This piece was published in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles on November18, 2005
First, he told me that Jewish husbands are the best husbands because they “only cheat
a little.” He grinned up at me and I smiled back. At five feet eight inches tall, I am used to being taller than many men, but when I put my arm around my diminutive father-in-law, the top of his bald head barely reached my shoulder. Still, he stood as tall as any man I ever knew.
When my father-in-law, Jack Stein, congratulated me on converting to Judaism, he said, “don’t be ashamed.” That time he wasn’t kidding - he really meant it. His admonition made me sad, but also taught me more than any book or museum could teach about persecution, cruelty and hatred. I knew intellectually what I was in for, but Jack’s words hit me in my new Jewish gut – don’t be ashamed.
When I met my husband-to-be more than twenty-five years ago, I had no idea that I would gain not only a wonderful mate but an entire culture and religion that was more than five thousand years old. What I learned in my conversion class was thimble sized compared to what I soaked up by spending time with Jack and his friends. When I came into the family, Jack was part of a group of survivors who had been together since they arrived in Dallas after the war and raised their families together. What I learned from them is that being Jewish leaves one open to irrational hatred that no one can understand, much less explain. What Jews do, I learned, is survive.
One night I sat on the couch with Mrs. “red” Goldberg and Mrs. “black” Goldberg (so designated by the hair color of their respective husbands) and listened as they described the Nazi horrors inflicted on them and their families. They described their hardship without self-pity or bitterness but with a will to survive that didn’t have to be expressed specifically because it was infused in their words. They talked with gratitude about the life they had been able to build in this country.
Mrs. “black” Goldberg told me the Nazis liked to watch her husband, Herschel, run up a hill while carrying two soldiers, one under each arm. It amused them, and probably saved his life. Herschel was still a bulldog of a man who, well past retirement age, worked part time at a deli and was the source of day-old bagels for the group.
When Jack told me not to be ashamed of being Jewish he spoke volumes about what it is like to belong to this tribe. An unbreakable thread runs through it that has never been severed, in spite of the most evil attempts. By telling me not to be ashamed, Jack was telling me to be proud of my decision to become a Jew.
Jack taught by example to survive terror and pain and go on to live a good, long life surrounded by family and friends. Jack didn’t just survive, he chose to love life again. He teased the ladies and cheered for the Cowboys and hummed in the shower. I saw a gleam of triumph in his eyes, filled with tears, as he watched his granddaughter ordained as a rabbi.
We lost Jack five years ago this month, just before Thanksgiving. Last week, as we rose for the Kaddish, I gave thanks to God that Jack was part of my life and that he taught me to be a proud Jew. I could not have found a better teacher.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on December 7, 2003.
The baby boy squished banana chunks between his tiny fingers before he shoved them
in his mouth. He pointed to the banana peel and said, “ba-ba.” His foster mother
handed him a few more chunks. He looked at me, smiling at his great accomplishment.
Four little white teeth had emerged from his gums.
As I looked into his innocent eyes I marveled at how far “Raymond” had come in the
eight months since my sister became his foster mother, after his birth mother left him at a bus stop with a stranger and never came back. My sister’s was his sixth foster home. He cried constantly because he was battling a heroin addiction and alsosuffered from an anal fissure, ruptured ear drum and thrush.
His medical problems were treated and his tiny heart – one bereft of love – was filled. He learned how to laugh and play and gained the confidence to flirt with strangers like me.
My sister is a foster parent who specializes in babies from birth to one year. In the five years she has been fostering babies she has sent most of them to loving adoptive homes. The child welfare system mandates that babies go to their blood relatives – if they can find them. If no blood relatives are found, a baby becomes eligible for adoption by a certified adoptive family.
Prior to Raymond, my sister fostered another baby boy, “Travis,” for a year before he was available for adoption. She worked with his new parents to make the transition as comfortable as possible. The adoptive parents came to my sister’s house for dinner. A few days later they babysat while my sister and her husband went out for the evening.
Travis met his new parents for the first time on his own turf. He had a chance to get to know them while he sat in his own high chair. They fell in love with him immediately. Once he was comfortable, his new parents took Travis home to a fully furnished nursery, with tons of toys, a permanent Mom and Dad and a childhood full of love and attention from people with whom he did not share one drop of blood.
