Voices

a path

In the weeks leading up to the end of 2017, my older daughter was busy with college applications. She wanted to “go away” to study, and in an impressive display of maturity and planning ahead, she had done her research, selected the schools in North America that she felt fit her requirements, and set about completing the applications. She had some discussions with her dad about school choices, and she asked the family to read and critique her college essays, but other than that she did everything else on her own….while also doing her sixth form work, and a part time job that she started over the summer, and carried over for a few weeks into the Christmas term. I was and still am very impressed with the way she went about the whole process: focused, breaking down the project into smaller manageable steps, and successfully executing each one.

About an hour before midnight on December 31, 2017, she was all done with the submissions for the US colleges, and I thought we were on target to ringing in 2018 in style by watching the fireworks from my mother’s house. As we walked up to my mother’s house, she seemed a little withdrawn and just a tiny bit morose, but I put it down to the fact that none of the friends she had invited to come over to watch fireworks were able to come because they were all still working on their own college applications. I tried to be understanding, and allow her the space to feel a little disappointed if she wanted to. So you can imagine the force with which my jaw hit the ground when she burst into tears in her grandmother’s embrace, minutes after we stepped into the house…

Between sobs and tears, my bright, responsible, organised articulate daughter shares with me that she feels like a failure, can’t get anything right and does not know how she would manage on her own if she did go away to college and had to be responsible for her own food, laundry, shopping etcetera. This from a child who was using words like “toxic” and “stable” (to mean steady, not an equine residence) correctly before age 3 years, and had read the entire Harry Potter series before she reached sixth grade, and was planning and cooking meals for the family by second form, and was the only one of her family to complete the rope challenge at the Suncoast Park, that ended with a zip line ride. This child who pretty much on her own just completed all the many steps required for college applications in the USA, was now, through a Niagara fall of tears and snot, telling me that she thinks she is a failure.

In between hugs, head stroking, vigorous blowing of noses, and tears of my own, I managed to remind her of all the ways in which she was a success, and that she should not be giving those negative voices in her head so much valuable air time. Thankfully, we were able to ring in 2018 in a reasonably dry and tear free state, but the encounter got me thinking about how much our mental health depends on the voices to which we give air time.

None of us can really control the thoughts that pop in and out of our heads. The ones that end up staying for a long visit are the ones that make up the committee of voices that determine our state of mind, and ultimately our mental health. As with most things in life, the loudest voices are the ones that will get heard. One of the things that can affect the volume of our internal voices is the volume of the daily external voices we hear. If from childhood we hear our caregivers say “you are wanted/precious/beautiful/amazing” that will become one of the louder voices in our heads. If what we hear from the caregivers is “you are a burden/unwanted/pure trouble/worthless” then that voice is the one we hear in the background whenever there are decisions to be made. Therefore any adult who has to interact with a child on a regular basis has the enormous power to help that child create a loud positive internal voice. That voice can speak as simply as that of Aibileene (the maid) saying to Mae (the little child) in The Help “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” Very young children do not have much control over what they hear from the adults around them, so, it really is more a matter of luck whether those external voices are a force for good or evil. We cannot control what we heard as little children growing up.

By about age 2-3 years and onwards, we all begin to appreciate the concept of choice, and free will. We learn the word “no” and we learn to deliberately express a preference for one option over another. The ultimate recognition of the power of that free will is to appreciate that although we cannot control the thoughts that pop in and out , we do have the free will to choose which ones we invite to become part of our internal voices committee, and sometimes, which ones we have entertained for long enough, and now need to drop from that committee. Exercising our freedom to choose allows us to transform the loud “no you cannot” voices into even more powerful “yes you can” voices. Free will and choice allows us to build on or mitigate the voices that got established in our heads from childhood. The other good thing about free will is that it has no expiry date. You can exercise it at any age, from 7 to 17 to 77 years.

