immigration, Love, parenthood, Politics, Racism, Uncategorized

A story of other Donalds: You cannot have this nation

tafoya-potWhen I was younger, my eyes were directed toward the future. With age, I look to the past with more curiosity than I once did.  Now that my parents have died, I want to ask questions I didn’t value in prior years. That is one of the barbs of grief; there are no more questions. What has passed is past.

I grew up without grandparents. My father’s father, who died a dozen years before I was born, was Hugh Donald Stewart. Hugh’s parents were immigrants from Scotland and England. His mother died at 31, leaving five sons, the youngest just eight days old. He was drafted into the US Army during the First World War. His gravestone notes his service: PVT, Company B, 116th Supply Train. He lived and died in Missouri, married a German Catholic, and was the father of six children, the eldest named Donald.

His story is an American story. His nation is one of service and perseverance through tragedy.

My father was named Raymond Gerard. He was 19 years old when his brother Donald died. At his mother’s behest, he followed Don’s footsteps into the Catholic priesthood. In his late 30s he left his vocation to marry and lead a nonprofit treatment center for alcoholic adults. He supported past clients with his ongoing friendship and patronage. Our Volkswagen Beetle was always serviced by Jesus and Tibor, two such men.

His story is an American story. His nation is one of humble faith and friendship.

My son is named Anthony Raymond. He is my father’s only grandson. When he was two weeks old, my father had a heart attack. My father was not well for any year of my son’s life, but Papa recovered and continued on, recovered and continued on. Anthony possesses my father’s gentle heart and ease with affection. Those two were pals. My father declared it so. “We’re good friends,” Papa assured him. “Really really good friends.”

Anthony’s story is an American story. His nation is one of gentleness and nurturing.

These are white men, one still a boy, the descendants of Christian European immigrants. Their nation may not be what you predict. Their nation never stays the same. Their nation grows wiser and wiser. Their nation learns; it is kind.

My parents bought a modest tract home just a few months before I was born. The back yard seemed vast to me as a child, the trees on the lawn forming three bases for baseball: weeping willow to apple to ash. My father was a tinkerer and fond of books, and he kept his religious faith his entire life. He had his own soft-cover copy of the Bible in which he wrote notes. From Psalm 145, he underlined: “May our sons be like plants well-nurtured in their youth, our daughters like wrought columns such as stand at the corner of the temple.”

My parents began to collect handmade art from native peoples when I was a child. First they bought a Navajo rug. This rug, they explained, was in the Two Grey Hills style. Their collection then expanded into pottery, first Hopi and Santa Clara Pueblo. Maria Martinez of the San Ildefonso Pueblo, they told me, was one of the greatest potters in all the world. Her creations were a marvel. We took a road trip to native land to purchase pottery from artists. My father asked one such artist, named Madeline Tafoya, if he could take her picture posing with her work. She agreed.

Their intersecting story is an American story. Their nation is one of reverent study and mutual respect.

My father coached youth soccer for many years. My mother was into it too; she rooted unapologetically from the sidelines (“Kick it kick it kick it!!!”) and helped my dad plan player substitutions on soccer fields drawn on yellow legal pads. Years later, when I told my parents that my friend, a star defender on our team, was in a same-sex relationship, neither said a single disparaging word. My father didn’t grow up in a world of rainbow flags; he was a young adult in the 1950s, after all. And yet he continued to welcome and support the woman he had known as a determined little girl.

He and my friend together have an American story. Their nation is one of love.

In my father’s penultimate year of life, he and my mother were tended to by a professional caregiver named Fay, a woman from Iran who often read materials in Farsi during her stays in their home. My father thanked her often. One day while she and I sat in an emergency room corridor, Fay told me a tender tale: she had helped my father with his shoes, and as she knelt before him, he kissed her head in thanks. At the estate sale for my parents’ condo not long after that day, I gave a desk, lamp, several pots and pans, office supplies —  even a Peruvian tapestry — to an Iranian father who came by. He was a new immigrant to the US. “I have nothing,” he said. He paid me a small sum in exchange for the many items. My father would have done the same.

That immigrant’s story is an American story. His nation is one of hope and opportunity.

My father circled this in his Bible, from Proverbs: “Hatred stirs up disputes, but love covers all offenses.” His father before him, and he, and my son, and the potter, the soccer player, and the immigrant now cooking with my parents’ pots — all have American stories. They are the Donalds and the Raymonds, the Madeline Tafoyas and the Fays. This is their country. No one can take away their nation.

Grief, Racism, Uncategorized

High elopement risk

IMG_2880.JPGMy mother spent the better part of March of this year living on the geriatric psychiatry floor of a hospital near my home. To get into this wing, I had to pick up a phone, sign in and surrender my purse. Signs at the doors warned of “high elopement risk.”

Elopement: leaving a safe space.

My mother was the most ill patient in the psychiatry ward. She did not speak coherently, her only words short riffs of old phrases thrown together. She made no connections with her fellow patients and she never slept. My visits were spent in the common area of the wing. This space brought together a small crowd of regulars, folks whose faces became familiar to me. There was Mary, lucid enough to once say “I haven’t seen you here before,” but always disheveled and melancholy. I noticed an inscrutable woman who played cards without playing cards, deploying all the motions and none of the method of a card game. And then there was Ethel, loud and urgent, yelping “Heeeelp!” but sometimes losing interest before anyone came to her aid. She was my favorite, full of drama in a pink nightgown.

