Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Glory...

     Tonight I will take hold of the greatest blessing I may ever know in my life. At 11:59 p.m. I will close my eyes, squeeze them as tightly as I can and count to 60 and when I open them, this year will be over. I will no longer be living in the year of loss... the clock will have provided me with a new start.
    I have never been one to celebrate the end of a year and the beginning of another. I have never understood the point in celebrating the inevitable like it was something rare. There's really never been a point in celebrating something just because it was over. This is what I always secretly thought as I've dressed to the nines and held the champagne glass high or fallen into the arms of friends who pat me on the back for making it through one year and to the precipice of another. I did nothing incredible this past year and the chances of doing something incredible in the year to come, something that warrants celebration anyway, are slim to none.
    I've circled around it a thousand different times and I don't know where to put this year. Do I celebrate the year because I had it? Do I celebrate the year because it's over? Do I celebrate it because for three quarters of it I had my best friend, biggest inspiration and best person that I know with me? Do I celebrate it because I know that this year took the one thing I was certain I couldn't live without and I proved it wrong? Do I celebrate it at all?
    I know how to mourn it, but I don't know if I should... The last fourth of July with Mom, the last trip to Columbia with Mom, the last time I heard her voice, touched her hand, saw her smile. Those are all things that I could mourn. They are things that will forever remain locked in 2014. Those are the things we don't think about when it comes to death. Time stops and when it does, it grabs a hold of everything, freezes it and puts it in a glass box on display right next to the confusion and despair you are already staring down. You can't mourn that. You can mourn what you lose and you can mourn what you miss and you can mourn what you may or may not allow it to turn you into, but you cannot mourn the stop.
   So instead of mourning, I will wait for the glory. That's the thing about God that I understand least. I understand the compassion of God and I understand His mercies. I understand the hand of providence and I understand His plan. But I don't understand His glory. I don't understand glory in and of itself, quite frankly.
    Maybe I get it in the sense of human beings. When someone steals your "glory" they steal the praise that should have come your way. They steal the spotlight that could be shining on you, should be shining on you. Glory is victory. Glory is basking. So what is the glory of God and where is His glory for 2014? How will it manifest? How will it shine through? And, most worrisome to me, if I know nothing about the glory of God, then how will I recognize the glory that was meant to roll off, roll out, roll like thunder from the loss of my sweet, sweet mother?
   I know the lives that she touched as she lived and as she lived through the process of dying. I know the strength that I have seen in my brother, in my uncles, in my family through this process of loss. Is that it, is that the glory? Because I think, as immature and selfish as it sounds, in order to understand it all, I need to see the glory.
    And therein lies the uselessness of celebrating the cycle of ending and beginning... I need to see the glory to understand but I don't understand what glory is so have I missed it already? Tonight as I quickly and most joyfully bid farewell to 2014, the last year of my life as I had known it since birth I will turn my eyes to 2015 and pray for the reverse of what I've prayed for most of my life: I will pray for eyes that understand and a heart that can see and recognize the glory when it is fulfilled.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

An Open Letter to Brittany Maynard

Dear Brittany,
      It is November 1. Today was supposed to be your death day. I read that you have opted to postpone it. I think that is a wise decision. I have some insight to share with you so I hope that you will bear with me...
     I have faced death only once, during the birth of my child who was three months premature. They took my now-12-year-old son in an attempt to save one of us. They told me, as they wheeled me back to the operating room that the likelihood of both of us surviving was 10 percent at best. We both lived. We are both still living. My conference with death is nothing compared to what you are facing and I know that. But as I said, bear with me.
     On October 9 of this year I read your story. On October 12 of this year I called to speak with my 70-year-old mother. She couldn't get out of bed. I told her to call the ambulance. She was admitted to the hospital that day because they couldn't give her enough morphine to ease her pain without admitting her. Three days later we were told that she had stage four terminal bone cancer in 95% of her skeletal system, her spine had been destroyed by it, her liver was 100% engaged and they couldn't find the origin. They were absolutely certain that the cancer had metastasized at least three times. There was tumor the size of a tennis ball on her shoulder that you could see through her skin; she couldn't move without screaming out in pain.
