When I turned 18, my parents urged me to register to vote so I could help defeat a school levy that would increase their property taxes. But at school, I realized that voting against the levy would deprive staff members and fellow students of services and equipment they needed. And though I would soon graduate, my brother was a year–and my sister was three years–behind me.
So I voted FOR the levy.
We went through some hard times as a family. We relied on food stamps and commodities, got free lunches at school, and my brother, sister, and I were able to go to college thanks to federal grants.
So now, when I vote, I make sure others have access to the social programs that enabled me to achieve what I have in life.
I grew up a fundamentalist Christian. I didn’t know much about politics, but it seemed pretty clear to me that, had Jesus been alive, he would’ve been a democrat. He fed the poor, healed the sick, forgave people, and encouraged us not to judge one another. He also considered wealth to be more of a liability than an asset.
When friends came out of the closet, I knew Jesus would’ve gathered them in a warm embrace, so I did, too. And when I learned about the failed birth control and post-partum PTSD that led to friends’ abortions, I just opened my heart wider and loved them more.
I don’t know when Christianity and republicanism became conflated, but it forced me to make a choice. To stay in integrity, I had to let go of something. I chose to let go of my religion but continued to model my own life after the life of Jesus.
I’ve kept quiet about this. I haven’t wanted to upset people I care about or lose their love. But my silence isn’t serving me. I can’t take care of people by withholding who I am from them anymore. I need to follow the example of my gay friends and muster the courage to come out of the closet:
I am a democrat to the marrow of my bones.
And I am no longer a Christian.
There is a cost to coming out. My own mother is 100 percent sure I’m going to hell, which makes serving as her caregiver painful for both of us. But I cannot change who I am to put her mind at ease. I cannot, as is the case in the Grimm Brothers’ version of Cinderella, cut off parts of myself to fit into the glass slipper of fundamentalist Christianity.
So, there you have it. In our current political climate, I understand if you feel the need to cut ties with me as a result of this revelation. If so, know that I appreciate the role you’ve played in my life. I release you in love.
Toward the end of my brother’s life, he spent every waking hour in a faux-leather armchair by his living room window. He was companioned by the puff-puff-puffing of an oxygen concentrator, a walker with a basket full of pills, a laptop that helped him stay connected to people around the world—and an elephant.
I don’t know whether the elephant’s name was Denial or Hope, but the sicker my brother got, the bigger the elephant grew, nourished on secrecy, silence, and relentless positivity. The floor around its feet was covered in eggshells.
That elephant robbed me of some of the most meaningful time I could’ve spent with my brother. I never got to tell him how much I admired and loved him. I didn’t get to thank him or relive memories that only the two of us shared. And I never got to say goodbye.
I didn’t realize what I’d missed until Kelly Lindsay was diagnosed with glioblastoma and began writing about his experience in a CaringBridge blog. He refused to embrace battle metaphors. He wasn’t “fighting” cancer, his tumor wasn’t an “invader,” and he wasn’t striving to “beat” a disease that would eventually kill him. Instead, he strove to unconditionally love it.
Not only was Kelly’s experience elephant-free, his choice to love his tumor put me in an uncomfortable position. I could not love Kelly and hate what he loved. If I was going to love him, I had to love all of him, including his tumor.
I didn’t want to do that. I struggled to accept, much less love, the thing that was killing him. So, I asked Kelly for help.
“This tumor is part of me, and I’m actually grateful for that part,” he said from a faux-leather chair with a view out his living room window. “The whole year has been valuable. Not in ways I could really enumerate, and not in ways that, when I was first diagnosed, I’d say, ‘Oh, fantastic! That’s great news.’ As far as a learning experience, it’s not one I would’ve wished on myself or on anybody else, but it’s been pretty spectacular.”
Kelly had cancer once before, and his wife Diana had it twice. She was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 2006, and oncologists gave her three to 12 months to live. Kelly was her caregiver then and, miraculously, she became his caregiver more than a decade later.
The two of them were in cancer graduate school, and that might be what enabled Kelly to harvest riches from an experience that everyone else would rather avoid. He said the year after Diana’s diagnosis was the best one of his life.
“And this year, if it’s not the best year, is the second-best,” he said. “It just shows how wrong I can be about a big picture. It’s all actually pretty exciting, Petra. In a way I wouldn’t have thought.”
