To pull the metal splinter from my palm my father recited a story in a low voice. I watched his lovely face and not the blade. Before the story ended, he’d removed the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.
I can’t remember the tale, but hear his voice still, a well of dark water, a prayer. And I recall his hands, two measures of tenderness he laid against my face, the flames of discipline he raised above my head.
Had you entered that afternoon you would have thought you saw a man planting something in a boy’s palm, a silver tear, a tiny flame. Had you followed that boy you would have arrived here, where I bend over my wife’s right hand.
Look how I shave her thumbnail down so carefully she feels no pain. Watch as I lift the splinter out. I was seven when my father took my hand like this, and I did not hold that shard between my fingers and think, Metal that will bury me, christen it Little Assassin, Ore Going Deep for My Heart. And I did not lift up my wound and cry, Death visited here! I did what a child does when he’s given something to keep. I kissed my father. ~Li-Young Lee, “The Gift” from Rose
I did, without ever wanting to, remove my child’s splinter, lance a boil, immobilize a broken arm, pull together sliced skin, clean many dirty wounds. It felt like I crossed the line between mommy and doctor. But someone had to do it, and a four hour wait in the emergency room didn’t seem warranted.
My own children learned to cope with hurt made worse by someone they trusted to be comforter. I dealt with inflicting pain, temporary though it may be, to flesh that arose from my flesh. It hurt as much as if it were my own wound needing cleansing, not theirs.
And so, in the similar way, our wounds are His – He is constantly feeling our pain as He performs healing surgeries in our lives, not because He wants to but because He must, to save us from our own self-destruction. Too often we yell and kick and protest in our distress, making it all that much more difficult for both of us.
If only we can come to acknowledge His intervention is our salvage: our tears to flow in relief, not anguish, we cling to His protection rather than pushing Him away, we kiss Him in gratitude as we are restored again and yet again.
This year’s Lenten theme: So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4: 18
When I was sick with a head cold, my head full of pressure, my father would soak a washcloth in hot water, then ball it up, ring it out. He would open it above my head, then place it against my face like a second skin, the light around me disappearing entirely except through the spaces between the stitching. I would inhale the steam in that darkness, hearing his voice on the other side, otherwise almost devoid of any other bodily sense but the warmth and depth of his voice, as if I had already died and was on the other side of life waiting for the sickness to lift, but I wasn’t. I was still on this earth, the washcloth going cold on my face, my body still sick, and my father still there when I opened my eyes, as he always was, there to give me warmth before going cold again. ~William Fargason “Elegy with Steam”
A common clinic conversation this time of year:
I’ve been really miserable with a cold for three days, and as my COVID test is negative, I need that 5 day Z-pack antibiotic to get better faster.
It really can be miserable suffering from cold symptoms. Ninety eight percent of the time these symptoms are due to a viral infection and since your rapid RSV and influenza nasal swab tests are also negative today, your illness should resolve over the next few days without you needing a prescription medication.
But I can’t breathe and I can’t sleep.
You can use salt water rinses and a few days of decongestant nose spray to ease the congestion.
But my face feels like there is a blown up balloon inside.
Try applying a warm towel to your face – the heat will help improve circulation in your sinuses and ease your discomfort.When it cools off, warm it up again – basically rinse and repeat.
And I’m feverish and having sweats at night.
Your temp today is 99.2 so not a concern. You can use ibuprofen or acetominophen to help the feverish feeling.
But my snot is green.
That’s not unusual with viral upper respiratory infections and not necessarily an indicator of a bacterial infection.
And my teeth are starting to hurt and my ears are popping.
Let me know if that is not resolving over the next few days.
But I’m starting to cough.
Your lungs are clear today so it is likely from post nasal drainage irritating your upper airway. Best way to help that is to breathe steam to keep your bronchial tubes moist, push fluids and prop up with an extra pillow.
But sometimes I cough to the point of gagging. Isn’t whooping cough going around?
