Posts Tagged ‘love’

A chapter from Urban Tidepool

2008

I wasn’t looking for a new site to set up another drop-in center. I already had enough to do without adding one more program. But when I was asked to apply for a foundation grant that would allow us to do just that and hire a program manager, I couldn’t get the paperwork submitted fast enough.

It was when the new Geneva site opened that we all met Michael Fairbanks, a sophomore from St. Charles. One meeting with Michael was all it took to know that he would advance through our youth leadership program without breaking a sweat. Already involved with his school’s Gay Straight Alliance, active in community theater and taking a list of AP classes, he shared his plan to go to law school to become a corporate lawyer to work on inclusion policies for Fortune 500 companies. Michael invited all of his friends to attend the new Geneva drop-in center, bringing new kids with him almost every week. The energy he put into the drop-in center reminded me of working with Blake a few years earlier. He would make this place his own, as Blake had done.

“Michael, there’s a house party that some of our donors are holding for us, and I’d like you to join me to talk about the drop-in center and what’s going on at your school. Interested?”

He nodded. “Can I tell them about the anti-bullying training I’ve been working on and the panel presentation?”

“That’s perfect. Plan on it.”

When Michael took the floor at the party, the lights glinting off his glasses, and started to describe being bullied in his locker room, silence descended on the group. It is so striking that so many adults who grew up being bullied think that our kids are not experiencing similar situations, as if being bullied somehow stopped after the Stonewall movement. Then they hear stories like Michael’s and realize the world hasn’t changed all that much.

“I had to go to my principal and he took me out of gym,” Michael explained. “It wasn’t safe for me to be there. Because of that, we started planning some training with the faculty at their meetings. I did a presentation on gay students’ right to have a safe environment. No one is talking to the teachers about this.”

 

2009

Michael kicked off his junior year with a bang. He served as president of his GSA and president of his French club, balancing his commitments against his youth leadership role with Youth Outlook. We honored Michael at the October gala, presenting him with the first youth leadership award. As an agency, we decided to begin offering that award based on our experience since last year and Michael’s performance as a youth leader. At one end of the room stood several pieces of artwork he submitted for the silent auction. At the other end of the room, a PowerPoint presentation ran, highlighting Michael’s contributions to the agency and noting his semi-finalist’s award for the national GLSEN award for student advocacy on behalf of LGBT high school students.

 

2010

“I wrote a letter to Oprah!” Michael announced.

I looked up, startled. “What for?” I asked.

“For Youth Outlook!” he said proudly. He pulled a folded sheet of paper from his backpack and handed it to me.

I thought he might be joking until I opened it and it started, “Dear Oprah Winfrey.” I scanned the letter. It explained what Youth Outlook was, who Michael was, and why he thought it was important for Oprah to be supportive of Youth Outlook. It was polite, it was genuine, and it brought tears to my eyes. “Did you send this to her?”

“I sent it to the newspaper. It’s an open letter.”

“An open letter!”

Basically, he dared one of the most revered celebrities in the history of television to get to know us. I looked at the letter again. His reasoning was solid. He pointed out that while things were changing, things were still difficult and dangerous and places like Youth Outlook were saving the lives of gay teenagers. He was right. It seemed like something she would talk about on her show.

Michael grinned. “I thought she’d pay attention more.”

 

09 June 2010

Oprah Winfrey

Harpo Studios, Inc.
1058 West Washington Blvd.
Chicago, IL 60607

Dear Ms.Winfrey;

My name is Michael Fairbanks. I am 16 years old and I will be a junior at St. Charles East High School in the Fall of 2010; in St. Charles, Illinois. I am the President of my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and French club; I am the Executive Director of the Gay-Straight Alliance of St. Charles, IL; I am a member of the French National Honors Society, and I am involved in my school’s music department. I am in the Chorale, Vocal Jazz Ensemble and the Chamber orchestra; the most advanced choirs and orchestra in my school. I am an openly gay young man, and as you may know, anything pertaining to GLBTIQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer/Questioning) issues does not go over well in today’s society.

Ever since I have been in middle school, I have always been bullied and harassed due to my sexual orientation. Up until this current school year, the harassment was over the roof; mainly taking place during my physical education class. I have been called a “faggot,” “fag,” “homo,” the “gay boy,” “queer,” and many more. Not only have I been called these very mean and offensive names, but I have also received threats, just because I am gay. This was causing me a lot of stress. It would cause me so much stress that at points I didn’t even want to go to school. Over the summer of 2009, my mother and I met with my school’s administration to talk about making my school a safer place for myself, and students alike. We decided that the best and most safe way for me to get away from the bullying and harassment would to get a doctors note, and have a medical excuse. Currently, I continue making my school a safer place for all students regardless of one’s sexual orientation, or gender identity/expression. I worked with my school’s administration to edit our districts policy on bullying and harassment, by adding “sexual orientation, and gender.” Those terms will be added to the handbook for the 2010-2011 school year. I have also been working on a sign that I have created called the “St. Charles East GLBTIQ Safe Zone,” and I have already spoken at a lead teachers meeting discussing how important it is that teachers are always showing support for the students, and that the students know they can trust their teachers to have a safe classroom and someone to talk to. At the Lead teachers meeting I also talked about dealing with diversity, specifically towards the GLBTIQ community. In the fall, I plan to speak to the entire administration to address the importance of the sign. I am also on the Suicide Prevention/Awareness panel that was presented March 25. I spoke about the risk factors of the GLBTIQ community and how they are four times more likely to attempt/commit suicide than the straight community. The panel was presented in front of a live audience and was also broadcasted through every TV in the school. On July 9, 2010, the Gay-Straight Alliance of St. Charles will be hosting a GLBTIQ”Unity Day,” a day that I created for the community to celebrate diversity in the GLBTIQ community.

Outside of School, I am a youth leader, and the president of the youth advisory board for the non-profit organization, Youth Outlook. Youth Outlook is the reason I am writing you this letter. Youth Outlook is committed to providing a safe, supportive, and respectful environment for adolescents, whether they identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or queer/questioning (GLBTIQ). It is also the only agency in the DuPage, Kane, and DeKalb counties of Illinois dedicated to solely serving GLBTIQ youth. All drop-in centers are open between 6:30-9:00 p.m.. There is group on Monday (DeKalb), Tuesday (Naperville), and Thursday (Geneva and Aurora) of every week. The DeKalb and Geneva groups serve youth who are 14 through 18 years old, or until they graduate high school. The Naperville and Aurora groups serve young adults ages 16 through 20. Youth Outlook provides leadership development, a social space, and wellness education on a variety of different subjects. Some of the subjects include, but not limited to; GLBTIQ issues (Harassment/Assault, Bisexualty/Biphobia, Coming out, Homophobia/Heterosexism, GLBTIQ Culture and History, and Transgender Issues), Health (Anxiety or depression, Drugs/Alcohol, STI Prevention/Treatment, sexual assault, self-esteem, and sex and sexuality), Relationships (Abusive relationships, boundaries, conflict resolution, dating issues, family issues, and negotiation skills), and other miscellaneous social activities. Youth Outlook is what I look forward to every week. When I go to the drop-in centers, the volunteers and staff members are always fun to be around, and I always know I can trust them. I have attended all the drop-in centers (Geneva, DeKalb, Naperville, and Aurora) and I enjoy them all! Recently, in the end of January 2010, Youth Outlook had to let go of their program manager, who was very loved by all the youth and myself, because Youth Outlook lost the funding for his position. Youth Outlook is facing many financial problems right now, and we really need your help. All the money donated goes to the organization, which goes to the youth. Without any money Youth Outlook would not be able to afford certain programs and activities, and Youth Outlook, if it doesn’t have enough money, might not be able to run anymore. I don’t know what I would be able to do without my weekly Youth Outlook. And that is why we need your help. Any amount of donation would be great, and any check should be made out to “Youth Outlook.” Youth Outlook is Youth Transforming the Future.

