Grace in a Time of Covid

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[I tried to express this so that you can identify as “I,” whichever side of the division you might take. Trying to see both sides in this manner helped me.]

I know we’re all upset. I don’t know how to show grace.

I’m angry with the choices you’re making. I think you’re wrong.

How do I show you grace?

I don’t like your reasoning. It makes no sense to me. It’s so easy to ridicule and mock you.

How do I show you grace?

I suspect the motives behind your conclusions. You decide what we should do based on what you want to see, not on what facts tell us.

How do I show you grace?

I hate how you’re behaving in this. I hate how you’re expressing your disagreement. I hate how you’re treating us.

How do I show you grace?

I wish there didn’t have to be “YOU” and “US.” I’d hoped we would all pull together and come through this more united, recognizing the same concerns, working together to solve our common problems. Instead we seem more divided and I’m horribly frustrated with that, and with you.

How do I show you grace?

I know whom I follow. I know one who showed grace when hated, rejected, mocked, scorned, and scourged by “them.” One who taught grace, offered grace, lived grace. Jesus didn’t hate them. He didn’t attack or belittle them. He refused to accept “us” and “them.” He offered kindness, wisdom, and unconditional love to everyone. When they murdered him, when they knew his death proved they were right–all along, about everything–he gave himself to atone, forgive, and show grace to all. He gave himself to break down “us” and ‘them.”

Did the result show how true their condemnations, how justified their mocking, how deserved their beating?

They were wrong.

Even then, he offered grace.

Even now, when I feel these things toward you–and act so unlike him–he offers me grace.

How do I show you grace?

Shelter at Home, Grief, and Culture Shock

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I started a different post and realized it was going to be too intense, so I’m writing this light and frothy one, instead. Just kidding. It’s intense, too. It’s just not intense and controversial, like the other one will be.

Two emotional states I’ve experienced in the past are severe grief and culture shock. Many of you have experienced one, some both, and some neither. Truthfully, I’ve hoped never to go through either one ever again.

I feel aspects of each right now.

As always, I offer this to relate, validate, and empathize. If it’s not you, it may be someone you love.

Not everyone experiences these states the same way, so I offer them as my experience, not the “normal” or even “average” way one goes through grief or culture shock.

In severe grief, your world stops. Everyone else’s goes on, which adds to the out-of-body, dissonant sensation. A reason for living is gone and other people didn’t blink. You are suddenly staring down a a chasm between you and those not grieving.

Grief is loss, and the brain takes time to comprehend, accept, and incorporate loss. That leaves you shocked all over again, every time the loss slips your mind and then comes back…like a brick upside the head. You don’t forget so much as your brain keeps trying to register the world the way it should be. With your loved one still here, for example. That’s the world you’ve known. It’s hard enough losing that world–the world with my little boy in it–but having to keep losing it, over and over, just seems unfair and cruel.

Grief is disorienting. You have to figure out how to live in a world that is wrong, that should not be this way. Even the most mundane things stop making sense and become wearisome, burdensome. “Who cares if do this? He’s gone.”

People, especially those who have been mercifully spared from being dropped to the bottom of this pit, will struggle to understand how wrong he world is now. They know you’re sad. They’re sad, too, sad for you and sad for the loss. But being sad and having your world ripped from you aren’t the same thing. They think you’re both going through the same thing, different only by degrees, and since they’re not behaving irrationally like you are, you really just need to sort that out.

Again, this only intensifies the isolation: People don’t get it. You’re alone in this wrong world. You’re in the Upside Down. They’re not.

I will tell you honestly, though the grief I’m recalling happened over twenty years ago, just letting my head get in that space to describe it puts me right back there again. In that sense, it never “goes away.” The loss of a child is like an amputation; you never regrow your arm, you learn to cope without it.

So here we are, in this Strange World of 2020. We’re all grieving the loss of our accustomed world. But we’re grieving it differently and we’ve lost different things. Some of us are grieving the deaths of people we love. Some are grieving loss of livelihood, vocation, financial security, graduation. So many different things. We’re stuck. Then, as an added bonus, we have the range of responses to what is happening, and I don’t want to wade into this right now, but Man, that is disorienting!

You look out the window at a spring day and the flowers are blooming, but inside you the world isn’t right. How can you even put words to that? But it takes a toll. You have to keep going, so you do, but… But. It’s incomplete. Something is missing. And the loss keeps coming back, even after you think you’ve adapted to this new (not right) “normal.”

When Isaac died, the grief was so disabling for me that I walked in the dark for six months and God disappeared (subjectively, not theologically) for three years. The most loving people didn’t try to fix it for me, or explain how I should be sorting it out. The most loving people–most of whom had also been there–simply stuck by me while I writhed and thrashed and kept praying that I would come through.

And I did. But it was hell, and I would not wish it on my worst, most wicked enemies.

Eighty thousand people in the US have died, so all those families are suffering this loss. None of my children or other family have died during this pandemic, but even so I’m experiencing certain emotions that compare more closely with that period than anything else in my life–and I would say I’m seeing others appear to experience that body-slam-after-a-horrible-fall shock and disorientation.


