Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘father’

Ghosts in the Attic: Lives Remembered

An attic is in many ways similar to the vast storage facilities that lie hidden beneath and above every museum you’ve ever visited. The exhibits you walk through are like the life you see being lived right in front of you. If you are an experienced museum goer the existence of that treasure trove of unseen artwork is something you know is there somewhere. For the archivist, all of that art is there for the asking.

A life remembered lives in the attic or the basement or the back of a closet in the remotest room in the house. Beth spent 3 long days and nights pulling together the totems of her parents lives from the nooks, crannies and crevasses of what is literally the Hurst family ancestral home. No fewer than 4 generations lived significant parts of their lives in what was once a tiny one-room schoolhouse surrounded by Amish and Mennonite farms. What an incredibly daunting task, that.

Hearing her tell of her task (we were “together” on speakerphone) was what it must have been like if you could have been an open ear at the excavation of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Rome. The attic had an attic; each closet had a closet. Every step further into each space unearthed another layer of the family’s history. Here a deed to the original schoolhouse, there the wedding certificate for her great great grandparents. Was her Dad a good student? Well, he had a pretty solid 3rd grade judging by his report card.

And the pictures! Oh my, yes, there were pictures. Beth and her sisters fell straight down the Schaeffer family tree. Who knew how much they looked like their Mom when they were all younger women? I got to see pictures of the stunning beauty I fell in love with some 35 years ago, a literal restoration of the portrait in my mind’s eye of our days of courtship. Treasures unearthed in the attic.

Stories, journals, histories, legends…they all came out of the attic’s attic and emerged from the closet’s closets. Beth’s “legs” fairly buckled under the responsibility of curation. What to keep? What should go? They are the last of their line, these Hurst sisters. Whatever was consigned to go would be forever gone. There are no more attics; there will be nothing to curate. She felt the presence of not only her parents but of their parents, and theirs, and theirs as well.

Is this nothing more than a melancholy musing on memory and loss? Maybe. There was a lesson in there, though, one that Mrs. bingo and I stumbled upon as we “walked” through those archives together. It didn’t have to happen like that. As it turns out each attic corner, each tiny closet contained notes and stories that lead, like so many tiny treasure maps, to the next discovery. Why had my in-laws not taken us all in hand and walked us together along those pathways? For sure there were stories that should have been buried elsewhere, art not meant to be seen by generations hence (note to self: remember this lesson when it is time), but still, we thought of the joy we could have shared had we just known these treasures were there to share. That’s the lesson my friends, one that Beth would agree afterward was worth the lonely emotional lifting she did as she curated a life remembered, archived like so many art treasures in the attics and closets filled over generations and hidden from view.

Someone may be alive today who’s been filling those attics. Find them. There is joy in the attic. Like so much that is joyful, to share your discoveries with those who created them is just too wonderful to let it pass now that you know that you don’t have to. Ask your parents or grandparents to take a walk with you in the attic. Together.

 

We Will All Become Orphans

Sadly, I have had numerous opportunities over the last year or so to note that there is not a single language on earth that has a word or name for a parent who has lost a child. Words exist to describe a surviving spouse, and of course we have a word in most languages for a child without parents: orphan. The word conjures up Dickensonian images of waifs and wastrels in varying degrees of distress and underdress, under-fed and unloved. In reality, despite the ubiquity of this stereotype, there are many, many ways that one becomes an orphan. Indeed, in a proper order of events, each of us will be orphaned by the loss of a second parent.

It is somewhat amazing to me how many people have lost a parent early in life through abandonment. A mother or a father simply ups and leaves. No forwarding address or email, just gone forever. It hurts just to type those words. What must it feel like to live them? Still others lose a parent for years on end before that parent actually dies. Mental illnesses of all sorts, most commonly the various types of dementia, essentially wipe a loved one’s personhood off the planet long before the empty shell passes on. It’s a rather cruel joke, that, to see what looks like your Mom or Dad sitting across from you like some kind of reasonable facsimile, an avatar perhaps, but not really Mom or Dad. Mourning begins years or decades before anyone sits Shiva.

In the end, though, orphanhood comes for us all, in one way or another. My friend Bill, the surgeon, expresses surprise and a sense of something that is a bit more than frustration, though slightly less than anger, at what he calls the “final reckoning” deathbed visit. Why, he so often wonders, do so many people, so many sons and daughters feel the need to achieve some sort of closure, some sort of final peace in the last waning hours of a life? Mind you, this is a man who practices “live and death” medicine; his point, forged so close to the fire, ought not be missed.

