Saturday, December 24, 2011
But I sent her a note explaining why I couldn't attend her nuptials and felt I was doing the right thing. Well, they've been happily married for more than 35 years, both are wonderfully sweet, and, after I met and married a nice Catholic girl in the early 90s, I've apologized for my myopia several times in letters and in person.
Interestingly, after Verna and I got engaged someone sent me an article that said intermarriage finishes the work of Hitler. I'd love to say I had my interfaith-we-are-the-world epiphany before the ugly responses to my mixed marriage. But that would not be true.
I grew up in a very Jewish household. My maternal grandmother, who was never dogmatic, even tore her toilet paper before the Jewish Sabbath so she wouldn't violate the Biblical and Talmudic directives against work on the day of rest. My mother once threatened serious illness after I asked out a non-Jewish girl when I was 19.
But when I fell in love with someone who was not Jewish and I encountered varying degrees of hostility, I realized, shamefully, that my teenaged behavior had been unbecoming. It was easy to criticize those who seemed so narrow-minded, but my response when I was about 15 was certainly on the spectrum of insularity. So who was I to criticize?
On the other hand, many in the Jewish community continue during the Christmas holiday to wax religious about the Christmas dilemma. What should Jews and Jewish parents do when all things Santa, reindeer, elves, present, jingle bells, carols and more are splashed across every inch of our culture? Can we truly preserve our faith with a little Chinese food and a movie?
Obviously it's different for me now. As Maya likes to say, "Dad, you're Jewish, but Miguel and I are Jewish and Catholic." And that means we do celebrate both holidays. We have a Christmas tree and each light a menorah.
After my early dalliance with Jewish chauvinism, I can easily admit that I like Christmas, and have always liked the spirit of the holiday. Like many Christians, my biggest issue with Christmas these days is that we've allowed the holiday to become way too commercial. Even Maya responds that Christmas is about "getting presents," which I know is normal for an almost six-year-old, but I don't want that idea reinforced much longer.
So we go give as much as possible, to each other, to strangers, with time and money. Last year we bought Starbucks gift cards and handed them out to people on the streets. It was a small (and maybe token) gesture, but I want Miguel and Maya to be exposed to giving. And I try to model that all year long.
I do see how people devolve into confusion and outright nastiness towards cultural and religious differences at this time of year, and it's not good for us as Americans or as people of the world. Several years ago, the local Jewish paper, which I've freelanced for since 2003, ran an article about an Orthodox rabbi who forbid his congregants to read from the Torah (first five books of Moses) on Christmas Eve or Christmas day, saying it was a mark against God. When Verna and I read that, I cringed and she railed against the prejudice of some of my religion's adherents.
"Now you know why I would never convert," she'd said.
Judaism and Catholicism are part of my religious and spiritual life now and will be for a long, long time. And that's a good thing. I am Jewish, but I do enjoy celebrating Christianity with my loved ones. And learning more about faith from different perspectives.
I wish the fringe religious group in Florida who pressured Lowe's to pull it's advertising from a reality show based on Muslim Americans could have absorbed some of the wisdom I came to later in life. I finally learned that if there is a God, then we are all that Deity's children. Instead of railing against people who worship and celebrate differently, why don't find time for tolerance, respect, inclusion, and sublime wonder at the diversity of our country (and planet)?
If I had to do it all over again, I'd attend both weddings, celebrate with abandon, and share familial joy. But maybe my early chauvinism and later renunciation of that behavior has helped me become more sensitive to my interfaith family and to solidify a commitment to preserving that appreciation (and all that entails) for the rest of my life.
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Monday, June 6, 2011
Monday, May 30, 2011
Friday, May 27, 2011
Honest. I promise.
It’s more about values, and how we pass on moral messages to our children and fortify ourselves as role models. You know, do as I say and do.
On the way home from school yesterday, Miguel shared with me the day’s sex education lesson.
Kids can ask any question they want. The question was: Which is better, oral or anal sex?
“It wasn’t my question,” he said.
“What did the teacher say?” I asked. For some reason, the question was posed to the language arts instructor, not the science one, who teaches the unit.
“She said, ‘That’s a personal question,’ Miguel said. “So which is better?”
I will not divulge my answer, nor reveal my response to his next question: “Have you ever had oral sex?”
My answers are unimportant. I will admit that I was speechless as he fired his questions much more rapidly than I felt equipped to answer.
I always knew I’d be Miguel’s go-to guy for all matters of sex, relationships, love, etc. Verna ceded that responsibility to me when Miguel was a toddler by virtue of our shared gender. Even though I am fully committed to offer age-and-developmentally appropriate honesty to my children about sex, my conversations with Miguel have always been slightly awkward.
He first asked me about babies and sex when he was eight. After I gave him a very brief introduction into sexual reproduction, he looked at me as if he’d just swallowed castor oil and raw eggs. From time to time, as he’s approached puberty and adolescence and his body has begun to change, there have been additional talks. I have tried to be as matter-of-fact as possible. Call me Jack Webb, Mr. Dragnet: just the facts.
