” Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”- 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
Today will be difficult so I am writing. It’s my drug of choice in times of strong emotion and particularly soothing right now with a cup of hot green tea at hand, in the quiet of the earliest morning before sunrise.
Later today we will bury Harrison. His obituary says: “He passed peacefully in the arms of his family after a beautiful and unforgettable hour. His life was a brief gift to all that loved him and he will never be forgotten.” Harrison was the newborn son of my nephew Patrick and his partner Diana.
When Patrick was born 28 years ago, my brother (his father) and sister-in-law let me come into the delivery room with them. Patrick came forth after the normal struggle of childbirth and we laughed that he was a “conehead” because his pointy head had been squished in the birth canal during his entrance.
Patrick grew up to be a fine man. I served as Patrick’s godmother as he entered the Greek Orthodox faith through baptism and chrismation. He became a church altar boy and made the family proud with his sweet and gentle demeanor. I still see the faces of Patrick and my son Clint in altar boy robes as they flanked the casket of my father at his memorial service, tears streaming down their young boy faces in the light of the candles they held.
Patrick and Diana made a family with Diana’s young daughter Mya, and their son Lincoln who will be 2 this year. They were delighted to learn Diana was pregnant again but their joy soon turned to shock and sorrow when they learned their infant had Trisomy 18, a life threatening genetic disorder that causes devastating medical issues and often death. Undeterred, they named their in utero baby boy and we all became acquainted with Harrison.
From the moment they named him, Harrison became a person. A person who was a member of our family, and for whom we began to pray and worry. Patrick and Diana started a gofundme account to help with the inevitable medical expenses and the cost of sole provider Patrick’s projected absence from his job as a chef near their home in Northern Iowa. Their page kept us all posted on Harrison’s developments.
From the beginning the young parents were committed to seeing Harrison all the way through his birth. Abortion was mentioned by well meaning relatives, but they were champions of life from the get go. After all, this was not just a fetus; it was Harrison. As a pro choice individual I have to admit, Harrison brought me to a new understanding of life and I am more conflicted than before about this delicate issue.
Harrison’s parents sought the best medical treatment for his imminent arrival. They were connected to a hospital well versed in Trisomy 18 and the doctors were strong partners in their quest to spare no effort in helping Harrison. The ultrasound confirmed abnormalities would be life threatening once he breathed his first breath. They were encouraged with small bits of hopefulness such as the determination that despite other challenges, his heart was strong and mighty.
Spiritual support came forth. A Greek Orthodox monk friend saw Patrick’s Facebook post and rallied the monks at his monastery. “We are praying for Patrick, Diana, Mya, Lincoln and Harrison each specifically and by name,” he reported. Graciously they also volunteered a burial plot at the monastery for Harrison should it be needed. Being covered in prayer, the family felt supported in ways beyond the reach of a gofundme page.
At 33 weeks, “Harrison took things into his own hands,” stated Patrick’s Facebook post and Diana went into labor. An unusually fierce snowstorm had struck and they were unable to make it to the hospital that was awaiting Harrison’s arrival. Instead a nearby hospital would have to do, and Diana gracefully demanded a C-Section when the staff who were not as familiar with Harrison’s medical condition tried to get her to have a vaginal birth. Harrison’s siblings Maya and Lincoln were along too since the grandmothers could not make it through the storm in time to babysit while mom and dad went to the hospital.
The obituary had it right.Harrison lived an hour. He was surrounded by his family. His medical conditions were too substantial to sustain life. Even the more elaborate hospital couldn’t have helped. A professional photographer came in to take his baby pictures. He was wrapped in a blanket and stocking cap, showing only his perfectly formed, beautiful angelic face. When Patrick sent me the picture all I could say was “There’s Harrison!” as though I had known him my whole life.
“I don’t want to say goodbye to him,” Patrick texted yesterday when he and Diana were on their way to the mortuary to see their son for the last time. Harrison is coming home to be buried in the same cemetery as my father. To conserve funds, Patrick will drive his son in his tiny casket from the mortuary three hours to the grave site in West Des Moines. “I’m leaving soon to get my boy,” he texted me moments ago. He is bringing his son home. Harrison will be buried in the “Garden of the Innocent” not far from the mausoleum where my dad rests, and amidst other babies who have died.
