Sunday, September 18, 2011

Don't You Forget About Me

Recently I had the wonderful experience of spending the long Labor Day weekend with five wonderful women who have known me since I was approximately 13 years old – that’s about 27 years.

Of course there are people I’m friends with on Facebook that I knew in Junior High and high school, although my contact with the majority of them is pay-by-play updates during Packers games, which is great because there was no way on God’s green earth that most of us would have actually spoken to each other during junior high or high school, and the fact that we now comment on the 5/4 defense amazes me: it amazes me that I know what the hell a 5/4 defense is, but I do!

But this group of women that I spent Labor Day with (minus two who couldn’t make the trip and were sorely missed) have known me for so long, I often describe our friendship to others as: They don’t ask me why I am the way that I am. They were there when I was becoming who I am. Which to me, is a statement of unblemished loyalty, and if there’s one thing I am, it is loyal, often to a fault.

In early 2006 I had a “medical nightmare” (complications from a simple gallbladder removal that landed me in a local hospital for six weeks and included a pulmonary embolism, [a blood clot in my right lung], a buildup of fluid around my liver [I have no idea what the fancy-schmancy medical term for that is], a pleural effusion [fluid between my right lung and my chest wall] which required placement of a chest tube for five days.) When my surgeon pulled out the chest tube, his first words were, “Oh no.” Not something that I really wanted to hear. While pulling out the tube, he snapped the tip off and it was lodged somewhere in my back. An emergency CT scan pinpointed its location and I had surgery the next day with one of his colleagues (he had to be in Minneapolis for a conference, you see) to dig around in my back to retrieve it. Pre-op I asked the attending surgeon if he could put the tip in a bag so I could keep it. He flat out told me that that was an odd request. From my gurney in the OR, I flat out told him that it was odd that an experienced surgeon should make such an error. He shut up and I’ve got my chest tube tip in a biohazard bag in my underwear drawer, where most women generally keep anything of value.

Anyway, I’ve still got the card that came with a bouquet of flowers from these friends who have known me before I knew myself. It reads: Thinking of you. Get better soon! Love – followed by five names that I will not list to protect their privacy. The flowers were delivered to my parents’ house because I had to stay someplace that could provide 24/7 care, which left me with two options: my parents or a nursing home. I was 35 years old and could not envision myself at a frickin’ nursing home, so I chose to stay with my parents.

When the flowers arrived, I gently opened the tissue paper and located the card and read it out loud. My mother and I both started to cry. She because those whom she knew as kids still cared enough about her daughter to send flowers when I was gravely ill, and me because that simple gesture assured me that I had a history, that I had deep, strong roots, and that in a world of full of six and ½ million strangers, five people cared enough about me to send flowers and wish that I got well soon. It made me feel as important as the Queen of England, only much more sincerely loved.

So, on Labor Day weekend, we tossed cow chips (or bought tee shirts declaring that we were there to witness the tossing of said cow chips), ate German food we couldn’t pronounce, shared stories on the porch that got us yelled at by the neighbors (hell-raisers to the end, that’s got to be part of our motto!), and spent time eating our way around Capitol Square in Madison and visiting the only known feminist bookstore in the entire state of Wisconsin.

To commemorate this weekend (we were celebrating the fact that we had all turned 40 this year – oy!) some of us made cds with songs that reminded the cd creator of each of the weekend attendees. It seems somehow very personal to reveal the songs each of us chose for each other, so I will not list any song titles here.

After all, some things should remain between friends, shouldn’t they?

Friday, September 16, 2011

What is "happiness" to you?

At work lately I’ve been hearing quite a few people say something similar to, “My life just isn’t how I pictured it would be at this age.” Needless to say, as a counselor, that’s a very “meaty” statement to my ears and can elicit an entire universe of topics for discussion. One topic I’ve been giving a lot of personal thought to these days is how, as individuals, we define happiness at different points in our lifetimes.

Remember the summer when you were six years old? Just close your eyes and think about it for a moment. Remember the smell of freshly cut grass? Remember your dad grilling burgers and brats on Saturday afternoons, a Brewers (or perhaps a Braves) game on the radio in background, in the garage? For me it was full of riding my Big Wheel with neighbor kids, eating an endless amount of Freeze Pops, playing softball in an empty field in our neighborhood where we made “bases” out of cardboard box scraps. And I too remember fondly the smell of the freshly mowed grass and my own dad grilling out, listening to the Brewers. The Big Wheel, the Freeze Pops, the Kool Aid, all of it was happiness for me then. As a young child, those are the physical things and events that shaped my definition of happiness.