Oh, I editorialize. I’ve thrown in a few things about protection, emotional readiness, not wanting to be a grandfather for at least 15 years. I am not even sure I needed to go in a few directions, but Miguel’s teachers have informed us parents that teenage sex (oral and otherwise) happens earlier and earlier.
Yes, I shudder. At 13 I was content to stand in the lunch line close enough to girls to inhale the fragrance of their shampoo. The world may have changed slightly when it comes to the sexes and sex in the 21st century.
So when I got back to work yesterday, a little addled after Miguel put me on the spot, I sought out the comfort of two male co-workers. They laughed with me as I retold the car conversation, and then one said, “It’s great that he could talk to you.”
And that’s when it hit me: yes, it is great he can talk to me. And he wanted to converse with me. I have not initiated a conversation yet about sex education. He was the one who came to me with the permission slip, and Miguel has usually shared with me the various sex education lessons. I have confined myself to asking the very general, “How was school today?”
To which he invariably replies, “Fine.”
Or I might say, “What’d you do in school today?” and he will offer, “Not much.”
But with sex education, I haven’t paid closer attention to the unit than any others. Partly because I am swamped with life, work, and just getting the kids fed, to school, and to their activities.
I do know, however, the awesome responsibility I have. And it’s not really about sex. Miguel barely has girls on his radar. He texts a few, but they are in the larger context of reaching out to friends. It is really about learning how to navigate the emotionally confusing and often physically awkward world of relationships, friendships, and the delicate social dance of teenagers.
Several weeks ago, after I mentioned a new female friend, he said, “Is she hot?”
“Miguel, that doesn’t matter,” I said, feeling as if I were banging my head against a wall and wondering if he was actually listening to me. “It’s what’s on the inside.”
But I bought him two posters of Megan Fox, which now adorn his bedroom wall, so what message is really bounding through him?
Welcome to my contradiction.
I still hope (and pray) Miguel learns about girls, young women, women, relationships, and, yes, sex, by the examples I’ve tried to set for the past 25 years. Time will, um, tell. I am not sure I want to know all the questions, but I am ready with answers.
Sunday, May 15, 2011
I wanted to do something special and memorable for our first Mother's Day without Verna. So I announced to the kids, “Let's bring some photos to the cemetery and share a story or memory of Mommy.
Miguel lowered his shoulders and shrugged in full teenager mode, “Do I have to?”
“No,” I said, “but Maya and are going to and you have to come with us.”
He brought a tennis ball and asked if we could play catch. “No, Miguel, it's a cemetery. We are going to be reverent,” I said, using a word I purposely knew was unfamiliar to him. “This is a sacred space.”
Then he asked if he could bound downhill over and across other grave markers. “No,” I said again, “do you need to ask?”
We knelt by Verna and her mother's grave marker. I wiped away some dried leaves, dirt, and grass, and emptied the water from a few flower pots. Someone had left fresh flowers that the deer had already snacked on.
Maya chose a photograph taken last August, less than two weeks before Verna died. Verna rests her head against the olive green cushion on our living room couch, a thin smile stretched across her lips, her face steroids puffy, clasping a completely naked Maya in her arms. Happiness is etched on Maya's face, the fingers on her left hand gently touching the cross around Verna's neck, her ears sparkling from what were then days old earrings.
I brought a photograph from 1997, just a week or so after we'd found out Verna was pregnant with Miguel. We are at the home of her best friend from kindergarten, Rose, and her husband, David, wearing Raybans and opening a bottle of champagne. I am wearing a homemade tie-dyed t-shirt and my formerly ubiquitous fanny pack. Verna has a black v-necked shirt and jeans shorts.
We were still stunned and elated that we were going to be parents. Verna was not quite 33. I'd just turned 38. I told Miguel and Maya how excited we'd been when Kaiser confirmed that Verna was indeed pregnant.
Miguel tossed the tennis ball. “Miguel, “ I said sternly. Maya flitted near me. My sister-in-law, Donna, showed up with her eldest daughter, Jillian, who turns 21 this year on what would have been Verna's and my 20th wedding anniversary.
Maya walked around the grass and gravestones with Jillian, then Miguel on the periphery started chasing the girls. Donna and I reminisced yet again about the surreal and awful times of last year, the pain crises that sent Verna to the hospital several times, the decision to defer her care to hospice, the tears, the anguish, and finally the reality that Verna's death was imminent slamming against us all like a vicious wave.
Later in the day, I said to Donna, “I felt so alone,” referring to me being Verna's primary caregiver the last two weeks of her life, totally responsible for administering and increasing the narcotic cocktails, and wavering about what was best for her, the kids, me, the rest of the family.
She responded, “It's time for me to give you a hug,” as she pulled me to her chest like a mother comforting a child.
Maya brought home a photograph of herself from school, a multicolored construction paper background, wearing a sweet smile as she gazes at the photographer, probably a preschool teacher. The picture is soft-framed with a blue matte and a white border, three flowers and a bumblebee on the corners.