Mothers and fathers are no more or less flawed than any other humans. For most of us their flaws lie cloaked behind the curtains of devotion in our childhood. As we ourselves age, certainly if we become parents, those curtains part and we begin to see more of the whole person who makes up Mom or Dad. Blessed are we who find more to like and love behind those curtains. One hopes at worst that what we find does not dim the glow of childhood memory. Bill’s point, or at least what I think he is saying, is that we should know that orphanhood is inevitable. There is nothing that you can say or do on death’s doorstep that cannot be said or done long before you approach the threshold of your own orphan status. Bill would say that closure is important, that he understands and supports the compulsion to make sure that your parents know that you love them. It’s just the timing he’s wondering about.

Why wait until the cusp of orphanhood? Why not discharge regrets and express your love and gratitude when you and Mom and Dad can might have time to enjoy what comes next? Together.

 

“Chaos and Calm”: Father’s Day Sunday musings…

Sunday musings…

Chaos and calm. As far as I can see, and for as long as I’ve known, these are the only two states of being for a father.

To be sure, not all states of chaos are unpleasant, and there are innumerable degrees of calm. At the moment I am luxuriating in the calm of quiet, accompanied by only Tiny Tim and Abbie the Wonder Dog (both of whom have re-racked). A social creature, these moments of calm were once painfully lonely for me. Having rediscovered my “pen” they are now cherished little gifts, times during which I alternately “sits and thinks” and even “just sits”.

Father’s Day brings soft and warm memories of the other type of calm. Those times when I was with one or several of my children or my “extras” (thanks for the new vocabulary Dillie!). Memories of late summer 1988, coming home to “The Heir” in his infancy just in time to fall asleep with him swaddled and resting on my chest. Or tiny Barbie tea parties with “Lovely Daughter” in her “Megan-Loo Who” stage (from which she eventually acquired the nickname “Goobs”). There’s no yelling at a tea party, right? Lil’bingo and I would work on “construction projects” with his Tonka trucks that could last for hours. The best type of calm for a Dad isn’t lonely at all.

Chaos is just as much a double-edged sword. Man, why couldn’t there be a family frequent flyer program at the ER or the orthopedic surgeons’ office? Even chaos, though, is a net positive as a Dad. I find myself smiling as I remember all of the events we just barely got to on time, the “fire drill” leading up to our arrivals notwithstanding. The chaos of a house filled with toddlers, pre-teens, teens or young adults is filled with enough energy to light up a small city for a weekend. My sides are aching from the memories of the laughter.

Chaos and calm.

Father’s Day for me this year will be like every other Father’s Day since we welcomed “The Heir” so long ago. Unlike so many who use the day to do something like play golf or climb a mountain or some such, I will try to spend as many of my waking moments in the active pursuit of doing Dad stuff. Firing up the griddle this morning and making the bacon is so much more fun than breakfast in bed, the chaos of the Man Cub and the dogs and the timing of the delivery of our new grill (presents!) notwithstanding. I have always spent so, so much time away from my kids (and still so much away from my grandchildren) just doing the things that a breadwinner must do; on Father’s Day what I want more than anything is to be allowed to do Dad stuff as much I can. To be able to just be a Dad today is always my goal, always the best gift possible.

Chaos and calm. Happy Father’s Day to each of you lucky enough to enjoy both.

I’ll see you next week…

–bingo

Leaning Home on Mother’s Day (Sunday musings)

On one Sunday each year we celebrate the Hallmark Cards Mother’s Day. My work buddy Ken actually has it closer to the mark when he says that there are actually 363 Mother’s Days, the other two being Father’s Day and Ken’s birthday. While I love that sentiment we all know that a super-majority of mothers actually give a super-majority of their working hours to their kids, either directly or through the prism of worry while they (the mothers) are at work. There’s not much celebration going on there. For all of its gifts, motherhood the vocation is chockablock filled with hard work and worry.

In my day job a large percentage of my peers, especially my younger peers, are women who are also mothers. I have said (and written) that the pressures on these women is infinitely greater than that on those of us who are fathers because of the fundamentally different demands of what constitutes the minimal expected parental involvement of a mother. Heavy stuff. It is especially daunting to attempt to climb a career ladder that is in addition to what must be done just to do a good job each day in the office. To be a physician leader on the national level is to commit to countless days and nights away form home on top of those that are standard fare for a “regular doctor”. Face it, not a single dad in the same situation is ever asked how he feels about the stress of being away from his kids.