Thank you for your time, and if you have any questions and/or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Michael D. Fairbanks

 

2013

I booted up my computer and sat back to wait. The dinosaur would take at least twenty minutes before it was ready to work. I opened my calendar and punched the message button on my desk phone to retrieve the waiting messages, scribbling phone numbers down to return calls.

“Hi, Nancy, this is Ashley Rhodebeck from the Kane County Chronicle. I’m calling to get your input on a story I’m doing on the death of Michael Fairbanks.”

What?

 I snapped upright, hands flat on the desktop. Michael? No, that couldn’t be right. Michael?! No! I reached for the phone, then dropped it. As soon as my computer cooperated, I logged on and immediately did a search for Michael’s name. Nothing.

I opened a new tab and launched Facebook. I’d been Facebook friends with Michael’s mother since 2009, when we’d honored him at Dare to Dream. On her page, I read the chilling words that confirmed the reporter’s statement. Michael had died the night before.

My cell phone rang. I snatched it up with shaking hands, thinking I needed to call the Youth Leadership Coordinator before she heard this news in the heartless way I had. I didn’t even say hello.

“Tony, I just got some awful news—can I call you back in a few minutes?”

Tony’s voice cracked. “About Michael.”

I stilled. “You know?”

“One of the kids that used to come to group with him all the time sent me a message.”

He wouldn’t kill himself…He wouldn’t. Not Michael.

 

He didn’t. Michael’s death was accidental.

When I think about what we, as a staff, as an agency, as a community, have lost, I don’t know if it helps at all that it was an accident. It didn’t stop my tears when one of his friends approached his casket and sang “Amazing Grace” to him a capella at his funeral service. He gave everyone around him permission to be exactly who they are, and he wanted nothing more than to be loved for exactly who he was. Michael changed lives, and we are all cheated by this loss. In my heart, Michael will always be sixteen, challenging his school administrators to keep LGBT kids safe and writing to Oprah to ask her to help, this superhero boy whose talents we will never fully know.

I wish Oprah had responded. I think she would have loved Michael.

Michael, Nando, Denise

 

 

 

 

Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.   ~ Kahlil Gibran

Last fall, I took a plunge and brought a third dog into my house. I wasn’t puppy shopping at the time. I was really nervous about adding another set of paws to the 12 already living in my small home. The circumstances seemed right, though. Her family loved her and hated to let her go but they wanted a stable place for her. Her “mom” (my friend Lorrie) had died about 6 months prior and her “dad” (my friend John) needed to be able to travel for his job and wasn’t able to care for her.

We decided after numerous conversations that Kiara would become part of the herd here and with the friendship that had formed between her family and me, she could still see her people regularly. It was a great arrangement. She got to be in one place and her dad didn’t have to worry about kenneling her or finding her a dog sitter when he was out of town for work.

I can’t say it wasn’t a difficult start. During the first week that Ki moved in, her dad came over to see how she was adjusting. He had a glass of wine with me and she sat by his feet in this new, strange environment with its extra critters. The next day, every time I walked through the living room, I found her sitting beside the recliner where her dad had sat, with her chin on the armrest. It was so sweet and so loyal, it brought tears to my eyes.

Kiara spent the winter bonding with Chip and chasing the cat around the first floor, poking at him with one pointy paw when he’d let her get close. Mylo was a bit more reserved about having a newcomer and on the night of her arrival, took one look and promptly nipped her on the snout to let her know who was alpha. Kiara got the message. It was Mylo’s house. I don’t think Ki really cared all that much.

I’ve known before now that dogs have a sense of humor but I saw it surface in ways I hadn’t seen with other critters. Kiara played tricks on Chip. She would wait until all dog bowls had hit the floor filled with kibble with the little tablespoon of wet food on top to make it interesting. She’d wait just a bit longer until Chip was engrossed in his breakfast, then she’d run across the room at him, barking at the top of her canine lungs. Chip, rocket scientist that he is (how do I keep ending up with these super sweet, not too bright male dogs?), would fall over himself down the stairs toward the back door, bellowing his warning bark, then standing guard there against absolutely nothing, puffed up to about four times his normal size. He clearly didn’t know WHAT was happening, but SOMETHING was happening and he was going to stop it, by golly!  Kiara would casually swipe the wet dog food off the top of his bowl and go trotting back to her place in the dining room as if nothing had happened. Laughing. I KNEW she was laughing.

The best part of it for her –and maybe the funniest part—was that Chip fell for it not just once or twice. She pulled the Chip-alarm every day for weeks. I finally had to intervene and put a gate up so the poor guy could eat his kibble in peace, without being blown up into the unfortunate dog in the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. I could almost hear her saying to Seamus, “Hey, Cat, watch THIS!”

Kiara was the early riser in the family. She could be tempted to hit the snooze button once in a while if I loudly told her, “No bark!” but her response to that was to climb onto the end of the bed with her pointy legs, sigh, and fidget, while kicking me, until I got up. She had strong opinions about these things.

I think it is safe to say that this was one of the best decisions I ever made. She got it all. She got a house and a yard to romp in, and two new buddies to play with, and her dad could do his job and not have to worry about her and she got to see her other people frequently, which always brought happy sounds and a certain dance with those long, skinny legs. Last week, I needed someone to watch her for a few days so she went for the whole week with one of her people who loves her most in the world.

Kiara came home from her trip last Sunday, ready to romp with the other dogs and resume telling me what time to get up each morning. On Wednesday, we started our day as all days start—with a romp in the yard before kibble, then a walk to sniff around the street and see who’s doing what. We’d gotten only two houses away. She lagged behind to sniff the fire hydrant and the tree and I called her to step up the pace.

We didn’t get any further. Ki collapsed on the driveway, maybe 60 feet from our house. I heard it before I saw it. Bony dog elbows thumping concrete is unmistakable. It was quick. I don’t think she suffered. The vet said it was a sudden onset cardiac issue. There’s no warning, no sign of a problem, so the first time it makes itself known, it’s typically fatal.

My biggest regret is that when she collapsed, I was unable to lift her, to hold her, as she died. She’d gone to visit her person the week before because I had surgery on my shoulder and one week post-surgery, picking her up from a flat-out position on concrete was not a possibility.

I yelled for my neighbor to come help and he rushed outside to see what was wrong. His voice broke as he scooped her up and held her gently, telling her that she would be okay, to just hold on, that we were going to get her help. He talked to her the entire time we were driving to the vet office. “Hold on, baby. We’re almost there.”

