Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Of Mice and Men...and Medicine Wheels

Admittedly, I’m one of those people with impossibly high expectations. Sometimes I intentionally lower the bar just to ward off the inevitable disappointment. But I couldn’t bring myself to lower my expectations for our reunion with Josh. I just kept holding out this emotional torch, knowing it would be a sweet reunion and a time of healing, both for him and for us.

We arrived in Loa on Sunday the 17th, just in time to slip into the parent meeting at 6 p.m. There was only one other boy graduating that week, and his parents were a lovely couple from Texas who live on a ministry and oversee several Christian missions worldwide (an orphanage in Liberia, a media mission in France, etc.). We were all coached on how to avoid any kind of distancing behaviors with our sons, and what to expect from them, including some lingering anger at us for sending them there.

We stayed that night in a quaint motel across the street, called the Snuggle Inn...and hardly slept a wink because of all the excitement, emotion, and built-up anticipation.

The next morning we had more parent workshops and drafted several “I Feel... statements”:
(I feel _______ when you __________. I feel this way because _________. In the future I hope I can _________, and request that you __________.)
The boys have been trained to communicate this way, learning to express their feelings in a way that de-escalates conflict, and then reflect back each other’s statements until they feel adequately heard. It was more challenging than we expected, both to communicate this way, and to listen and reflect back what the other person was saying. The graduation counselor said our boys are “emotional warriors” -- not in an angry, fighting sense, but in the sense of having conquered their own emotions and learned to express them assertively and listen with compassion -- “emotional warriors” in the heroic sense.

After lunch they told us to load our gear into the truck, and they drove us out to the wilderness to meet up with our boys. (Note: Our gear consisted of the clothes on our back, a sleeping bag, water bottle, camping cup and spoon, and a fleece jacket. We were instructed NOT to bring any food, cosmetics, matches, flashlights, camping equipment, or anything else that could detract from the wilderness experience. Cellphones and internet were out of the question.)

After a 20-minute ride down a series of dirt roads, we stopped the vehicles, and had a moment in a circle, linked by a red cord, to share our feelings. Then they told us, “Your boys are just on the other side of that hill.” Gingerly we climbed the hill and made our way down the trail. Once we rounded the bend, I caught sight of the boys, and my heart just about leaped right out of my chest. At that moment it felt exactly like the account of the Prodigal Son in the book of Luke:
But when he was yet a [little] way off, [we] saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. (Luke 15:20)
My arms would not, could not let go of him, and my chest would not stop heaving up and down as I sobbed my love and gratitude right onto his shoulder. We just held each other like that for what seemed like forever. And then he and Jeff did the same.

The boys (who it turns out have become best friends during their time together in the wilderness) walked us to the private campsites they had prepared especially for this reunion with their parents. We tramped over acres of desert grass and cactus until we arrived at a little clearing where Josh had built a shelter for himself, and one for us. (Home, sweet home!)

He taught us how to “bust a fire” using a bow drill, and cooked our dinner (which was delicious, by the way) in a "billy can". We washed out our cups and the cans using sand (such irony, cleaning with dirt) and then Josh read us page after page from his journal, along with two short stories he’d written. (I had no idea he was such a strong writer. His talent puts mine to shame. His diction, clarity, visual sense and imagination were very impressive. Both Jeff and I gave him the ultimate compliment: “I wish I had written that.”)

The next day we hiked down to a little shady spot by a river that was so lush and green it was like something from Shangri-La. We spent the better part of the day there with the group, engaged in listening activities, relays, and even a writing exercise. (yay!) That afternoon we got rained on, then hailed on, then rained on again, and worked our way breathlessly back up the hill to our campsite to let everything dry out. At that point I felt like we had been given a tiny taste of what the boys had been through for the past eight weeks. It was just enough to ignite my sense of adventure without dampening my spirits.

The next morning we walked through a Native American Medicine Wheel (a circle on the ground, made of branches and bones and chapparal, with four gates: North, South, East and West) except this special graduation medicine wheel had only two gates, East (symbolizing new birth, new life, regrowth) and West (symbolizing leaving something old behind). We entered the wheel from the West gate and walked counter-clockwise to stop time. Everyone passed a "heart stick" that has been at Aspen graduations for decades, and shared a few thoughts regarding our reunion experience. The staff leader read Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You'll Go!, which seemed amazingly applicable to what we were all thinking and feeling. We then walked clockwise around the medicine wheel to restart time, and exited through the East gate and hiked back out to our cars, leaving the wilderness and all its rich lessons behind, but hopefully emblazoned in our hearts.