It seemed like a tough gig, working behind those locked doors. Decisions requiring a certain nuance would arise in chronic rhythm. Ignore the latest wail from Ethel or go to her?

Elopement: leaving a safe space.

Among the staff members dressed in scrubs was a young African American man. He was a bright eyed twentysomething with a ready grin, his hair long and in dreadlocks. He was friendly, freely commenting to me about the newspaper I could no longer share meaningfully with my mom. He filled me in on her preceding hours, which generally consisted of my terminally ill mom refusing and struggling. He betrayed not a moment’s frustration with her. In fact, the two of them always managed it all, making it through my mom’s showers, her garment changes and her meals.

Research in social psychology has long provided insight into the impact of bias. We’re biased to favor our own viewpoints. The “false consensus effect” is a classic observation, in which we believe our knowledge and beliefs are shared by a majority of others.

A related phenomenon is known as naive realism. This is the belief that one’s private experience, which is inherently subjective, is a universal reality. A clever way of demonstrating this, first undertaken by a psychology graduate student in the 1990’s, is to ask individuals to tap out a song on a table. While a tune in your head might seem well conveyed via those taps, the tempo and melody both clear, the effect tends to sound like just so many random knocks to a listener. Still, subjects overestimate the likelihood of a partner’s success in discerning the tune.

So we tend to think that our views and our experiences are shared by others. And we are inclined to think that our own ways of being are objective, unvarnished and universal.

Elopement: leaving a safe space.

I liked my mother’s young care provider and admired his ease. There were things to be done, and he did them. I would have had a harder time in his role, even with my own mother — or perhaps especially with my own mother. I might stop to lament, or I might hesitate, or I might impatiently murmur why can’t you. My frail, confused mother moaned and groused her way through the acts of caregiving this man provided, and she was met with only his gentle face and firm instruction.

Now that months have passed and my mother has died, I still think about that man. I’m aware that although I found all the staff members’ jobs intriguing, my attention was so focused on him because he did not fit my stereotype of a professional in geriatric medicine. I couldn’t help but wonder why a young black man would choose a position of caring for elderly, mostly white individuals with serious psychiatric illnesses. Moments of connection would be less than in other medical specialties, the tasks of caregiving especially fraught with awkwardness for those of us observing. Moreover, patients with psychiatric illness — like my own mother — can be noncompliant at best and aggressive at worst. And I feared what I knew was possible: this man’s own patients could very well be biased against him. So why choose them?

Elopement: leaving a safe space.

I know that I made certain predictions about my mother’s care provider based on his appearance: his long hair, his thin frame, his young age, and, I don’t doubt, the color of his skin.

Even if my predictions were as benign as expecting him to like hip-hop, they could have impact. We are all repeatedly generating, and repeatedly subjected to, biases. For me, a middle aged white woman who drives an old minivan and could stand to lose a few pounds, these biases may often be favorable or at least neutral: I probably have children, or am friendly toward kids. I probably speak English fluently. I probably enjoy the company of other women my age, am not filthy rich, am not a marathoner, and am trustworthy.

That last one is a big one. Does my mother’s care provider enjoy the same assumption in his favor? Mike Ditka, former NFL coach, commented in response to the recent silent protests of professional and amateur athletes that, “I just don’t see the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on.” Lacking particular insight or empathy, Ditka and those with similar attitudes remain naive realists. A masculine white man in a male-dominated high-income career like Ditka’s may be relatively unlikely to encounter biases against him that undercut his sense of freedom, that question his dignity, or that impede his progress. Ditka’s movement through the world is his perceived reality, which he — like all of us — mistakes for an objective truth. Lifting oneself out of one’s own veil requires effort. It requires pause. It may represent an elopement of sorts: a willful movement out of a safe space. Most of us, most of the time, choose the well-greased path instead and allow our own perspectives to dominate our beliefs about and responses to others.

My mother had a career as a school librarian. She was a skilled researcher, adept at connecting with both students and faculty. She was well liked and well informed. At the end of her life, she had lost virtually everything: profoundly disabled, she required nearly constant care to make it through the day. It was an elopement of body and brain away from the safe spaces of ability and achievement to the modest floor of pronounced, unremitting need. Once pushed away from her safe spaces, she was tended to by a man whose place at her side may have represented a further elopement, his own: defying the likeliest expectations of him, despite challenges both shared by others in that role and unique to him, there he was.

For the sake of both of them, the dying white woman and the young black man, may we all elope more. May we accept that there is no one reality apart from each of our minds, and that the fears, beliefs, and even the joys of others ought not be dismissed simply because they are not our own.

My mother was fortunate in her final weeks to have that gentleman at her side. I wish now that I had learned his name. There they were, at that moment in time, existing within a practical safe space but both far from anything so describable. Life crosses paths of souls, and we are all at turns both powerful and at each other’s mercy. Let us all elope together.

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