     She was alive. But she was dying. But she was alive. There was life to be had out of what living was left to do. In those 10 days in the hospital, she faded away from me and faded back to me several times. She was dying. But she was alive. And every single moment with her was precious, Brittany. Even when she was laying there, fighting for every single breath, I was learning, she was teaching. There was a purpose of every single moment of it. There was horror and there was beauty and I loved all of it, because it was mine to love. There was nothing else to do with it, I chose to love it.
     She died on October 22 at 2 a.m. I wasn't with her when she passed away. And even though she didn't take a pill, I believe to the very core of who I am that she died with dignity, on her terms and in God's time.
     I'm grateful for that, Brittany. She was dying, but she was alive. She was living through her dying. She was ministering to every nurse and doctor, every person that walked in that room was blessed by the peace and strength that rolled off of her. She was dying, but she was alive.
     I don't know if anyone has ever told you this, but I know that you will understand it when I say that there is beauty in everything. You have traveled and seen the majesty and secret glory of this earth and you know what beauty is. There is beauty in everything. There is beauty in believing in the timeline given to each of us, there is beauty in allowing our own suffering to be used to change the minds and hearts of others and there is beauty in trusting in an all-knowing God. Sometimes the beauty is covered in rust, or dirt or blood or pain, but it is there. Because she was dying, but she was alive.
    You labeled yourself, Brittany. You introduced yourself to the world as someone who is "dying." You affected many lives when you did that... the scope of your reach went far beyond what you expected, I am sure. And I am sure that you felt you were doing the right thing. But you were not doing the right thing, and you did not do the right thing.
     I am rejoicing that you are still alive. I am so glad that you are still finding joy in life. But here's the thing, Brittany, joy isn't something to be FOUND, it is something to be chosen. You have to choose joy, not just when you are faced with sadness, loss, death or fear... it's a choice to made everyday. That was what my mother's death taught me. That's what it taught everyone who was near her. Her death was nothing but dignified and though I miss her physical presence, I am proud to be her daughter and I am rejoicing for her victory. It was a fight well-fought. I believe she won in the end.
     And so now, Brittany, that you know the story of my mother you need to understand that what you did, your choice to tell your story with such conviction and certainty and allow it to be held up as bravery and courage when in fact it was cowardice and fear, was wrong. And you need to apologize. You need to apologize to every young person who saw your story and now believes that suicide is just a choice to exit this life because you suffer from cancer and they suffer from depression. You need to apologize to every person who has ever fought for every single breath because they wanted their children to understand that they did everything in their power to stay with them as long as possible. You need to apologize to every single loved one who has sat beside the bed, thanked God every time the chest rose and fell, praised God for every moment with them and in the same breath begged God to take them to end their suffering. Yes, you have a choice, still. And I for one am glad that those pills are still in that little purse. But you took your choice and you made it a platform based on your convictions and now those convictions are changing, after the fact. So please, please, please explain to those who felt you were a hero, who felt you were brave, that perhaps, you spoke out of turn, perhaps you made a mistake not by choosing to end your life the way you want, but by making it such a piece of public propaganda.
     You talked about a peaceful death. There is no such thing. While it may be a foggy happening for you, slipping into the great unknown, it will still be violent for your family members. Because in the words of the poet Emily Dickinson, death is "all we know of heaven and all we need of hell." I want you to know that I pray for you, for strength for you and your family, for understanding and for peace and for the beauty to be revealed every single day. I pray that you will let them love you as they want to love you. And I pray for grace, because that is the only way to die with dignity.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Death, Be Not Proud

     I knew it was going to happen just as soon as I saw the story on my newsfeed. Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman had moved from California to Oregon in order to end her life. Granted, she is facing the possibility of a painful death after being diagnosed with an inoperable terminal brain tumor and so she went to a doctor who told her she met the criteria for the prescription of the "death pill." She is planning on taking them on November 1... a few weeks from now... after celebrating her husband's birthday.
