Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Superbowl

Last Thursday, I heard an advertisement for a local radio station contest.  They were giving away a "Superbowl Party" for a listener.  It transported me back to last year's superbowl, and what was going on for us then.

A year ago, my twenty-year old son Maxwell had been kicked out of a residential treatment program he'd been in for drug addiction and mental illness.  He was bi-polar.  He had lived with and been kicked out of three different family member's homes before that, and none of his friends were comfortable keeping him.  When he used, he would become psychotic.   And no matter what we did, he could not stop using.  On the coldest day of January 2014, he became homeless.

We scrambled.  We panicked.  Max's Grandpa found an organization that would pay the bill to have him placed in a sobriety house for a week, and then, as those funds were running out, Grandpa worked with the Harford Office of Drug Policy to secure funding for Max to be placed in a locked-door rehab on the Eastern Shore.

I remember the day I drove him out to Chestertown.  It was Wednesday January 22.  There had been an amazing snowstorm the day before.  Max slept most of the way there, the medicine he was taking made him really sleepy.  Snow swept across the road, great gusts of blowing white.  It was beautiful.

When I checked him in, they told us that he could have visitors in ten days, on the following Saturday.  They wanted all of the patients (the intake officer was careful to never call them inmates) to have a full week of adjustment before seeing people from the outside again.

I returned a week and half later with Jennilyn, and was surprised that the other people gathering for the visit were all bringing great big bags of food.  I mean, a LOT of food.  Chips, cans of dip for the chips, sodas, boxes with finger food, cupcakes, candy, cookies.  I believe one person was bringing a wings platter.  We had, like, part of a chicken nuggets order from Chik-fil-A, I felt totally outclassed.

After we got to see Max, he told us that the staff had made an exception, since the following day was (duh!) the Superbowl.  Usually, visitors were allowed to bring a sandwich, or a take-out order from a restaurant, but for Superbowl weekend, visitors were allowed to bring enough food for the residents to have a great big party.  Something to celebrate sobriety.

When he came back home from rehab, we thought things were going well.  The momentum of the year seemed like it was going to get better.  Then we lost Max in July.  It was a horrible shock.  We have missed him so much. I still weep whenever I hear the recordings we have of him singing, with choirs or with "The Music Man" cast.

I've been thinking of a quote lately. Elizabeth McCracken wrote, "Grief lasts longer than sympathy, which is one of the tragedies of the grieving."  Last July, we were surrounded with Max's friends after his death.  Hundreds of them turned out for his memorial, and stayed for hours, hugging us and sharing stories of his life.  But in the months since, the visits have trickled to a stop.  I find myself wondering how the friends are doing, wishing they'd stop by, just to say hi.  Every time I hear from someone else who misses Max, who loves him, I can physically feel the burden lighten on my heart.  There is a huge chasm where he used to be in my heart.  All the anger I ever felt at his bad choices, all the sorrow at his pain and suffering, all the joy I ever felt when he succeeded, it's all just a deep hole now. So when I heard about that contest, it visceral transported me back to remember that drive to Chestertown, that visit, that party he was expecting the next day.  I remembered him, felt his absence, and wept.  I decided to apply.  I told them the story of Max, and then concluded, 
"If you awarded this party to us, I would invite them all over.  *ALL* of them.  The kids he sang with.  The guys he went to AA and NA with.  His housemates and caretakers in the residence program.  The people he was in "The Music Man" with.  If they'd come, I would rent out a hall to fit them all.  Just to see them again, to see Max reflected in their eyes.  I would insist they enjoy the day, that they enjoy the food, and that we celebrate the memory of Max.  I would hug them all, over and over again, look them in the eye and tell them how much I love Max.  We would enjoy the game, and the party, all in memory of Max."

But I remember that drive to Eastern Shore.  I remember that Superbowl, feeling sorry for Max.  Thinking of it this year, remembering it with such gravity, reassures me that I still love him.  I'm grateful for the chance to remember him, even though it makes me sad.

And seriously, if I win, you're all invited to come by and give us a hug.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

2013 Trip to Poplar Island

These photos are from a field trip I took last year (18 months ago) to a facility that my Agency helps operate called Poplar Island.

Jennilyn posted about it in 2012, when I went with Jennilyn, Sam, Roxie Jane and Suzu.

Suzanna looking out the window, then looking at the photographer.

This is one of the reasons I held the photos for this long.  I was always hoping to have some good news, and then some stable good news about Max before talking about him.  Now, I've waited too long, and have only memories of him to post.  Which is a good enough reason to write.  I told him he could invite a friend, and he brought Devin (with whom Max lived for about four months last year).

Grandpa John came too.

Here, we are standing in a fully reclaimed cell; the island is divided into different zones, and built to replicate specific types of marshy or bay-oriented habitat.  It was cold and windy.

This is a photo of an old effort made to "save" Poplar island.  Erosion had reduced the island to less than the size of a 1/2 acre houselot, and the first effort to stem the erosion involved scuttling several barges around the remaining island.  The original plan was to remove them, but so many animals have moved into the barges, they've been allowed to remain in place.