Now, remember when you were 14 years old? Ugh! It’s honestly a bit hard to think of things that helped me feel happy then, because early adolescence, heck, all of adolescence, is not usually a very happy time for the adolescent and for his or her parents. But of course there were countless times when I was happy; getting my first phone call from a boy, junior high school dances where all of the boys stood on one side of the gym and all of the girls stood on the opposite side, starting to baby-sit for neighbors and actually making money for the very first time (and this was tax-free income which was even better!) The boys, the dances, the 50 cent an hour baby-sitting money all helped define happiness for me then.

I’m sure by now you can see where I’m going with this: what made us happy earlier in life are likely not the things that contribute to our happiness now, except of course for the memories. As we age, our definition of happiness changes, and most of the time we don’t even know it! It’s not until we take stock and find ourselves saying, “My life just isn’t how I pictured it would be at this age,” that we even consider what experiences play into such a statement. When I was a little girl and “played house” with my younger sister and other girls from our neighborhood, we all declared that we were 25 years old and drove red sports cars. That’s what we pictured 25 to look like as seven and eight year-olds. I specifically remember thinking on my 25th birthday how completely unrealistic it was for me to think that 25 was some magical age, when life would be the way I wanted it to be and that I could afford a red sports car.

I turned 40 earlier this year. As the decades turn, those birthdays generally seem to be good times to “take stock” and assess the situation that is our lives. How did I get here? Do I have any regrets? Is this how I pictured my life at this age? Am I happy?

I can tell you one thing for sure, I don’t regret anything. Have I made mistakes? Of course! But I believe that if I had not done what I did at the time that I did it, I wouldn’t be the person I am today, and I really dig the person I am today. Am I happy? I don’t ride Big Wheels or spend time in crepe paper-filled gyms on Friday nights anymore, but I am happy. My definition of happiness has had to grow up along with its owner: me.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Never Forget