Later today, our immediate family will gather at the gravesite, along with our monk friend and our Greek Orthodox priest. On St. Patrick’s Day we will bury Patrick’s son, our beloved Harrison. He is every bit as cherished a member of our family as the old grandparents we have buried before him. It’s hard to explain how one can feel so connected to a spirit who only passed through so briefly. It’s something I have never experienced before in my life, and has been quite unexpected. I like to envision my father holding his great grandson Harrison in his arms with a big smile, like I saw him hold my three adult children when they were infants.
Harrison’s innocence, his courage, his radiance, the devotion of his parents, his reminder to all of us that life is fragile and every moment matters, and his valiant struggle to breathe in this beautiful gift of life for even only an hour has profoundly changed us. Godspeed my great nephew.
We love you Harrison.
O Lord Who watches over children in the present life and in the world to come because of their simplicity and innocence of mind, abundantly satisfying them with a place in Abraham’s bosom, bringing them to live in radiantly shining places where the spirits of the righteous dwell: receive in peace the soul of Your little servant Harrison, for You Yourself have said, “Let the little children come to Me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Amen.
This blog was originally published in December, 2012.It is sent out with love to women struggling with their first Christmas post-divorce. You are not alone.
The experts will tell you that you need a full year to recover from divorce. This is based partially on the fact that you have to go through all of the holidays once without your former spouse. Christmas was already a difficult time for me since my dad died a week before Christmas during my first marriage after I’d taken care of him as a hospice patient in my home for months. I remember putting him in a wheelchair from his bed in the guest room and wheeling him in to watch my children decorate the Christmas tree. After divorcing FP in October, the first post-divorce Christmas came quickly and I had to find a way to cope.
Wanting to put on a brave face, I decided to gather up my women friends and have a party. I sent out an email: “At this holiday time you always hear about the wise men but what about the wise women? I am inviting the wisest women I know to a ‘Women of Wisdom’ gathering at my home. My two daughters will be in attendance. Please come with two gifts for them: your best piece of wisdom and the one song they need on their iPod.” Continue reading
“Peace begins with a smile.”-Mother Teresa
I believe that each of us navigates life with an ever-present stream of malaise that runs inside of us. Sometimes it’s a low trickle, and other times it rushes as a result of life’s storms that fill it to capacity.
I’m working hard to navigate internal rushing waters at the Phoenix airport, returning to Iowa after a week long Arizona visit. I’m leaving behind in Scottsdale my three children and best girlfriend and her husband. My children’s father is here as well, and we’ve spent the past week as an emotionally healthy post divorce family having some quality time together, reminiscing about a past that was simultaneously painful and exhilarating. Our time has included the seriousness of my former husband’s diagnosis with a terminal disease that is ravaging his body.
My gate to Des Moines is full of sleepy passengers, some eating gross burritos and thick crust pizza from the food stands near our gate, even though it’s only 8AM. Most are tired, flat affects, biding time before being smushed into a small plane with luggage and their souvenir cactus in a box.
I decide to grab a nonfat chai latte but Starbucks is too far of a hike, so I find my place in the reasonably short line at a nondescript coffee kiosk. I let out a deep sigh as the wellspring of emotions continues to bubble up.
I look ahead in line to see which coffee cashier will serve me, and am immediately drawn energetically to “left cashier.” A 40-something striking African American woman with a big beautiful smile and bright eyes, she beams with light greeting each weary traveler with a vibrant “Good morning!” and pleasant small talk while making direct eye contact. “Right cashier”on the other side of the kiosk has a low grade smile and is not nearly as exuberant.
I try to jockey into position so I can end up with left cashier. I want to suck in her emotional state because I feel immediate internal calming just from studying her from my place in line.
This phenomenon of reacting to another’s emotion has been proven scientifically. It’s “emotional contagion” and studies at Yale and elsewhere confirm that every encounter we have produces an invisible impact of emotions that transmit between us. Our emotions have the power to nourish others or produce toxicity.
It’s thanks to our brain mechanisms including the amygdala and the basal areas of the brain stem that regulate reflex and automatic response. Once the physiology kicks in the path is open for the emotions to flow. My low energy crowd at the gate was bringing me down and left cashier’s glow zapped my brain into receiving a whole different emotional path.
Studies in emotional contagion prove that both good and bad feelings spread, although the research is mixed on which are more contaigous. Objective measures show those impacted by the virus of good emotions register higher in cooperation, fairness, collaboration and overall group performance. I have seen this in my work as a professional mediator, watching upbeat emotion and a positive outlook in the private meeting rooms result in more settlements.
