Friday, June 29, 2012

Remembrances of childhood

The Brotherhood of Art

Barbie and I just returned from a wonderful week in Alaska. I have wanted to visit my brother David and his wife Joel’lene since they moved there 19 years ago. Recently a physician from Alaska passed away from amyloidosis. We had corresponded via the blog and email for some time. In memory of Dr Neubauer, I was asked to present Grand Rounds for the department of medicine at Providence Hospital in Anchorage. I spoke on the topic of the doctor as a patient; a topic about which Dr Neubauer both wrote and spoke.
I would describe our week as a journey of both joy and discovery in which both can be applied to experiencing the beauties of Alaska and reconnecting with my brother, David. Of all my eight siblings, I am most like David who is two years my senior and two inches taller. I have always looked up to him. Of the eighteen most important decisions that I have ever made that have shaped the course of my life, David, and my oldest brother Harold, were involved with the first six. As the 4th child and 3rd son I was the great beneficiary of their experience. They forged the trail ahead that allowed me to take a more direct, pain-free path. They were my buffers. They got me all of my jobs from age twelve through college; advised me on which classes or teachers to take. We even dated sisters at the same time. (That never really worked out.) I owe my early successes in life to my brothers. But then, at age sixteen, David went off to college and we were never really together since that time. Between college, overlapping missionary service, and job moves, we haven’t seen much of each other over the last 37 years.

As David and Joel’lene gave us the grand tour of south central Alaska I could sense how who you marry and where you live truly can shape who you become. They love it there, now I understand why. And yet, after 37 years, you can’t shake genetics and early childhood influences. Barbie also discovered how similar David and I are in our sense of humor and the sub-conscious tendency to correct factual deviations on diverse topics. Despite our common upbringing, I learned that we have very different memories of our early childhood. I have always felt, and still do, that I was blessed with wonderful parents. However, my father did have a temper. What very young children most crave in life is consistency and predictability. It is easier to understand now the pressures and stress that my parents had in raising nine children, but not when you are six. And yet, why are my memories different? I believe that painful memories are punctuated and easier to retain while many of our happy memories relate to the mundane activities of play and exploring. It may be that we choose which memories we will use to build the story of our childhood based on the value systems that we formed and locked in by age ten. In any painful encounter we subconsciously or consciously decide to avoid that behavior in our own future or to adopt it. This is also true for the positive and constructive lessons that our parents teach us. I decided very early that I wanted to trust my children to make their own decisions the way my parents trusted me. I valued my parents’ trust and the freedom that it gave me.
Yet I also must admit the fact that all parents make mistakes. Parenting is on the job training and the steep learning curve is more evident to the oldest children. I know that my older siblings suffered more than I did. By the 4th child parents have learned a few things, and as the 4th child it is easier to hide from both a parent’s anger and my responsibilities. I became very adept at avoiding both work and pain; something that my older siblings are happy to remind me.
David shared a memory that is still difficult for both of us. At age 9 I asked for a trumpet to play in the school band. After certain coaxing, my parents relented and rented to own a trumpet. What I did not know until years later was that David, two years earlier, had made the same request and was denied. He felt that this was unfair; and it was. I have always felt guilt since I learned this. However, a child of nine cannot comprehend the complexities of context and timing in adult decisions. To the adult it is a simple pragmatic decision. To a small child, a seemingly small decision is huge and can greatly impact their developing value systems. This scared me as a parent wondering how many absent-minded decisions that I might have made in the moment that had life-long impact on my kids. Yet as a whole, I have many more happy memories of my childhood than painful ones. I have always seen myself as blessed, never as a victim; because not a day has gone by since my memory began that I have not felt loved.
It was so wonderful to reconnect with the brother that I looked up to and still do. He is a really good man. The last day we were there he was constantly watching the water on the lake, waiting for a good wind so that we could jump onto the small catamaran he has and serenely sail across the lake. It just felt good to hang out with him again; no cares in the world except for naming the birds that we saw. It was peace; it was joy.
As we flew home another memory presented itself. There was a moment when our band of brothers was briefly reunited in the same city during my last year of college. David had an art class that required him to create an original work in mixed media. David cut a 2 x 8 foot piece of wood, coated it with a white sticky coat of enamel and leaned it against a fence. Harold, David and I then took turns throwing clumps of dirt and snow, sticks, trigs and tiny pine cones at the upright board. We even drove his car over it to leave tire tracks. In the end we reveled in our collective creation as we thumbed our noses at the ‘art’ in the work that stood before us. We laughed and had such a good time and bemused ourselves as to how it would be received by his professor. A few days later we were all shocked to hear that David had scored an “A” on his installation.
Childhood can be very messy. Too often adults expect us to think like them. They have forgotten that before the age of ten we have yet to fix our sense of shame and inhibition, while this is important to function in adult society, it also ultimately dampens our creativity. The world of the child remains wondrous and our adventures endless. We look up in confusion at cynicism and despair. However, we also sense, at times, great beauty and safety in the love we feel.
Maybe David’s professor saw something that we did not; something lost, again found. Reflected in the mess of mixed messages that stuck to the board of our forgotten youth was a moment of our innocent past as we had played together so many years before. We have since cherished that moment. From the mud and dirt, sticks and stones of our childhood we ultimately create a life of lasting beauty; of course, art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