It seems to be a part of the American experience that since we fought the British for independence, each generation of Americans has had one defining political, military, or war-mongering event that truly defines the youth of our nation.
I was 30 years old a decade ago on September 11, 2001. My grandparents were all in their mid- to late-20s on December 7, 1941. Both of my grandfathers fought in WWII; my Grandpa Porath in North Africa, then "D plus 3" landing in Normandy, France 3 days after the D-Day invasion. My Grandpa Krause was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I wonder if, at the time, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was labeled "an act of terrorism"? Having been to Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona, I don't think "terrorism" was used to define that attack because that word was never spoken in the memorial video or listed in any of the books I have on the subject. "Terrorism" is really a late 20th and early 21st century construct. Did we call the 444 days American hostages were held captive in Tehran, terrorism? The first time I can remember events being referred to as "terrorism" or carried out by "terrorists" is either the unfortunately common IRA bombings in London in the mid-1980s or in reference to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the late 1980s to the present day.
Some incredibly talented orators have spoken powerful words over the past 2 days, and I am in no way trying to compete with that level of reflection or tugging of heartstrings. This is simply what I remember from my life 10 years ago today, on September 11, 2001.
I was living in the last place I would live in Milwaukee, my "dream apartment" on 51st Blvd, north of St. Joe's hospital in the large Jewish Orthodox neighborhood, just 2 doors north of Rabbi Tewerski. I was working as the Clinic Coordinator for a Columbia St. Mary's outpatient clinic and was completely overwhelmed with an unsupportive Clinic Manager, departments that were sorely understaffed, and I was working an average of 50+ hours per week just to make sure insurance was being billed and the switchboard phone was getting answered.
At 8:10am my switchboard operator called the office to tell me she was not coming in that day, which I had already figured out since she was supposed to be on the switchboard from 8 to 8:30am and I was the one answering switchboard calls. She said something like, "There's something going on in New York. Airplanes are flying into skyscrapers-" I cut her off right there and said, "I'm too busy to worry about what's going on in New York. Call me later if you're not coming in tomorrow," and I disconnected the call. I remember thinking, I don't care what the hell is going on in New York. I've got to get this clinic open and running.
As the doctors, other staff, and patients came in for the day, patients were telling stories about terrorists flying hijacked planes into the World Trade Center, then into the Pentagon, then that the towers of the WTC were caving in on themselves. The south tower fell at 8:59am CST and by that time, even though we were strictly an outpatient medical clinic, we were affiliated with a hospital that is Wisconsin's premier burn center and there were rumors that Chicago may be hit and injuries could be diverted to Milwaukee. There were also rumors that the nuclear power plant near Sheboygan was a potential target and Milwaukee again would receive diverted injured patients.
At about 9:30am I was called into an impromptu meeting in a conference room with the Clinic Manager, Clinic Medical Director, the triage nursing staff, and on the speaker phone was our Clinic Administrator, the hospital's Medical Director, and the hospital's Emergency Response Director. It goes without saying that there was no "emergency code" for the threat we were now under. The Emergency Response Director developed a plan strung together with paper clips and bubble gum, which was basically, "If something happens that directly effects us, we'll call you with more detailed instructions." Thank God that was a call that never came.
When I walked out of the conference room, for the first time all morning I had a moment's pause to attempt to take in all of the tragic information I was receiving second-hand. I still had not seen any of the video that would begin playing non-stop for the next 48 straight hours. In this brief moment however, I did remember a good friend since childhood and that he worked for a law firm with multiple floors in Tower One, the north tower of the World Trade Center complex. The blood drained from my face and I remember leaning against the hallway wall, looking at my hands which had begun to shake and as much as I mentally tried to get the shaking to stop, I couldn't manage it. My hands would not stop shaking. I walked to my manager's office and told her that a friend of mine worked in the World Trade Center and I had to call him right now. I yelled the words, "I have to call him right now!" without knowing I had done so, until the silence after them was the only sound filling her office.
I had been to New York less than a year before and met my friend in the lobby of the north tower and we took the elevator up to his office, which I think was on the 64th floor. He gave me the "50 cent tour" and after about half an hour, we rode the elevator back to the lobby, said our good-byes, and I spent the next hour or so shopping in the mall that was beneath the plaza between the north and south towers. The subway station I took from the American Museum of Natural History on the upper west side to downtown was also located underground in this area. That was my 5th or 6th trip to Manhattan and I was proud of myself for being able to navigate the complicated subway system, at least enough to get myself around Manhattan to the major museums and tourist sites. Earlier in the day I spent some time at St. Patrick's Cathedral in mid-town. I still have the bookmark I bought there that day, and I still have my friend's business card he gave me that afternoon in November 2000with his WTC address embossed on it.
At work I didn't have my friend's home or cell numbers with me so I called 4-1-1 and got his father's home number. At the time his father was the pastor at a Lutheran church in Appleton and I called the church and his home and left messages on both answering machines. I left both my work and home numbers, hoping I wouldn't have to wait until after work at 4:30pm to hear from him.
At lunch I finally saw the images of the plane hitting the south tower, the collapse of both buildings, and the damage at the Pentagon. Although the images were horrific and I had no factual information about the status of my friend in New York, I felt in my soul that he was safe, that he was not trapped in some oxygen-sucking rubble or staggering through dust and debris that looked more like a moonscape than the lower Manhattan the world knew. I was anxious for confirmation of my gut feeling, but my instincts told me he was ok. I have no idea why I felt this way; I was too old to believe in the invincibility of youth, but knew the struggle of my friend's life that had gotten him to a law office in Manhattan, in the iconic World Trade Center, and something deep inside told me his story was not going to end this way.
I don't remember the rest of that work day, the drive home, or walking into my apartment. I do remember looking at my answering machine, its red light blinking to indicate a waiting message. I pressed play and the voice of my friend's father told me that his son was fine, was safe in his Jersey City apartment, that he hadn't left for work before the north tower was hit at 8:46am eastern time and had been at home all day. He then left me my friend's cell number, with the caveat that phone service was extremely hard to get and that I likely wouldn't get through, but to try anyway. I made several attempts at calling throughout the evening and into the night. I don't remember any of them expect the one that was answered at 8:42pm. He assured me he was ok, and ended the call quickly because phone service was at a premium. After our good-byes I turned off the constant barrage of horror on the TV and went to bed.
I have heard people on TV this weekend say that "it seems like yesterday" that all of these world-changing events took place. That is not the case for me. It has been a long decade of watching other countries like Spain and England move beyond the deep wounds of their own terrorist attacks, hunting first for Saddam Hussein and then Osama bin Laden, trying to reconcile the tragedy of September 11, 2001 with water boarding and the torture and humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It has been a very long decade.