Raymond isn’t so lucky. His grandmother wants to raise him. She made this decision in spite of the promise made by Child Protective Services that Raymond’s adoptive parents would welcome his grandmother as part of their life – complete with pictures and visits. Couples that long for a child are willing to do what it takes to adopt a baby.
Raymond’s transition was not smooth. When his grandmother arrived, they went to a fast food restaurant. Amid the chaos of children and burgers and fries, Raymond was put in the arms of his blood relative. She stayed the weekend and then left. Life as Raymond knew it was over and this well-meaning stranger was now his guardian.
None of the myriad of professionals involved in Raymond’s case paid much attention to my sister’s concern about his placement with his grandma. Raymond’s psychiatric evaluation said that his transition should include preparation and association with the new family to transition his bonding, in light of his early trauma. If the transition was abrupt, he might just give up on bonding entirely. Child Protective Services had a “placement” and needed to move on – bonding be damned.
Just like Raymond, my sister was denied a smooth transition. Her voice, the one that knew Raymond best and cared about him the most, wasn’t heard.
As Richard Gelles, Dean of the Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work said, “We drive people out of the foster care system by giving them nothing other than a check and thank you very much, but by the way, if you complain, we’re taking the kid out”.
After she spent months nurturing a damaged child so he could once again trust adults, my sister was forced to betray his trust – in the interest of reunification. I looked at the pictures she took of him the day before he left, sitting in a grocery cart with a sad look. Everyone at the store knew he was a foster child and made a point to say hello and to give him a balloon or a hug.
A few years from now, will Raymond sit on the porch with his grandma and watch the other kids learn how to ride a bike with their Dads running along side, holding on till they get their balance? By the time he is learning to drive a car, will his grandmother be up to the harrowing experience of sitting next to him as he careens down the road, as all new drivers do? Will her blood tie to him replace all the things he will lose because he’ll never have a Mom and a Dad?
Because the child welfare system insists on family reunification, loving adoptive families won’t be able to provide the kind of home babies like Raymond so desperately need. Foster parents who want to care for a child until he can move to a permanent home, instead hand him over to a blood relative whose intentions may be good but whose actions hurt the child they claim as their own.
Until the child welfare system recognizes that the bond of love is more important that the bond of blood, loving foster parents will watch their tiny charges go off to homes that cannot give them what every child deserves – a Mom and a Dad of their own.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on February 2, 2002.
Each sixth-grader had to give a one-minute speech at the graduation ceremony. Although it terrified them, they had to do it to get out of elementary school. I watched with pride as my son delivered, with a shaky voice, the one-minute speech he had rehearsed for hours.
The teacher told the graduates to talk about their plans for the future, their goals and dreams. She wanted it summed up in one minute. I thought back to the day I had enrolled my son as a first-grader, six years ago. Recently remarried, I uprooted my two young children and moved them from Denver to Los Angeles. He took it hard.
He had left his very best buddy back in Denver and, being a loyal friend from a young age, did not want to make any new friends, much less a new best buddy. He took his time choosing a new friend. Every day I listened as he came home from school and told me what his day had been like and despaired when I heard no mention of a best buddy. Finally, in October he told me about his new friend.
From then on I heard about Danny every day. They were fast friends and I gave a prayer of thanksgiving.
We planned a Halloween party. Danny was first on the list. A few days before the party, his mother called and asked more than the usual mother hen questions. I wondered why but answered them so that my son’s new buddy could attend.
The friendship was sealed. It was always to be, but never played out. “Danny died,” my tearful son said when he arrived home that awful day in November. Who could believe it? Danny died on the playground after school.
He was playing too hard, running too fast and simply ran out of time. Danny had a heart condition, controlled, so his parents thought, with a pacemaker. That explained all the extra questions before the Halloween party.
I wrestled with the idea of taking a young child to a funeral. The decision was made for me when the family closed the attendance to immediate family only. We were left with loose ends but moved on. Six years later, my son was graduating from elementary school.
