Thoughts At Large

Passionate thoughts on random topics

Category: celebrate

Guardian Angel

 

How better to share my grief about the loss of a friend than through a story? After all, isn’t that, ultimately, how we remember those we love who leave us?

Blaine Toshner died this week. He was many things to many people, but he was above all a kind and gentle soul to everyone who had the pleasure of having had encountered him. He sought to brighten everyone’s day with a terrible pun or awful joke, always leaving us with a smile on our face as we left him to face the challenges before us; his simple but always effective gift to each of us. Let me back up.

In 2008, my wife was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer, a type with which the doctors in Rhode Island knew little about and even less about how to treat it. Over the course of about six harrowing weeks of tests and pain followed by a string of never ending bad news and poor prognoses, we decided to pick up stakes and move to Houston to seek treatment at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Our children, twins, a boy and a girl, were scheduled to begin their freshman year in high school in September. We moved in August, full of doubt and fear. The kids were brave and adjusted well to moving from a school with 800 students in it to one with almost 4,000, from a home they had known since childhood to a rental in Texas and from all of their childhood friends to a town where it was us against the world and an insidious intruder bent on killing their mother.

Lisa and I made a point of attending the open house at school in order to meet with all of the kids’ teachers, specifically to point out the circumstances of our situation and ask that the teachers contact us if they saw the kids’ slipping in school or becoming distracted by events at home. One teacher stood out as having already made an effort to get to know the kids. He was a young English teacher named Blaine Toshner. Everyone seemed to call him Coach. Apparently he was involved with the football team. Apparently, football was a big thing at the high school. I had forgotten that we were in Texas and that some stereotypes are based on fact. We soon learned that he was, in fact, one of the coaches on the high school team. There seemed to be about a dozen coaches on the team, and about a thousand players. Every time we saw him at a game, he would make a point of coming up to us to ask how Lisa was, tell us a terrible joke and gush about how good the kids were.

Blaine was a guardian angel for the kids that year. He was always there for them, never intruding, but always available, always watchful, always concerned, always in touch.

My wife suffered terribly that year. She underwent all manner of treatments:  neoadjuvant chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiation. At the end of the school year she was done. She rang the bell at the hospital signifying her completion of treatment, was cleared and we packed our belongings and drove the 2,000 miles back to Rhode Island, glad to leave the nightmare of cancer in Texas, but sad to leave our guardian angel and newfound friends.

The kids’ sophomore year was spent back home in Rhode Island trying to reestablish a “normal” life but under the ever present threat of a recurrence. We lived in three month chunks of time bookmarked by Lisa’s follow-up visits to M.D. Anderson. It was in the spring that we all decided to travel to Houston together for her follow-up that we got word that the cancer had returned in her lungs. We flew home, devastated and depressed, gathered our thoughts and determined that we could no longer be that far away from the hospital. We decided to sell our home in Rhode Island and move to Texas. The emergency department at M.D. Anderson would be 45 minutes away rather than 2,000 miles away. If the cancer was going to be that aggressive, we were going to meet its aggression with overwhelming ferocity.

The kids finished up their sophomore year early, thanks to the kindness of the teachers and administration at home. We flew to Texas and quickly found a small house to buy. We put our home in Rhode Island on the market and I flew home, and with the Herculean effort of many friends, held a mammoth yard sale, selling and giving away so many treasures of our lives that I’m forever grateful that Lisa was not there.

The kids began their junior year of high school back at the same school as their freshman year and once again, Blaine was there, no longer their teacher, but always there as their friend and guardian angel. We saw him less frequently because of this, but stayed in touch. We heard stories of him helping other students and marveled at his boundless compassion. When it came time for the kids to begin the college application process, they looked to one person for referral letters. Blaine wrote them both glowing, personalized letters. Ultimately, both kids chose to attend the University of Texas at Austin, mostly, no doubt because of the proximity to their mother.

In 2010, Blaine’s sister’s and mother visited Texas and he invited us all to lunch. It was a raucous time filled with stories, laughs and new memories I will never, ever forget! I remember that afternoon as a day of muscle pain in my stomach from laughing so hard.

T2

By this time, Blaine had decided to move back to Wisconsin to take care of his wonderful mother. We chatted on Facebook and he said he looked to me as a role model as having been someone who risked everything to care for someone he loved. I had never thought of our decision to move to Texas as a sacrifice. It was just something we did. Lisa and I have always been ones to circle the wagons when a crisis threatens. We always say we’re going to have the phrase “we do what we have to do” tattooed on our foreheads. Given Blaine’s compassion and boundless energy at reaching out to make sure my children were healthy, the thought of him looking up to me hit me hard. I remember crying when I read his text. He wrote, “I think we find people throughout life who, whether they know it or not, help us make the decisions we know are right but not easy.” How much I think of that now.

My last contact with Blaine was this past June. Lisa was turning 50 and as we were away from home and most of our friends, I wanted to put together a slide show of our friends and family holding up a sign wishing her a happy birthday. I sent a message to Blaine asking him for a picture. True to form, he sent a picture, but not of himself. It was a picture of his mother and Jamo punctuated with a joke about him being addicted to the Hokey Pokey but taking charge and turning himself around.

I’ll miss Blaine, but I can never forget him. He was a guardian angel for my children when they needed him most. For that I am forever grateful. People do come into our lives at certain points and they leave their marks, their fingerprints on our souls. If the trajectory of my life is altered, even ever so slightly; if I am more compassionate today than I was yesterday and more tomorrow than today, it’s because Blaine Toshner was a part of my life and will continue to be my guardian angel.