Your illness doesn’t fit the typical timeline for pertussis. You can consider using an over the counter cough suppressant if needed.
But I always end up needing antibiotics. This is just like my regular sinus infection thing I get every year.
There’s plenty of evidence antibiotics can do more harm than good, eliminating healthy bacteria in your gut. They really aren’t indicated at this point in your illness and could have nasty side effects.
But I always get better faster with antibiotics. Doctors always give me antibiotics.
Studies show that two weeks later there is no significant difference in symptoms between those treated with antibiotics and those who did self-care without them.
But I have a really hard week coming up and my whole family is sick and I won’t be able to rest.
This could be your body’s way of saying that you need to take the time you need to recover – is there someone who can help pick up the load your carry?
But I just waited an hour to see you.
I really am sorry about the wait; we’re seeing a lot of sick people with so much viral illness going around and needing to test to rule out COVID and influenza.
But I paid a $20 co-pay today for this visit.
We’re very appreciative of you paying so promptly on the day of service.
But I can go down the street to the urgent care clinic or do one of those telehealth doctor visits and for $210 they will write me an antibiotic prescription without making me feel guilty for asking.
I wouldn’t recommend taking unnecessary medication that can lead to bacterial resistance, side effects and allergic reactions. I truly believe you can be spared the expense, inconvenience and potential risk of taking something you don’t really need.
So that’s it? Salt water rinses, warm towels on my face and just wait it out? That’s all you can offer?
Let me know if your symptoms are unresolved or worsening over the next few days.
So you spent all that time in school just to tell people they don’t need medicine?
I believe I can help most people heal themselves with self-care at home. I try to educate my patients about when they do need medicine and then facilitate appropriate treatment. Also, I want to thank you for wearing your mask today to reduce the chance of transmitting your virus to those around you.
I’m going to go find a real doctor who will actually listen to me and give me what I need.
It certainly is a choice you can make. A real doctor vows to first do no harm while always listening to what you think, what your physical examination shows, then takes into account what evidence-based clinical data says is the best and safest course of action. I realize you want something other than what I’m offering you today. If you are feeling worse over the next few days or develop new symptoms, please let me know so we can reevaluate how best to treat you.
I’ll bet you’ll tell me next you want me to get one of those COVID vaccines too, won’t you?
Actually, I prefer you be feeling a bit better before you receive both the COVID and influenza vaccines. That would offer extra immunity protection for you through the next few months. Shall we schedule you for a time for your vaccination updates next week?Remember, I’m still here if you need to review your options again…
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May the wind always be in her hair May the sky always be wide with hope above her And may all the hills be an exhilaration the trials but a trail, all the stones but stairs to God. May she be bread and feed many with her life and her laughter May she be thread and mend brokenness and knit hearts… ~Ann Voskamp from “A Prayer for a Daughter”
“I have noticed,” she said slowly, “that time does not really exist for mothers, with regard to their children. It does not matter greatly how old the child is – in the blink of an eye, the mother can see the child again as she was when she was born, when she learned to walk, as she was at any age — at any time, even when the child is fully grown….” ~Diana Gabaldon from Voyager
Your rolling and stretching had grown quieter that stormy winter night thirty years ago, but still no labor came as it should. Already a week overdue post-Christmas, you clung to amnion and womb, not yet ready. Then as the wind blew more wicked and snow flew sideways, landing in piling drifts, the roads became more impassable, nearly impossible to traverse.
So your dad and I tried, concerned about your stillness and my advanced age, worried about being stranded on the farm far from town. When a neighbor came to stay with your brothers overnight, we headed down the road and our car got stuck in a snowpile in the deep darkness, our tires spinning, whining against the snow. Another neighbor’s earth mover dug us out to freedom.
You floated silent and still, knowing your time was not yet.
Creeping slowly through the dark night blizzard, we arrived to the warm glow of the hospital, your heartbeat checked out steady, all seemed fine.