By the time we are teenagers, heading into adulthood, one of the most important life skills to have acquired is how to exercise that power over our thoughts, so that we can establish a constructive, encouraging, self affirming and reassuring collection of voices that remind us that trying our best is as important as succeeding, that we are in fact more capable than we dare imagine, and that we are all good enough. The thoughts you give voice to in your head are in fact the ones that will produce your reality…So you need to choose carefully and consciously.

In days gone by, I too had voices that told me I was responsible for sorrows that were really not of my making, nor in my control to prevent. There were voices that constantly questioned my ability or capability to be a good daughter, sister, friend, wife, mother and a doctor. They made me feel like a failure, even in the face of objective evidence to the contrary. When I drop my guard, these voices try to creep back in, and sometimes I do listen because occasionally they provide some insight into how I might improve myself.

But today, these voices only make brief guest appearances at the voices-in-my-head summits, and are no longer allowed to take over the meeting. Those summits are now controlled by the voices that I have consciously chosen to listen to, such as the voice of my mother telling me that giving up is not an option and the voice of my father saying look deeper than the surface so you can see more than just your reflection. I listen to the voice of my grandmother telling me I am special, and my sister’s voice telling me take time to put on my own oxygen mask before helping others. Also loud and clear is the voice of my husband (who has seen me at my worst, and is not genetically required to love me like my family of birth) telling me that I don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of love, and my children’s voices telling me that I am a good mummy even though I get cranky, and say “no” a lot. In addition, I have also given positions on that same committee to the voices of my sistren (from high school days and early work) who remind me daily that “I will survive” and “to live in faith not fear” and that there is nobody else quite like me in this world. There is the voice of my high school biology teacher reminding me to “listen to the dull and ignorant they too have their story ”. Also on the committee is my high school Christian Living teacher’s voice, reminding me to “stand up straight” every time I hear the first notes of our National Anthem, but more importantly, reciting the serenity prayer to guide me in making hard decisions. These are just some of the voices that I have chosen to direct the flow of thoughts that will create the reality I want for myself. It changes everything. What voices will you choose?

 

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Keeping the Ball in the Air

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It was July 2001, and I felt the way one feels at the beach when an immense wave catches you while you are not paying attention and whacks you across the face… unprepared and overwhelmed. The little square of plastic that I had just placed a few drops of pee on a few seconds ago was now displaying a bright pink “plus” sign…and my sister who was with me for this momentous occasion must have seen the stinging salt water up my nose expression on my face because she gave me a reassuring hug. I was pregnant. Wow!

My husband and I very much wanted a second child, but the master plan called for a few more years between the second and the first, not the nine months difference that was now staring back at me in the form of that pink plus sign on the white square. I was just beginning to get comfortable with motherhood. It was not a steady, calm comfortableness, but more a sense of “OK, you got this” repeated frantically in times of doubt ,accompanied by deep breaths, as I reminded myself that I had managed to get my first child to the ripe old age of 9 months without breaking her. How in the world would I manage a second one while I was still trying to get the hang of not breaking the first one? I felt unprepared and totally overwhelmed.

Sometime the universe gives you a sign that you are more capable than you believe yourself to be. I usually only see those signs in hindsight. Perhaps this was the universe’s way of rewarding me for the choices I had made thus far in the raising of my first child. An “ Okay you got that first ball in the air, now let’s see how you handle a second ball” sort of challenge. Whatever was in the fates for me, I had to become appropriately whelmed (as opposed to overwhelmed) pretty quickly, because dropping the second ball would not be an option.

So I called my obstetrician and made an appointment. He did the 6 weeks ultrasound to confirm “cardiac activity” (translation:heart beat) indicating a viable pregnancy. When he showed me the fluttering shadows that indicated a functioning early “heart”, I realised I already loved this baby-in-progress with all my own full grown heart…as much as I loved the fully formed baby I had brought into the world less than a year ago. The journey had begun and there was no turning back.