She was gone before we arrived at the clinic. I’m not even sure that she was still with us when we got into the car. If she was, she died on his lap in my car. My neighbor, Scott, stood on the sidewalk of the vet hospital with me as we cried on each other’s shoulders and the techs carried her inside.

It is not lost on me that my friend Kiara got to spend a whole week with her person before she left us. Nor is it lost on me that her last morning consisted of a romp with Chip and Mylo, and kibble with her favorite wet food on top, and a walk with a fire hydrant and a tree to sniff. When time stopped for her, she was not alone. She was held and loved—some even by a man who didn’t know her well, but who treated her with the utmost kindness in her last moments.

It is difficult to lose a furry family member. But the focus of these last couple of days has been far more about what she gave us during her months with us and what her family and I were able to do for her to make her last year wonderful.

It is also not lost on me that in a scalding second of I NEED SOMETHING RIGHT NOW, my neighbor Scott appeared by my side and helped me escort that sweet pup across the Rainbow Bridge. I don’t know what he was in the middle of doing when I yelled for him. He dropped whatever it was, and he was right there for me, and for her, through the end.

No regrets otherwise. This is what I offered to do when I agreed to bring her home. In return, I got a year with a very cool, smart, funny dog. I shared her with a very cool, smart, funny family and we got to do something really special for her.

In her last moments, I got to see the absolute best of a person who opened his arms and his heart to help me do one final thing for her. There are times when kindness cannot be repaid. It can only be paid forward. I think this may be one of those times.

Happy trails, Kiara. The gate is open, sweet girl. Run as fast as you want!

Scott, I will never be able to thank you enough.

Kiara beds

 

The Bonds We Forge

Posted: April 26, 2017 in Blog
Tags: , , , , ,
Ahem. Me-me-me-me-me. Ahem.
“People let me tell you ’bout my best friend…”
Yyyeaah, lemme tell you about my buddy Zach. He once ate an entire box of dry Cream of Wheat. I wouldn’t let him drink anything because I was afraid he’d blow up. During his awkward teenaged years, he got tangled in my feet on the stairs and knocked me down, breaking my tailbone. He thought it was great fun when we landed on the floor at the bottom of the steps in a heap and he jumped away and jumped back as if to say, “Hey, let’s do that again!” I had to sit on an orthopedic doughnut for about three months. (Ok, occasionally I did wear it on my head. There are photos. Don’t ask.) He once raided the luggage of a house guest and ate her Welbutrin. He slept for three days. I had to wake him up to take him out to pee. He once chased my pet rabbit around the basement in a circle, faster and faster, until the bunny went running up the ramp into his cage, and Zach followed, getting his head and shoulders stuffed through the door before coming to a screeching halt, nose to nose with said bunny and wedged so tightly that neither one of them could move. I was surprised Smudge didn’t have a heart attack.
 
This guy was smart like a box of rocks. Whenever I called the vet with his latest adventure, I had to wait for him to stop laughing before he could answer my question.
 
I thought I would lose my mind before he was two.
 
Then came the days following my brother’s death when I could barely get through a day without breaking down. Zach would climb up on the couch beside me and drape his giant orange head over mine and just breathe with me for hours and I listened to his heart beat until those days passed. Apparently dogs know how to hold space.
 
Good boy, Zacharoo. Good boy.
 
“People let me tell you ’bout my best friend…”
Zach was with me until two weeks shy of his 15th birthday, an impressive feat for a 100 lb Golden Retriever. On his last morning, we celebrated with Frosty Paws and a visit to his favorite fire hydrant and a nap on his blanket in the yard with the sun shining. When he took the shot, I held his head in my hands and breathed with him, wanting him to know I was right there, just as he had been for me. That was this morning, a warm April day in 2006.
 
Sometimes I think I can still hear his heartbeat.
Zach and me

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”    ~Maya Angelou

I’ve done a lot of reading and attended some trainings over this winter on the topic of trauma and trauma informed care and here’s what I have learned so far. When someone is in the middle of a meltdown, the thinking part of their brain stops working. No lie. The science is there. Kids, teenagers, all of us. It just stops. Decision making skills? Out the window. Language? Gone. Nothing above the brain mid-line is in gear–only the parts that can feel and act—or react.

This new learning caused me to notice the questions that we ask of people at those times. I’ve done it in my job over the years. “How can I help you?” ‘What do you need?” The questions are innocent, an outpouring of our desire to support and assist people we care about. They can’t engage in those questions with us, though. Their brain has turned off. They can’t answer a question like “What do you need” when they can’t access the upper part of their brain where language lives. We are asking them to do something with us that they are literally unable to do.

I am reminded of a Ram Dass book one of my graduate school instructors shared with us that talked about the helplessness of the helping professional. That book was written before we even knew any of the neuroscience that is driving our understanding today. Back then, it just resonated with me that sometimes the most important thing you could do with someone in crisis was to honor them by witnessing their pain. Just be with them. I have carried that message throughout my career.

Working with LGBT youth, sometimes the most important thing we can do is to honor them by witnessing their pain. We, as the agency staff, have no access to their family home. We have limited access to their school, and then only by invitation. We meet kids in tremendous pain who are being verbally and physically harassed, assaulted, threatened…kids are dealing with trauma on a frequent basis.

Neuroscience is also telling us now that people who experience trauma in childhood (abuse, neglect, parental mental illness or addiction, sexual assault, witnessing domestic violence, natural disasters, and a few others) develop cognitively in a different way than do people who do not experience trauma. The more trauma, the more different the brain and the more likely for health and mental implications in adulthood. The science is fascinating. Take a look at a quick, easy and interesting overview by Dr. Nadine Harris Burke. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95ovIJ3dsNk&t=577s

I wouldn’t have to scan the brains of some of the LGBT kids we work with to know that there are some differences in development going on there. We know there’s been an uptick in harassment and assault in the last couple of years (https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/GLSEN%202015%20National%20School%20Climate%20Survey%20%28NSCS%29%20-%20Executive%20Summary.pdf). We know there’s been, at best, benign neglect of their needs, and, at worst, open hostility toward LGBT students, especially trans students.  We also already know that LGBT youth make up between 20% and 40% of the kids who are homeless and on the streets every year, particularly high on the T, most particularly on trans youth of color. Newer research tells us that LGBT kids also comprise about 20% of youth who are incarcerated.  (Should we place bets on how many of those kids were homeless before they were locked up?)

Those are some mindblowing stats when you take into account that we make up…what….maybe 10% of the general population? Conservative stats say 5%, but let’s be generous and say 10% for the hell of it.

Now let’s add one more twist. Where’s my bugle? This information should come with a bugle blaring to announce its arrival. According to Dr. Caitlin Ryan, researcher at The Family Acceptance Project, and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the leading trauma experts in the world, all is takes is one person.

You read that right. All it takes is ONE person who hears, one person who witnesses, one person who honors and believes to begin to relieve some of the effect of that trauma. That’s one school counselor. One school nurse. One social worker in individual session. One mom. One brother. One neighbor. One volunteer at Youth Outlook or Big Brother/Big Sister. One person who is safe and trustworthy and respectful can provide an opportunity for rewiring a brain that has been traumatized. One person can be the protective factor that stops a desperate kid from making an attempt on their own life.

