Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Are You Holding the Wrong Hand?

The neurosurgeon found me in the hospital waiting room and said the surgery had been a success.  After four hours, it was finally over.  He had  removed most of the spousal unit's meningioma.  A meningioma is a benign tumor growing in the lining of the brain.  You can see where it is from the MRI, but you don't know what you will find until you get in there.  If it's spongy, you can suck the tumor out with a straw.  If it's hard, you have to chip away at it.  In any event, the surgeon got most of it out and Ron was doing great.  He was being transferred to the intensive care unit, and I could go up in 15 minutes.   I was relieved and eager to see him.

To get into the ICU, I had to identify myself through an intercom.  If acceptable, they would buzz and the doors would open.  The first time I tried, they told me to come back in 20 minutes.  The second time, the high wide doors parted like the Red Sea.

A nursing station was in the centre of the ICU area.  Around the perimeter of the room were 18 curtained areas, each containing an ICU bed, a patient, and numerous beeping monitors.

These cubicles were numbered.  Number one was to my left.  A nurse emerged from one of the rooms and I asked her where my husband was.  She thought for a minute, then said, "Room 10."

I walked around to Room 10 and peeked inside.  A man is lying under a sheet, moaning and snoring.  He looked awful.  The shape under the sheet seemed to be about the same height and girth as my husband's.  His head was covered with a turban of bandages.  His beard had been roughly shaven.  I had never seen my husband without a beard.  I had never seen anyone immediately after brain surgery.

I was ready to love this ragged, shipwrecked man.  I took his hand and stroked it.  He'd been through a horrible ordeal.

I held his hand, said soothing words, and waited... and waited.  He didn't wake up.

Hadn't the surgeon said that he was awake and asking for me?  I noticed a clipboard at the foot of the bed.  I delicately placed the hand back on the bed, and went to read the name on the clipboard.  Damn, I'd been holding the hand of some other guy.

I peeked in the adjoining rooms and found Ron in #12.  Except for the 50 staples in his head, he was his same handsome, bearded self.  "What took you so long?" he said.

Whose hand are you holding?  

Could you be holding the wrong hand?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What's in a Name?

Mice will play when the cat's gone.  For schoolchildren, the cat is the teacher, and a substitute teacher is a licence to party.  I once worked as a substitute teacher.  In my interview for the position, I was asked, "What are three ways you maintain order in the classroom, and discuss each of these three ways in terms of your philosophy of education?"

"That's easy," I bluffed.  "I control the class, first, with my confidence.  If I seem to know why I'm there, the class is more secure.  Second, with my enthusiasm.  If I'm excited about my lesson, the students become excited too.  Finally, I use a pocketful of Hershey's chocolate kisses.
They hired me, but they knew and I knew that survival in the classroom requires more than confidence, enthusiasm, and kisses.  While schools have behaviour policies with serious consequences and occasional student-of-the-month type rewards, these are difficult for a stand-in to memorize five minutes before the bell.
My first assignment was a grade 8 class.  The previous sub had left at 10:30 a.m.  Much to the principal's surprise and relief, I stayed the whole day.  I survived -- but I was not pleased.  The students had a powerful tool to confound me:  they knew their names and I did not.  Much of the day had gone like this:

"You -- stop throwing those paper airplanes.  What's your name?"