I slept not at all.
The morning’s sun glistened off sculptured snow as your heart ominously slowed. You and I were jostled, turned, oxygenated, but nothing changed. You beat even more slowly, threatening to let go your tenuous grip on life.
The nurses’ eyes told me we had trouble. The doctor, grim faced, announced delivery must happen quickly, taking you now, hoping we were not too late. I was rolled, numbed, stunned, clasping your father’s hand, closing my eyes, not wanting to see the bustle around me, trying not to hear the shouted orders, the tension in the voices, the quiet at the moment of opening when it was unknown what would be found.
And then you cried. A hearty healthy husky cry, a welcomed song of life uninterrupted. Perturbed and disturbed from the warmth of womb, to the cold shock of a bright lit operating room, your first vocal solo brought applause from the surrounding audience who admired your purplish pink skin, your shock of damp red hair, your blue eyes squeezed tight, then blinking open, wondering and wondrous, emerging and saved from a storm within and without.
You were brought wrapped for me to see and touch before you were whisked away to be checked over thoroughly, your father trailing behind the parade to the nursery. I closed my eyes, swirling in a brain blizzard of what-ifs.
If no snow storm had come, you would have fallen asleep forever within my womb, no longer nurtured by my aging and failing placenta, cut off from what you needed to stay alive. There would have been only our soft weeping, knowing what could have been if we had only known, if God had provided a sign to go for help.
So you were saved by a providential storm and dug out from a drift: I celebrate when I hear your voice singing- your students love you as their teacher and mentor, you are a thread born to knit and mend hearts, all because of a night of blowing snow.
My annual retelling of the most remarkable day of my life thirty years ago today when our daughter Eleanor (“Lea”) Sarah Gibson was born, hale and hearty because the good Lord sent a wind and snow storm to blow us into the hospital in time to save her. She is now married to her true love Brian–another gift sent from the Lord; we know you will be awesome parents when your turn comes!
I want to be a passenger in your car again and shut my eyes while you sit at the wheel,
awake and assured in your own private world, seeing all the lines on the road ahead,
down a long stretch of empty highway without any other faces in sight.
I want to be a passenger in your car again and put my life back in your hands. ~Michael Miller “December”
Up north, the dashboard lights of the family car gleam in memory, the radio plays to itself as I drive my father plied the highways while my mother talked, she tried to hide that low lilt, that Finnish brogue, in the back seat, my sisters and I our eyes always tied to the Big Dipper I watch it still on summer evenings, as the fireflies stream above the ditches and moths smack into the windshield and the wildlife’s red eyes bore out from the dark forests we flew by, then scattered like the last bit of star light years before. It’s like a different country, the past we made wishes on unnamed falling stars that I’ve forgotten, that maybe were granted because I wished for love. ~Sheila Packa “Driving At Night” from The Mother Tongue
The moon was like a full cup tonight, too heavy, and sank in the mist soon after dark, leaving for light
faint stars and the silver leaves of milkweed beside the road, gleaming before my car.
Yet I like driving at night… the brown road through the mist
of mountain-dark, among farms so quiet, and the roadside willows opening out where I saw
the cows. Always a shock to remember them there, those great breathings close in the dark. ~Hayden Carruth from “The Cows at Night”
Some of my most comfortable childhood memories come from the long ride home in the car at night from holiday gatherings. My father always drove, my mother humming “I See the Moon” in the front passenger seat, and we three kids sat in the back seat, drowsy and full of feasting. The night world hypnotically passed by outside the car window. I wondered whether the rest of the world was as safe and content as I felt at that moment.
On clear nights, the moon followed us down the highway, shining a light on the road.
Now as a driver at night, transporting grandchildren from a family gathering, I want them to feel the same peaceful contentment that I did as a child. As an older driver, I don’t enjoy driving at night, especially dark rural roads in pouring rain. I understand the enormous responsibility I bear, transporting those whom I dearly love and want to keep safe.