Throughout the pregnancy, I was convinced this baby was going to be a boy. So much so that my older daughter and I began referring to the belly as “baby brother”. Nevertheless, I hedged my bets and bought baby stuff in green and yellow, and my father was set the task of finding both boy and girl versions of Sanskrit names. During the pregnancy, I said many times that this baby is going to be the one that is for me. My older daughter as first child, grandchild, great grand child and niece for both sides of the family was everybody’s baby. She loved the attention, and had no qualms about being carried around, and sung and talked to by all her doting relatives. This second one, I believed was in contrast going to be mine, not everybody’s baby. With each kick, and antenatal visit, my eagerness to meet this little one grew in pace with my belly.

Finally around 2am on March 25, 2002, I was awakened from an uncomfortable sleep by some strange pains in my back, which turned out to be the start of labour. At 11:58pm on March 25, 2002, my husband and I welcomed our second child into the world. It was a good thing my colour scheme was yellow and green, because “baby brother” was actually a girl…a perfect tiny 6lb long haired baby girl. I was exhausted after more than 12 hours in labour, so it was many hours later, in the solitude of my room in the postnatal ward that I had the opportunity to have a long look at this tiny girl that my husband and I had produced.

As she lay in the bassinet wrapped up in the green hospital blanket, the profile of her tiny face looked hauntingly familiar to me, but I couldn’t figure out why. She did not look like her Dad, the way her older sister did…why did she look so familiar to me? Hours later as I cradled her to breastfeed is when it struck me like a thunderclap. She looked like my father. All my life I heard everyone say I looked like him and I never could see what they were talking about. For the first time in my life, I appreciated how much I looked like my dad. This tiny profile was hauntingly familiar because I was seeing a miniature me in another person.

As the tiny baby grew, the other similarities to me became apparent. The physical resemblance was uncanny, as my mother compared my old black and white baby pictures to the living grandchild in her arms. The personality and behaviour comparisons also began to emerge. I think for my parents, especially my poor long suffering mother, this was karma in action for me to be raising a child so much like myself. My mother could now truly say, “now you understand what I went through with you”.

From an early age this child established herself as someone who did things when it suited her, and not at the convenience of others. As her first birthday approached , we were a little concerned that she showed no interest in walking. Then one day, while she and Big Sister were in the care of their Daddy, (because Mummy was out), Big Sister had a potty emergency and had to be taken to the bathroom by Daddy. Little Sister was left sitting on the living room floor, a few feet away, but out of sight of the bathroom in our little bungalow. This child (who thus far had resolutely ignored all previous bribes and exhortations to even pull up to standing, much less walk) apparently felt she was missing out on the action in the bathroom and decided it was time to move. Family lore has it that Daddy happened to look up from sorting out Big Sister, and there was Little Sister standing all by herself at the bathroom door.

Within weeks, the child that we thought would never walk was hurtling through the house at full speed, and we were begging her to slow down for fear she would fall…which she did many times, and chipped both her front teeth. She went on to start karate as a first grader, and was sight to behold, an embodiment of the phrase “likkle but tallowah”. Five years later, the same child that I had begged to take few steps, was teaching me the katas when I too started doing karate.

Around the age of about 2 or 3 years, she developed a phobia for spots. So the old fashioned speckled tiles at my parents house would put her in a catatonic state as she refused to step on the spots with bare feet. The dining table chairs at my husband’s grandparents , where we had dinner every Sunday, would only be sat on if a napkin was spread to cover the spots. If the napkin slipped during the course of dinner, all hell would break loose. No amount of reasoning on the part of her parents could change this child’s position of zero-tolerance for spots. Ten years later, she does not own a shirt that doesn’t have spot or stain as a testament to one of her many projects. The visible parts of her work desk are covered in ink-spots, lead pencil spots, dried glue or paint spots and the likes…and I am the one trying in vain to establish “no spot” clothes and zones.

Similarly, when it was time to start kindergarten, she emphatically refused to go to school. She would hide in the closet every morning and I would have to physically carry her kicking and screaming to the car. I would have to harden my heart to the tears as I deposited her in the class, and repeat the whole process the day after day for at least the whole first term of kindergarten. Sixteen years later, she is the one carrying my stuff to the car with unconcealed impatience at our apparent lack of interest in punctuality for school. These are the souvenir snapshots of our journey that I carry in my internal memory storage.