I suggested he mention Danny in his speech and he agreed. In his first sentence he asked the assembled proud parents and teachers to remember his friend. Before talking about his future, he took a moment to think about his past and his best buddy. We didn’t know that Danny’s aunt was in the audience. She asked for a copy of the speech to give to Danny’s father.
Several weeks later we received a letter from Danny’s dad, thanking my son for bringing his son’s memory to that graduation day. He told us where Danny’s grave site was. We went there together on an early summer day, late in the afternoon as clouds began to gather and the sky was low and gray.
We found the headstone and sat together looking at the sky and talked about Danny. “He wasn’t a nervous kid,” my son said. “He always seemed kind of calm and not worried about anything.”
I remembered Danny in his little tiger costume, with whiskers carefully drawn on his tiny face, running in my living room with several other six-year-olds, never to be seven. On a humid summer evening I looked at my beautiful, healthy twelve-year-old boy, ready to start his life as I sat by the grave of a six-year-old child. Sadness flooded the same part of my heart that was filled with gratitude for my good fortune.
As life bestows its blessings and tragedies, we brace ourselves for the worst and hope for the best. We must always remember to remember. I am grateful for the comfort Danny’s father took when his son’s memory was evoked at a milestone Danny would not mark. He was moved by the compassion of his small son’s friend, who remembered him all those years later.
The letter and the trip to visit Danny gave closure to my son and me. It taught us that compassion is important, especially for those who left too soon for reasons we cannot understand. Danny’s untimely death taught so much. Just as a friend will do, he taught us well.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on May 7, 2010.
There aren’t many barbershops left anymore. You have to look hard for that red, white and blue barber pole outside a shop that has a couple of chairs inside with old guys sitting in them, stubbornly refusing to enter a co-ed hair salon. The strict segregation of barbershops for men and beauty shops for women is over. A man can walk into a beauty salon with his head held high and get his hair cut by a female. I have
seen a male or two getting a dye job in my salon.
I saw lots of barbershops in my hometown of Findlay, Ohio. I was twelve-years-old the year our town celebrated its sesquicentennial (150 years). Findlay was a great place to grow up and had lots of open space where I was free to roam around on my bicycle with my dog running alongside. The town was short on culture, though, and it wasn’t until the sesquicentennial that I got my first experience with a live musical performance, other than the high school choir. A barbershop quartet sang at the local band shell. Four guys sang in perfect harmony about the girl they love. I was hooked.
This quintessential American music was considered a bit old fashioned even back then. The singers dressed alike in striped shirts and used a lot of hand gestures that were choreographed to accentuate the lyrics. At the end of the songs, they held the last chord in four-part harmony while the crowd held their breath. Finally the chord ended and the audience started to breathe again.
The corny old tunes, like Sweet Adeline,always had a girl at the center of it that the singers were desperately in love with and wanted to walk back home. (In 1945 in Tulsa Oklahoma, a group of women formed their own organization called Sweet Adelines.) Down by the Old Mill Stream was a particular favorite since it was written on the banks of the Blanchard River that ran through Findlay. Written by Tell Taylor, it has been a barbershop standard since 1910.
There is a purity to barbershop quartet singing because they perform with no musical instruments to accompany them. The harmonious, a cappella style, with voices only is very simple concept considering that music today can be created by a computer. A fine barbershop quartet lives and breathes this music and spends many long hours practicing.
I was delighted when I met a woman who was married to a member of a barbeshop quartet (Barbershop Boy meets Sweet Adeline girl) and discovered that the world of barbershop is alive and well in Southern California and throughout the world. I found out that the Barbershop Harmony Society, a mostly volunteer organization, is grooming new talent and that young men are forming barbershop quartets and entering competitions. Soon after I found out where barbershop quartets were performing, I began to attend concerts.
The Masters of Harmony, a men’s chorus in excess of one hundred members in all shapes, sizes and ages, boasts a varied repertoire, ranging from the classics to jazz, patriotic to sacred, with some musical theater pieces adapted for the barbershop chorus style. The numbers are choreographed, with some of the younger guys jumping down from the risers while dancing and singing, moving props around on stage without missing a note. While they maintain their historical roots, many barbershop quartets and choruses use arrangements from pieces ranging from the Beatles to Brahms.
