A Year After Our Personal Longest Day

One year ago today, Marge had her cancer surgery. That was the day the Caringbridge journal I wrote really got underway. Remembering the day after a year is painful but somehow essential.

There are parts of the story that we love to tell, such as the fact that Marge showed up for surgery with a smiley face (rendered in ovarian cancer teal) on her stomach. She had been told that “a happy surgeon does his best work.” What better way to ensure that happiness than with a great big smile.

The whole idea of the smiley face was so much fun that we didn’t think it through. Almost by accident the smile was rendered with a washable marker. We’ve been told since that if we had used a permanent marker, the smile might have caused the surgery to be postponed! But Fortuna smiled on us.

I also like to tell the part of the story about how at the end of the surgery I knew the news was good by the bounce in the surgeon’s step. From meeting him many times, however, I’ve since realized that that’s just the way he walks—whether the news is good or bad. That day the news was good. Fortuna smiled once again.

Over the past year I’ve referred a lot of people to the Caringbridge site, secure in my belief that the whole story was there. Yet I now find that the worst moment of Marge’s entire time in the hospital wasn’t mentioned there at all! Here, as the insufferable Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story:

For four days after the surgery Marge endured a ventilator tube. I was there with her when the tube was finally removed. She seemed exhausted and ready to sleep, so I went home and wrote, exultantly, “Great news today! The ventilator tube is out!”

What I didn’t know was that at just about the time I was writing those words, Marge was falling into what is called narcotic induced apnea. In plain English, the pain medicine she was receiving (Fentanyl) sedated her so much that she stopped breathing! As a result, she got Naloxone, the anti-overdose drug, to overcome the apnea. This started her breathing again but left her with the God-awful pain.

I wouldn’t have known anything about this until the next day if it hadn’t been for Carolyn, the minister from our church, who showed up at the hospital just as Marge’s situation began to get dicey and then came to the house to tell me what she had seen. I was set to rush back to the hospital, but Carolyn talked me out of it by explaining that Marge was finally resting comfortably and might actually get some sleep if I left her alone.

The truth about the journal is that I got better at writing down the whole story as the long weeks passed. Several people have asked me why I put so much into that journal, and the answer is that the act of writing helped me find the courage and focus I needed every day as a caregiver and advocate.

I wrote in the journal nearly every day, and it forced me to do my best to understand the swirl of events. An additional benefit was that the journal made it possible for friends and family to know what was going on without my having to tell the story over and over.

The biggest surprise for me now is I don’t want to write about the BIG LIFE LESSONS that the journal always seemed to be bumping against. It’s true that I’m working on a book that will be derived from the material in the journal, but the book isn’t and won’t be about BIG LIFE LESSONS.

I find that I’m much more interested in writing about small lessons, such as how we managed to get through 3:00 a.m. night after night. The short answer to that, by the way, is together. The long answer will be the book.

What Marge and I treasure most now is the normal, uneventful life we are leading. Now back at school full-time, Marge didn’t even remember that today was the anniversary of her surgery until I mentioned it to her. I think this is how it should be.

Is it Torture if Americans Do it?

Last fall I nearly got into a shouting match with some conservative friends of mine when I suggested that the Bush Administration’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan involved criminal acts at the highest levels. Specifically, I expressed my concern that the then Vice President had become a war criminal in the service of what he perceived to be leadership and patriotism. In recent months, I haven’t revisited the subject with my friends, but apparently more than a few thoughtful conservatives have begun to worry about some of the same issues.

The October 2009 issue of The Atlantic, for example, has as its cover story an examination of systematic torture in detention centers operated by the CIA and by American military personnel. The article, by Andrew Sullivan, is hard to read both because of its anguished tone (Sullivan was a Bush supporter in 2000) and because of the clarity with which it documents the descent of what were probably good people into the fear, rage and self-delusion that allowed them first to justify torture and then to conduct it with enthusiasm.