     I knew that I would address it with my students. At first I thought I would simply make it a writing prompt, but then they started asking questions. Some of them had never heard of Maynard. I showed them the video of her interview and watched them watch her and it occurred to me that something was very wrong.
     Growing up in the 1980's and 1990's, it was a rite of passage to write a research paper, at some point, about euthanasia and Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Dr. Death, they called him, and despite having been thrown in jail three times, tried three times and acquitted three times, Dr. Kevorkian was determined that people should have the option of dying with dignity.
     Dr. Jack Kevorkian, old, blunt in speech and possessing eyes that seemed almost black was the face of "death with dignity" to me. Brittany Maynard, young, well-spoken and articulate and possessing a spirit for adventure was the face of "death with dignity" to the generation of students I taught... She was appealing and what she said seemed to make so much sense...
     Except for the student who was back at school for the first time after watching her aunt die from cancer. The death had lasted a week. There was no magic pill... and according to my student, there shouldn't be. "I am so grateful for every single minute I had with her," she tearfully explained to the class. "I am inspired by having watched her fight so hard."
     That was when things changed. The "what if's?" began circling overhead. What if she has more time than they think? What if they discover a treatment that works? What if she takes the pill and then changes her mind? What if the pill doesn't work like it's supposed to? What if the doctors are wrong? What if, her entire reason for being alive, the entire purpose of her life, is buried in what she perceives as something so insufferable and horrifying that she won't even give living a chance?
      There are so many layers to this happening. First, she speaks very passionately in the interview, which is actually a PSA for death with dignity (a phrase that I'm pretty sure is supposed to replace 'euthanasia'). She speaks about "seizing the day" and living each day with small goals in mind for "the time she has left." Yet she has already received the pills. Already decided on the day. Already asked her mother to meet her "spirit" on top of Machu Picchu. She is choosing to end her life and she explicitly says in an interview with People magazine that she does not want to die and does not have a suicidal cell in her body. She is merely choosing to pass on instead of suffering the consequences of a disease. Such a contradiction, and kind of a slap in the face to those who have lost a loved one to suicide due to depression. Does that make their grieving wrong? Does that make the choice that their loved one made suddenly acceptable and brave? Does it lessen the pain? No, and it never will.
     It will not be popular to speak out against Brittany. She is being perceived as brave, as a warrior, and as far as I am concerned she is, as is ANYONE who is ever diagnosed with any type of cancer. It's a horrible disease. I watched my brother nearly lose his life from stage 4 rectal cancer.  Last year, I sat with my father-in-law for weeks as he slowly moved past this world. To suggest that either one of them lacked dignity at any point in their fight for survival, whether it be lost or won, is ludicrous. They lacked neither dignity or bravery. And I treasured every moment of the last moments that my father-in-law was here.
     I have faced death. The birth of my son was a last ditch effort to save one of us; I was sick enough that they were certain I was going to either die or end up killing him simply by keeping him in my womb. I was ready to die for my son. I told the doctors if they had to choose one to save, save him. That doesn't make me better or braver than Brittany Maynard; that just makes me grateful that I had something worth fighting for.
     I told my students today that I didn't know what the right answer was. I explained to them that when I was their age, Dr. Kevorkian was considered a devil and euthanasia was not an even considered option, ever. I asked if they thought this was going to set a dangerous precedent, because what about people who are caretakers of others? Do they have the right to request the pill for their loved ones? I asked them if they understand that this was a very slick way for the media to make this a more palatable idea, to put a pretty face on an ugly idea? I asked them if they understood that this was a slippery slope and that a dangerous precedent could be set?
     Then I told them the God's honest truth. There is beauty to be found in everything. Sometimes you have to look; sometimes you have to wait; always you have to have faith. But there is beauty. And that is why I will mourn the death of Brittany Maynard because by doing this thing, she just may be missing out on the greatest beauty she would have ever known.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Present Perfect

     Times have changed, and not for the better. I live with photographical evidence of that fact in my classroom everyday. At any given time, I can pick a year and step back in time. I can lose myself in the crinolines and taffeta of the pristine prom of the 1950's or the committed and passionate protests of the '60's and '70's. That's the wonder of being the yearbook adviser. It's like every year has been cryogenically frozen and preserved and when this world is unpleasant I can simply slip into another year and get lost, absorbed in innocence, freedom from technology and what was pictured as a society and culture that raised generation after generation of citizens who cared about their country, their school and themselves.