Raising children is an endeavour guaranteed to test your patience and resolve. Being a stay-at-home mum to two kids under three is an endeavour likely to drive you to the brink of insanity…repeatedly. When one of those children carries your own potentially self destructive traits, the temptation to jump off the ledge into the comparatively soothing embrace of insanity is ever present…but as I said at the beginning, dropping the ball was not an option.

 

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Reflections on life and death

IMG-20161213-WA0004As a doctor, I have seen death , or the end of life as we know it too many times to count. I realise though that it does not really touch you until you lose someone that has been an integral part of your life for as long as you have been alive…for me it was my father, who died 11 years ago. In trying to deal with the loss of his physical presence in my life, and in trying to explain to my kids what I think happens when someone dies, I came up with the water and steam story.

If I fill a pan with water and boil it dry, the water “disappears”, but it is not really gone. It has just changed to steam which we cannot see with our eyes or touch with our hands, yet you can feel the presence of it if you are close enough. The water has undergone a change of state. I think this is what happens when one dies.

People and living things in general are essentially a bundle of energy, which in our world, as we know it, expresses itself as a mass of protoplasm that we recognise as a body. When one dies, the body ceases to be, but the energy that moved that body continues to exist in some other form. Some religions believe it exists as pure light. Maybe the energy returns to become part of the original source of that energy..which people may call heaven/God/god/the sun etc.

So to me therefore life is about energy which gets expressed in different ways. When we do “good” we increase our energy and that feels good, especially if it is done in a way which does not deprive another of their energy. In fact my definition of a good deed would be one that enhances and encourages the flow of energy. By contrast, bad deeds would deplete this energy to unhealthy levels. A sudden drastic decline in energy to below the levels required to power a body would cause death of the body with transference of that energy back to the original source. When people die of healthy old age, so to speak, I think that represents a gradual flowing back of energy to source.

When a person dies, the body, which in life is the wrapping or container for this energy, is no needed, because the energy has taken a form which no longer needs a container..much like the steam produced when water is boiled. So the body is left behind as the energy can no longer be contained with it. The loved ones of the person who died, then dispose of the body with rituals and ceremonies that I think all ultimately show gratitude for the container which held the energy for a time, and recognise that the energy has moved into another realm of existence unbound by containers.

I think all religions acknowledge that there is more than the body to what makes a life. I believe that life force or energy does not cease to exist because someone dies. It only ceases to exist in a form that is easily perceived by those of us still bound to our bodies. Seen in this way, death for me becomes another stage in a journey, one of the endless series of changes the guarantee of which is the one unchanging thing in our world. So instead of fighting it, for me it feels more useful to be present and live in each moment and know that the energy never dies, but only changes from one form to the next.

 

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Love, sex and HPV

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Last week Sunday a member of the community in which I work succumbed to advanced cervical cancer. She was 34 years old,  and had a teenage daughter. Another of my patients, one of the upstanding elders in the same community,  who had been a rock of support for the young lady who died, was the one who told me the sad news. She then said to me “Doc, I hear that the doctor at the hospital seh is catch she catch the cancer from her partner. Something can go so?”

As it turned out, I had just finished preparing a short document for my daughters’ high school on HPV vaccination, which the Jamaican government has started providing through the high schools for seventh grade girls. So I was well prepared to answer her question, and proceeded to explain how HPV (human papilloma virus) infection can lead to cervical cancer,  how Pap smears can detect the precancerous changes in the cervix, and allow us to treat and cure when the condition is detected early. I also brought up the vaccination program that is now coming on stream, and how it can help to prevent the infection in the first place.