Not a single mom goes through a day without having multiple people ask them just that.

Listen, there’s just no easy answer to this dilemma. One need only look at the tragic epiphany Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook had after losing her husband to an accident shortly after her book “Lean In” took every woman who ever worried or wondered about the cost of success to task was published. Ms. Sandberg was adamant that women had no choice but to compete on a level with men. Indeed, that it was their duty, for themselves and for all other women who would follow. She and her book were tone deaf to the realities of life outside the bubble in which every executive/professional was married to a wealthy entrepreneur and had nannies, housekeepers, and cooks. Single mothers, in particular, had trouble finding themselves in her philosophy. One leaned in without a thought to what one might be leaning OUT of.

Ms. Sandberg just published another book, “Plan B”, in which she deals with her grief at losing her husband. To her credit she also revisits her original thesis on what it means to be a mother as well as a woman who has the potential to reach the pinnacle of their respective careers. The pain of her realization of the time she could have spent with her husband and children but didn’t fairly drips off the page. It is truly heartbreaking. Although I was quite frankly repulsed by the arrogance of her first book I can find nothing but the deepest sympathy and sorrow that it took such a loss to open her eyes to what she now realized she’d been missing.

You can only lean in to one thing by leaning out of others. You can have it all I guess, just not all at once.

There is no right or wrong answer here my friends. Certainly no right or wrong answer that I would ever be presumptuous enough to offer, for sure. Only that each of us, mother or father, makes a decision about what it is that we have to do in our own little families. Those of us outside someone else’s family should simply be as understanding as we can possibly be, you know? I wish for Ms. Sandberg sake that she’d been a little more sympathetic before she was tragically forced to be empathetic to those folks who walk in different shoes. For my professional friends I simply wish for a few moments of thought so that they may make a conscious decision about the path they will take; a career will drive away with you if you don’t take the wheel.

Being a Mom is hard work. I’ve not seen anyone in my life work harder than my mother or my darling wife, both of whom stayed home with their children until the school years had passed. They, too, sacrificed, in their cases leaving careers behind, as did my sisters. By leaning out of the traditional workforce their choice was to lean in to their families. Men do that, too, you know, but that’s probably fodder for Father’s Day musings, right?

So for today let us all wish a Happy Mother’s Day to all of the Sheryl Sandbergs out there, to all of my professional colleagues who are trying so hard to balance their professional potential with their desire to be the best moms they can be. Happy Mother’s Day to the moms who spend each hour of their day in the full-time pursuit of the being a mom, looking wistfully at careers that once held so much potential. Happy Mother’s Day to each and every one of you who wake up each day and go to sleep each night thinking and dreaming and hoping and worrying about your kids. That’s what moms do, no matter what else they also do, right?

Finally, Happy Mother’s Day to my Beth, mother to “The Heir”, “Lovely Daughter”, and “Lil’bingo”. We are the family that we are because you chose to be the mother you are.

Your “Who” Is More Important: Masters Sunday musings

Master’s Sunday is the day I think I miss my Dad the most. We’d be on the phone dissecting the action, second guessing each decision and reminiscing about our respective visits to Augusta National (sadly, neither one of us ever played there.). In many ways the game of golf was the tie that bound my Dad to my brother and me. In Jr. High School he invited us into his world; we did whatever it took to stay there.

The older I get the more important my “who” becomes. Thinking about golf today has really brought this home for me. I walked away from golf 9 years ago because I couldn’t stand to be average, let alone not very good. Doing so put way, WAY too much emphasis on the “what”, on the golf itself. It was entirely reasonable for me to take a break from golf after my injury because it literally hurt to swing a club. But 9 years?

Let me be really clear: I don’t miss the game of golf. I played in high school and a bit in college, and I’ve played literally thousands of rounds on some of the most famous courses in America. The game of golf doesn’t owe me anything at all. What I do miss, though, is being in the company of other people (mostly men, I’ll admit) who are doing something that makes them happy. More than that, since you almost always get to choose who you’re playing with, you are always in good company.