Wow. Think about the power you have to affect a kid’s life. Not just their life right now, but if you listened to Dr. Burke’s TED talk, you know it’s the power to affect a kid’s life throughout the life span. It’s not about the question at that moment of crisis: “What do you need?”  or “How can I help?” Remember, in meltdown mode, none of us can actually process that question.

Thirty years into this, although I see what Ram Dass meant, I don’t know that I would limit my description of this as helplessness when we watch someone hurt. It has honor. It has meaning. True enough, we may not be able to stop it from happening, but being there with someone while he/she/they hurt, holding space for them to have their experience safely, has the potential to change cognitive wiring. We can get to those pesky questions later. First, we just have to be. We are amazing critters—both what we are as individuals and what we have the ability to do for one another.

Yes, Dr. Angelou. I agree. When we know better, we do better.

Childhood Trauma Family Courts - 2015

We All Win

Posted: February 12, 2017 in Blog
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’m not much of a morning person. There may have been hypothetical occasions, even, when there may have been hypothetical house rules about talking to me in the morning. Maybe. But let’s be real. I don’t make much sense in the morning, so how much of a conversationalist could I be?

Today was a bit different. This morning, I voluntarily got up early on a Sunday to join my neighbors at our first neighborhood coffee gathering. I even got up a little earlier than I needed to, just to make sure that I DID make sense, should anyone feel like conversing with me.

It’s been such a weird couple of months. It feels like we are often all walking on eggshells with each other. I have experienced fear for the first time living on my street when my neighborhood was menaced this fall by a young guy driving a pick up truck with the word REDNECK emblazoned across the rear window and flying a confederate flag over the bed. I live in a diverse neighborhood. It feels like the entire country has become a dog fight, with minority populations being used to bait people into statements and acts that used to horrify us and now have become common.

It is not okay to live in fear. It is not even a place I wish to visit.

I have walked in my neighborhood every day for almost fourteen years, most days twice, with 2 dogs pulling in different directions on the ends of their extendable leashes. I know lots of my neighbors by sight, and some even by name well enough to stop and chat on warm summer mornings. People know me. There are waves and calls to say hi, or to wish me a good holiday in the Christmas season.

There was talk, even before the eggshell-walking started, that we were all quite attached to our neighborhood. People ask after each other. “Have you seen…”  and  “We should have them over…” Someone put up a Facebook page named after our neighborhood so we can communicate with each other.  Last year, some practical joker stacked my recyclable bin on top of the garbage bin and left them that way, ensuring the waste management people would just drive by. I was recovering from knee surgery and navigating the house on crutches. There was no way I could go move the recycle bin, which stands almost as tall as I do, into its correct position. So I posted on our neighborhood Facebook page—“Hey, if anyone is home this morning, can you give me a hand?”  It took less than a minute, and a neighbor popped over, put the bins in their proper locations and popped back into their own house.

On that afternoon when I first saw the pick up truck with the flag slowly cruising my street…no, he was not driving, he was cruising, looking for someone or something… it immediately worried me. There’s an elementary school on the corner, attended primarily by brown and black skinned children. There’s a Muslim family up the next block and the mom walks her daughters to and from school every day. My next door neighbors are Latino. The new neighbors in the corner house are an African American couple. I wondered who would not be safe—who was being looked for.

At first, I was concerned about posting anything to the neighborhood Facebook page. What if some of my neighbors supported the guy in the pick up truck with his flag? Was I going to draw attention or perhaps hostility for speaking up? As the only genderqueer person on this street, I did have to wonder about my safety, too. I can’t imagine that my neighbors don’t already know who I am…but was I crossing a line by speaking up and saying that the pick up truck and the message of the flag were making me uncomfortable?

When I heard that the pick up truck had been spotted on a couple of other nearby streets, I realized I couldn’t let it go. Was I ready to defend my space? Was I ready to speak up for my neighbors? For the little kids walking back and forth to school? I had to.

I posted to the Facebook page: Just want to make you aware…I know many of you have kids…we need to keep our neighborhood safe.  I waited, apprehensive. The comments that followed were warm and appreciative. Everyone who answered understood my point about neighborhood safety and agreed.

A few days later, I was out walking the dogs and the neighbor who wears a burqa passed by to go pick up her girls. Ordinarily, I smile and wave but I don’t go close enough for conversation to anyone with the dogs on their strings. I don’t assume everyone will like my dogs as much I do.  That day, I reeled the dogs all the way in and approached her.

“Have you seen the pick up truck?”

“Yes—and there’s another one just like it further up the street.”

“I don’t know what he’s doing…”

She nodded. “I’m not sure why anyone with those beliefs would move into a neighborhood like ours.”

“You know if anyone bothers you while you’re walking by, you can turn up my driveway—just come right to the house and ring the bell.”  I didn’t need to tell her where I lived. She’s been walking by while I mow the grass for at least two years.

“Thank you. I will remember that.”

“Let your girls know, too. We can’t have this in our neighborhood.”

She continued down the street.

So enough with the eggshells. This morning, I got up early and took my slightly incoherent, gender neutral self over to my neighbors’ house and we gathered with several other families to have coffee and danishes. I don’t know what the political stances of most of those people might be. I don’t know what religious affiliations most of them have. It didn’t matter. We had coffee and talked about spring, and gardening, and house projects, and our pets. I learned about growing mushrooms and that alligators and crocodiles have different temperaments and that most of my neighbors want to keep chickens and bees. Who knew?

We reclaimed our neighborhood and celebrated each other simply by having coffee. Our differences were minor in comparison to the myriad of things we wanted to talk about, standing around on a Sunday morning as kids ran through the kitchen and the dog wanted his belly scratched. In the words of my neighbor Greg, who is a math teacher (something I will never be able to relate to!), “Let’s keep this street and city full of love.”

Indeed, Greg. We all win with that outlook. I’ll get up early for that any day.

diversity_and_unity

 

Pride 2016: Whiplash

Last week, I left home on a sunny Thursday morning to go to the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. I got a little turned around near the airport with all of the construction and had a hard time finding the economy parking lot, which I thought was kind of funny given the number of times I’ve been to the airport. It was a nice day. I was looking forward to my trip—2 ½ days of conferencing and new ideas and meeting fun, new people, followed by 2 days visiting my sister, whom I have described in previous blog posts as “a colorful character”.

I finally figured out the entrance to the economy parking lot and ditched my car in favor of the railcar to the terminal.  American Airlines buzzed at noon. I went right to the little machine and plugged in my flight number.  The machine couldn’t find me. Rut ro, Raggy.  Just to my right, two American Airlines reps chatted at the counter and one glanced over and asked if she could help.

“The machine can’t seem to find me,” I said. “Here’s my reservation info.”

Dutifully, she began to plug the information into her computer. As she was typing, I happened to scroll down a bit on my phone screen and saw that my reservation was just fine—AND with another airline. I started to laugh and she looked up at me.

“Oh geez! My flight is actually on United! I’m in the wrong terminal.”  The more I thought about it, the harder I laughed. She joined me. Then her counter-mate joined us and we all giggled together.  They wished me a great flight and a nice day and I headed over to the correct terminal.

Lines. Identification. Shoes off. If you fly, you know the drill.