In our electronic age, the innocence and exuberance of a group of men singing about the women they adore in rhyming lyrics is refreshing. Today’s popular music is also about love but has more sexualized lyrics in some songs and downright dirty lyrics in others. Barbershop music describes a time that is lost, but the music is as vital and entertaining as any contemporary musical style.
If you have heard this great American musical art form and want to relive it or perhaps want to introduce it to your children or grandchildren, check online to see if there is a group near you. In Southern California visit https://www.mastersofharmony.org for more information. For the ladies, visit the Sweet Adelines at https://sweetadelines.com.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on August 23, 2012.
The scab that is the abortion debate has been picked off again in a most vile way. The debate about forcing a woman to have a baby that was conceived due to rape always elicits emotionally charged reactions. People who say abortion should not be allowed in those cases because the child has a right to life do not consider the consequences to the rape victim, the woman they want to force to become a mother. She also has rights.
The goal of rape is to degrade and humiliate the victim. The perpetrator uses intimidation, threats and physical violence to prevent the woman from resisting. In this society we consider rape to be a heinous crime and, when tried and convicted, send the perpetrators to prison. However, they bear no responsibility for the child that resulted. It is the woman who is alone and pregnant.
Men don’t rape women so they can create new life. They do it to physically and psychologically hurt them. If a pregnancy results, the entire burden falls on the woman and she alone has to go through a pregnancy she didn’t want and has to deliver a child she never planned to have. It is easy for those who deny her an abortion to say the child has a right to life. It makes them feel good about themselves, and then they walk away.
Suppose the woman is married. Are those who want to deny her an abortion expecting the husband to support his wife through a pregnancy neither of them planned or wanted. Can they imagine supporting their own wives through an ordeal like this? If the couple has children, what do they tell them? A bad man hurt mommy and now you are going to have a brother or a sister. Really?
If the rape victim doesn’t have health insurance, how would those who deny her an abortion suppose she would pay for it? She can go to a county hospital, but I wonder how many of those people would go to a county hospital for treatment.
Even if she has insurance, there are co-pays and deductibles. If complications arise and costs skyrocket, the out-of-pocket expenses would be substantial. Would any of those people who feel she must go through the pregnancy step up and help pay the costs?
The bottom line in this scenario is that the woman is victimized once and is then further victimized by a society that requires her to gestate a fetus whose rights trump hers. She will endure a pregnancy she didn’t want and go through labor to deliver a baby who is the living reminder of the violence and degradation that was forced on her. The physical, emotional and psychological costs to her are tremendously high and she should have the option to end the pregnancy.
The man who did this to her is long gone. The people who deny her abortion have gone on with their lives, claiming their righteousness in the preservation of life, not knowing or caring that the pregnancy they insist she go through could destroy hers.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on June 7, 2009.
He struggled with the shovel and my husband offered to help. He declined, intent on his task, wanting to do it himself. He was giving up so much and this was just one more piece of the life he was about to leave behind.
Finally, the mound of dirt was dug out and my husband dived under the tree and retrieved the desert tortoise our neighbors called “Speedy” for twenty-seven years. A few days earlier, our neighbor told us he was moving. He and his wife were both retired and ready to move, but stayed put until Wilbur’s mother passed away.
Wilbur drove daily to the nursing home to give his mother dinner. Towards the end he had to spoon the food into her mouth. Finally, she stopped eating. For Wilbur, it was another routine that came to an end.
We had moved to our home twelve years earlier, leaving our small, empty nest for a much bigger one in a neighborhood with high block walls enclosing the yard. After gardening for many years on a yard the size of a postage stamp, I now had lots of space for my tomatoes, herbs, flowers and perennials.
I spent many happy hours on the top terrace of our yard where I could observe Wilbur, a fellow gardener, meandering around his yard. My two dogs stood on their hind legs, stretching as high as they could, trying to peer over the big block wall. They yapped their heads off, trying to get his attention because he always appeared with doggie treats in hand.
When I first spotted Speedy in Wilbur’s yard, I missed the tortoises I put up for adoption many years ago. When our children were small we inherited a tortoise and took good care of her for years, registering her with the Fish and Game Department, supplementing her calcium and keeping her burrow dry on wet winter nights.