It’s been a wonderful day to remember that “who” is so much more important than “what”. I am part of a bunch of middle-aged knuckle-heads who met as fathers of pre-schoolers and then bonded on some of the most God-forsaken dogpatch golf courses imaginable. No matter. We were together. We celebrated the 60th birthday of one of our pals at breakfast where my guys regaled me with side-splitting tales of this year’s golf trip to South Carolina. If they’ll have me, next year my “new game” is likely to produce a few follies that we can laugh about during a breakfast to come.

My brother is an extraordinary golfer, as is my best friend of 40 years. My sister’s husband, too. My son will eventually become a very good golfer; his pride will accept nothing less. Lil’bingo and “Lovely Daughter’s” husband are both eager to play as well. My game will sadly fail to match up, but that’s no matter. How I play is a “what”. It always was, even though it took me an awfully long time to figure that out. What I now hope to get, and what I hope to give each time I get a chance, is to be part of a group that understands that the “what” they are doing is so much less important the “who” that they are doing it with. All of these men have asked me many times to join them, and this year I will finally do just that.

Golf, CrossFit, Cards…whatever. “Who” is the reason you are there.

 

The Final Glide Path

My gentle, sweet, and much beloved father-in-law is now on his final glide path. As sad as we all are to be witness to this last landing we are equally joyous at this bonus year we’ve all enjoyed. What a gift it has been. You see, Bob was told he had a scant few months to live almost 1 1/2 years ago. Through a combination of good fortune, excellent modern medical care, a strong foundation of fitness (Bob’s trainer used CrossFit principles in his training!), and his drive to thrive, he has graced us with innumerable moments of love and joy we had no expectation of sharing.

Nothing focuses your attention on what matters in life so completely as imminent death. It’s quite a shame, actually. What we as an extended family have done over these last 15 months or so has come to seem quite natural and, while not easy, not terribly difficult to pull off either. Our efforts have centered on love and kindness. Full stop. We have all made an effort to connect so that we might express and share our love. That we might give ourselves extra opportunities to be kind to one another. It has certainly taken a bit of work, and for some of us it has tasked us with looking carefully at how we prioritize our lives. In the end, though, we all discovered that the effort/outcome equation has fallen squarely on the good side: we got more out of the effort than we ever thought we could.

Listen, it’s never the same before you see the glide path beginning. To conclude this little snippet by imploring you to totally re-order your life as if you, or someone special to you, is soon to land their flight forever is so trite it’s little more than drivel. It’s not natural, and none of us can do it. What is possible, though, is to inject just a bit more of that love and kindness into your everyday thoughts and actions with your loved ones now. If you get the same kind of optimization of your effort as we all in Beth’s family have received (and as an aside, what my family achieved during my Dad’s illness) perhaps you can try to add just a little more of each over time. It’s very CrossFitty, that. A little more love and a little more kindness offered today in the hope that tomorrow you and your loved ones will be a little bit closer, a little bit happier together than you were yesterday.

As for us, all that is left is to fasten our seatbelts as we hope for fair winds and the gentlest of landings.

Sunday musings 6/25/16

Sunday musings…

1) Brexit. Certain to show up in the next “Hangover” sequel.

2) Hangover. Man, who thought THAT was a good idea?

3) Ritz. “I had the feeling you get when exiting a cinema after a matinee, blinking at the light and still half-living in the film.” WSJ on a stay at the Ritz Hotel, Paris.

Lovely writing, that. A bit hard for me to relate, though, since my last matinee was “The Jungle Book” with my 79yo Mom.

4) Sincerity. “The key to life is sincerity, and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” –Robert Steed 1936-2016

Man, how good is that in this election cycle?

5) Edge. Whether or not you know it, or knowing it whether or not you acknowledge it, everyone is always on the lookout for the edge. Everywhere. The edge has lots of names, but by any moniker we all seek it. Our Puritan ethic sends some of us in search of the edge in more, or harder work. Lots of that around here, chez CrossFit. Others of a different ilk seek the edge through shortcuts and work-arounds. Think PED’s and the Olympics, or access to information about a trade or a deal milliseconds before the competition. In some ways, at some times, getting the edge is about coming out on top in a zero-sum game where winning means also not losing.

What’s puzzling is when the edge is freely accessible to everyone, and yet there are legions who either ignore it or actively turn away from it. Think health. There’s some pretty easy stuff out there that will give you the edge, stack the deck in your favor if you will. Yet there are many among us who are militant in their refusal to take their piece of the edge, even when it is freely given and nearly free. You don’t need me to point out the obvious here.

