’m joining others across the country who are keeping gratitude journals, and invite you to do the same.  The benefits of counting our blessings, so to speak, are manifold:  increased feelings of happiness, better relationships, more energy. . .The trick lies in making this a habit, of course.  Let’s hope that 40 days is enough.

Check out these other blogs for help with your gratitude journal:

http://www.aholyexperience.com/joy-dares/

http://momastery.com/blog/2014/03/06/gratitude-experiment/

And check out this research on forming habits (because I’m still a nerd):

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/01/02/how-long-it-takes-to-form-a-new-habit/

Ashes & Smoke


On this Ash Wednesday, my thoughts turn naturally to fire and smoke.  Did you know that the ashes smudged on our foreheads come from the burning of Easter palms? I don’t pretend to be familiar with all that goes into the preparation of these ashes, but I picture an enormous conflagration burning white-hot, shriveling green and yellow palms into the black ashes with which we are marked, billowing white smoke surrounding those tending the flames.

Smoke can tell you a lot about a fire.  It seems intuitive, but something I never thought about until I became a firefighter’s wife.  In my life, and probably yours too, my only contact with smoke was innocuous and annoying at most, like when the wind blows campfire soot and embers toward you, or perhaps a signal that it’s time to get rid of the $10 toaster you bought on sale.

Now, smoke is always bad, in this land where the Rio Grande no longer lives up to its name, and a cigarette butt thrown from a truck window can set flames greedily licking up the wooden stairs to a freeway bridge.  Like settlers in the Old West, my husband and his crew scan the horizon, reading smoke signals.

White smoke on the horizon tells them that a knock-down is occurring. Steam and residual smoke from a fire are mixing,  and the fire is on its way to being contained.  Not surprisingly, black smoke is a harbinger of a poorly contained-fire, likely burning toxic materials, one that is not yet under control.  Either way, firefighters see smoke and a curious mix of trepidation and excitement charges through them.  This is what they train every day to do.

Wikipedia-Fire

In the same way, Ash Wednesday heralds the beginning of a fire for me.  It is a time of change, burning away the old, and each Lent I am filled with a similar mix of trepidation and excitement.  When I was a child, it was a time of deprivation: what could I give up, so I could mimic those 40 days in the desert?  I did not understand then what I know now.  The challenge is not just emulation, but true change.  Can we burn away that which makes us toxic?  Will the fire that lies within us be enough to leave nothing but the ashes of renewal?

This blog is part of that renewal process for me. The drive for perfection stalls me before I speak, before I write, before I start any new project, as a protection against failure. I am giving up my fear of failure for Lent, and thus I will be posting every day, fighting the urge for perfection in every line, and I’m sure my hands will be shaking before I hit the publish button. And so, on this first day of Lent, I begin this journey and invite you to be a part of building this fire with me.2012-11-24 16.48.31What do you want to set ablaze?