Monday, February 24, 2014

Meeting on the Way



     The last Monday of February, 1980. It’s a miserable day in intermediate school. A skinny, slouching kid in a green windbreaker drags his feet past the classroom doors. His backpack is hanging off one shoulder. He had hoped for no math homework. But he's got three pages of multiplication. He’s in the second lowest math class and can never seem to concentrate on the problems. He would like English more if he didn’t have to spell well. He likes science, but gets marked down because his work is so sloppy and hard for the teacher to read. He likes band, but can’t really take a snare drum home to practice and doesn’t have much passion for it. In fact, he doesn’t have a lot of passion for anything other than trying to be different than everyone else. If he’s learned anything in school, it’s that being an outcast is easier if it’s a choice.
     He has missed the bus because he had to stay after school to do extra math. It’s about a mile and a half walk home, all downhill. He doesn’t mind. Sometimes it’s better than riding the bus anyway. So he walks out of the school grounds and starts the quiet walk home down Lahainaluna Road. 
     There is little traffic until a gleaming silver car seems to burst out of nowhere. It skids to a stop, gull-wing doors open and a man bumps his head as he gets out. The man looks at the boy and smiles.
This is it, the boy thinks. The aliens that are from my true home are here to take me home.
Instead, the stranger walks to the boy and looks around. He's quiet and rocks on his toes. Finally he points to the vacant fields all around and speaks.
     “Someday this will all be houses. That sugar mill down there will be gone. It’s all going to go away. Nothing stays the same, kid. You had a lousy day at school today?”
     The kid nods. What, is this stranger a time traveler? No, that car looks like it ought to fly like the ones in the stories he’s made up. The stranger continues:
     “I’ve got news for you. You’re not an alien from another planet, okay? I know that’s an easy thing to imagine. And when you think that, it kind of exempts you from the responsibility of trying to get along. I mean, it’s okay to be an introvert. But you’re not as different as you think. Even those popular kids have anxieties.
The boy looks from the car to the stranger. The man wears glasses and a long black coat, jeans and boots. The man goes on:
I just wanted to come along and tell you, it gets better. You are a lot smarter than you think, just because you freeze up doing three-digit multiplication, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid. You’ve got a great imagination. You know those stories you make up with your toy cars and spaceships? Yeah, I know, you’re not too old for toys, don’t worry. You keep doing that. It exercises your mind to create worlds like that. Don’t ever stop.
     The boy is shocked. This stranger knows about the worlds.
     You made up a story the other night too, as you were going to sleep. You do that also. The story was about two guys doing a rescue mission to a strange planet.
     The stranger sits on a low wall. He looks at the boy with the look that is sad, but proud.
     “I shouldn’t have come and done this. So I’ll just tell you the truth and then fix it. It’s true, David. I did travel back in time. I thought I would come back and see you on the week of your 13th birthday and then I couldn’t resist saying something. I mean, I remember what it was like. And I wanted to tell you that it will get better. You’ll make some new friends. In a few years, you won’t have such a miserable time every day at school. And when you grow up, oh man, your wife will be the prettiest, sweetest girl ever.
     At this the boy makes a face.
“Now calm down. I know you still don’t like girls now right? At least that’s what you like to think. But here, I’ll prove I’m you from the future, something you never told anyone. That girl who looked out the school bus window at you? I know her name, so do you. Yeah, I know how you feel, that little crush. No, you won’t marry her. At the end of this school year, you’ll never see her again.”
The boy’s knees feel weak. But more than the gelatinous fright he feels, there is a thrill of relief. This person really does understand everything. Questions start bubbling up in his mind. What other advice could his future self give?
“I’m not going to tell you anything else. Well there is a lot more I wish I could tell you. I would like to tell you that in your future, you should make better choices. If it’s something that feels good right away, but you regret it later, then you shouldn’t do it at all. I wish I could tell you so much. Buy stock in Apple, learn to drive a stick shift, don’t watch the movie Serenity until you’ve watched the Firefly series. But no, you’ll have to make your choices and live with them. Anything I tell you to do different, it might compromise you meeting and falling in love with her, the one.  
The stranger beckons the boy close, pulls off his eyeglasses and points to the blue of his eyes.
“Look here. You’re going to forget we met. But you’re going to feel better today. You’re birthday will be fun this week. Life will get better. Forget everything else I said.”
The stranger almost stands, but looks back at the boy.
“But remember this too. Write that story down. The story about the space rescue mission, it’s not publishable, but get a notebook and write it down anyway. You are going to find that you love to write. It’s a better escape from reality than what you do now. You were born on Earth, deal with it. Go on home now. Happy Birthday.
The kid in the green windbreaker turns and walks down the hill and the stranger watches him go. The kid is still slouching and dragging his feet. But he’s looking up.