Kelly and Diana transmuted their cancer experience into something that has benefitted hundreds, if not thousands, of people through the founding of a nonprofit called Healing Circles. It offers social support through small groups of people (called circles) who have a challenge or interest in common.
“In a lot of the circles at Healing Circles, people have focused on death and dying and made it an interesting, intriguing part of life,” said Kelly. “Instead of this scary, awful thing that ends something, it starts something, and you don’t want to miss it. I want to know when the side effects end so I can enjoy this other part of it that doesn’t need to be scary. It doesn’t even need to be endured. It needs to be enjoyed, so that’s probably where the loving part comes, too. This is a whole new aspect of life. Why rush through it?”
Loving someone who’s dying without an elephant is excruciating. It was difficult to simultaneously hold onto Kelly and let him go. To stay present with him and grieve the loss that I knew was coming. I say that as a distant planet orbiting Kelly’s sun. By contrast, the orbit of his brother Tom brought him much nearer, close enough to be overcome by his love for Kelly and the loss he knew was imminent.
Could I have born the anticipatory grief that Tom bore for Kelly? Could I have grieved for my brother the way Tom grieved for his? Would I have had the courage to speak openly about the death we both knew was coming?
I think so. I prefer the present pain of acceptance to the deferred pain of denial. Death comes with or without an elephant, and grief is inevitable.
When Tom’s friend Bin, whose mother died of glioblastoma, learned that Kelly had been transferred to hospice, he wrote, “Lean into this crazy shit, my friend. The only thing worse than what’s happening is pretending it’s not.”
I didn’t have the opportunity to lean in with my brother, and pretending that he wasn’t dying didn’t keep him alive. So, I will say now what I couldn’t say then.
Thank you, Tommy, for being such a good-natured companion throughout our child- and adulthood. I can’t remember a time when you didn’t take the high road.
Thank you for your thoughtful kindness and for the compassionate way you advocated and cared for our parents. And thank you for loving me in a way no one else could.
I miss your bear hugs. I miss your mind. I miss our in-jokes and the way you called me “Petey.” I even miss the noogies.
There are nearly eight billion people on this planet, but it feels empty without you.
I live on a jewel of an island flanked by two mountain ranges. In the morning, the sun peeks over the Cascade Mountains, igniting the snow on the Olympics in shades of pink. And in the evenings, the sun slides behind the Olympics, bathing the Cascades in golden light.
The thing is: The mountains move. Not side-to-side, but forward and back. Some days, they look like they’re right on the shores of Puget Sound. Other days, they seem teeny and distant.
Why? It turns out that the mountains look close because of a temperature inversion. Warm air sits on top of air cooled by the frigid waters of Puget Sound. Light rays bend toward the colder air, causing the mountains to appear above or taller than their actual position. The greater the inversion, the bigger the mountains seem.
The point is: The mountains seem bigger because of something in my environment.
And so it is with my grief. My beloved little brother Tom Roush died earlier this year. We were born a year, a month, and a day apart, and we were a set.
This planet is teeming with 7.7 billion people, but in the absence of a single human being—this particular human being—my world feels hollow and empty. It was so, so much richer when he was in it.
Some days, I’m OK. Some days—lots of days—I’m not. Today, I was taking the garbage out and heard a single-engine airplane overhead. Then I saw a passenger jet flying low over the horizon. Tom would have known what kind of planes they were just by hearing the sound of their engines.
I went inside to make lunch for my partner’s birthday and realized that I’d never get another birthday card from Tom. I was never much of a card person, but he spent time picking just the right one, and we signed cards in a way that only we found amusing.
Like the mountains, my grief looms larger depending on environmental conditions, and my loss seems bigger on those days.
But sometimes, the mountains are invisible. At night, for example, I become blissfully unaware of my loss, only to rediscover it in the disorientation of morning, when I feel the weight of sadness in my body. Other times, the mountains are obscured by clouds, hidden by my need to attend to the banalities of life. But when my task is complete, the clouds part, revealing the mountains again.
There is no moving these mountains. But in their mercy they grow, they shrink, they disappear altogether and, in so doing, they help me learn how to live without Tom.
When I was a freshman and sophomore in college, I was a youth group leader at our church. Jill, one of my “kids,” had lost her mother to cancer when she was nine, and like other women at church, I felt drawn to take Jill under my wing. Her boyfriend Mike was also dear to me.