In truth, I long to be a passenger again, with no worries or pressures – just along for the ride, watching the moon and the world drift by, knowing I’m well-cared for.
Despite my fretting about the immense burden I feel to make things right in a troubled world, I do realize: I am a passenger on a planet that has a driver Who feels great responsibility and care for all He transports through the black night of the universe. He loves me and I can rest content in the knowledge that I am safe in His vigilant hands. I am not the driver – He knows how to safely bring me` home.
I see the moon, it’s shining from far away, Beckoning with ev‘ry beam. And though all the start above cast down their light, Still the moon is all that I see And it’s calling out, “Come run a way! And we’ll sail with the clouds for our sea, And we’ll travel on through the black of the night, ‘til we float back home on a dream!” The moon approaches my window pane, stretching itself to the ground. The moon sings softly and laughs and smiles, and yet never makes a sound! I see the moon! I see the moon! Part A And it’s calling out, “Come run a way! And we’ll sail with the clouds for our sea, And we’ll travel on through the black of the night, ‘til we float back home on a dream!” Part B I see the moon, it’s shining from far away, Beckoning with ev‘ry beam. And though all the stars above cast down their light, Still the moon is all that I see ~Douglas Beam
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Bethlehem in Germany, Glitter on the sloping roofs, Breadcrumbs on the windowsills, Candles in the Christmas trees, Hearths with pairs of empty shoes: Panels of Nativity Open paper scenes where doors Open into other scenes, Some recounted, some foretold. Blizzard-sprinkled flakes of gold Gleam from small interiors, Picture-boxes in the stars Open up like cupboard doors In a cabinet Jesus built.
Leaning from the cliff of heaven, Indicating whom he weeps for, Joseph lifts his lamp above The infant like a candle-crown. Let my fingers touch the silence Where the infant’s father cries. Give me entrance to the village From my childhood where the doorways Open pictures in the skies. But when all the doors are open, No one sees that I’ve returned. When I cry to be admitted, No one answers, no one comes. Clinging to my fingers only Pain, like glitter bits adhering, When I touch the shining crumbs. ~Gjertrud Schnackenberg, from “Advent Calendar” from Supernatural Love: Poems 1976-1992.
Who has not considered Mary And who her praise would dim, But what of humble Joseph Is there no song for him?
If Joseph had not driven Straight nails through honest wood If Joseph had not cherished His Mary as he should;
If Joseph had not proved him A sire both kind and wise Would he have drawn with favor The Child’s all-probing eyes?
Would Christ have prayed, ‘Our Father’ Or cried that name in death Unless he first had honored Joseph of Nazareth ? ~Luci Shaw “Joseph The Carpenter”
The hero of the story this season is the man in the background of each creche, the old master Nativity paintings, and the Advent Calendar doors that open each day.
He is the adoptive father who does the right thing rather than what he has legal right to do, who listens to his dreams and believes, who leads the way over dusty roads to be counted, who searches valiantly for a suitable place to stay, who does whatever he can to assist her labor, who stands tall over a vulnerable mother and infant while the poor and curious pour out of the hills, the wise and foreign appear bringing gifts, who takes his family to safety when the innocents are slaughtered.
He is only a carpenter, not born for heroics, but strong and obedient, stepping up when called. He is a humble man teaching his son a living, until his son leaves to save the dying.
This man Joseph is the Chosen father, the best Abba a God could possibly hope for.