“Step in, feet on the marks, raise your hands.”

The scan machines are so much faster.

“You moved. Can you step back in and we’ll do it again? It’s blurry.”

I stepped back in, put my feet on the Arthur Murray footprints and raised my paws above my head. The machine whirred in a half-circle and they waved me out.

“Please wait here until the scan comes up.”

I waited, idly glancing sideways to see if my belongings were coming through the x-ray machine. Not that I fly a lot, but same old, same old.

An angular, hard-looking TSA agent leaned toward me. “Do you have anything in your pockets?”

I shook my head. I know the drill. Nothing in your pockets when you get scanned.  I voluntarily turned my pockets inside out for her.

She looked back at the screen. “Do you have something in your groin area?”

I didn’t think I’d heard her right.  “I’m sorry. What?”

“The scan is showing a suspicious bulge in your groin area. Do you have anything there?”

Confused, I stared at her for a moment. “No. There’s nothing there.”

“What about your right ankle?”

“What about it?”

“The scan shows something there too. Look.” She pointed at the monitor positioned behind me, over my left shoulder.  I turned around. The admirably gender neutral stick figure on the screen had a bright box drawn around both its right stick figure ankle and its y-shaped, stick figure groin area.

What the actual fuck?

“So do you have anything on your ankle?”

“My sock,” I offered dryly.

“I’m going to have to pat it down.”

“Of course,” I agreed, not putting the whole picture together yet.

She reached down, running her fingers around the cuff of my jeans.  As I’d said, there was nothing there but my sock. When she straightened up, she said, “We’re going to have to pat you down.” She started to rattle off the procedure which involved a female TSA agent searching my body, placing hands in some very private areas.

That’s when it clicked.

It flashed through my mind and was gone in a nanosecond. I wonder how many other trans and gender queer people have come through this airport in the last two days to get to this conference? Are you trying to make a point? See if I’m packing? See if I have a penis and my ID doesn’t match my body? Do you want to make sure I’m using the right bathroom?

I didn’t look any different than I have and I wasn’t wearing anything I haven’t flown in for the last 20 years. I wear one kind of jeans. They’re my favorite. I wear one kind of underroos, also my favorite.  What an odd coincidence that we, as a country, are losing our collective minds over trans people and their right to dignity, not to mention bodily privacy, and the only person getting pulled out of line at that moment  was the only visible gender queer. Maybe it happened to people who weren’t gender queer. I don’t know that for a fact. What I do know for a fact was that I was on my way to work, and all of a sudden, I was required to allow a TSA agent to touch my groin.

I took a step back from her and sweat broke out on my forehead and the scruff of my neck. I felt my head jerk side to side convulsively, accompanied by a reaction of please don’t touch me. My breathing constricted and I couldn’t get a deep breath in.

The agent took a step closer to me. “Would you like to be screened in a private area?”

Yes.

NO! Please don’t take me somewhere and touch my body against my will!

I backed up another half step. Maybe I could just leave. I could collect my belongings and just go home. I could skip the conference. Another female TSA rep appeared at the first one’s elbow. Then a male agent called out something about needing a female to do a private screening and a third one appeared. All three of them faced me, as I stood with my back against the edge of the scan machine, sweat leaking down my temples.

“You’ll need to come with us.”

Could I? Couldn’t I just leave?  It wasn’t too far from the feeling of being with the father when he was arrested for DWI when I was eight and I was told I needed to get in the squad car with him, which was the equivalent of being arrested with him. I could have run then, too, but I had been concerned that I’d be the only fugitive in my third grade class. What if I turned around and walked out now?

A vision of being tackled and cuffed invaded my thoughts.  Was that what happened? Was declining a search and leaving ever an option? What were my rights in this situation? Cold, I realized I had no idea if they’d take me down or what my legal rights were.

The private screening area looked like an overgrown cubicle with a lid on it. I was directed in first, and the three agents followed me, lining up along the inside of the only door, barring my exit.

The young African American woman addressed me.  “Is there anything you want to tell us?”

What could I say? Please don’t touch me? I have nothing in my pants except myself? I don’t know why you’re doing this?  Except I did, because the machine told them there was something there…and this was their jobs.

What came out was, “I… I… this will be hard for me. I will try to stand still.”

Her eyebrows furrowed, then she nodded. “I understand. I’ll tell you everything I’m about to do.”  She held her arms out from her sides, palms up. “Please extend your arms like this.”

I stretched my paws out, also palms up. Cold helplessness sank to the bottom of my stomach like a heavy ball as I tensed all over. I realized my heart was racing.

“I’m going to start here with a pinching motion and work my way around.” She took hold of the band of my jeans.

Okay. Okay, I can do this. Just stand still. I can do this.

She finished searching the band of my jeans. “Please move your feet further apart. I’m going to move my hand up your legs. I have to touch your groin. I’ll use the back of my hand.”

My gag reflex caught. I closed my eyes, my entire body constricted now, and tears ran from corners of my closed eyes.

“Are you okay?” the first agent asked.  “Do you need a break?”

I shook my head.

“You want us to keep going and just get it over with?”

Yes. By all means. Please continue invading my body while I stand here with my arms out until you decide it’s “over with”. I have nothing on my being that you are going to find, so exactly how long is this going to take? The sound that came out was sort of a cracked croak which the agent, now kneeling on the floor, took to be an affirmation.

Hands. Stranger’s hands in places that no one gets to touch …except for those with consent or those who did not bother to get consent.

Focus. Focus. It’s almost done.

The agent on the floor finished running her hands between my legs and got up. “She doesn’t have anything.”

NO SHIT.

To me, she said, “You’re doing great. I just have to swab your hands and we’ll be done.”

When she stepped out of the room to get the swab, the first agent offered me a ragged paper towel and asked me quietly, “Are you traveling with someone?”

I shook my head, unable to look at her, tears still blinding me. Silly me. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring emotional support to get through having some stranger’s hands in my groin at the airport so I could get to work. I glanced around the overgrown cubicle, wondering how many other gender queer people had been rubbed down in this space over the past 24 hours. And how many other sexual assault survivors were systematically reduced to trembling idiots, blinded by their own tears?

The swab was clean, mostly because I so rarely need to handle physical explosives at my job as a social worker. Dealing with emotional explosion is much more our realm. Numbly, I wondered if I had somehow missed some headlines about a run of pudgy, middle aged queers smuggling explosives in their underroos.

The agent who had searched me opened the door. “Thank you,” she said softly, a 180 turn from her approach when she thought I had groin-related contraband.

I stumbled away, one sneaker still untied. Or untied again. I didn’t know. The gate seemed an inordinate distance away; the conference might well have been on the other side of the planet.  I could still feel echoes of strange hands. Someone bumped into me—or I bumped into someone—and I crawled further inside my skin seeking the off switch to my over-extended antennae. I fought the urge to keep repeating, “I’m sorry, please stop!”, as if that had been expected me the entire time and as if that might have had any effect.

I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be sorry about. Sorry for being at O’Hare? Sorry for having booked a flight that took me through THAT security gate with those particular TSA agents? Sorry for being comfortable in my gender queerness and having the nerve to show up at the airport that way? Sorry that I wasn’t actually packing and there was nothing between the agent’s hand and my groin except my clothing? Sorry that I had the gall to be looking forward to a 3 day conference of open queer-ity in a city celebrating Pride weekend? Sorry… just for being?