We’ve all experienced the brain circuitry of emotional contagion; think about when someone smiles and we smile back without even thinking about it. When I train mediators, I assign the students to make eye contact and smile at every person they encounter, from the grocery clerk to their children and spouse, after they leave our training day. Debriefing confirms the emotional contagion process is real, and the trainees are exhilarated by the exercise. Past trainees often tell me they still practice the exercise.
A New York study confirms that emotions are highly contagious in our most emotionally laden relationship: marriage. Humans react most severely to negative emotions including pain, sadness, and fear. Thus, one spouse’s depression is likely to trigger a similar depression in the other spouse. This begs the question of whether a spouse who sets an intention to consistently exude positivity can counteract one who’s consistently sad.
Some of us are more susceptible to emotional contagion than others, and a good indicator is how much your mood changes when you are around strong emotion. I identify as a happy, optimistic person but also I am an empath. Empaths are people who are hyper-sensitively tuned in to others’ emotions such that we sometimes take them in without even realizing it, often causing strong emotional swings. I’ve learned to be vigilant putting up a mental shield to negative emotions, which can be difficult in my work as a family lawyer and mediator. I also try to consistently emote positive, healthy emotions to supercharge the atmosphere around hurting clients. If I am not rested or I’m “hangry” (that ugly state of being hungry, low blood sugar and grouchy) I easily take in the low energy emotions of those around me.
Despite my attempted maneuvering, I end up in right cashier’s line. I make direct eye contact and smile: “Hi, I’m Kim how are you today?” and she smiles back saying she is doing well. I find out she is Michelle and we have a light hearted smiling exchange as she rings me up, making direct eye contact, and tells me to have a wonderful safe journey. I’m hopeful that the virus now permeates the entire coffee kiosk line and maybe even the whole airport. I sip my warm latte, noticing the malaise river is back within it’s shores. I pull my shoulders back triggering erect posture and walk purposefully to my gate. I board the plane to Iowa, off to do the work I know I am called to do.
If you are interested in coaching or mediation training contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
When I passed the bar exam in 1982, I became the second practicing lawyer in my family. My father, a 1958 graduate of Drake University Law School was the first, and he taught me how to be a lawyer. In 1987 I took my first training as a mediator. I trained my father and other seasoned attorneys in the process, feeling haughty that I taught dad a new skill.
Fourteen years after Dad’s death, it is abundantly clear that Dad taught ME how to mediate.
My father grew up in a part of the city of West Des Moines, (known previously as Valley Junction,) where everyone knew him as “Danny.” He had a small law office in a remodeled house, and as a young girl I would earn money answering the phone and noticing all of the interesting people who came to see Dad. His clients were all colors, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds and they included flamboyant “nightclub people” who were in the crowd around his parent’s bar and steak house. Several spoke broken English. Dad once told me one of the things he loved about being a lawyer was that “you never know what’s going to walk in the door.” Whoever walked in got to see Danny, always with a smile on his face, and they never felt rushed to leave or like the billable hour clock was ticking loudly. As they passed my receptionist’s desk people always left the office with a lighter step than when they had come in.
When I was a little girl, Dad served as “justice of the peace” performing marriages. People would come to be married at our family home and my two brothers and I would watch the wedding from the top of the stairs. I now see that many of the people who came to be married were unconventional couples for the times; interracial couples, hugely pregnant women, people who were obviously poor, people who were stressed and unhappy at the occasion. My father smiled and treated them all with respect and he let my brothers and me throw rice as the couple drove out our curving driveway.
Dad’s friends were the bankers, the insurance men, doctors, and other lawyers, but it didn’t matter if he was talking to a businessman in a starched shirt or a worker with dirt and grime on his clothes, he treated every person the same. He gave them respect, listened, joked with them, and of course flashed them that ever present smile. My dad was the first person people went to when there was any trouble not just legal trouble. Be it their house, their finances, their spouse, their children or their state of mind, people knew they could count on Danny to help. Whether it was calling his friend the banker to see about a loan for them, sending them to his doctor friend to for a physical, even paying their utility bill out of his own pocket if their lights were shut off, my dad gave them each something that they lacked before they talked to him: hope.