   Today was one of those rare days where I didn't wander anywhere near the shelves holding those books, those portals that would sweep me into a "better" time. Today, in my little corner of the world, it was present perfect.
   It was student involvement day and my classroom was buzzing with a variety of students, seniors through sophomores who were slowly preparing to sell an idea they had themselves bought into: school spirit. I'm talking about old school school spirit - the kind that makes you hum along to "Be True To Your School," makes you want to own a letterman's sweater, makes you want to be somebody's "best girl" or "guy." See, a group of students had decided that they wanted to leave their mark on the school in a way that didn't involve the negativity that is plunked all over the media, that is touted as the "apathy of the millenials." They decided they wanted to breathe life back into the ghost of School Pride.
   Some of you may not understand why this is a big deal. Some of you won't care why this IS in fact a big deal. For those of you who haven't been in a modern high school, things have changed. Some might say they haven't changed for the better. Most would agree. I used to be one that would agree but Mexico High School has changed my mind.
   In so many ways, it must be understood that a school is like a church. You can build a building and call it a church. You can build a building and call it a school. But neither of them are truly the essence of their own meaning until they are inhabited. And let me tell you something about Mexico High School: it is being inhabited.
   We've seen glimpses in the past few years. Those students who grab hold of an idea and turn it into something living and breathing. We've seen the excitement for events and most importantly, the willingness to support those who are different. But this is something more, this is deeper, this is something that is going to resonate as you watch the sophomore student become enthusiastic about it because a senior student has invited them to become involved and passionate. This is... wait for it... epic.
   There were just a few at first, at the end of last year, who came to me and expressed that they thought the Dawg Pound, the unofficial student pep club, needed to become official and organized. It seemed like a good idea at the time... which is also the unofficial story of my life, so I said I would sponsor them. Hundreds of spirit bracelets, posters, tweets and QR codes later, we offered our idea up to the student body today at student involvement day. The students, they came... but it didn't have anything to do with the bracelets or the tweeting. It started way before we did...
   The feeling of our school has changed. Something about it has become more genuine, more caring, more student-friendly. You find it odd that a school wasn't student-friendly? If you want to know the main problem with education today, it is that most schools are not student-friendly. But what is happening at Mexico High School isn't just the students catching on to the school spirit idea.
   The teachers are trying new things, getting brave, going out on a limb to engage students. The teachers are smiling at each other, fellowshipping with one another and creating an atmosphere that speaks to students of acceptance and respect. And those students will mirror what they will see. The administrators are supporting the teachers and the students. It didn't happen over night and in all truth it could end tomorrow. But I don't think it will...
   Not when you have a football team that arranges a fundraiser for their opponent's coach's wife who has cancer; or when you have an organization that is forming with the purpose of making sure there is a network of support among community members, school officials and local businesses who can meet the need of a student or family with immediacy. It won't end, not when you have teachers working so hard to find ways to help make their students succeed not only now but in the future, and parents who are so supportive and involved that they can walk down the halls and speak to every kid they meet by name.
   See, those are signs of a great school, the kind of idyllic school pictured in those old yearbooks with the perfectly coiffed young ladies and the handsome, smiling young men who look like they took the time to iron their clothes every single school day. We'll never be able to go back to that; we know way too much to go back to that. But what really mattered to me today as I cut out little strips of paper to staple to bracelets and stapled the football coach's face to a paint stick was that I really didn't want to be anywhere or any when but right then and right there. It seems that after so many years, we are finally reaching the edge of present perfect.