There are always seating plans, but these aren't much good  when they find out there's a sub.  Not only does everyone sit where they like, but students wander in from the hall and insist they belong in my class.  I needed a strategy.  If I could address students by name, they would have to be accountable, and I'd have more control.
A week later, I was assigned a grade 6 in the same middle school.  I decided that the students would wear nametags...but what if they gave me the wrong names?  I felt doomed, but suddenly through my dark fear, a light began to shine.  I would make wearing nametags a reward!
The day began with the usual rioting.  During a momentary lull after O Canada, I said authoritatively, "I have nametags for you -- but not everyone's going to get one -- because to have a nametag means to have a real, true name -- a name of your own, a name that sets you apart from all others and declares, ‛I am me!'  What happens when you have a name?"
Someone shouted, "People know what to call you."
"Exactly.  And if they know what to call you -- they can call you for dinner.  If they know what to call you, they don't say, ‛Hey you.’  They say, ‛Gee Anna, your story is great,’ or ‛Wow, John, that's a cool earring,’ but when you have no name, your identity is erased.  You get blamed for other people's crimes.  You disappear.  When you have a true name, you are unique -- but you only get a nametag if you tell me your real name."  I held my breath.
"I'll tell you my name," a boy in front piped up.
"OK, what is it?"
"Is it?"  I looked around the class -- they're all nodding.  William showed me a notebook with his name on it.  "OK.  I believe you.  William, you get the first nametag and a Hershey's kiss.  As long as you're in my class, I want you to wear this."  I wrote "William" on the sticky-backed labels I had brought, and ceremoniously placed it on his shirt.  William was beaming.  The next instant, everyone was clamouring for a nametag.
I gave the class their math assignment and promised to visit each desk and name each one of them while they worked.  I hoped that the magic of being named would last till noon.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Getting Over It: How Do We Recover?

Mid-heartbreak, you wonder if you will ever get over it.  You don't even know what "over it" looks like.  Your grief is twice the size of your life.  You stumble through your day.  Contact with people seems to be through thick bullet-proof glass.  You hear someone say, "How's it going?" and you can barely find enough breath to say, "fine" or "ok" before the tears start.

"The person who falls in love is not the person who remembers falling in love."  - Junot Diaz

In the same way, the person in the midst of heartbreak is not the person remembering heartbreak.  Love, said Diaz, "has the power to transform what we otherwise take for granted."  Everything we take for granted about ourselves and our world changes when the hurricane of love tears through us.  Even our body chemistry changes.  In the aftermath of love, everything changes again.  When we are ready, when we are able, we start to put our lives back together again.

If you were dumped, you have to rebuild your confidence so you can feel as amazing and worthy as you did when you were adored.  Even when you're the one to break off, you might have to keep reminding yourself why you bailed out of that love boat.

Back in the 1990s, freedom rose above my horizon like a new dawn.  In the aftermath of love, I was responsible for my own life and had to learn to live with myself.  I lived in a small house with my six-year-old daughter.  Collages of pictures and poems covered every wall.  On the side of a kitchen cupboard, I posted pictures of previous romantic partners under the words, “Boyfriend Graveyard.”  This was one of my techniques for recovery from heartbreak, a reminder of what "over" meant to me, a reminder of why I left, a reminder of what I didn’t want.  I would not go back to unhappiness.  It was better to be alone than to live in a bad relationship, and single mothering was easier than parenting in a war zone.

My friend Doug Moore used to say that relationships are like car accidents:  There would be a collision.  Some time after, the bodies are pulled from the wreckage.  The vehicles are towed away and the debris is cleaned up.  In the end, all that's left are the skid marks.

In 1995, I left the house where the “graveyard” was, and by 1996 my exes started dying off for real.  I remember them more for the amazing things about them, for the things they taught me, and for saving my life as best they could, before I learned to save my own life.  Those are the skid marks:  the deep impressions they made on me.
"Maybe you never get over anything. You just find a way of carrying it as gently as possible."   Bronwen Wallace
How did you get over heartbreak?  Did you take action or just wait it out?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Have You Been Blessed Lately?

I was recently at a birthday party for my childhood friend, Nancy.  When she was 30,  she was snagged by religion.  It probably saved her life.  She became an evangelical singer.  All her friends are evangelicals, and every single person at this party, except me, was an evangelical.
My friend, the birthday girl, asked everyone to stand up one at a time and introduce themselves to the group.  One woman said this, "I first met Nancy when she was singing at the Christian Fellowship event at the Marquis Gardens Banquet Hall.  It was so God.  People were overcome with the spirit and fainting.  The waiters were wondering if they should call an ambulance.  One guy must have had an angel on his shoulder.  He was swaying and dancing with the spirit - his eyes closed -- and somehow didn't trip over any of the bodies."