After I took in a male, nature took its course and the pair started to reproduce. Not wanting to raise hatchlings, I placed my fertile pair in the capable hands of a tortoise lover who wanted to take on that responsibility. I missed the slow but sure example of the desert tortoises. I forgot the lesson they teach us, day-by-day, of the need to slow down.
Wilbur told me he wanted to live closer to his wife’s family so they could help him take care of her. She had been chronically ill and housebound for many years. I could tell he didn’t want to leave his home, but he needed help. I told him I was sorry to see him go and offered to adopt Speedy. A spry old guy, Wilbur jumped for joy.
On that overcast day, while my husband and I watched Wilbur struggle with the shovel to unearth the shelter he built so many years ago, I knew that Speedy was soon to be displaced. Unlike Wilbur, Speedy was unaware of her displacement and didn’t know she would resume her leisurely life in a new back yard.
Two years after Wilbur moved, his wife died. He followed her a couple of years later. A family with two young children moved in next door and occasionally I retrieve a ball that flies over the block wall that separates our yards.
Speedy is still going strong. I built a burrow for her under the orange tree. She appears in the spring and forages around the yard all summer. In addition to reminding me to slow down, I also think of Wilbur when I see her and remember his devotion to his mother and wife.
My husband and I plan to stay in our house indefinitely, but we are smart enough to know that life can through curve balls and I may end up passing Speedy back over the wall to the care of the family next door. If we, and Speedy, are displaced I’ll try to take it with the grace and style Wilbur did so many years ago.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on May 1, 2009.
Parents, untrained and unprepared to raise children, do their best in spite of the incredible odds that are stacked against them. In the darkness of a winter night, or in
the dappled shade of a picnic ground, sperm meets egg and a whole bunch of DNA gets mixed together to produce a brand new human being.
Even the cold, sterile environment that is the average delivery room cannot dampen the rapturous joy that heralds the arrival of a newborn child. The doctor catches the newborn babe, nurses scurry around to weigh and clean and tidy up. New moms and dads shed tears of joy as they gaze at the tiny miracle. It goes downhill from there.
If you look up “mistake” in the dictionary, buried deep in the definition you’ll find “well meaning but inexperienced parents.” We parents make huge mistakes as we try our very best not to. Sometimes we do it right but we don’t know it at the time.
One of the things I got right was Mommy-and-Ben Time. When I came up with the idea my son was just seven years old and had been subjected to upheaval that I had visited on him and another upheaval that life cruelly bestowed upon him. I tried to cushion the blows.
Ben’s father and I divorced when Ben was just four-years-old. I remarried two years later and we moved with my new husband to another state. Ben left behind life as he knew it, along with his best buddy, Matty. The week before we moved, I watched my broken hearted six-year-old son put his feet up against the wall in his bedroom and wail, “I’m going to miss this wall.” It went downhill from there.
Ben started first grade in his new school. As children must do, he adapted to his new environment and found a new best buddy.The cruel part came when Ben’s new best buddy, who had a heart condition, died on the playground after running too hard and too long with his little friends. Ben was bereft.
It broke my heart to see my young son cope with so much loss. I wanted to give him extra time and attention, so I invented Mommy-and-Ben Time. Every Saturday morning we got up and decided where we wanted to go – just the two of us. We went to the magic store, the zoo, hiking, the mall. We always went to a fast food restaurant for lunch, capping off our morning together with curly fries. I didn’t know then that our time together had a deep impact on my young son.
When Ben was twenty-five he married a lovely young woman. It was my daughter-in-law who told me that my invention worked.
“Ben and I are so busy all week, we hardly have time to see each other,” she said. “He
told me about Mommy-and-Ben time, and he invented Ben- and-Claire Friday. At the end of the week, we have our time together, just the two of us.”
All these years later, I was filled with joy at the thought of my young son who was coping with so much disruption and loss, got strength from his time together with me, his mom.
The best insurance against parental failure is time. Mommy-and-Ben timetaught my son that spending time with loved ones is the best antidote to a cold and often cruel world. As he raises his own children, he will also make the inevitable mistakes parents make, but he’ll also give them all the time and love they need.