Often on Sundays after we worshiped at the Greek Orthodox church, Dad would take us to the nursing home to visit the elderly Greeks and old Valley Junction folks, to say hello and let them know they were being remembered. I mostly hated those visits because I was a kid and I wanted to be doing something else. But I was stuck going, so I watched my dad interact with the people during our visit, sometimes listening to the same story week after week. I watched how tender he was with them, having all the time in the world to hear them, letting them know they mattered, and administering that same medicine to everyone: hope with a smile.
Dad always looked professional. Every day my mother laid out a suit, shirt and tie for him to wear. He always looked like a stylish Perry Mason. When people came to his office they saw a man who looked like he had wisdom and authority. He made you feel better just sitting across the desk from him. He looked like a lawyer should look.
My father did lots of free or reduced fee legal work. In addition to working through the Volunteer Lawyer’s Program, he helped people have access to justice through his office. When he died we found many clients on the books with hundreds of dollars of bills that they were paying off at $25 per month. I never saw my dad turn a client away.
Dad wasn’t perfect but he also handled his imperfections with class. An active member of gambler’s anonymous, he donated time to assist fellow gamblers with their recovery. He told his own story without shame, knowing that his testimony would help others who suffered with the addiction. Showing them that a smart successful lawyer faced his struggles head on, set an example for others to find their own courage.
When I first introduced my dad to the concept of mediation he said “This is how we resolved cases in the old days. The other lawyer and I would sit down and drink a scotch and when we were done talking the case would be settled. And we always kept our word.” I snickered wondering how he could have such a lack of insight. In mediation you had to ask certain questions, do risk analysis with the parties, employ skillful negotiation strategies. You had to write out a full mediation agreement. What did he know?
Turns out he knew a lot. After mediating for 29 years I have come full circle. I can’t tell you the last time I asked the magical five questions, did “the two number technique” or employed any particular mediation trickery. The most important thing I do now is meet people with a smile on my face. I try to listen attentively to them as though we have all the time in the world. I empathize with them and give respect no matter who they are or what I hear. I don’t worry about whether the case settles or not, or if I can claim a sterling settlement record. I act as a problem solver, exploring ideas to help resolve matters and providing options to the parties and their attorneys.
I sometimes have to translate legal ease to the clients when their own attorneys miss the fact that the client is too stressed to follow big words. I help parties dig deep to find their highest selves and come up with an agreement that works for them. I don’t coerce them to sign something in the pressure of the moment.Inspired by Dad’s vulnerability in sharing his own story, when appropriate I share my own life experiences to let the people in mediation know they are not alone in navigating life’s struggles.
No matter what, as a mediator, I try to remember what every good lawyer knows. Hurting people look to us for help. In addition to our legal knowledge we can dispense respect, wisdom, empathy, and courage. And most importantly, the medicine developed by Danny. Hope, with a smile.
Waking up at 4AM without an alarm has become second nature and today is no exception. I move into the kitchen to brew a strong cup of dark coffee, adding just a tad of half and half, and ultimately find my way to the bar table in my small kitchen. There I switch on the “happy light,” a full spectrum light box that wakes me up and wards off the winter blues.
With the light in my eyes I open my bible , finding today’s passage. As I take the first delicious sip of steaming coffee, I think of Tich Nat Hanh’s directive: “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”
Today’s Bible reading is a good one; lots of juicy quotes from Jesus that are controvertial at first blush, and that warrant my popping up the laptop to clarify through online commentaries. I smile as I read them rapidly and zero in on the basic teaching point: “Just love, and then love some more.”
Hurrying to put on my gym clothes, I notice in the mirror my morning “look” is rather frightening. But my 5AM tribe at the gym is used to it by now and they each have their own morning persona as well.
At the gym I greet the “towel guy” Preston. “Good morning sunshine!” I say to him in our usual ritual and he smiles and hands me a towel. We exchange brief updates on our lives as I head into the darkened mirrored room for cycling class. Befriending Preston makes me feel good. I’m connected to someone I wouldn’t otherwise know and I have an accountability partner who admonishes me if I don’t show up on a weekday morning.
Inside the darkened spinning room the usuals take their usual bikes, making the necessary functional adjustments so they can spin to their heart’s content. Our favorite teacher is on deck today and we begin with some raucous music as we all wake up our cycle legs and settle in.