Friday, March 21, 2014

All Hail the Dead End

My classroom, at times, becomes more a crossroad than a classroom. Students wander in and out to work on various projects; teachers wander in and out to make copies when they don't want to make the Odyssey-esque journey to the teachers' work room. I love it because it affords the opportunity for teachers and students to interact in a very real way: conversation. The topics are wide and varied from the philosophical to the debatable to the good old-fashioned belly laugh that comes with being somewhere that you feel safe and accepted.
   It was one of these conversations that lead me to an oddly dark place a couple of days ago. One of my students, very intelligent and well-spoken became absolutely appalled when I and another teacher expressed that, at some point in time you learn to cling to the following beliefs:
          1) It is what it is.
          2) Whatever happens, happens.
   Her eyes flew open almost as quickly as her mouth in the shock that two people could allow themselves to become so desolate of hope. "That's terrible!" she cried as she made her case against the two mantras. "That's just giving up... it's so passive and so lacking of hope." She was sincerely shocked.
   I didn't bring it up again, but her shock had shaken me a bit. Had I lost hope? At age 42 had I become so stained and tainted by the world and the people in it that I no longer felt the need to fight? Was I no longer raging against the dying of the light? Was I going gently? Had I become (gulp) a doubter?
   I could turn only to one place... the past. And so I dug out my old journals and began to read the words of a former me, in many ways, a lesser me. My world was so small, I couldn't help thinking as I read and re-read poetry and the pining and whining of an unrequited lover, the girl who was left behind and the one that was never understood. All the way back to college when I first started writing "seriously" I traveled in those journals, all the while asking if I, bright-eyed/bushy-tailed optimist, first-to-arrive/last-to-leave party-goer and eternally-bubbly and good-natured good-time gal, had allowed life to turn me into (gulp, gulp) a doubter.
   In the pages I found an odd destination to end my journey. I found the dead end. I didn't find it in my college journals or in the journals of my early 20's. I found it in the journals of my late 20's when my heart was absolutely and beyond mending broken. I mean broken in a way that could never be smiled away, that time would allow to scar but never heal. The kind of pain that scratches at your brain in your sleep and makes you feel as if you are being followed - that was the kind of pain that was my first dead end. Something was gone that was never coming back and there was absolutely nothing in the world, nothing at all within my powers that I could do to change it.
   You either die at the dead end or climb over whatever wall is there and leave it behind... because it is what it is. The dead end is finite. The dead end is "no." And the dead end will never be revived, it will never come chasing after you, it will never whip you around and plant a passionate kiss on your mouth and whisper apologies in your ear. The dead end is just that: dead and it leaves a part of you dead as well.
   And it occurred to me that, at the tender age of 18, she hadn't come to a dead end and I prayed a quick and quiet prayer that she never would. But that is not a reality. I was jealous of her for just a moment, the belief that you can change anything out of sheer will and determination. I believed that once too... until I dead ended. And then I had to adjust.
   I have seen enough dead ends since my first to know that I am a climber. I may throw myself against the wall for a bit, kneel in a tearful prayer and ask that there be a secret passage through the dead end, but eventually I will accept the dead end for what it is... because, as much as I hate to say it again, it is what it is. And so I climb over it, sometimes in a few days, sometimes months, and there are still a few that I am struggling to get that last leg over... but once I am over them I then have the power to turn and look back at it, from wherever I am on my path at that time and move away from it with a bit more hope in my step because that dead end is a dead end - it is what it is. And whatever is waiting ahead for me is there. It may be a dead end, it may be an infinite loop that forces me to forge a path not yet created. But I am prepared for it because I know that whatever happens, happens.
   So you see, young person, I am not a doubter nor am I a curmudgeon or a hopeless cynic. I'm a climber and I am stronger than I ever have been because I have left the dead ends behind knowing that I can deal with whatever the future brings. That is the great difference between me at 18, me at 25 and me right here and now. You fear that I am hopeless but in truth I have nothing but hope and for that I owe a debt of gratitude to the dead end that taught me you don't always defeat every foe but there is always a victory to be found if you are willing to claim it; I've claimed a million and I'm sure there are a million more coming.