Tipping Point of Possessive Pronouns

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I read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point when it was first published in 2000. At the time, my children were 6. This past weekend, I attended a gallery opening for my daughter whose work from her summer studying in Tuscany was being displayed along with her peers.

At exactly 6:30 on September 19, 2014 I witnessed a seismic tipping point in my life. You see, at that point, the second sentence of the first paragraph ceased being exclusively true. No longer was she “my” daughter as much as I was “her” father. This shift in possessive pronouns is significant in that it, while it may not have closed out my paternal protectionism (that will ever dissolve), it forced me to acknowledge that my daughter is a fully functioning member of society, a woman upon whom the planet can lean for guidance, joy, art and direction. In short, just what the world needs.

The Romans warned us to “cave ab homine unius libri’ (beware the man of one book). Today we call this epistemic closure. We only talk to those who agree with us. We only read (if we read at all) that with which we already agree. The deafening din in America today of people talking over one another instead of to one another is both disheartening and a recipe for stagnation and anger. Congress is the best example of this. The last congress, the 113th, passed just 108 non-ceremonial laws due to infighting among Republicans and the Tea Party and among Republicans and Democrats. Essentially, the Republican/Tea Party mantra became one of “whatever the President wants, we’re against, consequences be damned.” And that included shutting down the government! We don’t debate one another anymore. We don’t discuss anything or seek common ground. “Compromise” seems to be a naughty word now. Every one is screaming and no one hears anything.

My son wants to grab the world by the throat and drag it gurgling and choking into a rational, logical future. I fear most of the world may need this approach. My daughter will need to lead the rest of the world into that same, better future with art and compassion. They will use different tools, but both will move the world toward the same beautiful, peaceful future. And then I will truly be “their” father, “their” friend, someone who has an autograph from way back when, an autograph in crayon with the “a” written backwards, where the foundation of their genius was still forming and I was a fortunate passenger. I am proud of “my” children. Proud to be “their” father. Excited for their future.

Mother’s Day

Mothers Day

 

In honor of my mother, my wife, my sister and all of the mama bears of Moms Demand Action, here are a few quotes on mothers. In short, thank you.

 

“A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials heavy and sudden fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends desert us; when trouble thickens around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts.”

Washington Irving

 

 “I realized when you look at your mother, you are looking at the purest love you will ever know.”

Mitch Albom, For One More Day

 

 “Perhaps it takes courage to raise children..”

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

 

 “He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark.”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

 

“My mother is a poem that I could never write”

Unknown

 

“Pride is one of the seven deadly sins; but it cannot be the pride of a mother in her children, for that is a compound of two cardinal virtues — faith and hope.”

Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

 

“My mother said the cure for thinking too much about yourself was helping somebody who was worse off than you.”

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

 

“If I were asked to define Motherhood, I would have defined it as Love in its purest form. Unconditional Love.”

Revathi Sankaran

 

“Sometimes when you pick up your child you can feel the map of your own bones beneath your hands, or smell the scent of your skin in the nape of his neck. This is the most extraordinary thing about motherhood – finding a piece of yourself separate and apart that all the same you could not live without.”

Jodi Picoult, Perfect Match

 

“If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands?”

Milton Berle

 

“Having kids — the responsibility of rearing good, kind, ethical, responsible human beings — is the biggest job anyone can embark on”

Maria Shriver

 

“The phrase “working mother” is redundant.”

Jane Sellman

 

“With children the clock is reset. We forget what came before”

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland

 

“My most important title is still “mom-in-chief.” My daughters are still the heart of my heart and the center of my world.”

Michelle Obama

 

“I am sure that if the mothers of various nations could meet, there would be no more wars.”

E.M. Forster, Howards End

 

“A mother’s arms are made of tenderness and children sleep soundly in them.”

Victor Hugo

 

 

A New Year’s Eve Birthday

Love-Heart-Fireworks

I always thought having a birthday on New Year’s Eve would be terrible; the nagging suspicion that throughout your life, Christmas presents were withheld and wrapped in different paper to give you something to open a week later, the knowledge that your big day is repeatedly drowned under the tidal wave of Christmas anticipation and New Year’s Eve debauchery. In essence, apply the following quote from Ellen DeGeneres to New Year’s Eve:

 “If your Birthday is on Christmas day and you’re not Jesus, you should start telling people your birthday is on June 9 or something. Just read up on the traits of a Gemini. Suddenly you’re a multitasker who loves the color yellow. Because not only do you get stuck with them combo gift, you get the combo song. “We wish you a merry Christmas – and happy birthday, Terry – we wish you a merry Christmas – happy birthday, Terry – we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Ye – Birthday, Terry!”

However, upon further consideration, I now consider that a New Year’s Eve birthday may be perfect. On what other day does the rest of the world pause to reflect on a year of life? What has been accomplished? What remains unfinished? Who have I met? Who have I lost? How have I changed? How have I remained the same? Reflection of this magnitude does not occur on any other day of the year en masse.

And there is hope for tomorrow unlike any other day of the year. To quote Alfred Tennyson, “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier’…”

Or consider T.S. Eliot, “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, And next year’s words await another voice.”

So do not lament the passing of time or fixate on Ovid’s regret when he wrote, “I grabbed a pile of dust, and holding it up, foolishly asked for as many birthdays as the grains of dust, I forgot to ask that they be years of youth.”

Rather, consider each passing year worthy of a celebration not everyone enjoys. Or, as Shakespeare put it, “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.” Celebrate!

And so, I wish my mother a happy birthday on a day when the world celebrates with her. Hey, not everyone gets fireworks!