The usuals are all accounted for: front row man who adoringly watches his spinning form in the mirror throughout the class oblivious to the instructions of our leader; the guy who is suited up in bike regalia as though today’s class is really the first leg of the Tour de France; the woman who spins with reckless abandon breathing hard until her face is beet red making me worry she will stroke out; and the three in the back who chat through some of class annoying the rest of us.
Today, at the 7 minutes mark an interloper appears on the scene. A millennial man in long sweat pants with a long sleeve shirt under a bright orange t-shirt endorsing a race of some sort, with an undeicpherable hashtag on the back. He has three towels, obviously expecting to “sweat it out” and he hops on the bike right next to me disrupting my usual cycling vibe.
Millennial man spins his legs quickly and once he is with the groove he starts to sing. To every song. He is a regular karaoke affiicanado seemingly knowing the words to every song of the instructor’s playlist, including songs from my generation, which is a good thirty years earlier than his.Soon he begins to play air drums all over the bike handles, and up in the air shaking his head in beat to the bass. I ‘m annoyed but then I remember “just love and then love some more” so I relax and welcome this disruptor of my continuum.
At once my annoyance turns to amusement. I began to enjoy his performance, delighted in the fact he’s infusing new energy into the spin class, and giving me a chance to just love and then love some more. Just as the endorphins peak, the playlist offers up a spiritual song in perfect tempo “and not a tear is wasted, in time you’ll understand, I’m painting beauty with the ashes, your life is in my hands….”
The millennial stops playing the drums and sings the song softly, with great tenderness. “you’re not alone stop holding on and just be held….”
I’m shocked. I’m amazed. I get the message. I just love and then love some more that this millennial man has come into my cycling class today shining a light into the dark spinning room. And he is my brother.
The song ends and so does the moment, and Pink starts wailing about raising a glass. The instructor shouts something about lactic acid and we spin like we’re expecting the bikes to fly into the sky, the millennial breaking into full blown song and air guitar accompaniment. Class ends, and I offer him a fist bump: “It was great to spin next to you today man!” He fist bumps me back, “I’m going to keep riding till they kick me out of here!” and for all I know he is still spinning.
I change out of my bike shoes and don my sweatshirt and coat as Preston comes up to tell me about the high school basketball game from our mutual alma mater. I soon walk out into the cold dark morning, pausing to look at the sky thinking about the rest of the world just now waking up. Gratitude overwhelms me. I have a faith, a healthy body, a genuine caring for people, and a full day awaiting me with chances to just love and then love some more.
I grew up as the only girl in the family, the oldest, with two younger brothers rounding out the sibling lineup. Dan was born 18 months after me and Jon two years later. We grew up outside of town on an acre of land, and my brothers had built in playmates while I largely sat in my room and read books.
The boys would wrestle and Dan was the instigator. Jon would cry and run to mom and to this day he remains a mama’s boy. Dan was rough and tumble, always getting into mischief, handsome, blue eyed and blonde, an aberration in the otherwise olive skinned family.
In Greek families the oldest boy is the prize. My dad embraced Dan’s birthright and the two were symbiotically connected. Dad was a prominent lawyer and his skills came in handy as Dan got into minor legal scuffles, including a few stints with jail time. Once, my dad told Dan he had arranged through his connections to have Dan do time on a weekend, which happened to be Dan’s birthday.
“I called the bailiff and the jail is overbooked that day; you will go in and get out right away due to overcrowding,” he’d told my brother. Instead, Dan arrived to find “plenty of room at the inn.” “I figured if you served time on your birthday it might have an impact on you, and keep you from getting in trouble again,” Dad had announced when justifying the bait and switch.
Neither Dan nor Dad took care of their health. They were both heavy smokers, both liked to gamble, both ate lots of junk food and sugar and neither had any workout routine or ever set foot in a gym. Dan had been the country club junior golf champion in high school and it landed him a college scholarship to the University of New Orleans where he drank his way down Bourbon Street, ultimately terminating his college path. He dabbled in assorted drugs and alcohol and identified himself once as the “72 step man” having done 6 separate 12 step programs.
As Dan became the focus of our family, I faded into the background diligently studying, being a “good girl,” graduating at the top of my class and ultimately getting a law degree. I married and had three children and moved to Scottsdale, Arizona drifting apart from both of my brothers largely due to our lack of commonalities and the distance, although I always felt a strong affection especially for Dan.
