Thoughts At Large

Passionate thoughts on random topics

Month: May, 2016

Goodbye, Texas

We moved to Texas seeking medical treatment for my wife. I found the people friendly and honest, the streets clean and free from potholes, and the weather devoid of snow. We were renting our home in Spring, about 30 minutes north of downtown Houston. We arrived in town just in time for Hurricane Ike to hit; fortunately, we didn’t suffer any damage. Treatment at M. D. Anderson was going well and my wife was responding to the chemotherapy. Her surgery had been a success and she was enduring the radiation as best she could. The kids were freshmen in high school and adapting well to the new “normal” in our lives. Their grades remained high and they immersed themselves in extracurricular activities such as theater and debate.

Following Lisa’s successful treatment and a declaration that the doctors could find no further trace of cancer, we packed up our belongings and made the long ride back to Rhode Island, our home, and the friends and neighbors we had known forever. Nine months passed and we were readjusting to our life in Rhode Island when the news came, following her third follow-up appointment, that the cancer had returned. We determined that we were too far from the hospital and all of the medical expertise and technology that M. D. Anderson could bring to bear so we put our beloved house on the market and moved to Texas permanently. We bought a house, again in Spring, and re-enrolled the kids in the same high school. However, this time, the glossy varnish of southern hospitality wore thin to show an ugly side of Texas. Say what you will about northerners, but we have a thick skin and a good sense of humor when it comes to handling adversity. The same cannot be said about Southerners, or perhaps some Texans in particular.

The ugliness appeared after the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December of 2012. Driven to action, I began reading and reaching out. What I found was a gun culture enmeshed with religious self-righteousness that defied understanding or explanation. Rather than agreeing that something needed to be done to prevent another mass shooting I found a society determined to double down on protecting the guns instead of the children and then watched as the Texas legislature passed several pro-gun laws, including open carry and campus carry. As I spoke before democratic groups, I found tepid approval of my message or blank silence. I felt as though I had been transported back to the Wild West of the 1850’s. Fortunately, I met the most wonderful mothers from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. They began speaking at the same meetings I was being asked to speak at, and they were kindred spirits in gun-crazy Texas. Together, we made the rounds speaking out and protesting easy access to guns, including protesting outside the NRA Annual Paranoia Jamboree held in Houston several years ago.

Now, perhaps my initial illusion of southern hospitality was misplaced. Perhaps I saw what I wanted to see, perhaps I had bought into the travel brochure’s salesmanship and had assigned characteristics to all of the people here before they had earned them. However, the fact remained that I was seeing people all over who flared with road rage at the slightest infraction (even though they were usually at fault!) and the initial kindness I saw displayed was revealed to be a thin veneer beyond which an angry populace lived. Again, perhaps it was my fault that I expected kindness to go along with their initial genteel hello. However, the initial hello was shallow and provided no shelter to the storm of their real feelings, especially to someone from “up north.” The least informed tend to have the firmest convictions, and here the stupid were downright rigid in their unexamined beliefs.

As Lisa continued to fight against the ravenous cancer, we came to an understanding of the culture in which we found ourselves and tried to make the best of it. I attempted to let go of the mixed up anger I had at both the people and our situation, especially as it became evident that the cancer was killing my wife. When she died, part of my world became frozen in time. I cannot convey in words what telling my kids was like. The pain is too real.

And yet, as we close in on our moving date to move back to Rhode Island, less my wife and my dog who cancer finally took over the past nine months, I have a soft spot in my heart for Texas and the medical center here that brought us seven years together we would otherwise not have enjoyed. Granted, it’s not a big soft spot. Along the way, I have met good friends at work. My job has been fantastic to me, and their kindness, compassion, and comfort have made this situation a little more bearable. Nothing can break the pain I have associated with Texas as the place where Lisa drew her last, labored breaths and where we had to put our beloved dog down because of his cancer pain. Nothing can change the past nine months and the grief we have endured. My heart is shattered, but we are going home where we belong. We will be going to a new town for us, but back to a culture we understand.

The last chapter of our Texas odyssey is being written, and the kids and I are in a mad packing frenzy right now as the truck is soon to be on its way to pack all of our belongings and take them to our new home. The kids have graduated from college (with honors), a true testament to their work ethic and determination and are scheduled to apply to graduate school in the fall. Samantha has been challenged to apply the design lessons she learned from Lisa and school to the new house. God knows I don’t have a clue! We will make the most of our home while the kids research the grad schools and work on their portfolios. I’ll be working out of the house and trying to balance a new social life. A new chapter is beginning, and we will do our best to live up to the expectations Lisa set for us. Texas will soon be behind us, home to immeasurable pain. The pain will travel with us to Rhode Island, but a new beginning carries with it the hope of better days ahead. Goodbye, Texas.

A Note To My Children Upon Their College Graduation

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First off, let me say congratulations. You have both earned this special day. I know you have worked incredibly hard over the past four years under unusually stressful circumstances. College was always in the cards for you both. There was never any indication that you wanted anything other than to pursue a degree. It was always my dream for you both to find your passion and pursue it relentlessly and you’ve both done that. I know you can’t count the number of all-nighters, papers, quizzes, tests, books, textbooks, or notes you have endured, but know that they were all worth it and combined to make your college experience whole and worthwhile. I know you’ve had your share of bad professors and unfair grades, but you’ve seen them for what they were. There was no handholding for you in college. You went to one of the biggest and best public schools in the country, and you survived. No one can take that way from you. But beyond that, you made it your own and thrived.