I came out as an atheist to the people at my table.
"Being an atheist must be so hard," one said.
"Because you have no one to pray to."
I nodded sadly.

A few days earlier I was in a woman's washroom at the Charlotte, NC, airport. This washroom had a large jolly greeter with a very loud voice: "GOOD AFTERNOON, WELCOME TO CHARLOTTE.  HAVE A GOD-BLESSING DAY. GOD BLESS, BE SAFE GIRLS, GOD BLESS, GOD BLESS, GOD BLESS, LADIES ONCE AGAIN, GOD BLESS.  GOD BLESS, GOD BLESS, GOD BLESS GIRLS, HAVE A GOD-BLESSING DAY."  I'm not really sure what else she did besides bless people or perhaps watch their luggage while they went in a cubicle (where I hid from her booming voice and scribbled down her words verbatim).  As I was leaving, I noticed her tip jar and stuffed in a dollar. She then blessed me a few more times. Clearly this godly marketing tool was working.

Maybe I'm becoming more tolerant.  One Sunday morning some years ago, I was on a bus travelling from Hamilton to Toronto, normally a 50-minute trip.  A woman stood up at the front of the bus and began preaching, entreating us to repent and accept Jesus.  I yelled, "Driver, can we have some quiet."  The bus driver asked the woman to sit down, but she kept preaching, mentioning also that the unrepentant woman (me) would surely face God's wrath.  The driver pulled off the highway to a police station.

The officers came on board and escorted the woman off.  I hope she had a God-blessing day.  This added at least 20 minutes to our trip and I had to face the wrath of the other passengers.  The bus driver said that she preached on the bus every week.  Sometimes passengers slept through it.  Sometimes they resented being a captive audience.  In those cases, he turned her over to the police.

What would you do?  Sit back and repent or loudly protest?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Is There a Silver Lining in This Personality Disorder Playbook?

A friend of mine, Chip, has the following qualities:  funny, witty, creative, smart, helpful, warm, generous,
and talkative.

Let's call these his ermine characteristics.

At other times he can be angry, very angry, irrational, arrogant, nasty, argumentative, rigid, and silent.  Let's call these his weasel characteristics.

The ermine is white in winter blending in with the snowy landscape.  When its fur turns brown in spring, it is called a weasel or stoat.  Same beast, different colourings.  They change to protect themselves from predators.  Perhaps Chip changes for the same reason.  I don't know.

In the 13 years that I have known Chip, from time to time, his weasel side would emerge.  He mostly stayed in when that happened, aware that he could be "moody" - his word.

When he's in a good mood, Ermine Chip refuses to talk about weasel behaviour and would immediately get weaselly when I try.  When he's in a bad mood, Weasel Chip does not seem self-reflective at all.  It is impossible to have a two-sided conversation with Weasel.  He does all the proclaiming, and whatever is going on is everyone else's fault.  Always.  In fact, even supportive, kind words said to Weasel are met with hostility.

Sometimes Weasel would take over so that Ermine went into exile for days and months.  Chip would seem to have a personality change and be almost unrecognizable.  During one of these times, I took Chip to a psychiatric facility.  They fed him and kept him for a week, eventually letting him out in much the same state he went in.  It took about a year, and the Chip I knew and loved gradually came back.

You may know people who somehow stumbled into adulthood with an undiagnosed mental illness.  They may be self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.  Having seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, they fear and reject psychiatric help.  They are suffering, but won't acknowledge it.

When I ask Chip how I can help, he says, "Love me," but that's getting harder and harder to do.

Have you been in a situation like this?  What happened?