Underneath the picture it says, You're the best! “It's a Mother's Day present for Mommy,” Maya said. “I wish I could give it to her.”
“Me, too,” I said.
Just three weeks ago, Maya stamped her foot outside our garage and said, “Daddy, I am angry. I want Mommy to come down and be with us, and hug us.”
“I know,” I said.
“And that's why I have been so grumpy,” she said apologetically. “Because I miss Mommy.”
I hugged and kissed her and wished I could bring Maya her Mommy down from Heaven, to sit on her bed so they could affix stickers in Maya's Disney princess sticker books.
But, alas, it is not to be. I know that, as do Miguel and Maya, but that still does not erase the longing, the confusion, the pain.
As Miguel and I walked upstairs on Mother's Day for his nightly routine (teeth brushing, one toss of his Oregon Ducks football, and then I read to him), he said, “I want to find a picture of Mommy and me and make it bigger and then put it in a really nice frame in my bedroom.”
I was temporarily speechless. Finally I said, “Sounds like a great idea.”
And completely reverent.
Sunday, April 24, 2011
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Friday, April 15, 2011
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Thursday, March 31, 2011
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
I've changed names to safeguard the privacy of residents and their families at the retirement community where I work.
Ellen came home to die. Following major coronary surgery and several weeks at a respite care center, she said simply, "I am tired of all this. I'm in pain. I don't want to be a burden anymore."
I visited Ellen yesterday to deliver her a case of Ensure I no longer needed. I peered into her room and saw mottled skin stretched taut against her face. Her gray hair was brushed back atop her head. Blue veins snaked down from the back of her hands past her bony wrists and forearms.
"I brought you a present," I shouted.
"You did?" said Ellen, who is in her late 80s.
I walked into her bedroom, with eight crosses affixed on the wall above the light switch, a rosary dangling from the portable table in front of her.
She lifted her hands at me, palms up, and her eyes widened. She smiled brightly. "I'm glad you're here," she said.
"I dropped off some Ensure," I told her. "I don't need it anymore."
I gulped and held back the tears. I am not going to lose it in front of a dying woman, I thought. Ellen started mumbling about a girl who worked for her and needed to get home. Then she explained the large Impressionist painting of three girls in their Sunday best white dresses, bows in their hair, on the wall next to the crosses.
"The girl there," she said, pointing to a figure in the center of the canvas, "was a neighbor of ours, lived behind us. Her mother was the artist."
"Are you using your rosary?" I ask. "It takes a Jewish guy to make sure you are praying, Ellen."
She smiled again. "Well, yes, that is something you would do." She brought up the worker again and I just nodded. She raised her bony fingers towards me, as if she was about to make a critical point, and we clasped hands. Her fingers were warm, her life force still flowing.
Ten minutes later I visited Fay, who is also on hospice and in her late 90s. Thin oxygen tubes snaked in a V from her nose to her chest. Her eyes drooped and the skin underneath her chin wiggled.
"Hi, hon," she said as I poked my head into her room.
"Fay, you're looking good. Nice to have you back." She'd spent a night in the hospital last week after she'd had difficulty breathing.
"Thank you, hon," she said. I explained to Fay and her two children, Janet and Bob, that they she should not hesitate to order trays and let us know how we can best accommodate their needs. I reminded them that all tray services or guest meals are complimentary while a resident is on hospice.
Janet asked me, "Can I come down at 5:45 after Mom has eaten and get some food?" Dinner closes each night at 6.
"Just tell the hostess I said it was OK," I answered.
I'd first met Fay at Casino Night about a month after I started working here in late 2009. She'd been depressed about her failing body, cancer, and weekly blood treatments, but she'd dragged herself to the evening's festivities. She later told me that my associates and I helped peel away her curtain of despair. "You helped save me that night," she said.
I grabbed her hand just before I left and said we would do whatever she needed. Her eyes darted as if she were preoccupied, but I sensed she wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.
As I left her room and breathed in the stillness of the hallway, my mind focused on hospice, transporting me back to last June, when Verna's oncologist firmly suggested we contact hospice so Verna could have access to 24-hour almost on-the-spot care. The conversation, the images, and the words still imprinted on my brain, when they told us we were looking at two or three more months.
"But," the oncologist said, "I'd love for you to prove me wrong.
Verna died almost three months after her oncologist's final diagnosis and recommendations.
Ellen and Fay are at the beginning of the process, before the round-the-clock administration of pain-killers, conversations about feeding tubes, hushed words about increasing the doses of morphine or Ativan or some other narcotic. I ache for their families, for the decisions they will soon confront or mull over.
I feel sad for them and it reminds me of the anguish I endured last summer. But, on another level, I felt slightly blissful after I left Fay's apartment. Not because I may have eased their suffering (it may beyond anyone's control now), but maybe because I felt how strongly their spirits pulsed as each braved life amid what could possibly be an imminent death. Both women seemed so present, even if Ellen's mind was foggy. And they pulled me into that Zen-state and reminded me yet again that I have a role to play here: caregiver. Or I could just listen to them talk or ramble as they prepare for another journey on the edge of living.