The fall from the high of looking forward to the conference ended with a tooth-rattling jolt in an overgrown cubicle with a lid. I’ve been a public queer for almost twenty years. I’ve been helping little queerlings celebrate who they are for almost half the time I’ve been alive. How dare I? How dare I show up at the airport wearing my favorite jeans and my favorite underroos, sporting my gender neutrality? As if this were Pride month… In 2016.

The conference was barely tolerable and I couldn’t wait to find quiet space. Focus. Breathe. Keep breathing. Find pride. I know it’s here somewhere.

My chest eventually opened up and I was able to start breathing deeply again until the news reports of Orlando and LA began. I hadn’t realized that my breathing space was merely the act of climbing the next incline, this time with a drop right off the edge as if the tracks simply ended. When the plunge began, and my antennae shot out so far I could no longer sense where they were in space or time, I had one comfort left.

I texted the Youth Outlook staff whose numbers I had with me. “Watching this story get worse and worse as the day goes one, thinking of my dream team and loving you guys from PA.”

Their responses to me and to each other lightened the day, lifted it, warmed the cold stone in my stomach. Love. Kindness. Support. Honor.

And pride.

Sometimes, our antennae shoot out. Sometimes, the bottom drops out or the tracks end and we drop several emotional stories. Sadly, maddeningly, it isn’t uncommon in queer worlds. It still gives us whiplash. But in the end, we have each other. There is love. Kindness. Support. Honor. And pride.

Grab a hand. We have such work to do in Orlando, in LA, in Chicago, across the country, in this Pride 2016 season, whiplash and all.

strength

 

 

A yahrzeit candle burns in the kitchen and throughout the day, I’ve pondered the intimacy of sharing the experience of someone’s death. Intimacy seems an odd word and yet nothing more suitable comes to mind. This sharing shapes me. It might shape any of us, I think…the piercing loss that dulls over time to add layers to who we are as people, to become, hopefully, a reason to be grateful.

I had a brother once. For that, I am grateful. He took me fishing when I was a kid and he taught me how to bait hooks and tie leaders. For that, I am grateful. He told me one day that my parents would be very proud of me and that they would have loved me, no matter the whole gay thing.  For that, I am grateful. At the end of his life, he asked me to be part of making the decision to bring him to peace, one of the most difficult and the most beautiful things I’ve ever done. For that, I am grateful.

 

An excerpt from Urban Tidepool

 

March, 2002

 

I talked to Chick Monday afternoon of Easter week, right before I left my office for a meeting. We’d spoken more by phone in the last nine months, with him waiting on the transplant unit at Temple University Hospital for a new heart, than we had probably spoken my entire life.  If I still lived on the east coast, it would have been so much easier to spend time with him. The year after our brother Michael died, I had accepted an executive director position in a small agency working with gay youth in the Midwest. I was half a day away and left with phone calls and occasional emails as our primary means of communication.

“They’re still trying to figure out what this infection in my lung is,” he said.

“So what are they doing?” I asked, piling the forms I needed for the upcoming meeting on top of my day planner.

“They’re worried about doing a biopsy. With the one lung, that’s always a big risk. All the blood work is showing that it’s something but they don’t know what.”

He and my sister-in law,Jedda, had fought hard for this transplant option. Since he had lost his other lung, he was considered very high risk for the transplant. Other transplant programs had turned him down. Temple had been his last chance. He was so sick now, he had moved onto the “heart floor” because their home was far enough away that if anything happened with his heart, he would not survive the trip to the hospital. After Michael’s death, he had been repeatedly hospitalized and we had had some close calls, but they’d always managed to stabilize him and send him home again. The message, prior to coming to Temple, seemed to be that they were sending him home to wait it out and be kept comfortable but the message at Temple was that there was still hope of living for years post-surgery.

We had spent many evenings during this nine month stretch planning the fishing trip we would take when his surgery was complete. He wanted to charter a boat off the Carolina coast and I wanted to land something as big as myself that took all day to get inside the boat. He had explained the whole process to me: how many weeks he’d remain inpatient after the new heart was put in, how many weeks after being released from the hospital he had to remain within a certain geographic area to the hospital in case his body rejected the heart and he had to be med-evac’ed back, how long before he’d be cleared to go out on a fishing charter. I hoped that within six months to a year, he’d be cleared. The only wildcard was when he’d have the new heart put in. We were nine months into a wait that averaged three hundred sixty four days. The most fun part was teasing him about how those poor doctors were ever going to find a way to transplant something into him that he’d never had in the first place.

“I’ll find out more from the cardiologist tomorrow.”

I checked my time. I needed to leave for my meeting.  “I’m going to Syracuse tomorrow for a few days. I’ll call you tomorrow night when I get in to see what you found out.”

“Sounds good. Drive safe.”

“Yeah, I will. Love you.”

“Love you, too, babe.”

*****

 

I slept in a little the next morning and got started on my drive later than I really wanted. Zach occupied the back seat, asleep with his big head on his giant golden paws for most of the twelve hour trip. We were approaching the second anniversary of losing Beeb, whom I’d had for fifteen years. Zach was still beside himself without her and he went everywhere with me.  It was after ten when I arrived in the Syracuse area. It was too late to call Chick. The man needed his beauty sleep. I unloaded my car into the guest bedroom at my friends’ house and Zach and I went to bed.

The following morning, I called Chick’s hospital room for my update. My nephew “Ours” answered.

“You need to come now,” he said, his speech pressured.

I was suddenly wide awake. “What happened?”

“He crashed Monday night. They don’t know what’s wrong. They induced a coma and they’ve got him on a ventilator. It’s bad. If you’re coming, come now,” he repeated.

It was always bad. Last year, he’d had a reaction to one of his medications and had hiccups for nine days. If his blood thinner medication was the slightest bit out of whack, he got a nose bleed just sitting up in bed. He’d had two strokes since Michael died; we worried about every headache. Nothing was simple and it seemed some days that every function of his body was controlled by the medical field.

I was nodding against the phone as if Ours would be able to feel it and know I was agreeing. “Yes, I’ll come. I’ll be there this afternoon.”

When I hung up, the friends whose home I was visiting were both standing there, waiting expectantly. “I have to go. It’s bad and if I’m going, I have to go now.”

We’d done this before. This was the third time in the last two years that I’d gotten the “if you’re coming, come now” call. Each time, I dropped what I was doing and took off for Pennsylvania from wherever I was.  Each time rocked me. Each time, we had no idea if he would survive.

I gathered up my belongings, jamming everything back into my overnight bag. When I dragged it downstairs with Zach lumbering after me, my friends were in the living room, car keys in hand.

“We’ll drive you,” Ronnie said.

“You don’t need to do that-“

“You’re tired and you’re upset. You were on the road all day yesterday. We don’t want you on the road alone today. I called Ma and she’s coming to stay with Zach, so you can leave him here,” Holly informed me.

“No, I can’t ask-“

“You didn’t ask. Let’s go.”  Holly opened the door and gestured me out.