When my children were small my dad came to visit us in Arizona with a cold that he couldn’t seem to shake. A friend who was an ER doc snuck him past the line at a busy Phoenix hospital and did a chest X-ray. I got a call that day telling me my dad was in dire straits physically and it was likely he had a terminal lung disease that had progressed extensively.
Things became a whirlwind. My mother shut down and was unable to cope and as the family rock I did what I do best. I took charge and mobilized, making a room for dad in our home and I partnered with hospice to care for him. My kids gathered around “Papou” and we made him as comfortable as possible.
Dan was devastated and for a long time stayed in Iowa saying he could not face visiting knowing of dad’s impending death. Soon he came out and spent time with Dad, even mustering up enough energy for the two of them to go to the casino with Dad in a wheelchair and full oxygen mask gear. I shuddered to think that a random casino cigarette smoker might blow up Dad and his sidekick with a booze laden flick of an ash but they lived through the ordeal. Dan left one night and went to a Phoenix tattoo parlor where he had the artist draw a heart that was in the midst of breaking and then brand it on his shoulder.
Dad died and we flew him back to Iowa for the funeral. Dan came to the funeral with a limp and a hand that hung abnormally. The scuttle butt was that he had gotten drunk and fallen asleep on his limb and didn’t wake before the circulation was cut off. He had been living in his car and was getting by with odd jobs. A doctor friend of my parents who observed Dan at the funeral came up to my mom and suggested that Dan be tested for Lou Gherig’s disease. My mother was devastated.
I flew back to Arizona after the funeral to get my kids situated and then flew back to Iowa to help figure out Dan’s situation. He’d been diagnosed with MS and the lawyer in me again took charge getting him the social security disability he needed, helping him get Section 8 housing, buying him a decent mattress and organizing other medical and social service benefits. Once he was situated, again, I spent very little time with him focusing instead on raising three children of my own and trying to deal with my emotionally fragile mother.
Ultimately I divorced, and moved back to Iowa where I would occasionally see Dan at Thanksgiving when I would cook for everyone and he would come. His MS worsened and he limped badly, finally using a walker. Autoimmune diseases lead to other autoimmune diseases and he soon had psoriasis all over his face and body, and had developed Type 2 diabetes. His physical condition worsened each time I saw him.
About a month ago I got a phone call. Dan’s physical therapist had noticed a strange lump in his neck. Further testing revealed the worst: Dan had cancer of the tongue that had spread into his lymph nodes. All the autoimmune complications made his case all the more difficult so he decided be treated at the Iowa City hospital, a teaching institution at the University of Iowa two hours away.
It was like déjà vu of my dad.
My mother went into high anxiety that makes her catatonic and histrionic all at once. Dan is single, having divorced years before from his waitress wife, and his adult son lives out of state and has a new baby of his own. I looked at Dan’s face which is the same face of my dad, and saw in his eyes the same fear I’d dealt with fourteen years earlier with a man that was at the time just ten years older than Dan is now. And I did what I always do. I took charge.
For the past few weeks Dan and I have been on the road back and forth to Iowa City. I cancelled clients and mediations, rearranged and juggled calendars and other obligations. I have become his medical overseer attending meetings with each specialist: internal medicine, otolaryngology, radiation, chemotherapy, neurology, and on and on. Meetings involve Dan describing symptoms and answering questions and his lawyer sister hunkering down with doctors to dissect medical terms and protocol. I take copious notes, ask intelligent questions, and then translate for Dan and field phone calls from my hysterical mother asking in anxiety and anguish “Is Dan going to die?!”
The hospital is a finely tuned machine and they identified the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes so they immediately mobilized for two surgeries: one on the lymph nodes and one on the tongue. Before they would treat the tongue cancer however they examined his teeth to be sure there was no risk of infection or other complications. Dan had not been to a dentist in at least 15 years and 7 teeth had to be extracted, gums had to be drilled down and periodontal disease eradicated. Surgery #1 would be complicated oral surgery.
Dan and I traveled to Iowa City the night before the oral surgery where I took him to the most expensive steakhouse in town. We ordered everything on the menu that required abundant chewing as a dental rite of passage; crunchy calamari appetizers, big juicy steaks, crispy salads, lobster tail and I savored a perfectly chilled gin martini. We talked and talked and laughed about our mutual upbringing and life travels. Dan kept saying, “This bill is going to be really expensive Sis are you sure you want to do this?” I felt ashamed that I often dine at fine restaurants and the bill would not be out of the ordinary for me on any given weekend.
