National Near Miss Day

Yesterday was National Near Miss Day. At first glance, it seems like an odd thing to celebrate. You are celebrating the status quo–nothing has changed before or after the near miss. We are still alive to tell the tale as they say. However, few things in life can be counted on to give you a pounding heart and in my case, the tingling on the backs of my hands like a near miss.

Mostly we associate a near miss with catastrophes, whether it’s the screech of brakes when you look away from the road for that one crucial second or the odd sensation of nothing beneath our steps when there is supposed to be. My baby brother has had several near-misses with death, once while walking across a log suspended above some body-crushing height in Korea, and then once when he fell down a volcano (inactive, thank God!) in New Zealand. Each time he emerged relatively unscathed, with an interesting bar story to tell.

We forget that near misses can be associated with people also, like in Garth Brooks’ song about unanswered prayers. I like to ask my patients how they met their spouses. Inevitably, a litany of what if’s become part of the conversation. What if we had never gone on that blind date? What if his cousin hadn’t decided to drag him into your pizza joint? If she had not… or he had not… are all elements in a good how-we-got-together story. How often do chance meetings when you didn’t plan to go out or because you never go to that particular coffee shop, result in a friendship or a connection that might not have happened if we hadn’t taken that chance. The romantics of the world would say it was meant to be. If you are a believer in soul mates, you might say it was destiny. If you believe in an omniscient God, all of our actions are predetermined and known ahead of time.

In the peculiarly human way we all have, we can keep contrasting ideas in our head, and still be able to exist in complete harmony with ourselves. Consequently, most of us believe in free will and predetermination–depending on the situation. If all the world is chaos, random happenstance ruling our lives, then how do we continue making our way through every day, without the worry that an asteroid may come out of nowhere and smash our world to smithereens? And if we believe in predetermination, why then do we feel we are in charge of our own futures, our choices steering our path?

With these contrary beliefs, we develop constructs or theories that help us to cope. We believe that if we are good, make good choices, associate with good people, we can protect ourselves from tragedy. Consequently, when tragedy does arise, victim-blaming sometimes occurs, even by the victim themselves. Haven’t we all asked ourselves at some time or another, “What did I ever do to deserve this?” In reality, bad things happen to good people all the time. The families of those on the missing Malaysian jet are likely wishing their loved ones’ taxi had been late to the flight or that alarm clocks had malfunctioned the morning of the flight–any kind of intervention that would take away their pain. It gives them some sense of control to combat the helplessness they feel.

My most memorable near miss happened when I was in high school. I was waiting for my mother to pick me up from school, back in the days when it took only 10 cents to call on the payphone, or you called collect and when they asked your name, you said “I’m done, come pick me up” instead of your name, and then hung up. Because we had the family business, I often waited there for a while, until my mom was free. One of the girls I knew from class offered to give me a ride home with the rest of her girlfriends since she lived around the corner. I distinctly remember her saying “You’re pretty small, we’ve got plenty of room.” I wavered back and forth, eventually deciding just to keep waiting, because the car looked awfully full. The next day, I heard that the car full of girls had been in an accident, and one of the girls was seriously injured. I remember feeling an odd sense of guilt, as if by being present I could have prevented the accident. In truth, it is when we give up the illusion of control that we can let go of irrational fear, guilt, and blame.

My best near-miss occurred after I met my husband on a blind date set up by my best friend. I had asked her not to give him my phone number because I thought it would be too complicated, but he called her house just after she had left and her mother unknowingly gave him my number. Though I was kind of rude to him, we continued talking, and 22 years later, we’re still here. He says he would have persisted anyway, so maybe it was meant to be.

I think we celebrate near misses because it does change us, even if for just a little while. We see for a split second, all our possible futures, endings and beginnings, our potential mates and fates. Then the elevator door closes, our feet slam down into reality, and we are back to the status quo again. I think we celebrate that little space after a near miss in which we feel truly alive, and grateful to be so.