Like Sullivan, I find it hard to imagine anything more fundamentally un-American and anti-American than torture. As more becomes known about what went on in the prisons operated in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention the CIA’s so-called “black sites”) it becomes harder and harder to believe that any of it happened by accident. Worse, our national conversation continues to include those who insist that anything Americans do is justified and that the face America should present to the world is one of implacable authoritarianism.

This bombastic and imperious drivel from arch right-winger Cal Thomas, for example, seems to be saying that Obama can’t protect us from “them” because he doesn’t make the rest of the world sufficiently afraid of America. Cal assumes that we know (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) that the only thing “they” understand is fear and that “they” are everyone in the world who isn’t a white American who shares Cal’s religion of condemnation and politics of hatred.

No matter how strident the Cals of the world become, however, the truth of the matter remains: torture by any name is horrible and wrong. Torture never rests on the side of the angels, no matter who does it.

But is that even the worst of it? Well, not from where I sit. To my mind, when America becomes a country that tortures prisoners, we cease to be America.

Reflections on “My Evil”

A couple of weeks ago, I spent part of a Saturday at Portland’s Sidewalk Art Festival. I was there as a member of a team of political volunteers working to get people to “Take the Pledge” to vote No on the upcoming referendum to repeal Maine’s new law that allows same-sex marriage.

The morning began at campaign headquarters, and we volunteers were asked to introduce ourselves and say a little about what had motivated us to volunteer. When my turn came, I said something like this.

I am exactly what I appear to be: an aging, straight, white dude, pretty much conventional in every respect. I’m here because the folks on the other side of this have worked long and hard on me to explain how same-sex marriage hurts me, my state, my country, my religion and even my own 41-year marriage. The angrier and more frantic they become, the more I don’t believe them. So here I am.

We all expected that the Art Festival would draw a largely sympathetic crowd, and for the most part we were right. After and hour or so, however, I was approached by a woman who looked as if she might have a question for me.

When I said hello to her, she stuck her finger in my face and practically shouted, “You will burn in Hell for Your Evil!” She pronounced it ee-ville and drew out the word for emphasis.

Somehow, I had the presence of mind not to react at all for a moment. Then I smiled at her and said in the most pleasant voice I could muster, “We’re going to have to disagree about that. Now, you have a wonderful day.” Then I turned away from her and wouldn’t talk to her anymore. I didn’t appreciate being threatened with Hell for following the dictates of my conscience.

The debate, of course, becomes increasingly shrill. Actually, it mostly stopped being a debate long ago. Well-funded groups that claim to be “conservative” have fought same-sex marriage all over the country. The arguments they raise are mostly emotional rather than logical and echo the campaign, a few decades ago, to preserve laws banning interracial marriage.

Then, as now, those seeking to deny marriage relied on a mostly unspoken “yuck” factor. In the case of interracial marriage, the term used was “miscegenation,” a word that contains the notion of mixing different species! The appeal was to the immoral, irrational, inaccurate and downright stupid idea that people of color are somehow subhuman–a different species from white folks. You wouldn’t allow people to marry dogs and have sex with them, would you? Yuck!

The “yuck” factor in the current conflict is even more blatant. Again and again, our attention is directed to the nature of homosexual acts. This must be to stir up the homophobia that is still rampant in our society. Do you know what homosexuals DO? You want to allow people to  call that MARRIAGE? Yuck!

To my knowledge, however, voyeuristic prissiness has nothing to do with either genuine conservatism or any religion worthy of respect. What consenting adults of any orientation do in the bedroom is nobody else’s business.

In the past, marriage was about preserving and controlling money, property and power. Somewhere along the line, people began to recognize the legitimacy of love as a basis for marriage.

In our time, we are finally asked to consider the implications of marriage for love. On what basis do we decide who has the “right” to fall in love with whom? Should we really let the “yuck” factor make that decision for us? If love really is a good reason to get married, then isn’t the “yuck” factor on the wrong side of history as well as morality and common sense?

But I’m not a religious scholar, so maybe the “yuck” factor people really do have a lock on Heaven. If so, I probably wouldn’t have a good time there, away from all my friends. Mark Twain’s thought about this  comes to mind: “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.”