Why hadn’t I been closer to Dan all these years? Despite our stark differences in life choices and paths we share the one gift we both got from our father. We are both loving, kind, compassionate people with big hearts. And God specifically chose us to be siblings in his perfect design for our lives.
The next morning I took him for his oral surgery, dutifully wheeling him in the wheelchair as I had done for prior visits during our intensive time there. The nurse took him inside and I sat waiting in the waiting room, returning client phone calls never letting on that their lawyer was handling their case while she sat in deep grief with strains of post traumatic stress, intermittently praying to the God she is connected to so deeply, while her brother began his cancer medical journey.
Some hours later I was called in to find Dan in his wheelchair with blood soaked gauze in his mouth, moaning softly. I am grateful that somehow I am made of “tough stock” and could calmly focus and mobilize. “In one hour take out the gauze, get him a milkshake and give him another pain pill. If you don’t get these pain pills on board it will be hell,” the nurse advised.
I wheeled him to the car, put him inside and buckled him down, silently praying for an angel escort and began the two hour drive to Des Moines with a moaning bleeding brother riding shotgun.
The drive from Iowa City is uneventful with just a few reasonably populated towns along the way. I passed one decent sized city that I knew would be milkshake laden but glanced at my watch and it was only 40 minutes in. Because I am a “rule follower” I kept going, trusting that in 20 more minutes I would hit another town even though at that time I had lost all sense of direction and couldn’t even tell you where I was.
At the 60 minute mark I saw a mile marker with a miniscule sign that said “FOOD” and I pulled off the interstate to come upon a non-descript mini truck stop convenience store. Dan moaned as I told him I was going in for a milkshake and he was so delirious I’ m sure he didn’t hear me. I locked the car door and hurried inside, shaking mildly.
As I walked in, an overweight woman was uncannily walking right towards me with a big smile and her nametag displaying that she was Angie. Angie asked me, “Can I help you?” and immediately I burst into tears sobbing uncontrollably letting out all the stress and anxiety that I ‘d been holding in for weeks. Angie put her arms around me as I blubbered about my brother and spilled a stream of consciousness that was largely based on the theme “why can one person have so many things go wrong in his life when mine is so blessed?” a sort of survivor’s guilt manifesto.
“And I need a chocolate milkshake!”
Angie turned me around and low and behold there was a homemade milkshake machine like I have NEVER seen in a truckstop convenience store. She took me to the machine and began to mix the milkshake telling me that she had cared for an ill relative, that her kids came out perfect even though she was an inadequate mother and her sister’s kids were all deviants even though her sister was perfect.
“You and your brother are each other’s teachers. You don’t have to know what it’s all about while you are on this side. Just don’t miss it.”
I hugged her again tightly and didn’t want to let go. I wanted Angie to take me home and make me milkshakes and tell me all about the meaning of life instead of getting back in the car and driving to Des Moines for what would be the first leg of a lonely and dark road with my brother.
Angie took me to the counter where I paid and she reminded me to get some water for myself. “What is your name and your brother’s name?” she asked.
“I am Kim and he is Dan,” I said and she walked me to a secluded corner of the store passing a wide array of beef jerky sticks, chips and processed foods.
There, tucked away on a shelf, was a brightly decorated mini Christmas tree with many mini decorations. Angie pulled off a decoration that resembled a rectangle pill box and she wrote the name Dan and Kim on a sheet of paper tucking the names inside the pillbox and shutting it tightly. Then she showed me the front of the box. “Prayers” it said, and she put it back on the tree.
“Now go take care of your brother.”
I went to the car, found a delirious Dan, removed the bloody gauze and slopped the milkshake down his throat with a big fat pain pill hidden inside one of the gulps. I tried to quickly organize my space, clean up spilled blood and then I got in the car and drove home to begin the recovery before his next surgery.
The next surgeries are coming up and there will be many back and forths to the hospital for them, and the radiation and chemo after that. I wonder if I could find the truck stop convenience store if I looked for it. I wonder if it even exists, and if it does, if Angie is there. A part of me imagines if I found the place and asked for Angie they would say “there is no Angie that works here.”
And I promise you her name was Angie. It’s short for Angel. God reminded me that He has this handled, and that I am not alone.