Monday, February 17, 2014

...even if it’s some encouraging words



     It was encouraging last week to get an outpouring of love as we remembered Naomi’s birthday. I am usually a little anxious when her birthday comes up. But I think I’ve discovered that if I can just be as honest as possible, the anxiety is cooled over and the day goes by with less angst than I anticipated. And while the saying may bounce around that “the truth hurts”, it’s still can be the best thing to say and to hear.
     Most people didn’t know how to react when they learned that we had a little girl with cancer. After Naomi was diagnosed, we got a lot of this: “I just can’t imagine…” followed by various things. People couldn’t imagine it happening to them, how they would react, what we were going through, all kinds of unimaginable things.
And while hearing these things became tiresome, at least people were being truthful. They were just saying what they felt, but I don’t know if it’s the best thing to say. It’s not the worst. Thankfully I don’t think we got “God’s will be done” or “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”. I think the worst thing someone told me was right after Naomi was diagnosed. I was at a church gathering and he sought me out and went into a long story about the time his daughter was very ill and had to go to the emergency room. I managed to ditch the guy only to have him find me later and continue the story where he’d left off. I don’t think he was trying to one-up me. He may have been trying to tell me he understood how I felt or he may have been trying to say how bad he’d had it and made it through okay, so I might too. It was a confusing time thought and I don’t remember the point he was trying to make. I just remember not wanting to hear any more about hospitals, doctors, or hurting little girls. 
But as I said, I think he was trying to help. And today I feel thankful. That’s all most people wanted to do, help somehow, even if it’s some encouraging words. Some were just more successful than others. I think one of the best things anyone ever said to Prajna was shortly after we learned how badly Naomi was doing, shortly before the end. Prajna was at church for a weekly event and just devastated.
One of the most Godly women I think I will ever know was with her. This woman had health issues of her own, though you would never know it from the joy she radiated. But despite the positive mood she always had, when Prajna told her how bad Naomi was doing, our friend didn’t offer any encouragement. She said two words: “Oh… crap.” Two words, not the politest to say at church, and they said to Prajna more than anyone might imagine two words could say. “Oh crap” meant that it hurt her and upset her truly. That was a statement of both indignation and camaraderie. And it was an honest expression of how much she loved us and our family.
That was from a dear friend. But even a stranger once touched my life. I’ve never forgotten this at the other end of Naomi’s illness. Her hair had first started coming out when she was in the hospital. She had been hospitalized in Honolulu for an infection. She and I were in the departure lounge of the airport waiting to go home. Naomi’s head was bald around the sides, like a little old monk with a fluffy blonde clump right on top. And typical of her, she was cavalier about it, refusing to wear the little white sailor hat. So she clutched her blanket and played around the window, pleased as punch to not be in her hospital room hooked up to anything.
I watched the airport tarmac and kept an eye on her and tried not to be self-conscious myself about her appearance. A woman came and stood next to me and watched Naomi play. I tried to imagine I was disappearing. Naomi and I, we are not in the crowd anymore. No-one can see the little girl who obviously has cancer now. There’s no hiding it. So how about nobody can see us, okay? I don’t want to answer questions. I don’t know how long she has to live, I don’t even know how she got the cancer. Please just leave us alone. Leave me alone. Don’t talk to me.
The lady turned from Naomi to me. “How old is she?” she asked.
“Three,” I said.
“She’s beautiful,” the woman said. And that was it. She didn’t say anything and soon after that, Naomi and I were able to pre-board for the short ride home.
She’s beautiful, the stranger said. And I can still hear her voice in my head saying that. I remember the warmth of the sun through the windows and feeling that warmth at her words. Suddenly the world turned nice. When the woman told me that, I was reminded of so much more than my little girl was beautiful. I learned to believe that people are beautiful too.
Like Naomi touching so many lives, this stranger at the airport did too.    

Monday, February 10, 2014

Naomi



     Naomi was our second child, our fist daughter, and the last baby to be born with a doctor present. She was born in 1996, a year that proved to be turbulent. Even at an early age, we learned from her. I stand by my belief that parents don’t really know a lot about children until they have more than one. Naomi was different than her older brother. As an infant, she cried less. But as she grew a little older, she became more high maintenance. 
Naomi at one

While Harrison was an easygoing baby who would sleep anywhere and play quietly by himself and not cry in the church nursery, Naomi desired attention and stimulation. She was not happy unless things were her way. When we tried to introduce her to baby food she refused it. Then she shrieked and thrust her hand at Prajna’s plate, opening and closing her fist. So Naomi didn’t eat baby food and went right to what the rest of us were eating.
Naomi had a will like a hurricane. She may not have always known what she wanted, but when she experienced what she didn’t want, she let the world know.  If anyone thinks putting a two year-old in a snowsuit should be easy, they should try restraining the Tasmanian Devil and putting him in a burlap sack. (And you’re not allowed to hurt him.)
first steps and she heads for the door