In this day and age with information so easily available, it blows my mind that a woman, younger than I am, can die such a horribly painful death from something that is not only treatable, but these days also preventable. I realised as I did my own research, that it is not the lack of information per se but the lack of information in context. We cannot talk about vaccinating for a sexually transmitted infection, without talking about human sexuality. Yet many of guidelines I found, from reputable sources like the Centre for Disease Control,  advised physicians to recommend the vaccine to parents of 9-11 year olds, as simply one of a bunch of recommended immunizations, and leave it up to the parents to choose when to discuss “sex” with their children. How many of us feel fully comfortable and competent as parents to have such a discussion with our kids? How many of us actively work to acknowledge, and overcome the discomfort, and find a way to talk to our children about human sexuality and all it entails?

So, although I originally prepared the article for use by my daughters high school, in light of the happenings of the past week, I am sharing it here, in the hopes that needless suffering  in the future can be avoided. It is not my usual type of post, but I hope it will at least get us talking in our own communities and families about what we can do to keep each other safe.

Part 1: The Facts

The womb or uterus is part of the female reproductive system. It can be thought of as the cradle in which a fertilised egg grows into a fully formed baby. The lower part of the uterus is called the cervix uteri, or more commonly just the cervix. This small part of the female body acts as a gateway into and out of the uterus, and cannot be seen from the outside without special medical instruments. Even though it is tucked safely away from sight, the cervix is vulnerable to attack by germs that enter the vagina during sexual activity. Some of these infections can lead to life threatening illnesses like cancer of the cervix, which is both preventable and potentially curable. In Jamaica, cervical cancer is the second commonest cause of cancer death. Worldwide it is the fifth commonest cancer overall, and the second commonest cancer in women.

Human papilloma virus (HPV) causes warts and cancers in humans. More than 100 different strains (serotypes) of HPV exist, of which about 15-20 are known to cause cancers (cervical, penile, vulval, anal, oral). More than 70% of cervical cancers are caused by with infection HPV type 16 and 18. More than 90% of non-cancerous warts are caused by HPV types 6 and 11. One effective way of preventing HPV infection is by vaccination.

Currently available vaccines contain viral parts capable of triggering an immune response without causing an infection. Both vaccines are given as injections, usually in the upper arm. The vaccination schedule for girls under 15 years is 2 doses at least 6 months apart. For girls over 15 years, 3 doses are required. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, the series can be completed using any combination of the HPV vaccine brands provided the intervals between injections are adhered to. The types of available vaccines and what they cover are summarised in the table below.

Vaccine type

Year of approval

Who is it for ?

What strains does it protect against?

What diseases does it protect against?

Gardasil

2006

Girls and boys

16, 18, 6 and 11

Cervical cancer and genital warts

Cervarix

2009

girls

16 and 18

Cervical cancer

Gardasil 9

2014

Girls and boys

6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, 55

Genital warts, and cervical ,vulval, anal cancers

The side effects are minimal, the commonest being pain at the injection site. Fainting, which can happen after any medical procedure has been reported in some cases. To prevent injury from this, the injection is given with the patient sitting or lying down, and the patient kept seated for 15 minutes after vaccination.

These vaccines have been part of regular vaccination schedules in the USA ( 2006), in France and Canada (2007), the UK, Bermuda and Panama (2008), St Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago (2013), Barbados (2015),. In Jamaica, Cervarix is the vaccine that is currently being offered to seventh grade girls as part of the national HPV vaccination campaign, but all three vaccines are available through the private sector. They prevent infection only if given before exposure to and infection with the types of HPV that the vaccines are active against. So vaccination needs to occur before sexual activity begins, hence the age recommendations. The most powerful protection is provided when given before age 15. The bottom line is that properly administered vaccination against HPV will prevent the infections that cause more than 70% of cervical cancer.