Today I am grateful for the near misses in my life, and for the people I nearly missed out on because I was too busy paying attention to the wrong road signs. I am blessed to have all of them in my life, through the grace of God alone, and not through any foresight or planning on my part.

Have you ever had a near miss? Was it positive or negative? Please feel free to share your story in the comments.
The road





The Power of Names

I am a true believer in the power of a name.  Perhaps it is because as a writer, I know the power words can have to change mindsets and attitudes.  Perhaps it is because I grew up with the story of how my name came to be, and saw how it came to be both a self-fulfilling prophecy and revealing of my true personality.  Perhaps it is just because there is always a story behind each person’s name, and I love stories. Mine begins in Saigon, where I was born to a Korean father and a Vietnamese mother.  Whenever I tell people this, I always get the same reaction–“That’s a strange combination”.  Having never known any different, I really can’t say why this is, but purely from a personality standpoint, I can say my parents are two entirely different people.

Though both my mother and father grew up poor in war-torn countries, their stories are very different.   My father tells me stories of hiding out in the mountains of Korea from Japanese soldiers, and moving from city to city as my grandfather searched for work.  My mother wielded a machete to make her way through the jungles near her village in Vietnam while she scrounged for firewood and stole fruit from the trees of neighbors.  My father is a second son of six children, a golden boy who began providing for his family at a young age, helping to put his sisters through school.  My mother is the second-oldest daughter, but 3rd from the youngest of my grandmother’s eleven children, growing up in a very Catholic family.  My father loves music, art, and museums.  My mother was forbidden from reading novels with our family’s strict Catholic upbringing, but there wasn’t much money for novels anyway.  Before he came to Vietnam, my father had traveled all over, taking photographs with his Nikon and reportedly, as my mother teases him, leaving a trail of broken hearts.  My mother was betrothed to marry a boy from the next village over, but having never been there or met him, finagled her way out of the engagement by “forgetting” to notify him of her father’s death, thereby prolonging the time he would traditionally have to wait to marry her from 3 months to  3 yrs  (after the mourning period for her father had ended).  My father, a cultured man 17 years my mother’s senior fell madly in love with the determined young village girl, even going so far as converting from Buddhism to Catholicism to obtain permission from my grandmother to marry.

When I was born, my parents consulted a numerologist for help in naming their first-born daughter.  This to me is one of the most puzzling parts of the story.  When the story was told to me when I was a child, it was said as matter of factly as one might say “And then we took you home from the hospital.”  Looking back on the story now, I have a multitude of questions.  How long does such a process take?  Where might one find a good numerologist in Saigon? Was his or her name on a bulletin board in the waiting room of the hospital?  Was this a normal part of the naming process for everyone at that time?  My father was a fire chief, then a field engineer for the American military base in Saigon, work that is very concrete and physical.  My mother is the most practical person I’ve ever met. The concept of a numerologist being part of the naming process for these 2 people does not fit.  And yet, that is what I am told happened next.  This numerologist took all of our numbers, which I assume consisted of dates of birth for my mother, father, and me, and perhaps the time of my birth, and decided that I would be the peacekeeper between my mother and father, because they are such different people.  Thus my first name and middle name are meant to be said together, translating roughly into “the source of peace and happiness.”

I was in elementary school at the time I heard this story.  If you have children of your own, you realize early on that they arrive in this world with certain personality traits and qualities that emerge and persist.  My two daughters are both perfectionists.  My oldest is soft-spoken and prefers to avoid the spotlight.  My middle child is not soft-spoken, and prefers to do things her way.  My son is perceptive about people, and sensitive to their emotional states.  These are characteristics which are innate to them, ones that I cannot change, even if I were to try, and nothing that I knowingly taught to them.  From childhood, even before I heard the story of my name, I strived for accord between my friends or other children on the playground.  Am I who I am today because of my name?  Or was it just serendipitous that my name reflects the personality with which I was born?  I can’t recall consciously deciding to be someone who brings happiness and peace to others, as it seems to me to a worthy goal for any and every person, but did the knowledge of my name help to firm my nascent and innate desire to be a peacemaker?  Without a time machine, it is a mystery to know how different each of our lives might have been with different names.  Was the fact that my name’s meaning is positive change my perception about my life’s path?  I look at some of the more unusual baby names and wonder what will become of these children named Puppy or Pepsi.  My children are not named Puppy or Pepsi.