For my junior and senior years, I transferred to a four-year college about an hour away. On the way to Seattle, with my car packed full of dorm-life necessities, I stopped at the cemetery, knelt beside the grave of Jill’s mother, and prayed, “God, I can’t take care of Jill anymore. Take care of her for me.”
But in January of my senior year, Mike and Jill were both hit by a drunk driver and killed. Mike was 17 and Jill was 16. I never felt such raw grief before or since. But beyond the grief of losing two people I loved at the same time, beyond the feeling of wrongness when young people die, there was a sense of betrayal. I had asked God to take care of Jill, and now she was dead. My faith shattered.
The fact that everyday life continued around me felt like sacrilege. How could people go on about their business when my world had changed so profoundly? Nothing would ever be the same. The world, populated by billions of people, felt empty now that Mike and Jill were no longer among them.
But there was a time when I didn’t know Mike and Jill. The world didn’t seem empty then.
I didn’t consider that until two years ago. We moved to an intentional community and, shortly thereafter, a single mom moved there with her son, who was three-and-a-half at the time. Cooper and I fell in love with each other. His mom raised him alone 24/7, and I was happy to care for him when she needed to be elsewhere. But often, he would just show up, enjoying the free-range childhood that an intentional community on an island can provide.
About a year ago, Cooper’s mother decided, after a great deal of agonizing, to move two hours away to live with her boyfriend. Understandably, the dream of having a traditional nuclear family eventually outweighed the support she received from our intentional community.
I wept many times in anticipation of Cooper’s departure. How had I ever been content to live in a world without him? But I held him with open hands, believing in Richard Bach’s quote, “If you love something, set it free; if it comes back, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”
Cooper and I get to see each other every month or two, now. Because of the distance between us, and how rapidly children grow, we have had to fall in love with each other over and over again. In spite of the fact that I’ve set him free many times, he keeps coming back.
I’ve lost a great many people, but I have also been surprised by joy. And as risky as it seems, it inspires me to open my heart again and again.
A few weeks ago, we were invited to a “Sarahmony” to finally welcome Sarah home to Whidbey Island. She’d known for decades that she belonged here, and after her partner died last fall, she was finally able to heed the call. She got rid of almost everything she owned and drove her Subaru from Minnesota to Whidbey Island with her dog Pepper and friends Christina and Ann, who would be her new neighbors.
On the way to the Sarahmony, we stopped at the Tilth Farmers Market to get Sarah some flowers. I had my eye on a beautiful mixed bouquet, but we made the mistake of getting something to eat, and I saw someone else buy the the flowers I’d earmarked for Sarah. My heart sank. The only other alternative was sunflowers, which weren’t as diversely colorful, but having no other choice, I bought five of them.
As we approached Sarah’s new place, I saw lots of camp chairs arranged in a circle on the lawn. Sarah is on the board of The Circle Way and wrote her doctoral dissertation on circle as a transformative process, so of course, the chairs were in circle. She stood in the center, speaking to two young men, and I approached her with the sunflowers singing, “You are my sunshine.” This is, in fact, true. Sarah is everybody’s sunshine.
Having just moved in with the very fewest of possessions, she had no vase, but Christina brought one over. I arranged the flowers, and Sarah said, “We can put them in the center.” The center! That is a place of honor in circle practice.
After socializing for a bit, we all settled into camp chairs, and Christina opened the circle. She walked to the bouquet of sunflowers in the center, pulled one out, and explained that we would be using it as a talking piece. The talking piece! That meant that the sunflower would be handed from one person to the next, all around the circle. Most people unwittingly held it like a microphone, where it “received” the most memorable and loving things that each person had to say about Sarah.
On the way home, I reflected on the significant role my B-list bouquet had played at the Sarahmony. The mixed bouquet that I originally wanted for Sarah might have gone in the center and looked more beautiful, but being far more fragile, it was less likely that one of the many flowers would have been used as a talking piece. A robust sunflower was far more likely to survive an orbit around the circle.
A week or two later, something disappointing happened, and my partner commiserated.
“Sunflowers.” I said, trusting that this disappointment, too, would turn out for the best.
On Saturday night, I spent time with my reciprocally adopted five-year-old grandson Cooper. It was getting late, and I couldn’t find Charlotte’s Web, so I grabbed a German children’s book.