I find myself torn between an intense need to teach those I care about to grab the low-hanging fruit, and an equally intense desire to not be around those who chase an irrelevant 0.01% edge in one domain while giving up10% in another. More and more I find that avoiding the latter gives me an edge.

6) Dad. A long-time columnist in my home town paper writes this morning about making it to his Dad’s bedside for a final hug, just hours before his father passed away. I’ve been thinking about my Dad quite a lot recently. He left us very quickly, his long, slow slide into oblivion interrupted quite unexpectedly and quickly. Only one sister was there. It’s kind of strange, but I find myself missing him more and more, both in the literal sense at gatherings, and the more emotional sense in his just being gone.

We missed him at both of my sons’ weddings, for example, and the space at the table next to my Mom still doesn’t look quite right 9 months on. There are 8 grandsons on my side of the family, and all of them took turns swinging their Gram across the dance floor at last week’s wedding. I found myself looking over at her table, looking for that little twinkle in my Dad’s eye, the one he always got when his wife was happy. Even as his mind betrayed him toward the end, that part of him remained. The part that so loved my Mom that her happiness brought him more joy than pretty much anything else. Alas, no twinkle. Just an empty space and the hint of his shadow.

It’s been 8 years since I’ve swung a golf club. After thousands of rounds in the company of hundreds of very fine people, the game of golf doesn’t owe me anything, and I only rarely give it any thought anymore. That’s why it’s so strange that I’ve found myself dreaming about playing golf. Like every night dreaming about playing golf. I admit that I miss the camaraderie of the game. The tomfoolery on the first tee as you haggle over the bets to come bookending the jackassery in the bar afterward as the lies grow and the round becomes so epic in the re-telling that Harvey Pennick himself couldn’t have made us better golfers. I do miss that, but the playing? For whatever reason, the game itself has left me.

Or so I thought, until the dreams began. It doesn’t take a Freud to figure out that the dreams have little to do with golf, of course. They are about missing Dad. You see, after seeing my Mom happy, it turns out that the next best thing for my Dad was to see his kids happy, and on the golf course we tended to have happiness as we got old enough to care less about our scores and more about our foursomes. Thinking back I recall lots of twinkles in my old man’s eyes in the company of his sons on a golf course.

There’s no real point here, my friends. No teachable moment at the end of these musings. Just an old guy at the stage of life where loss has the edge, missing his Dad and wondering when, or if, that ever gets any easier.
 I’ll see you next week…bingo

Sunday musings on Father’s Day

Father’s Day is a big deal for me every year, just not so much in the traditional “Dad’s day off” kind of way so many fathers seem to celebrate. My idea of a great Father’s Day has always been to in some way, shape, or form hang out with my kids being a Dad, or with my own Dad, being a son. This is the first Father’s Day for me since my Dad passed away, a transition for sure, but it’s also the first Father’s Day since I became a grandfather. Lots and lots of emotions competing for a spot in the limelight today.

I’m a little bit late out of the box with musings today. The man cub was into hanging with his Papi, and that’s just as good on Father’s Day as being around my kids. All of them were around this weekend, too. Li’l bingo got married last night and that added another daughter-in-law to the fold. Another child to celebrate on Father’s Day. It’s quiet for the moment, the excitement of the wedding now just a gentle buzz of fuzzy memories and and soft smiles.

Being a parent has been the single most difficult thing I’ve ever done. For that matter, it’s still the hardest thing I do. This is likely the case for any of you out there who have kids, too. Technically it’s not really all that complex, and the work itself isn’t all that too very difficult. I mean, sure, sometimes that full diaper spills over, or for that matter the first not so great experience with adult beverages spills over, but really the clean up is just a clean up, just like any other clean up. What makes the whole enterprise so bloody hard is that you simply care more about the outcome of your work as a parent than just about anything else you’ve ever undertaken.

My Dad wasn’t there but all three of my kids were together yesterday, The Heir and Lovely Daughter there to support their no longer little brother and his wife on their big day. The night ended with countless best wishes for the new marrieds, followed by round upon round of “Happy Father’s Days” for the Dads present. It felt right and it felt good and it felt like success. Like my own Dad would be proud of the Father I’ve become. Three happy and successful kids and me, Dad, feeling pretty good about the whole parenting thing. Until they all gave me my Father’s Day hug, got in their cars and headed off to their own homes, leaving me to worry about whether I’d done enough to prepare them for tomorrow. And then tomorrow after that.

It’s Father’s Day, after all.

I’ll see you next week…

–bingo