There is almost nothing as heartbreaking for me now as seeing a photo of Max candidly, lucidly smiling.  I miss him so much.

I love how Suzanna is willing to put herself in interesting places. 

On the way home from the island, the transport boat got hung up on a sandbar for about fifteen minutes.  I told Devin he totally needed to phone in that excuse for being late for work.  How many times do you get to call in stranded?

It was a good day.  It's a good memory.  I guess it's bittersweet, but nearly all of my memories are bittersweet now.  That is the inevitable outcome of mortality.  We love, we serve, we hurt, but we love anyway.

I will try to clear out this backlog of photos, of memories.  It is good to revisit, retouch them.  It is good to remember.  Even if it hurts it is good to love.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Vaccine Update

Ten years ago, I was involved in a Vaccine safety trial for an experimental vaccine for Ebola. It did not result in a successful vaccine.  The NIH Vaccine Research Center has begun recruiting for a new study, which I just received yesterday.

Here are the details of the Study (including the criteria for being a volunteer).

No, there is no risk of exposure to Ebola.

The total compensation is about $1750 for nine or ten visits to Bethesda.

If you can, sign up, it's worth it!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Claymores - an Elegiac Poem

People hold still after a death.  Inside of every minute, little claymores hide, waiting to detonate.

When I see a train, or hear a train horn from across the town.  When I even imagine a train, the rhythmic clatter as it goes by, my breath stops.  I think of him stepping in front of one.

When an actor pretends to be (or is) high.  When they’re accurate, it’s harrowing and tragic.  When they’re lampooning, it’s infuriating.  Same with mental illness. And suicide.

Whenever a character in a show is in AA and talks recovery, or when a parent gets a death notification from the police, or when someone sees a loved one in the morgue or at the funeral.

When someone jokes about being delusional, or quotes Han Solo from “Return of the Jedi.”

When I hear music sung.  When I sing.  I hear the echo of his magnificent voice, and sob.

When I see a 20-year old boy.  When a missionary comes home.  Or leaves.  

When the kids do a chore without complaining, because holy cow, did he complain a lot.

When we have granola (which he loved), tomato soup (hated), or cheese (loved).

When we laugh.

When another bill collector calls, so I write down their number to fax his death certificate.

When it is quiet.

When I hear the theme music to the original Mario Brothers. Remember when Max made that his ring tone? In High School, he’d forget his cell phone, I’d call it just to make it ring, and chuckle.

When we see a movie, or quote trivia, or tell a joke, or recycle that last basket of his old clothes that no one will ever wear again by taking it to Goodwill, and I leave it in my trunk so I can take it back inside to look at again, smell it again just one more time, just once.

Grenades of ache exploding in my heart.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Sun Days

The day after Maxwell died, we found two "suns" taped to our back door window.

Jennilyn caught the anonymous neighbor almost immediately, but didn't share who it was.

For four weeks, every morning, we were greeted with another sun, another quote/comment/excerpt.  Some were very religious, some were silly, some were philosophical.  I didn't keep track of their order, though you can find the hand-written first one, way down at the bottom of the pictures.

Some days, I'd come home from work, and walk past all of the cheery suns.  But most days, I'd stop, read the new one, look back at some of the others.  I would pause a moment to soak up the smiley illustrations with the real surges of grief still churning around me.  Like turning my face to the warmth of sunshine while standing with my feet in the cold ocean.  Even today, almost two months later, when I read through the quotes, I feel myself start to tear up. 

Actually, when I start to drift into despair, and feel disconsolate, I've come back to these little suns, and read them.  Especially while listening to our favorite song find from Brother-in-law Bob, it has been an ongoing balm.

It was a beautiful act of love and kindness.  It was consistent, simple, earnest, true.

We are grateful for all of the outreach we've received.  It has all helped.

It still hurts to have Max be gone.  But every sunrise is another reason to smile.  Even if the sunrise is taped to our back door.

Thank you.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Two Photos from Bear Lake

There is nothing in the whole world as satisfying as putting a fussy baby to sleep.  I know, I *remember* the fatigue of caring for infants from when my children were small.  But boy, do I feel nostalgic for it.  This photo was from one of my personal highlights at the Bear Lake reunion, getting grumpy Evan Babcock to relax and doze.  I put my hat on him, and sat down with my back to sun so he wouldn't get sunburned.  Thanks Mike and Sarah for letting me flex my Grandpa muscles!

A huge success!  This was the 2-liter bottle rocket launcher the Smiths brought, and a great action shot by Jen Babcock of Roxie Jane launcher her rocket. I'm getting one for Christmas!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

An Open Letter to Matt Walsh Regarding His Assertion that Suicide Is a Choice

In summary, Matt, you are wrong.

Now, there are a lot of people that think you (Matt Walsh) are wrong, all the time.  But that is often because they disagree with your principles of religion, spirituality, and morality.