This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn:
Brightest and best of the sons of the morning, dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid. Star of the east, the horizon adorning, guide where our infant Redeemer is laid. ~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”
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On a table in the living room there is a gray ceramic bowl that catches the light each afternoon, contains it. This is the room we turned into the room of her dying, the hospital bed in the center, the medical equipment against the walls like personnel. In Maine, once, I rented a house hundreds of years old. One room had been the birthing room, I was told, and I sat in that room writing towards the bright new world I am always trying to write into. And while I could stop there, with those two recognitions of endings and beginnings, I’m thinking of yesterday’s afternoon of errands. My father and mother were in the backseat, my sister in the passenger seat, and I driving. It was like decades ago but everyone in the wrong places, as though time was simply about different arrangements of proximity. Sometimes someone is in front of you. Or they are beside. At other times they are behind you, or just elsewhere, inconsolably, as though time was about how well or badly you attended to the bodies around you. First, we went to the bakery. Then the hardware. The pharmacy, the grocery. Then the bank. ~Rick Barot “Of Errands”
For a time, my husband and I were the middle of the proverbial family sandwich – the meat and cheese with condiments while our aging parents were one slice of bread and our young children the other slice. It was such a full time of always being needed by someone somewhere somehow in some way that I barely can recall details of what those years were like.
Mothers with daughters sometimes note the irony of being in the throes of menopause while their pre-teen is adjusting to menarche – we pass on the fertility torch.
As I sort through boxes that have been stored away for over a decade from my mother and mother-in-law’s belongings to find things to help our son’s family get settled in their house, I realize that time could be measured in bowls and vases and casserole baking dishes. They are passed to the next generation for another lifetime of use. We start out being fed, then we become the provider, and wind up being fed ourselves in the end.
I want to forestall that time of becoming dependent again as long as possible. For now, I want to hold my grandchildren’s hands as I try to keep them safe in an unpredictable world. Someday, I may need them to help hold my hand once I lack the strength to walk unaided.
Turn turn turn – there is a season. Turn around and everyone has changed places, blessed to still walk alongside one another for as long as possible.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven… Ecclesiastes 3:1
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When the doctor suggested surgery and a brace for all my youngest years, my parents scrambled to take me to massage therapy, deep tissue work, osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine unspooled a bit, I could breathe again, and move more in a body unclouded by pain. My mom would tell me to sing songs to her the whole forty-five minute drive to Middle Two Rock Road and forty- five minutes back from physical therapy. She’d say, even my voice sounded unfettered by my spine afterward. So I sang and sang, because I thought she liked it. I never asked her what she gave up to drive me, or how her day was before this chore. Today, at her age, I was driving myself home from yet another spine appointment, singing along to some maudlin but solid song on the radio, and I saw a mom take her raincoat off and give it to her young daughter when a storm took over the afternoon. My god, I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel that I never got wet. ~Ada Limón “The Raincoat”
When I was 13, I grew too quickly. My spine developed a thoracic scoliosis (curvature) — after inspecting my back as I bent over to touch my toes, my pediatrician referred me to a pediatric orthopedic specialist an hour away from my home town.
The question was whether I would need to have a metal rod surgically placed along my spine to prevent it from more misalignment or whether I would need to wear a back brace like a turtle. The least intervention would be physical therapy to try to keep my back and abdominal muscles as strong as possible to limit the curvature.
Since my father didn’t have much flexibility in his work schedule, my mother had to drive me to the “big city” for my appointments – as a nervous driver, she did it only because she knew it was necessary to get the medical opinion needed. She asked me to read aloud to her from whatever book I was reading at the time – I don’t think she listened closely but I think she knew it would keep me occupied while she navigated traffic.
At first, we went every three months for new xrays. The orthopedist would draw on my bare back and on my spine xrays with a black marker, calculating my curves and angles with his protractor, watching for a trend of worsening as I grew taller. He reassured us that I hadn’t yet reached a critical level of deviation requiring more aggressive treatment.
Eventually my growth rate slowed down and the specialist dismissed me from further visits, wishing me well. He told me I would certainly be somewhat “crooked” for the rest of my life, and it would inevitably worsen in my later years. I continued to visit PT for regular visits; my mom would patiently wait in the car as I sweated my way through the regimen.