We snuggled on the couch, and I opened to the first page. Suddenly, I realized that I was about to expose this innocent child–who got so scared by Finding Dory that we had to leave the movie theater–to unimagined levels if mischief that do not end well.
“Cooper,” I said, trying to prepare him. “This book is about bad boys. Very bad boys.” At this, Cooper hopped off the couch, walked over to the Amazon Echo on the kitchen table, and said, “Alexa, play bad boys.” And Alexa did!
Theme song established, I began translating Max und Moritz for Cooper.
“Max and Moritz tied strings into an X, then tied delicious morsels to the end of the strings and left them out for the Widow Bolte’s chickens to find and eat. When they did, it tied the chickens to each other like a string of fish, and in their panic, they wrapped themselves around the branch of a tree. The hens laid one last egg, and then they all died.”
“The Widow Bolte cried when she found her chickens dead, but decided to roast and eat them. Max and Moritz smelled the chicken roasting, climbed up on the her roof with fishing poles, caught the chickens with hooks, pulled them up, and ate them.”
“The Widow Bolte blamed her dog, Spitz.”
“Next, Max and Moritz nearly sawed through a bridge, then taunted Taylor Böck from the other side. He came after them, the bridge broke, and Taylor Böck plunged into the water.”
“After that, Max and Moritz put gunpowder in Teacher Lämpel’s pipe.”
“The pipe exploded the next time he lit it.”
“Then, Max and Moritz put bugs in Uncle Fritz’s bed.”
“The boys broke into a bakery, fell into a bin of flour, fell into a vat of dough, and the baker kneaded them up and baked them. Somehow they survived being baked, chewed themselves out, and escaped.”
“After that, Max and Moritz cut Farmer Mecke’s sacks of corn, which made the grain run out. But Farmer Mecke caught Max and Moritz, put them in a sack, took them to the miller, and asked him to grind them up. The miller did.”
“And his geese ate up what was left of Max and Moritz.”
There was a moment of silence. I thought perhaps I’d traumatized Cooper. This was like no children’s book anyone has ever read to him.
“Again! Again!” he said excitedly, hopped off the couch, told Alexa to play Bad Boys, and snuggled in for a second round.
Max und Moritz was written by Wilhelm Busch and published in 1865. It has been read to generations of German children (including myself), who did not resort to lives of crime.
The good news is that my now 15-year-old son has made enormous cognitive leaps in the past three years, and recent testing gives us a peek into his brain that we haven’t had before. He’s been in Special Ed. for three years, but is now essentially at grade level, and the person who conducted his testing has never seen progress like his before. It was she who said, “Maybe all that cognitive development work you’ve been doing actually helped.” By that, she meant Fast ForWord, which, through “games,” strengthens the cognitive weaknesses that make reading difficult.
The bad news is that my son’s behavior in school has him in danger of being suspended because he is so disruptive and disengaged. That behavior is going to keep him in Special Ed. As is the case with many teens, my son has developed an “allergy” to me and tunes out everything I say, which effectively closes the window of opportunity I had for influencing his development through nurture. At this point nature has the upper hand.
I have turned over stone after stone and done everything I know to do for my son, and feeling discouraged, recently told a friend (who happens to be a neuroscientist), “I wonder how much of this challenge is accepting my son the way he is. I keep trying to ‘fix’ him.”
He said, “So here’s the glorious opportunity that kids provide us: lots of practice by what they say and do in not letting our own adrenals be the boss of us. Remember the old Pink Panther movies? Inspector Clouseau had this manservant, Kato, whose primary job was to try to catch him off guard with a surprise attack. Your son is your Kato, inviting you to become more skilled in the game of mastering your own neurophysiology and escaping from Adrenal Hell.”
He’s right. Not only do I need to view the dynamic between myself and my son differently, I owe every mother I’ve ever judged an apology. I radically overestimated the amount of influence one can have over one’s children.
Though I did everything I could to establish a solid foundation that my son could eventually build a life on, the “house” he builds on that foundation is up to him. Now my task is to let go of the illusion that I have control over this outcome, hope my best was good enough, and comfort myself with stories of what men I respect today did when THEY were teens–including my dear neuroscientist. It is truly a wonder that our species survived.
Typically, I blog after having had an epiphany. Today, I am blogging in hopes of reaching one.