Naomi carried this fighting spirit into her illness. She was diagnosed with cancer when she was three and a half. Neuroblastoma starts in the adrenal gland and can quickly spread. It was stage IV by the time it was discovered. Doctors were not hopeful and once gave me the option of stopping treatment.
in the bone marrow transplant ward
But we didn’t stop and Naomi fought on. She went into remission and relapsed twice.
second relapse, her last picture with hair
She was cheerful and boisterous at the hospitals. She wore pink rubber boots, sang loudly and loved interacting with people. The staff enjoyed her, most of the time at least. One day when it was time to access her portacath with a needle stick, Naomi decided that it wouldn’t happen. It took me and four nurses to hold her down and get the needle in. I’m sure the nurses were frustrated, I was. But at the same time, I was proud of her. This was the girl who had an uncompromising attitude. Perhaps other patients would not have made it that far.
Outside of the hospital and life of cancer, Naomi loved dance. She performed in a recital and had a ballet costume. She played with her siblings and wasn’t the least bit shy about being bald most of the time.
proud of her radiation markings

holding her baby brother, Jamie

But late in 2002 the cancer was not being beaten back anymore. The blood transfusions she needed were not from the chemo wiping out her blood cells, but from the cancer that was taking over every part of her. She died at home in our arms.
Today would have been her 18th birthday. Sometimes I wonder what she would be like now. She had blonde hair, but it may have darkened. Would she still like to dance? Would she love to read like most of her siblings do now? Would she still be something of a drama queen? I can look at my kids now, Nathaniel, who’s 10 has the personality closest to what she was like. But like I said, every child is different.
And nobody fought like she did. I wonder if God equipped her with that ferocity, knowing that she would need it. But more than that fighting spirit, Naomi was very loving. She cared so much for everyone, family, strangers, the hospital staff. Her only fear from dying was that she knew we would miss her. She wasn’t afraid.
One could say what a special girl she was. Of course I would agree. She touched many lives. But I have to say this: Naomi wasn’t that unique. Anyone can be as loving as she was. If she could sing and dance in an oncology ward, if she could face pain and suffering with marked audacity, then why can’t anyone? She found joy in everything, infectious, courageous joy and it still resonates today as we remember her and every day in every life she touched.
I miss her a lot. But am so happy to have had her in my life.  
1st birthday getting her doll

Naomi turns two

3rd birthday

celebrating her 4th birthday at the Roland McDonald House in Los Angeles

5th birthday

Naomi's sixth birthday


Monday, February 3, 2014

What I'm thinking about



     I don’t know how to feel sometimes. It’s one thing have a broken coffee pot and laugh at how much fuss I make over it, but there are other things. First world problems are everywhere. The end piece of bread never soaks up enough French Toast batter. It’s not cold enough for me to wear my awesome furry hat. There are too many songs on my iPod. Oh my, whatever will I do?
     Another bothersome problem for me is that I feel burned out of writing. I love it when I am writing. I have ideas, too many actually, (another problem). But a lot of the time I just sigh inwardly and think, what’s the use? I was considering taking the month of February off for my blog. I’m afraid however, that if I took the month off of all my writing I might have trouble starting up again. Writing is like exercise and it’s a bad idea to take too much of a break.
     So yes, I have ideas, but they’re for fiction. I don’t want to post incomplete story snippets here on my blog. I like each entry to have some kind of resolution. That means I need to write what I’m thinking about. So what am I thinking about? I’m thinking I’m tired of blogging lately, that’s what. I’ve felt presumptuous and self-absorbed blogging lately. I don’t want it to be about that.
     But if I think hard, what else am I thinking about? Well we lost two hens this week. They were two of my favorites. And like I said, I don’t know how to feel. Is this a first world problem too? With all the pain and suffering in the world, is it okay for me to grieve over a couple of chickens? The one we lost Friday was a Rhode Island Red, very friendly. She would let anyone pick her up. She was a good layer too. The other hen was a Plymouth Partridge Rock. She was part of the first flock we got. This one was blustery, louder than a rooster sometimes, squawking and scolding. She is featured in my blog a year back aboutbroody hens. That’s her being dunked in cold water.
     So they were two of my favorites. I feel terribly sad that they were killed. Is it okay for me to feel that way or should I just shrug it off and say that they were only a couple of birds with a limited lifespan. There’s too much real anguish in the world for me to justify feeling this way, right?
     When I told Sarah this, she reminded me that feeling sad for something, even something like this, is okay. It just proves that I’m a human being with feelings. She’s right. And I ought to know better than to deny pain. Sure maybe I shouldn’t be too broken up over something so trivial, but if it hurts, then it hurts. Pain is real and if I deny it, it won’t just go away.
     So I’m very sad for losing these hens. I will miss the one’s affection and the other’s attitude and noise. I’ll get over it soon, I’m sure. I know from experience that even the most devastating pain from crippling loss will ease over time.
     So I made it through the first blog in February. It took an unpleasant event to prompt me, but I got it out. I hope that this week I can work on Sidewinder at least a few mornings. I have put off my memoir a while longer. I liked my November novel so much that I wanted to re-write it and see how good it could actually get. And what’s good writing without pain and loss to fuel the writer? It takes more than coffee to give me ideas. And this time, it took more than just loss. It took a reminder from someone that feeling pain just means I’m human.