When my sister was born, here in America, my father asked for my help in naming her.  Thinking about this now, this also strikes me as strange, given that I had just turned 8.  I took the task very seriously though.  Being a very literary little girl, I went to my favorite stories.  At the top of my list of names was Josephine, for my favorite character in Little Women, and Sara after Sara Crewe from The Little Princess.  These girls were brave, smart, and kind.  These are the characteristics I hoped for in my first and only sister.  My father took my list of suggestions and actually chose one of the names I had provided.  And my sister is brave, smart, and kind.  I can’t take any of the credit for these virtues though I did help to name her.  She was born that way.

Today, I am thankful for my baby sister.  Sis, I’m sorry I forgot to warn you not to read this one in public.  I am grateful that my parents put thought into naming me and all of my siblings, and that none of us have names that might predispose us to being serial killers.  And as always, I am thankful for the power of names and words to change lives.

I love to hear stories of names.  So please feel free to share yours.  What is the story behind your name or the names you chose for your children or pets?  Do you think the meaning behind your name had any effect on who you are? Did you change your name, and if so, why?

Here is an article about the unusual names people have chosen for their babies in 2013, Pepsi and Puppy being real names, unfortunately:

The time machine I would use to explore alternative universes in which my name was not influenced by the numerologist.


Happy Birthday Baby Brother

Today my baby brother turns 35.  He doesn’t look his age, and in fact, I would say all my siblings look younger than their actual ages. I’m not sure if it’s good genes, good living, or just good luck.  Despite that, just typing that sentence has made me feel older.  To distinguish between my two brothers when I’m talking about them to people who don’t know them, I call the older younger brother my little brother, and the youngest brother my baby brother.  Ironically, both little brothers tower over me, and my little sister is taller than me by several inches.  It wasn’t always that way.  There are plenty of pictures of us growing up in which we are posed in stair step fashion, and I was the tallest until about 7th grade when I stopped growing.  It was all downhill from there.  The thing about siblings that I think only children miss out on, is the getting to grow up with them, and getting to watch them grow up, if you are the oldest, like me.   Like all big sisters, I have memories of the annoying baby brother who was always trying to barge into my room when my friends came over.  This was followed by the insufferable teenage years (for both of us).  As he has grown older, I’ve watched my baby brother do things in his own style, his dimply charm winning friends and influencing people with ease.  I remember the high school principal loving him, despite the fact he would fall asleep in math class, a class he managed to ace, of course.  People always ask me if I’m sure he is my brother, and I don’t know how much this has to do with how different we look (he was the captain of our high school’s football team) or with our personalities.

Now that we are both adults, it’s fun to see how different and yet how alike we are.  He is a diehard Lions and Tigers fan, and actually travels to places just to play golf.  I don’t even understand the game of football or why anyone would waste an afternoon watching golf (unless they needed a nap.)  He and I are both foodies, though his concoctions are more adventurous than mine, and always end up having mango or citrus in them for some weird reason.  We both love to travel, though he has been more places for fun than I have.  We both love our families very much.  He is generous to a fault.  His Christmas and birthday presents are always thoughtful and fairly well-wrapped.  He thinks of things like putting together welcome back from maternity leave baskets for his assistant.  He knows more about financial planning and economics than almost anyone I know, and is exceptionally good in his career as a financial consultant (I knew he was paying attention in math class).  I, on the other hand, could put all I know about economics into 1 very short paragraph.  I am proud to say my baby brother has grown up very nicely.  I am blessed to be close to all my siblings, even though we live so far away from them now.  My children are the only nieces and nephew, so they have special relationships with their two uncles and aunt.  To sum up this birthday post for my baby brother, I’ll leave you with these insights into his character from his youngest niece and nephew:

His 10 yr old niece says he is : Playful, kind and cuddly.