I was prepared for a rough couple of nights under the stars and a sweet reunion. But I was not prepared for the amazing young man we met there. (I almost wanted to ask, Who are you and what have you done with my son? --except that this was the young man I always knew was inside him. I just hadn’t ever come face to face with him yet). He seemed so much older, whether or not you took into consideration the two months we’d been apart. He was confident, gracious, respectful, loving, expressive, patient, responsible, goal-oriented, and dare I say? happy. He demonstrated all the qualities of a strong leader. I couldn’t help thinking that he had entered this amazing rite of passage as an angry, confused boy...and come out a man. He made a courageous journey, physically and psychologically, progressing up the figurative totem pole from Mouse to Coyote to Buffalo...and finally Eagle (an honor only 5% of the kids achieve).

He almost seemed born again -- not necessarily in the Christian sense, but in the sense that he had been stripped of his old life and was beginning a new where he had discovered exactly who he is and what his purpose is. Like his whole mind and body had been cleansed by the dirt and the rain and the wind and the sun and let his soul shine through like never before.

I was also struck by the symbolism of us meeting him on his turf, so to speak, and the reciprocal beauty of having him prepare a shelter for us and cook our meals. We, who had nurtured him since his infancy were now being sheltered, fed, taught and cared for by him. The whole experience surpassed my expectations in every way. I have a hunch this is one of those pivotal points in history we’ll refer to for the rest of our lives. To say that we feel blessed would be entirely insufficient. I can’t thank you enough for every thought and prayer launched to the skies in our behalf. I believe He has held our family in His loving arms and carried us safely to this point in the journey.

And so we’re on to the next adventure. As we dropped Josh off at his new boarding school there seemed to be an innocence and vulnerability I haven’t seen in him in years. Something tells me he’ll do well, and once again rise to the top...but that he’ll need our faith and prayers along the way like never before.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The prodigal returns.

We are off to the wilderness to pick up our son. I'm expecting a very sweet reunion. (We're told the kids do a 1-mile run...right into our arms. Should be a very powerful experience. It makes me cry just thinking about it. I'll write about it when I get back (in a week or so). In the meantime, please keep us in your prayers.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Standing Still and Motion Sick

I am stuck in the center
of a spinning world
Pulled in every direction
is pulled in no direction at all
I feel a kind of motionless frantic

Needs and distractions both beckon
Calling for my attention
Like Gypsies peddling their wares
in an outdoor market
Some tug on my mental shirttails
Others cry out, wave, motion me toward them:
Start this. No, that! Over here...

And all the while I spin
From here to there
Unable to choose
which comes first, what can wait
Everything seems urgent, and yet —
There are so many obstacles
in every single path.
My mind keeps spinning spinning spinning
Faster and faster
Going nowhere
Until I am motion sick

I want to scream
How can I create
in the midst of this

Finally the spinning slows
as I drop to my knees
Help me make sense of all this
Help me choose, act, move, do
Help me finish something

The whirling and turning slows
enough to let me focus
whittling away at
whatever I can
one at a time
I see them clearly
for what they are
acting with purpose, direction
ticking them off as I go

The deadlines still loom
The sidelines still compete
But I am steady.

Once I have found my center
The spinning doesn't make me
lose my balance
any more.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Sing Me to Sleep

My mother was a singer. And a pianist. And a music conductor. I always think of her as the most joyful and alive when she was directing a chorus. Music was her life. And her life-blood.

We were so privileged to grow up in a home where:
  • Late at night we’d drift off to sleep listening to the muffled notes of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata ringing out from the grand piano upstairs.
  • We’d come home from school to a live chamber music session (piano, cello, and flute) passionately rehearsing in the living room.
  • After Christmas dinner she’d tune all the crystal goblets to a perfect scale and we’d play carols by running our fingers over the rim.
  • We’d move the couches and have an impromptu polka party, just for fun, with her at the piano.
  • We learned to sing Tender Shepherd as a round before we could even talk.
  • We’d sing hymns in 4-part harmony before bed.

So it was only appropriate that when the cancer had finally consumed her entire body and the cheyne-stokes breathing indicated she was not long for this earth, we reached for the hymn books. Now it was our turn to sing her to sleep.

The nurse and the grief counselor told us their hearing is the last thing to go. So even when it doesn’t look like they’re paying attention, when they no longer have the strength to respond, and might even appear to be unconscious, they can still listen.

We each took a moment to say our goodbyes. And then we started to sing. At first it was hesitant, awkward. We fumbled for our parts as we choked back our tears. Gradually, flipping through the hymn book to find our favorites, the most comforting ones, we gained some confidence. Our voices rang out in a rich blend. Sweet Ben climbed right up onto her bed and lay there next to her, crooning softly into her ear with his golden voice.

Then, amazingly, while we were singing “I Need Thee Every Hour,” our voices were somehow amplified, almost as though we were suddenly joined by a growing chorus of angels from the other side. It was beyond beautiful. We were so caught up in the moment, the richness of the music, the power of the performance, we almost didn’t notice...then someone pointed us back to reality, and we watched in awe: On the last phrase of the last verse, right when we sang, “O bless me now, my Savior, I come to thee...” she took her last breath.