It's all about Barbie

Can I just say, "I am so proud of Barbie." Most people don't realize how hard she worked over the past three years to accomplish her goal of becoming a dental hygienist. I do. Nobody in the history of thinking spent more effort to learn such things as she thought were foreign to her nature. Barbie's gifts lie in the area of music, not the metric system. However, she was determined not only to pass her classes, but to do well; and she did. I have always felt that nothing make you feel more alive than taking risks. She dove into the unknown in the fall of 2008 as she struggled with the decision to begin a new career path as a dental hygienist.
Now, at this end, her success brings her new confidence. Clearly, her fellow students recognized her tenacity in choosing her as the class graduation speaker.
In her own words:

Graduation Speech

If asked 16 months ago what a dental hygienist did, we might have said something like, “They clean teeth, take x-rays, and sometimes give anesthesia.” Now if asked that question, we take a big breath and say, “How much time do you have?” Looking back at that first day we arrived for orientation, we left with a suitcase full of books, an armful of instruments and a laundry list of odds & ends you would never find in a scavenger hunt. As we hauled them to our cars we may have had the thought, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”  Little did we know that the months ahead would require a huge amount of sacrifice: lack of sleep, lack of family time, lack of entertainment and lack of everything fun. Our dental hygiene school became our new home and at times we felt as though we never left. We stopped exercising regularly, stopped eating well, and frankly worried that our friends would abandon us since we had no time for them.

Sacrifice is the act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important. Surviving and graduating from this program became our utmost valued and important act.

Almost 4 years ago my husband was diagnosed with a disease that had damaged his heart. At the time, I was working in a dental office as a dental assistant. I had wanted to go to dental hygiene school at some point but never found the opportunity.  With his diagnosis we both needed to quit our jobs. I became a full-time caregiver and he became a full time patient. He received a heart transplant, bone marrow transplant and many chemotherapy treatments as well as illness that come with a low white blood cell count. His life expectancy was less than desirable such that he usually wouldn’t buy green bananas.  It became clear that I might spend a significant portion of my life without him. He strongly encouraged me to follow through on my desire to become a dental hygienist as that would ultimately give me both purpose and security in whatever future we found ourselves. Initially I feared that such an effort would require me to sacrifice what I valued most; time with him while we still had it. Yet, the answer was clear and I immediately enrolled in school to begin my pre-requisites.

School took time away from my husband. I could no longer accompany him to doctor appointments, care for him when he was sick or overall just spend time with him. And I worried that the time I spent away from him could take away from the time I might have left with him. As he fought to stay alive, I fought to graduate. Now I might not be able to give him a heart transplant but I can sure clean his teeth!

C. S. Lewis once said, “No great wisdom can be reached without sacrifice.” 

In these last 16 months, we have grown abundantly to become who we are now. What was a suitcase full of books became a brain full of knowledge. An armful of unfamiliar instruments became necessary tools. And those laundry lists of odds and ends were the finishing touches. And with all of that, we have proven to ourselves, our instructors, our friends and our family that the sacrifice was worth it. As Joe would say, “You can do it.” And we did. Congratulations class of 2012!
Thank you.

She has secured a future of service to others as her new skills will be used to help patients and allow for financial independence. But for me, I also am happy that she is done because I get her back. Now it's time to begin making new memories together in earnest. In this month alone we went to Atlanta, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and the Pentagon and this Sunday we fly to Alaska. 
This is just the beginning.