Part 2 : The Big Picture

Although HPV infection is needed to cause cervical cancer, the presence of HPV alone is not sufficient to cause cancer. Early initiation of sexual activity, multiple partners, co-existing HIV and tobacco smoking are all well established factors that help and HPV infection to progress to cancer. So, any discussion of HPV and cervical cancer which does not look at how we can mitigate these other factors is woefully inadequate. Yet most sources of information about HPV vaccination do not address these other factors. In fact some physician guidelines go so far as suggest not bringing up the role that sexual activity plays in acquiring HPV infection, in discussions with parents about this vaccine. Perhaps one reason for this avoidance is that the vaccine is recommended to prevent what is essentially a sexually transmitted disease, but to be effective it has to be given to children who presumably would not be engaging in sexual activity.

Yet sexuality is an essential part of the human condition and is present from birth if not before. Sexuality encompasses much more than just the physical aspects of sexual activity, Many adults responsible for the care and nurture of children are uncomfortable discussing even the basic biological facts of sexual intercourse much less the wider topic of sexuality. So it is very unlikely, if left entirely up to parents and guardians, that children will receive the kind of guidance that can completely prevent infection with all types of HPV, as well as all the other maladies that result from inappropriate and maladaptive expressions of the gift of sexuality. Failure to provide children with ongoing, relevant, age appropriate guidance on human sexuality is, in my opinion, unforgivable, and avoidable. We cannot all be good at everything in life, but we all should be able to ask for, provide and accept help in areas of weakness, especially when it comes to the raising of children. If we cannot bring ourselves to personally do this type of education, then it is imperative that we find people who can deliver all the information in a sensible and sensitive way.

Human sexuality is a gift that provides us with drive and energy to pursue deep, meaningful connections with ourselves as well as others. To derive everything possible from this gift, it has to be experienced in mind body and spirit. Human sexuality is not an evil curse to be suppressed, denied or enjoyed only in guilt. Neither is it simply the superficial entertainment of mere physical acts and pleasures. Our children are bombarded with imagery and messages on both these extremes of human sexuality. As parents, teachers and caregivers of children we need to advocate for thoughtful, holistic, meaningful education on human sexuality that not only covers practical physical aspects, but also its physiological, emotional, spiritual and ethical aspects. Those of us who feel able and comfortable to discuss these things with our children should step forward. Those of us who are uncomfortable should not stand in the way of those who can provide the guidance. All of us can advocate for change in how we approach this important yet sorely neglected aspect of educating children. HPV vaccination is a good start in preventing cervical cancer, but it is only one piece of a much bigger picture.

 

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Lost and Found (part 2)

 

Sometime in the first hempty benchalf of this year, we got an unusual phone call at home. It was about 5pm, and I had just come home from work, changed and was settling down to my customary evening cup of tea. The phone rang and my husband answered, It turned out to be Bryte, my mother’s mason/plumber/tiler. He was calling to tell us that Walker, my mother’s gardener was at the gate of her house, calling and ringing the bell and getting no answer. Bryte was concerned because according to him, Walker could see my mother’s car parked in the garage indicating that she must be home. My husband conveyed this information to me as he hung up the phone, and I immediately tried all the phone numbers I had for my mother, and confirmed for myself that she was indeed not answering any of her phones. My mother house was 6 minutes drive from where I lived. I gulped down the last few sips of my tea, and grabbed my car keys to go down the hill to see what was going on.

The 6 minute drive seemed like an eternity, as I berated myself for not calling my mother that morning. I tried to quell the scary images of what I might find when I got to her house, by concentrating hard on the driving. Finally I turned into her driveway, and Walker was standing by the 10 foot high metal gates that guarded the entrance to her property. The gates were closed, and I quickly pressed the button on my gate opener. As the gates slowly swung open, my heart was pounding and my head felt a little light. I could see my mother’s car parked in the carport by the front door.

I parked my car and jumped out, fumbling with my set of keys to her house. In my panic, it took me several tries to find the right keys for the 2 locks on her front door. As I turned the second key, my heart fell to my feet because the door was locked from inside. My mother only locks the door from inside when she is going to bed, so I made the leap in my head that the door must not have been unlocked since the previous night, and now it was almost 6pm. Images of my mother lying lifeless in her bed or on the bathroom floor swam up in my head, as I again mentally flogged myself for not having called earlier in the day. My hands trembled as I pulled the key out of the door…now what?