And I felt the veil part. As though the very divider between heaven and earth slipped open, just a crack, to let her soul pass through. And in that instant, so full-to-the-brim it couldn’t be stopped, some light and truth and love seeped through from the other side. It filled the room, and wrapped around us, bathing us in its warmth.

I remember feeling so beautiful inside, I wanted to hang onto that moment forever and ever. I have never been so sure in all my life of the reality of an after-life; that her soul slipped away to someplace bigger and better than we could possibly imagine. That she was with God.

I never imagined that her moment of death would have such a lasting impact on me. That over all the years of teaching and training and loving and serving and, yes, laughing...what I would remember best was her leaving...and the amazing cushion of peace she left behind.

I love that — just once — when it mattered most, I got to sing her to sleep.
She told me once she wanted to be remembered as a peacemaker.
And now she is.

The image above is the portrait I did for her funeral program. It was from a photo of her directing a Christmas chorus.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Pay Rapt Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain. And the One Spreading Newspapers, Too.

So we had a thrilling trip to the emergency room over the weekend. It was one of those rare weekends when all the boys were away and it was just "us girls". We finished watching the classic breakup movie (sorry no link — it wasn't THAT good) and were brushing our teeth and getting ready for bed...when The Princess discovered a huge abscess. So, always game for a little late-night entertainment, I drove her to the emergency room.

We walked into the waiting room and I saw a grave-looking Hispanic family off to one side, and their (adorable) child was wearing a surgical mask. I leaned over and whispered to The Princess, "I wonder if that kid has the swine flu," wishing I'd sat a little farther away. Pretty soon they were whisked away. And then so were we.

While we settled in to our ER "room" —a cubbyhole of sorts separated from the adjoining room by a green curtain—I overheard bits and pieces of the conversation next door. The doctor was speaking softly, but the translator was speaking loudly, and since I speak Spanish, I was able to pick up most of what they were saying. The princess could hear the Spanish translator, too, and sensed a gravity in their tone. She asked me to interpret for her. It went something like this:
You have a very bad flu.
It is Type A Influenza and we think it might be Swine Flu.
You all must stay in your house for two weeks.
If you need to leave your house, you need to wear a mask.
You must not go to work for at least seven days.
The princess and I just looked at each other. This was like a very bad dream. Or like a very bad late-night movie. And we were the special guest stars.

I stared at the green curtain. It looked so very permeable. And above it? Was nothing but net hanging from metal rings. Suddenly I had visions of that ghastly green mist from the Ten Commandments (remember the last plague, the destroying angel?) wafting up the green curtain, working its way through the net, creeping and oozing over to our side. I couldn't take my eyes off that flimsy curtain supposedly separating us from the pandemic. As if the germs would somehow become visible and avoidable if I stared over there long enough.

The words of the man behind the curtain kept ringing in my ears...quarantine...swine flu...

Suddenly I felt the need to cough.
Ah, the power of suggestion.

Then I was reminded of a similar scenario involving a smaller degree of germ phobia. A much lighter one. Hilarious, actually.

We were at the Academy, a discount movie theater just outside of Old Town Pasadena. As we walked into the theater where our film was playing, we got a whiff of the most putrid concoction of odors...a mixture of urine, stale popcorn, and body odor.

As we went to take our seats, I said to Jeff, "I feel like I'm going to get a disease from this place...just from being here. I don't even want to touch anything." I tried to sit in such a way that my derriere was touching as small an area of the chair as possible, and wondered if I could actually stay perched on the corner of my seat like that for the duration of the movie.

Jeff, who always knows exactly how to make me laugh, joked that they ought to furnish those tissue-paper toilet-seat covers for the theater patrons. He then deftly pantomimed pulling a seat cover out of an invisible box from the back of the seat in front of us and laying it on his seat with a flourish. I couldn't suppress the giggles. Yet I honestly thought I'd feel more comfortable if they DID furnish those seat covers.

THEN — and this is the amazing part — a homeless guy with a gray, matted beard and literally covered in filth, shuffled in to take a seat in the row in front of us. We watched in a combination of horror, amusement and disbelief as he pulled out a huge stack of newspapers and carefully covered every surface of the chair he'd chosen. Spread a few on the seat. Opened some and draped them ceremoniously over each armrest. Laid the biggest ones right on the fold covering the back of the chair. Clearly this guy knew something we didn't. And we didn't want to find out what that something was.

We just clung to each other, careful not to touch the arms of our chairs, and (sort of) held our breath until the movie was over and we walked outside again. Then we inhaled deep, lung-filling breaths of fresh air and vowed we were paying full price the next time we went to the movies!

Epilogue: The Princess is fine, no one in our house came down with the Swine Flu (nor did Jeff bring it home from Peru), and we never got sick from sitting in that grimy movie theater. But the power of suggestion was palpable. If only I could channel that power into something more positive....