This piece was published in the Los Angeles Daily News on July 19, 1998.
A fellow baby boomer told me that our generation will be the first to care for our aging parents longer than our parents spent caring for us. It is a frightening thought for most boomers, who are now in middle age. I wonder if we are up to it.
My friend spent several years caring for his father, who suffered from dementia and spent the last several years of his life in a nursing home. His parents divorced when he was young, and his elderly mother lives alone in an apartment near his home. He looks after her.
Responsible parents who bring children into the world expect to care for them for the first eighteen to twenty years. They drive them to lessons, help with homework and provide guidance and love. As each child reaches adolescence, all parties involved begin to accept the idea that the child will soon be an adult and on his way.
These days it is not unusual for a couple to become parents, grandparents and even great grandparents, watching three generations grow up. Advances in medicine keep senior citizens alive for many more years than just a few generations ago.
A child growing up today will be cared for by her parents until she is an adult. After she has raised her own family, she can look forward to taking care of her parents indefinitely. When their responsibilities end, hers begin.
I sat by the bedside of both my parents as they struggled through major surgeries – one for cancer, one for heart trouble. I always thought I would turn and run when my parents got needy. Indeed, three of my four siblings have.
My sister and I are our parents’ caregivers now. Even though we are grateful that our parents have enough money to hire help with medical and custodial care, emotionally the complete role reversal is unsettling and hard to accept.
The people who had all the answers when we were young look to us for answers now. The parents who stood tall when we were children shrink before our eyes. We find them asking for advice, seeking our guidance. We are the ones who consult with doctors about their care.
I hope my fellow boomers will consider the challenge of caring for elderly parents to be an opportunity for growth. After her surgery, my mother was on life support for three agonizing days. During that time I grew in ways I never imagined.
In cardiac intensive care, my mother was on a respirator, with her mouth taped shut. Tubes sprouted from all four of her limbs and a really nasty one went right into her guts. Desperate, I asked her if she’d like me to swear for her. Her lids lifted, our eyes locked, and she nodded, “yes.”
Bent over her bed, I began to swear like a sailor in loud, salty language, under fluorescent light in the tiny hospital room. I voiced her frustration and expressed the indignation she felt but was unable to express.
Five years later my mother is going strong. She tells me often that my swearing pulled her through. I gave vent to my mother’s fear and gave her my confidence and strength, which reinforced her own will to survive.
Parent and child relationships are never easy. For most of history, parents were dominant. After leaving home to start their own families, children often buried their parents before they reached their own middle age. Having parents around for several generations may be a mixed blessing.
Hopefully, parents and children will rise to the occasion and learn to love one another in ways none of us could have imagined mere generation ago. Most of us will someday be that be elderly parent, feeling displaced and in need of love. May we learn as fast the changes demand and provide our parents, late in the day, the patience and love they require.
This piece was published in the Los Angeles Times on August 10, 2009.
My father died peacefully in his sleep at home not quite 10 years ago. Ever since, I tell people how incredible the experience was for my sister, my mother and me.
Dad had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and was given four weeks to live without treatment. After three weeks of radiation, his throat was swollen shut and he couldn't eat. His doctor said a stomach tube would enable him to continue radiation treatments. I looked at my father, who was very clearly dying, and knew that further treatment would condemn him to a tortured death in the hospital.
We told the doctor we wanted to take Dad home. Although the physician didn't initiate the discussion about stopping treatment, he was supportive after we made it.
Dad lived for 29 days after we took him home. The swelling in his throat subsided, he was able to eat normally, and my sister and I had time to help him put his financial affairs in order to provide for our mother after he was gone. One of the last times I saw him, I spooned ice cream into his mouth. Our memories of his last days are ones of solace, not regret.
Not only was Dad spared intense suffering, Medicare was spared more expense when we opted for at-home hospice care.
Our family's end-of-life discussion was excruciating. At first, Dad didn't want to admit he was dying because he was fighting the cancer as hard as he could. He had withstood three grueling weeks of radiation so he could get better, but it wasn't working.