   There you go. That is why it is what it is. That is why whatever happens, happens. That is why you can truly only carpe so much of the diem and that is why YOLO is really stupid when you think about it: if you're doing it right, you live a million lives in your lifetime. THAT is what it is... truly.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


     My dad died last night. I didn't know him, not the way that a daughter should know a father. I had been in contact with him for about six years, speaking with him over the phone on a regular basis. That was a huge step considering I may or may not have spoken to him during the first 36 years of my life... I find it horrifying that I don't remember. What I do remember are years of indifference. When I was growing up I didn't know until around the first grade that not every family was unlike mine. I had a mom, a brother, two uncles, a great-grandma, a grandpa and a "hey you." The "hey you" was grandma... I didn't figure out until about second grade that you could have two grandma's. I am pretty sure I thought it was illegal for the first seven years of my life so I just referred to my gran as "hey you" as my great-grandma was Grandma Mac. I thought this scattered smattering of relatives was what went on inside everyone's house.
     Back to the indifference... there was a picture of my mother in a beautiful white dress and a handsome, dark-haired man standing beside her smiling through the thick black horn rims of some pretty dapper hipster glasses. That man, I was told, was my dad. My family answered my questions when I asked. Questions as to his location, his name, his current situation and whether or not he could ride a bike were the main questions that I asked. They were always answered, never with anger or snarkiness; they were just answered. I asked if he was going to come back, I asked if I had made him mad, I asked if he left because my brother hummed all the time and it was really annoying, I asked and I asked and I asked and they always answered. Finally I stopped asking because answers get boring after awhile and in all reality we don't ask because we want to know; most of the time we ask because we want something fixed. Nothing was getting fixed.
     After I stopped asking questions, I started getting angry because nothing was getting fixed. There was no "Dad." I wanted to know why. I stopped wanting to know why and settled for angry. And angry, when you get used to it, stops being angry and starts being bitter and that's what I was for about 20 years. During those 20 years, the "bitter" years, I was selfish and stupid. I put myself before anyone. If I didn't get what I wanted the right way, I found a way to get what I wanted. I was a liar, a manipulator and I was cruel. I was in it for myself. Because I had a "right." I had been abandoned, I had been left behind. I had suffered at the hands of another and I deserved better than what I had been handed. I had my crutch and I hobbled around on it when I didn't want to meet the expectations of life. I used it as a weapon, as a wall, as a means to an end. Anger     It was only after I had my own child that this stopped. Slowly but surely God revealed myself to me: a liar, a chameleon, a manipulator who had duped so many, hurt so many. And once this was revealed... Let me just tell you, once God reveals your true nature to you it will never stop uppercutting your blatant ignorance. TRY to ignore it. Impossible. So you start backtracking... I started backtracking. And as I went back to the last place where I had left some semblance of a decent human being I came across that bitterness and then the anger. The difference was that I was walking with someone while I backtracked... You know that cheesy footprints in the sand poster? Let's just say that while there was one set of footprints in the sand, right beside it was a deep, wavy crevice where God had dragged me kicking and screaming... not nearly as poetic but relatively accurate. At the end of this journey, I found my sister, Hallie, and after some time, I heard the voice of my dad for the first time in my life.
     Our conversations on the phone were all of the things they should have been: enlightening, revealing, frightening, full of laughter, full of tears and, at times, brutal. I wanted to know him and I wanted him to know me so I held nothing back from him. I'm sure I scared the hell out of him a couple of times. He was honest with me, revealing little bits and pieces of himself here and there. I grabbed onto them and tried to piece together the man that was on the phone. Slowly but surely he began to take shape, but that is where it ended with us. He was an outline.
     He is gone now and the irony does not escape me. All of the comments I see on my sister's social media about what a great man he was and how he touched so many lives, they fill him in for me a bit, but only with gray where there should have been color. I wanted the color. I have only an outline.
     But I have a sister and another brother and a step-mother. I have cousins and a wonderful "adopted" sister. I think I have an aunt somewhere as well? I hope I do. And I hope against all hope that they will help me fill in the outline...