I disagree with your conclusions, not your principles.  I think your vision on suicide is too narrow, and you have missed the mark.  I think you have a responsibility to speak from a position of great influence with more care and nuance, and to better represent the spiritually-based life.

You state, over and over again in your article, that suicide is a choice.  That Robin Williams chose to do this to himself.  I ask, how can you *possibly* know that?

Surely you recognize, as a student of human nature (both biological and spiritual) that a person's behavior is never just one thing.  Yes, YES, we have responsibility for the actions we elect.  I am certain of that.  But we also inhabit a complex system of influences.  Genetics, culture, family, history, chemistry, whimsy, temptation.  To presume that any person can look at another's choice, and conclude how much of the choice was personal agency, and how much was external factors is ... ludicrous.  We, individually, can only ever truly be certain of what we, individually are responsible for choosing.  Only we can know our own guilt.

I suspect that you feel some obligation to speak out, a cautionary voice  to warn anyone who is feeling suicidal.  I imagine that you think expressing sympathy or sorrow for Robin Williams will somehow encourage or enable someone who's depressed, as you say, it will be "the last straw."  The specter of copycat suicides is a horrific worry that everyone is always aware of at a time like this.  As a culture, we are empowered to judge behavior as acceptable, or as not acceptable.  Suicide is something we should judge as unacceptable.  And you are right to speak out against turning the conversation into a complete abnegation of personal responsibility on the part of the person who attempts suicide.  We, as a culture, as a race, must be unequivocal that Suicide is wrong.

But in your effort to speak out, you have assumed knowledge you cannot possibly possess.  You assert that making suicide analogous to other causes of death (beyond the control of the suffering) somehow steals hope.

Hogwash.  This is not like coddling a vandal, or a thief.  You aren't going to spark a cultural shift towards suicide if you express sorrow or sympathy for someone who has committed suicide.  It is like the public forgiving of an addict, the embracing of someone who is anorexic.  People suffering with conditions so severe that they might contemplate suicide, they *NEED* to be able to surrender the burden of the suffocating pain.  They need to know it is *NOT* something they are in control of, and *NOT* something they will be judged for feeling, so they can get help.  From the outside, from others.  Yes, it is critical that as a culture we do not praise the choice to suicide, that we condemn the act and plead with any contemplating it to choose life.  But it is the act we condemn, not the actor.  Love the sinner, hate the sin; when condemning an immoral behavior, we should always frame the condemnation in the abstract, not label specific people as examples of the immoral behavior.

It is hypocrisy for you to accuse people of looking for an easy answer when they ascribe suicide to factors beyond the control of the suicidal, when you yourself are guilty of doing exactly that.  You have erred in the opposite direction, though.  And while people who write off suicide as being completely beyond the control of the person are wrong, at least they are erring on the side of compassion for the dead.  You are erring on the side of the stern, the judgmental.  By declaring suicide to be ONLY the choice of the suicidal, you discount as non-existent (or as non-meaningful) the stunning array of factors outside of the control of the suicidal.  Let me quote you;

"I don’t understand how theists, who acknowledge the existence of the soul, think they can draw some clear line of distinction between the body and the soul, and declare unequivocally that depression is rooted in one but not the other."
How can *YOU* declare that depression is *ONLY* rooted in the soul?  Your standard of joy, of choosing life, of not electing self-destruction, that is all laudable, and I agree with them!  But I am certain, on behalf of those who suffer from depression (and the family members who collaterally bear that burden), you have done great harm in expressing such a thoughtless opinion, so lacking nuance and understanding.

No one admires Robin Williams for his death.  I don't think anyone in this public dialog is asserting that someone who commits suicide has NO choice in the behavior.  But when they express sorrow for the event, they are expressing a compassionate uncertainty of HOW MUCH choice he had, and attempting to comfort the people left behind.

Shame on you for using such a public forum to judge another human being when you have neither the authority or information to justify your opinion.  Your tone, your judgmental stance, your repeated insistence on framing Robin Williams' death as a cruel choice he is alone responsible for, embodies much that the non-religious find despicable about the religious. Where is your compassion for the suffering?  How is heaping judgment (which, again, I insist you cannot possibly have enough information to render) on someone who is gone bringing greater joy into the world?

It doesn't matter what percentage of depression's cause is spiritual, what percentage is chemical.  The answer is the same.  People who are suffering, they need to feel joy, have friends, be medicated, get counseling, seek God, feel connected, choose life.  They need the full spectrum of possibility, help and hope to have a chance of combating the black hole of depression.  And they need those possibilities to be offered in an atmosphere of tolerance, respect, and welcome.  An invitation, lacking judgment.

When someone reaches the end of their mental and spiritual rope, they are no longer rational.  I agree with your statements that we are meant for life, and for joy.  But I sincerely believe that if a spiritually-minded person read your blog while they were depressed, they would feel judged for contemplating suicide.  And that's not helping them.

If someone is contemplating suicide, or any kind of self-harm, they should call the hotline (1-800-273-8255).  I have an open, standing invitation to all who might feel that way to call me personally.