Verbalizing it -- acknowledging out loud that he was dying -- was the hardest thing for our family to do. Dad's physician helped us discuss the hospice option with him. The doctor came to Dad's hospital room and told him, man to man, that guys in his condition were considered terminal. The doctor told him in the way Dad liked to get information: straight up, with little show of emotion.
What families don't know is that once this fact is discussed and accepted, everyone can move on. All the pretense of trying to get better is gone. We helped Dad get his earthly affairs in order. Two of my siblings hadn't spoken to Dad for twelve years. When they found out he was in hospice, they came to see him. They wouldn't have been able to do that if he had continued the radiation and died in the hospital.
A study by scientists at the Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston found that patients who had an end-of-life conversation had an estimated average of $1,876 in healthcare expenses during their final week of life compared with $2,917 for those who did not. Continuing treatment amounts to a 36% increase in costs. Everyone wants to lower healthcare costs, but not by cutting short a loved one's life, of course. This study also showed that patients typically didn't live longer if they received intensive treatment and that palliative care (providing comfort, not treatment) led to more comfortable deaths.
My father's peaceful death came as a result of his family's commitment to see that he was well cared for at home. The hospice professionals were with us every step of the way and helped us cope. Caring for my father, even with the help of professionals, was the most difficult thing I have ever done. My sister and I devoted ourselves to his care for those twenty-nine days, but neither of us has any regrets. We know we did the right thing.
When I told my father I named my goldfish after the custodian at my elementary school, he laughed. I was surprised by his reaction, because I meant to express my admiration for Mr. Butler by naming my fish after him. My eight-year-old sophistication wasn’t developed enough to understand the nuances of racism.
This was published in the Pasadena Star-News on January 21, 2008.
As I watched my black goldfish swim around in its little bowl I felt proud to have named it after Mr. Butler. I had a vague idea of why my dad found it humorous that I named my black fish after an African American. Growing up in a small town in the Midwest in the 1950’s, I was not exposed to much racial prejudice, mainly because I was not exposed to anyone who wasn’t Caucasian. Everyone I knew was white, Christian, middle-class and had a mom and dad living under the same roof.
Most of us can recite the names of our elementary school teachers long after our childhood is over because their names are buried deep in our memories. I can recall the good teachers and the bad, but it is Mr. Butler, a man I later found out who shouldhave been a teacher, that I remember with fondness and respect.
After I was grown, my mother told me that Mr. Butler had a teaching certificate but in the middle of the 1950’s in a small Ohio town, an African American male would not be hired to teach. When people despair of our culture today and wish to return to the good old days of the 1950’s, they must remember that those old days were not good for everyone, especially qualified African Americans who were denied the opportunity to teach.
All the kids liked Mr. Butler. He was friendly and funny and seemed like a regular person to me. As a very young child I was told that I should not breathe the same air as black people. This was explained to me, along with other tidbits of wisdom -- like holding my breath while driving by a graveyard or I would die. When you are a kid, you take these things as facts. When I was about ten-years-old I got on an elevator with an African American elevator operator. I prepared to hold my breath, as I was advised. Instead, I looked into his eyes and saw a regular person, like Mr. Butler. Figuring I had nothing to dread, I took in a deep breath of air and wondered where my friends and family got such crazy ideas.
Many of us grew up in towns like the one I called home, where racism was part of the fabric of every day life, taken for granted and mostly unchallenged. I grew up and moved away and decided to live in a more diverse community. I watched brave African Americans fight for the right to vote, to live in society without fear and to be hired for jobs for which they are qualified. Dr. Martin Luther King admonished us to judge one another by the content of our character and not the color of our skin. The power of his message transcended the racist messages I had got from people I was supposed to believe and trust as I was growing up.
When I see Barack Obama on TV, I sometimes think about Mr. Butler. I wonder if he is still alive and imagine that he is gratified by the changes he has seen in his lifetime. I wonder if he spent his career as a custodian or if he ever found a place to teach. I have to wonder why he stayed in my little town, with its racism so entrenched and seemingly insurmountable.
As we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, we recall his famous “I Have a Dream” speech and the power with which he delivered it. He spoke for all the Mr. Butlers who were judged by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. When I think back to my childhood I remember the strength of Mr. Butler’s character and hope he found a classroom in which to share it.
Kathleen Vallee Stein