His 8 yr old nephew says he is : A bit awesome, fun to play with, and nice.

Today I am thankful for my baby brother, who is a super uncle and a good man.  And ladies, he is single.  (He will probably kill me for that one.)  He should be thankful I didn’t post his picture!

A Heart Like No Other

I had the privilege of being the last to hear my grandmother’s heart beat.  When you pronounce someone in a hospital, there are usually heart monitors and other machines to confirm their passing.  A host of other medical professionals are usually standing by, and a curious stillness after the cacophony of chest compressions and beeping machines enters the room.  It is like a held breath, just long enough for the exact hour and minute to be noted, and then everything begins again, the clock restarted, time marching onward.  Gloves snap, charts close, trays rattle, and all the people melt away, on to the next pressing task.

In hospitals, signs of holidays are everywhere to keep patients oriented to time and place, and to cheer up staff and visitors.  Valentine’s Day is no different, red and pink hearts decorating hallways and doors.  Perhaps because my work was in cardiology, Valentine’s Day always carries a different meaning for me, all the emphasis on hearts reminding me of the steady beats I listen to every day.

The night my grandmother passed away, the rhythmic rise and fall of soft, sad voices in prayer filled the spaces between each beat and breath.  I knelt beside her bed, my fingers on her pulse, feeling the erratic beats slow.  Without a monitor, I had to trust my trembling hands to lay my stethoscope on her chest.

Absence of sound is a funny thing.  You have to listen longer, to the in-between spaces that stretch out, a ribbon of silence, and it is you that pulls away, weighing the likelihood of sound against your willingness to listen further.  I bend my neck, a prayer, the blessing of this moment heavy on my head.

In that moment, I am a child again, kneeling at my grandmother’s bedside, hesitantly echoing her words, the air in the darkened room heavy and still, time marked not by the ticking of a clock, but by decades of Hail Marys.  In those hours at her feet, the sounds of my mother’s country molded my tongue, and I say the Sign of the Cross in Vietnamese, joining my family in benediction and intercession.  I look at my watch, unable to see the numbers through my tears.

My grandmother was born in the Year of the Snake. Like clocks, a calendar in those days wasn’t important, the tasks of the day tied to the setting of the sun and the turning of the seasons from wet to dry, harvest to sowing, and so we don’t know her exact birth date.   It seems wrong somehow, that instead of honoring the date she came into this world, we observe the date of her death.  She was not sad, but ready, longing to be in Heaven with her angels, two little boys who died in childhood, in the days before vaccines or antibiotics.  I learned about the power of grief from her, as she told me stories about her clever little boys, rheumy eyes still wet with memories from decades long before, when she was a young mother losing her sons.

I grew up under those watchful eyes, her hands always slightly gnarled, but soft and smooth, as if the years of running rosary beads between her fingers had transferred the smoothness to them.  My earliest memories are of being with her, eating crusty French bread dipped in Borden’s condensed milk, or walking around our apartment complex through early morning dew.  She never really seemed to age, until after I moved out into my own home, married with children of my own, carrying my stethoscope like a talisman as I made my way through the world.

In the year before she died, my grandmother was hospitalized where I frequently did rounds.  In that hospital bed, surrounded by those beeping machines, she was so much smaller than I remembered, and so much less herself.  The nurses and physicians would comment on what a sweet patient she was, and how attentive my family was, as she was never left alone.  Though she received excellent care from the staff, I am grateful that she did not die in that hospital bed.  Instead she died at home in her own bed, surrounded by family.  The oxygen saturation of her last breath was not measured, her arms lay untouched by IVs or needles, my stethoscope the only foreign thing in her room.  Hers was the most peaceful death I have ever witnessed.

There were no machines, no trays, no gloves, just the soft touch of loving hands folded in prayer.  I do not know the hour or the minute of her passing, and it is not noted in anyone’s chart. I know it was the year of the Dog, and that my grandmother finally went home to be with her angels.