*****

                It was overcast most of the drive and raining lightly in a few places as we drove through the Poconos on the northeast extension of the Pennsylvania turnpike. For late March, this was fortunate. We could easily have been driving through a blizzard. The trees lining the roads were still bare, struggling to bring up their first spring buds. There wasn’t much to look at, so I slouched in the back of Ronnie’s car, with my head against the window, staring at the back of the driver’s seat.

A couple of hours into the five hour drive, I mumbled, “I don’t know where I’m staying when we get there.”

Holly turned. “Ronnie called her cousin just outside the city. We’re all going to stay there tonight.”

“Are you coming to the hospital with me?”

Ronnie responded this time. “Yeah. Why don’t we take you there and we’ll find something to do until you want to leave. Or until they throw you out. And then we can go to my cousin’s for the night. We’ll bring you back in the morning.”

I couldn’t think through the logistics. I hadn’t contacted my sister Pat to tell her I’d be in the area.  I was hesitant to assume it would be okay for me to crash there, let alone me with two strangers. Beyond that, I’d have to return to Syracuse some time later. My car was in Holly’s driveway and Zach was in her living room, probably asleep on the couch beside Holly’s mom at this very moment. I decided to go with Ronnie’s logic and perch with her at this alleged cousin’s house in the suburbs.

They dropped me at the hospital entrance. I walked in alone.  Approaching the information desk, I heard the echo of Ours’ words: “If you’re coming, come now.” Immediately behind them, bathed in hospital-scent disinfectant: “It’ll be okay. Just don’t cry.”

Over the rumble of both, I asked for Chick’s room.

“Only immediate family may visit.”

“I’m his sister.”

Jedda jumped to her feet when I walked in. She said nothing, but put her arms around me and rested her head on my shoulder. I hugged her tight. Her face was gaunt, her eyes red, the lids raw looking. I was sure she hadn’t slept. I took her hands and prodded her back to the chair where she’d been sitting.

“What have I missed?” I asked. I squeezed past her legs and along the side of the bed so I could get closer to Chick. I kissed him on the forehead.

(“How you doin’, Chuckles?”)

It sprang out of nowhere, with the image of the father in his dinner-napkin-nightgown and his pale grey skin, my sister just finishing his shave that Saturday morning when he’d had his first and second heart attacks.  Chick was that color now, that ghastly colorless color, under a stubble of beard. Our father had been exactly three months past his fifty seventh birthday when he died. Chick was just six weeks past his.

She cleared her throat.  “He crashed not long after he talked to you. He was having trouble breathing and then he stopped altogether. They keep him sedated so he doesn’t fight the vent tube.”

I eyed the white tube taped to his mouth and run down his throat. The machine across the bed breathed for him. The dialysis machine next to me filtered his blood. Everywhere I looked, machines beeped and pinged and measured and dispensed and maintained. Everywhere, except when I looked at Jedda, and I knew that science didn’t have a machine that could measure what was going on for her.

“He said they were still doing tests about the infection in his lung?” It came out as a question.

“We don’t have the results yet.”

“Have you spoken to the cardiologist?”

“Yes, and he’ll be back first thing in the morning.”

We sat silently after that, listening to the machines live for him. On a stretch break, I stepped out long enough to call my sister and gave her the same message Ours gave me. If you’re coming, come now.

“I’ll be there,” she promised.

Holly and Ronnie appeared from nowhere at the end of visiting hours. I had no idea where they’d been for the last few hours.

“Babe, where are you going to stay tonight?” Jedda asked. She didn’t need to worry about that; she had lived at the hospital with Chick for the last nine months, sleeping on a cot beside his bed or in the lone chair.

“With my friends. I’ll be back first thing in the morning, okay?”  I kissed her on the cheek and squeezed her hand.

At Ronnie’s cousin’s house, we piled into the living room. I dozed twisted sideways in a chair and a half with an ottoman. My back ached. My neck ached. My soul ached. I didn’t want to do this again, this loss. I didn’t want my family to have to absorb it again. There wasn’t much of us left.

The unit director was on the floor when I arrived the next morning and she told us that for the next few days, until Chick’s test results returned, we had round the clock access to him. He would be moved to a different room so we didn’t disturb anyone and we could come and go as we needed to. That didn’t feel like a good sign.

Pat and I rotated with Jedda, two of us sitting bedside at a time, giving the third one a break to walk around, make a trip to the restroom, or go on a coffee run which was how all three of us remained coherent. I knew what we were doing, even if the doctors weren’t saying it. I knew death watch when I was sitting it.

We switched seats with Jedda so she could make some phone calls. Pat took her chair.

“Oh brother dear, the sisty-uglers are here to visit!” she called out, sing-song.

“The hospice nurses have told us when the guys staying in the group home are in comas, the last thing they lose is their hearing, so he can probably hear you,” I pointed out.

“Yeah? Good!” She started to sing Chickery Chick to him, a song from 1945 that she said the mother had sung to him when he was a little boy and where his nickname had originated.  I wondered what it was like to have a mom who sang to you. Before I could get too far into my contemplation, Pat stopped singing and began hunting through her bag for Kleenex. She couldn’t finish the song. I put a hand on her shoulder and she covered it with her own.

“Did I ever tell you,” I asked, “about the time I called his hospital room and told him I knew how I wanted to die?” It seemed as good a time as any.

She shook her head, still dabbing at her eyes.

“I call him every few days to tell him some stupid joke just to make sure he laughs once in a while. So I called him this one day and said, ‘Hey, you know how everybody in our family dies early?’  And he said yes. And I said, ‘I’ve decided how I want to go!’ He said, ‘Whaddya mean? How the hell do you want to go?’ So I told him. ‘I want to die of a broken neck. With Tina Turner’s legs wrapped around my head.’”

Pat gasped. “You did NOT!”

“Oh yes I did!” I said. “Then I hung up on him. Jedda told me later he sat there with the phone in his hand for about eight seconds, and he just started to roar. She said he laughed until he cried. When I visited him the next time, every damn nurse on the floor greeted me with, ‘So yoooouuu’re Nancy!’”

Pat was dabbing at her eyes again but it wasn’t sadness this time. Two feet in front of us, Chickery Chick’s machines continued to live for him.

*****

 

I slipped out to use the restroom and when I returned to Chick’s room, Pat and Jedda were both gone. As I crossed the threshold, one of his machines started to beep loudly and the signal changed on the screen. Startled, I turned around to call for a nurse but before I could say anything, blue scrubs passed me and poked at the machine.

“Is he okay?” I asked, knowing it was a relative term.

“Everything’s fine,” he said. That was also relative. He angled around me and Chick and I were alone.

I pulled the chair closer to the bedside. “Did you hear all of that?” I asked. “It was like you were a game show contestant, all those machines beeping and pinging!  I’m almost certain you just won a goat on a razor scooter!”

I knew it was just a reflex, but his left eyebrow raised and then lowered. Did he know I was here? I sighed and scooted to the edge of the chair so I could reach his hand. I picked it up, limp and warm, and wrapped both of my own around it. For a moment, it was silent. Then remembering that he could probably hear me, I decided to talk to him.

“You’ve been doing this for a long time. I know you’re tired.” I rubbed his forearm. “If you’re staying because you’re worried about Jedda, I’ll be here for her. I won’t let anything happen to her. If you need to go so you can rest, you should go. I got it.”