Walker’s face reflected a little of the worry in my own head. He confirmed that he had not seen her since that morning…at least I think that is what he said. I cannot be sure because my mind was travelling into some very dark corners. To my right were the windows to one of the bedrooms, and I walked over in fear and trepidation. As I got closer I realised to my relief that the windows were open, and I could see the door leading from the bedroom was also open. The relief was short-lived, as I realised on peering through the window that there was a light on in the house. It was still light outside, so in my state of panicked dark corner existence, I assumed the light must have been on from the previous night, and that meant something really bad had happened. It took every ounce of control I had at that point not to pass out, but to call to my mother through the window…

After two hollers, and rapidly rising panic, she answered, and emerged from her bedroom, to where I could see her from the window, clad in a towel and drying her hair. Turns out she had decided to take a swim in her pool, which is in the backyard. So for security purposes, she had locked the door from inside, and because she was in the pool, she had not heard any of the phones ringing. When I was trying the door, she had been in the shower. She was okay. My cup overflowed with relief, and strength slowly returned to my wobbly knees. While I waited for her to get dressed and open the door for me, I offered up a silent prayer of gratitude that she was okay.

My five foot tall mother who epitomises for me the Jamaican phrase “likkle but tallowah” has been the force of nature that has shaped the person I am today. She drives me crazy on a regular basis, but I appreciated after that incident how much I would prefer to have her alive and driving me crazy, than just have the memories of her driving me crazy. Our relationship has not been easy, but we have managed I think to work our way through a transfer of power from her as the adult and me the child, to her as the adult still thinking of me the adult as a child, to us both respecting each other as adults who sometimes have different approaches to life. It was not an easy road, but we both worked hard to walk it one step at a time to get to where we are today.

I realised something else from the way I felt in that dreadful moment when I thought I had lost her: somewhere along the way I had managed to acquire the notion that coping with the inevitable loss of my mother one day would be easier because I had coped with the loss of my father 11 years ago. It now dawned on me (or perhaps rudely slapped me in the face would be a better description) that in fact, losing my father has made my mother even more precious as the only remaining anchor from the time when I came into existence. I am going to be devastated when she departs this world, and the only way I am going to survive that loss is by making sure that I show her while she is still here, how much I love and appreciate all of her presence (the good and the bad bits of our relationship) in my life, and letting her know in no uncertain terms that I would not have wanted anyone else as my mother. So as I mark the 11th anniversary of the loss of my father, I also celebrate having found my mother, safe and sound, and still with me.

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Lost and Found (Part 1)

Since 2006, for merainbows, September has been a period of reflecting on beginnings and ends…the summer ends, and the new school year starts. The birth of my older daughter and the death of my father are separated by 5 days. We celebrated her 6th birthday 5 days before he died. As part of my “getting through September” this year, I went to my journal for solace, and in re-reading past entries, was reminded of a life changing event that happened in August 2011. I think that event was a first wake-up call, and helped to lay the foundation for the sense of peace and gratitude that made this September different from the previous ones. The story of that event and what I gained from it felt like a good way to mark the 11 year anniversary of an even bigger event in my life…the loss of a parent. So here goes…

Six years ago, on a quiet Friday morning at my Shortwood family practice, minutes after I entered the building, two men walked through our open front door. Unbeknown to us they passed the lone patient sitting in the waiting room, entered my office and stole to my handbag which was sitting on my desk. Next, they went to the treatment room, where my nurse’s handbag was secured in the back of a cupboard with a closed door, and took that too. All of this occurred in less than 10 minutes while I was talking to my staff in our lunch/sitting room about the schedule for the rest of the day. None of us saw the men, and we did not even realise we had been robbed until I returned to my office to get my cell phone from my bag. My staff and I were in shock, at the audacity of the robbery, as well as the fact that it must have been someone who knew where my nurse “secured” her handbag. We could only conclude it must have been a patient or someone who posed as a patient or relative of a patient and spent time watching how we work in order to execute the theft so efficiently. We only knew it was two men because the lone patient sitting in the waiting room said he saw the men come in right behind me. He claimed that he thought that they were people I knew. Needless to say, all plans for the rest of that day flew out the window, as we struggled to deal with not only anger and grief at the loss and betrayal of trust, but also the practical details of making a police report, and cancelling bank cards and cell phone services.