The orthopedist was right about the curvature of my aging spine. I am not only a couple inches shorter now, but my rib cage and chest wall is asymmetric affecting my ability to stand up totally straight. Just last week, I had an xray of my collar bones as even those joints have developed wear and tear changes. I consider being crooked a small price to pay for avoiding a serious surgery or a miserable brace as a teenager.
What I didn’t understand at the time was the commitment my mother made to make sure I got the care I needed, even if it meant great inconvenience in her life, even if she was awake at night worried about the outcome of the appointments, even if the financial burden was significant for my family. She, like so many parents with children with significant medical or psychological challenges, gave up her wants and wishes to make sure I received what I needed. As a kid, I just assumed that’s what a mom does. Later, as a mom myself, I realized it is what moms do, but often at significant personal cost. As a physician, I saw many young people whose parents couldn’t make the commitment to see they got the care they needed, and it showed.
I was one blessed by parents who did what their kids needed to thrive.
My mom constantly offered me her raincoat so I wouldn’t get wet. Meanwhile she was being drenched.
Thank you, Mom, for making sure I was covered by your love. I still am.
her father had needed her to dig the potatoes and load them into burlap bags
but here she is leaving her daughter
on the campus in the city time to go we go to the parking lot
old glasses thick graying hair she is wearing a man’s shirt has to get back to the job
we stand beside her Ford and it is here she undoes the buckle of the watch and holds it out to me
my father’s watch keeping good time for him and then for her
she says she knows I will need a watch to get to class we hug and she gets in
starts the car eases into traffic no wave
the metal of the back of the watch
is smooth to my thumb and it keeps for a moment a warmth from her skin. ~Marjorie Saiser from “She Gives Me the Watch off Her Arm” from I Have Nothing To Say About Fire
When I decided to attend college out of state, to a campus I had never seen before, my mother decided she couldn’t handle the goodbye in a strange place, so sent me on a two day drive with my dad. She was a very emotional person and he wasn’t, so he got the job of dropping me off.
It was a quiet car ride with only my dad and myself together. I think we both dreaded the upcoming parting moments.
When the moment came – my things scattered chaotically about my dorm room, marijuana smoke haze filling the dorm hallway and noise everywhere with loud music and the partings of students and parents – I looked at him with foreboding and desperation at this foreign environment to which I must learn to adapt. His eyes filled with tears — the first time in 18 years I had seen him cry — and he said “you know what you are here for,” hugged me tight and turned around and left.
My father didn’t give me anything but those parting words, but they still ring in my ears every day whenever I am feeling somewhat desperate, even now fifty years later.
It was a rough start at college for me, homesick as I was, in an unsupportive unstructured dorm environment. I came home at Thanksgiving that quarter and didn’t return until the following fall. But I finished strong and never looked back. You can’t go home again, not really.
Now I know what I am here for.
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We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind; In the primal sympathy Which having been must ever be;
Thanks to the human heart by which we live, Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. ~William Wordsworth from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”
Nearly twenty-seven years ago we watched at your bedside as you labored, readying yourself to die and we could not help except to be there while we watched you move farther away from us.
This dying, the hardest work you had ever done:
harder than handling the plow behind a team of draft horses, harder than confronting a broken, alcoholic and abusive father, harder than slashing brambles and branches to clear the woods, harder than digging out stumps, cementing foundations, building roofs, harder than shipping out, leaving behind a new wife after only a week of marriage, harder than leading a battalion of men to battle on Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa, harder than returning home so changed there were no words, harder than returning to school, working long hours to support family, harder than running a farm with only muscle and will power, harder than coping with an ill wife, infertility, job conflict, discontent, harder than building your own pool, your own garage, your own house, harder than your marriage ending, a second wife dying of cancer, and returning home asking for forgiveness.
Dying was the hardest of all as no amount of muscle or smarts or determination could stop it crushing you, taking away the strength you relied on for 73 years.
So as you lay helpless, moaning, struggling to breathe, we knew your hard work was complete and what you left undone was up to us to finish for you.
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