I didn’t expect an answer. I pressed the back of his hand to my cheek, our hands palm to palm. My chest ached.  Did you know? … Did you know what happened in that house? Did Michael ever tell you the truth? Do you know I don’t want to lose you? My family is almost gone. I don’t want to do this with you too. But if you need to go, it’s okay and we’re okay and I got this.

When Pat returned a few minutes later, I gave her some time alone with him.

*****

I spent Thursday night at Pat’s house, borrowing Bob’s old room again as I had when I came back for Michael’s funeral.  We returned to the hospital Good Friday morning. Jedda was in a huddle with the cardiologist and a couple of other doctors including the unit director, when we approached.

“…and you said we would have access to my husband round the clock!”

“Yes, Mrs. Mullen. Those are the orders.”

“Well, I’m telling you, if I buzz to be let onto the floor one more time and get told to come back in ten or fifteen minutes, there’s going to be a problem!”

“Which nurse is telling you to wait? They’re all aware of the plan.”

“The Indian nurse. She has sent me away several times telling me they’re in the middle of something or now is not a good time—now is the ONLY time I have! If she tells me one more time to go away and come back, I’m going to slap that goddamned dot off her head!”

The director pivoted sharply a half turn away from us and cleared her throat. I realized immediately she was fighting not to laugh.  This would not be the time. I put my hand on Jedda’s arm.

Turning back with a straight face, the director said, “Mrs. Mullen, I will speak with the nurses and this will not be a problem again. I will be back to see you this afternoon to go over Major Mullen’s test results.”

Jedda looked at me, glancing between me and Pat, and burst out laughing. She sounded half-hysterical.  I stepped closer and put an arm around her.  “You okay? I think you got your point across!”

“I’m okay. They can’t keep sending me away!”

“No, I think you’ve made that really clear! Can I get you some coffee?”

She shook her head. “Maybe later.” She turned in the direction of Chick’s room and we started our new day of watch.

When the director returned, we gathered in one of the family lounges reserved for private conversations.

“Unfortunately, at this time, we are unable to identify the masses in the Major’s lung.”

“What does that mean?” Jedda asked. “It’s not cancer?”

“We cannot ascertain that it is cancer.”

A collective sigh sounded in the room.

“However, we are also unable to ascertain that it is not cancer, and that is just as troubling.”

“Then you think it could be?”

“We don’t know.”

Confused and restless rustling came next.

“What are our next steps?”  Jedda asked quietly.

The cardiologist glanced around: Jedda, Ours, Pat, me, back to Jedda. “With any kind of lung infection that we cannot identify, we cannot pursue the Major’s transplant.”  A pause.  “We have to remove the Major from the transplant list.”

In case any of us had not understood that.

Jedda flinched as if she’d been slapped.

“The Major did not wish to be kept alive by artificial means.”

“Oh, my baby,” Jedda moaned.

“It’s time for you to review the Major’s advance directives. You may want to think about calling the family together.”

No one spoke.

“I’ll make sure the chart is available to you. There’s no rush, Mrs. Mullen. We can do this anytime this weekend.”

“What will happen when we turn off those machines?”

“He may live a few hours. Or a few days. Or a few minutes.”

I swallowed hard against the coffee rising up my esophagus. Guess we’d find out if he was tired enough to stop fighting.

***

 

I was surprised when Jedda took my arm and walked me toward the nurse’s station. “There’s something you need to be aware of.”

The nurse handed us the binder open to Chick’s living will. Chick had designated Jedda the primary person to make his end of life decisions, with me listed as his secondary.  Me?! My heart sank through the floor.

“He knew you would do what he asked for,” she said.

I flipped through the pages. No artificial means of support. No heroic measures. Do not resuscitate. This was clear. If it came to being kept alive on life support machines, Chick wanted to die.

Chilled, I handed the chart back to Jedda.  “Who do you need to call? And how long will you give them?”

She gave them until Sunday.  On Saturday, I returned to Syracuse to get my own vehicle. On Sunday morning, Jedda called while I was having breakfast with Holly’s mother to thank her for caring for Zach.

“Everyone will be here by this afternoon. Do you think we should do this today?”

“Yes. If everyone’s had their chance to say good bye, we have to.”

After breakfast, I went back to the hospital, leaving Zach with Holly. Pat was already there. Michael’s wife, whom I hadn’t seen since his funeral, had come.  All three of Chick and Jedda’s kids, His, Hers and Ours, were there.

At a few minutes after eight pm, Jedda, His, Hers, and Ours, Pat, and I crowded into the tiny room. The doctor and nurse didn’t speak to us as they worked to disconnect all of the beeping and pinging machines that had given us extra days with Chickery Chick. They dimmed the lights on the way out and left us alone.

In the absolute silence that followed the last machine shutting down, Pat reached across the bed and we joined hands above Chick’s legs.

At the top of the bed, Jedda put her hand on Chick’s chest, rubbing gently, her nail beds bloody. “Breathe, baby. Please breathe.”

“Send him home with something he’s familiar with,” Pat whispered, squeezing my hand.  “Hail Mary…”

I put my free hand on his thigh and she put her other hand on his opposite thigh and I joined her in a prayer I hadn’t said in two decades to a god I no longer believed in.

What did you know?

Doesn’t matter. Go ahead. I got this.

And we sent Chickery Chick home.

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It was around now, in 2002. I had a brother once. For that, I am and always will be grateful.

Chick

 

 

 

Conveniently Unconscious

Posted: November 10, 2013 in Blog
Tags: , , ,

Less than a month ago, in the midst of planning for my agency’s gala, I reached out to a youth who had attended the previous year to see if she’d be able to join us again.

Less than a month ago, she responded that she and her mom would be thrilled to attend.

Three weeks ago, I was at the registration table on the night of the event when that youth and her mom appeared, ready to sign in to enjoy the evening. We spoke in the hallway, them grateful for the invitation, me grateful that they’d make the long trip from home through Friday traffic and construction to spend this evening with us.

Two weeks ago, the mom contacted me through Facebook, leaving me a wonderful thank you note about being there that night, expressing her desire to get more involved but explaining her time commitments. She went on to talk about the changes she was noticing at the school where she teaches and on the college campus in relation to LGBT issues, particularly around people’s growing comfort to be seen as who they really are.

Two weeks ago, I wrote back to her, first thanking her for her note and then talking about future possibilities for how our work, our mutual vision, might cross paths in the future, no matter if she was officially a part of Youth Outlook’s volunteer pool or not. It was a exchange of hope, of brightness, of plans, of a commitment to something about which we share a passion, for her child, and for LGBT kids in our community.

Yesterday, I received a note from a colleague who thought I might want to know.

Yesterday, the mom who sent such a beautiful, inspiring note died. 

Today, I sit with this information, contemplating such chaos and the loss of such a strong ally on her child’s life. I marvel at the timeframe of having spoken to her, a healthy, able-bodied person, just three weeks ago. I picture her child standing at a hospital bedside just across town and think about their opportunity to say goodbye. And I marvel at how we move through our days deliberately unconscious of the fact that this might be the last time we speak, or the last message we exchange with the people who mean so much to us.

Today, it’s glaring, this question. If we did know, how would we love?

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