When I discovered that my bag was gone, I said to more than one person that my life was in that bag. As I thought about it later, I realised that saying such a thing was an insult to my life and to who I am. My life was so not in that bag…and the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I did not lose my life. It was just a handbag. Okay, it was a handbag that had memories of a 2006 trip to New Orleans to visit my best friend, attached to its purchase. It contained a wallet that had attached memories of a 1996 trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts to visit the man I would later marry. In the wallet were the plastic bits that one needs to drive a car and buy stuff. Also in the handbag were two cell phones with contacts, and a treasured letter from my sister about the ways in which humans sometimes behave like puffer fish when they feel threatened. The memories that made these items unique were still intact in my head, and all the physical stuff was replaceable. None of these things remotely represented anything like my life.

My life was my precious children, my mother, my husband, and my sister who were still alive and around for me to talk to. My life was my sistren who gathered around later on the evening after the theft to drink tea and grieve over losses bigger than handbags. My life was my patients and the people I came into contact with regularly at work. Their unanimous shock at the theft, and their support in the aftermath validated my presence in both the physical community around Shortwood Medical Centre, as well as the community of the practice itself which included people from a much wider area. My life has always been and always will be about people, not “stuff”

I can choose to continue to mourn for the things that are gone or to celebrate daily the things that can never be stolen. Love, trust, acceptance and support in times of need from the people who are my life cannot fit in a bag and can never be taken from me. I found the strength to overcome grief for what I lost when I chose to be consciously grateful for all that I still had. Sometimes having distractions wrenched from our possession is the best way to direct our attentions to what is truly important in life. Sometimes we have to lose something to spur us to seek… And what we find when we seek  can be more valuable than what we lost in the first place.

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The traffic light boys

Some time ago, on my way back from work, a traffic light boy came to my car begging for a “food money”. Most of the boys at this traffic light know me because I usually give them snacks. This boy was one of them. I did not have any snacks that day, and I told him so. He pleaded with me, telling me that he was “well hungry” as he had not eaten in 2 days. I told him that I too was hungry because I had not eaten that day. The boy’s eyes flashed with anger, but he responded quietly with these words: “Miss, mi grateful when yu gi mi the food but all like yu if yu hungry is because yu choose nuh fi eat. Mi no have no choice because mi have nutten fi eat. So nuh tell mi bout yu hungry too because is not di same ting.”

I was overcome by shame at the truth he so eloquently pointed out, and apologised immediately. He accepted my apology, wished me a “drive safe” and moved on. As the traffic light changed, so had my opinion of this youth. I drove away reflecting on the many lessons to be learned from this encounter.

One lesson was not to judge based on appearances. This merino-clad boy’s scarred face, and older-than-his-years eyes clearly indicated a life of hardship. He probably had not finished school. The only escape he had from the harsh reality of his life was likely at the end of a spliff. Yet he was able to formulate an articulate, sensible response to my extremely insensitive comparison of my hunger from choice to his hunger from lack of food.

Another lesson was realizing the power of our choices to effect change in others. In the past, I had chosen to keep my car window down, look these boys in the eyes, and reason with them, even when I had no food or money to give. Perhaps this choice to respect his humanity helped this youth to demonstrate that very humanity by responding to my thoughtless comment with intelligent words, and respect, instead of profanity and violence. Imagine a world where this is the norm rather than the amazing exception.

We may not be able to feed every hungry belly we encounter, but we can feed every spirit by choosing to show respect and kindness to every human being that we interact with. All we need is the courage to change the things we can.

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