When you went to college, I asked that you get as much out of it as possible. That this was a rarified environment in your lives when you were branching out on your own and becoming the adults you would carry forward into your life. I know that you did get as much out of the experience as possible. You worked hard, you went to football games, and you made friends. Now that it is behind you, no one can take those experiences away from you. You earned everything for which you worked so hard.

Second, I’m very proud of you. And Mom would have been so incredibly proud of you too. The fact that she didn’t survive to see this day in no way diminishes your accomplishment or her determination to see it. She loved you with all her heart and wanted nothing but everything for you. She was so proud of how hard you both worked and always knew under how much pressure you lived. The fact that we were also in a strange state far from home and everything you knew while watching her slowly slip away only makes your accomplishment that much more amazing.

We never hid the facts from you. When we knew something about her case, we shared it with you. The fact that you were able to stay focused on your work and obtained the terrific grades you did (increasing your GPA almost every semester from an already impressive beginning) speaks to your work ethic and determination. You learned how to think, not what to think. You learned to think fast and argue a point. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed our conversations over the past four years as you’ve learned something and applied it. You’ve both become incredible adults before my eyes.

Third, both of you have incredibly bright futures. I know this will be another year of uncertainty as we move back to Rhode Island and you both work on your portfolios in preparation for graduate school. I don’t know where that will take you or how far away, but I do know that the hard work gene is well implanted in both of you and you will make the best of our situation and do your best to get into an excellent graduate program in your respective fields. What you’ve endured over the past four years in college under this particular set of circumstances makes you incredibly strong individuals. There is nothing you can’t accomplish.

It has been my privilege to be your father and to watch you both grow into such amazing adults. I wish nothing but the best for you going forward, and while I hope that things will settle down for you, I know that you will be able to handle whatever life throws at you, kick its ass, and thrive. I love you both.

 

Mother’s Day

 

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Yesterday was the first Mother’s Day my children were motherless. They managed the day as best they could. I spoke with both of them and they spent time together to commiserate. All around them, students were absent from studying for finals because they were off with their families celebrating. I called my mother on the phone to wish her a happy day. I had sent her flowers to celebrate. I did so in a very low-key manner and I’m not quite sure why. Was I embarrassed that I still had a mother to celebrate at 51 when my children had none at 21? Was I just sad because of the day? The house is so quiet and lonely without Lisa. She loved being a mother.

Before having children, a task that was incredibly difficult for her body to carry to term, Lisa had a career in marketing. She was very good at her job. But she only wanted to be a mother. When we were finally blessed with twins, she blossomed as a woman. It was an easy decision for her to quit her job and stay at home with the kids. First of all, we figured that one of us would be turning over our salary to pay for daycare if she went back to work and for that financial burden it made sense to be with them all of the time, foregoing her career and salary. Second, it was really never much of a decision. She wanted to be at home with the kids. She loved being a mother. The financial justification was nothing more than icing.

And now the kids have grown into fine adults, on the cusp of graduating from college. Her job completed. However, I don’t think she would ever have been done being a nurturing mother to her children. Despite their being on the edge of the nest, ready to take flight, I know she would still be there making sure they got a good jump and flying alongside them to make sure they could handle everything the world would throw at them. They are now far more independent than they would have been if it had been me who had been inflicted with cancer and taken away from them far too young. I do my best, but I don’t have the nurturing gene that Lisa did. I know they must go off on their own now and I’ll be there to help them along the way. I love them and will never let them fall, but I’m not Lisa and I don’t have that overwhelmingly nurturing nature. I can only do the best I can. Again, I’m not Lisa, Super Mama.

I spent yesterday packing up the house as we plan to move back to Rhode Island. Leaving this house will be bittersweet because it will forever be known as the last dwelling Lisa made into a wonderful home. It is also the place she breathed her last. Moving back to Rhode Island is a move toward starting over, a position we have been put in without our consideration. But a position we have to embrace. We will survive this adventure. Rhode Island is home and we belong there in the northeast. Texas has been home for us for the better part of seven years and while Lisa made it our home, it was never really ours. We lived there and died there, but it was never really home. We always felt like strangers. Much of it has to do with the great cultural differences we experienced and our own definitions of “normal.” However, most of it had to do with the fact that we knew we had moved to Texas as a means of beating cancer and we knew that at some point the battle would turn against us and we would lose. We gained seven years because of that decision and I will be forever grateful to the doctors, nurses, and staff at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. But now it is time to go home. I don’t know what the future holds, but I guess no one really does. I trust that I will continue to make good decisions overall and that the kids will find their niche in the world, wherever that takes them. Next up for them is graduate school and I don’t know where they will settle on that yet. There is still much research to be done. But wherever they end up, I will try to be there to catch them if they fall too far, to call them when they are down, and to make sure that next Mother’s Day is less painful than this one.

I know that we are not in a unique position. There are motherless children all over the world and mothers who have lost children. My involvement in the gun violence prevention movement has brought me face to face with wonderful people on both sides of this situation. They are incredibly strong in all outward appearances, however, I know they are suffering. So I don’t write this to solicit sympathy or comments. We must walk on toward this new future without Lisa. However, she is never farther away from me than a memory or a dream and for that, I am most grateful. I try to adhere to Dr. Seuss’s maxim that we should be grateful that it happened versus sad that it is over. It is not an easy position to hold at all times and I occasionally drop it or throw it away, but I know I was put on this earth to do more and I hope to carry Lisa’s spirit with me while I learn what that is. So, to all the mothers out there, all the mothers who have lost children, and all of the children who have lost their mother, please try to find peace this Mother’s Day.