I am feeling tearful and fragile. Of course, I want that feeling to go away because I don’t like it. But I created a card deck that helps people put their feelings into words, and I believe that emotions are the inner guidance system by which we navigate our lives. That means I have to sit with and engage all the following emotions at the same time (mouse over each illustration):
Why? I could say all kinds of things. Money worries. Having a full-time job plus twobusinesses and a non-profit on the side. Learning to be earthmates with my soulmate. Raising a teenager with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and a tendency toward oppositional defiance. The tension of integrating into our family a father-figure who has already raised two teenaged boys to manhood, and can anticipate anything my son throws at him. (My son hates that.)
But those are all excuses. Bottom line: I’m not good at taking care of myself. I have a low tolerance for chaos and hate doing anything half-assed. So the more I do, the less chaotic my life will be. Right? I self-medicate with busyness.
The aforementioned soulmate is a Buddhist who gets up at 5:30 every morning to meditate and study the dharma for an hour. With a few exceptions (one of which I call “Facebook Man”), serenity has eclipsed his Irish temper. I have seen him get through an absolute train wreck of circumstances with tears, but an astonishing equilibrium and grace. His antidote to chaos is the time he spends on his cushion every morning.
When he suggests that I might benefit from meditation, I get all fit-pitchy and refer to the many times I have “failed” in my attempts. (I consider intrusive thoughts failure. I also consider intrusive theme songs from television shows such as Bonanza failure.)
I’m not sure why I want to throw tantrums whenever anyone suggests that meditation would do me good. Walking and shamanic journeying work better for me, but in the end, I don’t think it matters how I center, ground, and calm myself. It’s just imperative that I do.
Danny, my grandma, died in August–a few days after her 94th birthday. My grandfather died decades ago, but it wasn’t until Danny died that my uncles began sorting through the belongings they’d amassed over the years. That was when Dick discovered that Grandpa, an Army chaplain, had accompanied some of the defendants who were sentenced to death for war crimes at the Nüremberg trials to the gallows.
Wait. What? The guy who looked like a train engineer because he always wore blue-and-white striped overalls and a matching cap? The guy who always had a toothpick in his mouth, looked a lot like his boxer, and could be counted on to have Coffee Nips on hand? That guy?
In addition to evidence of the role that Grandpa played at the Nüremberg trials, Dick found a hand-drawn map of the concentration camp in Dachau with Grandpa’s writing on it. We know Grandpa was at Dachau after it was liberated, but we’re not sure when.
Honestly, I don’t remember my grandfather as a kind man. Though he was a “man of God,” religion seemed to be largely an intellectual exercise for him—not something he put into practice in his daily life. He originally wanted to become a doctor, but World War II put an end to that, so he became a chaplain instead. I did not know him to be a spiritual man. He often insulted and demeaned Danny and my father, which made him hard to trust and still harder to like.
What’s interesting to me is that, in spite of his Nüremberg and Dachau experiences—which might’ve led most Americans to draw unfavorable conclusions about the German people—it was Grandpa who met my mother, a German citizen, and insisted on introducing her to his son.
My German grandparents were Methodist descendants of Huguenots who were convinced Hitler was the Antichrist. At the end of the war, when Hitler was running out of men of draftable age, my Opa (grandfather) was drafted in his 40s and served as a cook in the Navy. My uncle was drafted into the SS at 17, but Oma (my grandmother) worked diligently to change that and succeeded. He became a Gebirgsjäger (mountain infantryman) instead, and both my Opa and uncle survived the war without seeing combat. Onkel Walter became a Methodist minister and met Grandpa, a Methodist Army chaplain, which led to the introduction of Mom and Dad. Which led to me.
I owe my existence to Grandpa. Somehow, what I learned about his involvement at Nüremberg and Dachau helped me see him in a different light. He didn’t judge Germans by the worst he’d seen of them. He saw what author and historian Robert Abzug says was “the trappedness of good people in the machinations of history at its most evil.” He saw the good in my mom, wanted that for his son, and it didn’t take long for Dad to realize he was right. I have rarely seen a man love a woman the way my dad loved my mom.
When I look at the following picture of Mom and Dad, whose people had been enemies little more than a decade before they met, I think of the song, “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.” I never viewed Grandpa as spiritual. But he held a practical vision of peace that enabled him to welcome a German woman into his American family. Peace began with him. And it led to me.