Culture shock works differently. You also don’t feel like yourself, but it makes less sense. No one asks, “Why don’t you feel like yourself?” after your child dies (unless they’re–never mind. Don’t get me started.) Often in culture shock, you’re functioning at a very low level but don’t fully realize or acknowledge it. I went through a long, nasty stretch of culture shock when we moved to Nicaragua. I knew there was something wrong with me, but damned if I could put a finger on it, make sense of it, or shake it off. You know you have culture shock but knowing doesn’t solve it or even clearly define it. My friend who moved there with us described it as “I’m stuck and I can’t seem to get any traction.”

This part feels very familiar as I hear people describe their current emotional state.

In culture shock, your brain is trying to adapt because the world you knew really is gone and you have to learn to navigate this new, strange one in which nothing works right (i.e. the way you’re accustomed to having things work). People suffering culture shock feel exhausted, irritated, confused, and short-tempered. Sound familiar at all? They feel like they should be getting more done. Instead, they find themselves pulling inward and seeking familiar comforts (which are suddenly in short supply).

One common strand between enduring grief and coming through culture shock is choosing to move forward and live in the world that is, not the world that should be. The person adapting to a new culture must choose to embrace difference, see the positives, and let go of the frustration that comes with experiencing this discord.

In a weird way, we’re all suffering a version of culture shock right now and, I would say, it’s a particularly unsettling one because everything mostly looks and sounds the same! I’m not suffering the headaches I had for my first year in Nicaragua, due to a combination of squinting, brains-splittting “I don’t get this” and good old dehydration. People are still speaking a language most of us understand. The driving is the same, though maybe less of it right now. The physical spaces and the faces are still the same, though maybe more confined and perhaps on screens instead of live.

BUT.

But. It’s not “the way it’s supposed to be,” certainly not the way it was from February on back.* I would posit we’re all suffering a bit of (confusing, disguised) culture shock and many of us who have never experienced this before are feeling really angry with…someone. Someone whose fault this is. Someone who caused this. Okay, some of us who have experienced culture shock are angry, too, but I’m hoping we have at least an inkling that our anger is caused by something more than just “them.”**

Common symptoms of culture shock: depression, weight gain, interpersonal conflict, and discouragement. Falling back into or even developing new addictions. Frustration that flares into rage.

Good times, right? Does any of this ring a bell right now?

I have different advice for coming through grief and culture shock, but the overall message boils down to: survive.

Do what you need to do to get through this while causing yourself and those around you as little damage as possible.

In my first year in Nicaragua, my supervisor told me, “A good day is one in which you get up, don’t hurt your children, and don’t leave.” I loved him for that. It alleviated much of my feelings of failure, which I desperately needed in order to keep on breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. I would not have spent seven years in Nicaragua if I could not have gotten through the first year and I could only get through the first year by accepting that the culture shock phase sucked and that was life and I just had to survive.

This sucks and it’s life and you just have to survive.

If you do better than that, awesome! I mean, really awesome! If you can smell the flowers or plant flowers, teach children or paint (a wall, a painting, your fingernails), write or read or keep going to work that has gotten so much harder (or stranger), freaking hooray for you! I’m serious. The bar is very low right now. I see us coming apart at the seams, turning on one another, growing hostile, looking for someone to blame. This phase, for many of us, sucks.

A good day is one in which you wake up, don’t hurt yourself or those you live with, and don’t give up.

You may not be experiencing the pandemic this way. You may be thriving and have no idea what I’m talking about. More power to you and I think you should look around and see whom you can help.

I am doing okay. As I said, I can see elements of both heavy grief and culture shock in myself and, perhaps, even more in others. I say “perhaps” because I’m interpreting what I see and of course I could be wrong. A friend suggested that some people’s apparently irrational behavior during shelter in place is in fact trauma response. That made sense of it for me. I’d started thinking along these lines already and his statement brought the dots together to make a picture.

I offer this to you. If it rings true, I encourage you to consider this lens not only for your own responses but for others’, as well. None of this is meant to excuse terrible, self-destructive choices, but if the heaviest thing you’re carrying right now is negative self-judgment, I urge you to set that down. Yes, easier said than done, but let yourself try. As I said in my satirical “I Did Better Last Pandemic,” attacking yourself for feeling awful isn’t going to make you feel less awful, but it can make things worse.

Some people can give themselves grace and others of us need to be convinced. God offers us grace all the time. We may not be so generous to ourselves. But you know what? People in grief, folks in culture shock, they deserve a break.

Including if that’s you.

*Whether or not that was “the way it’s supposed to be” is a different and much longer conversation.

**Misdirected anger caused by culture shock is one of the big reasons missionaries don’t get along and not getting along with other missionaries is the number one reason missionaries “fail” on the mission field. I’m not even certain anymore if “fail” is the right term for it, but I’ll tell you it sure doesn’t feel like succeeding.

“Help Them as a Priest!”

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When I make a Top Ten list of movies, most often I put The Mission near the top. It’s not a movie I could enjoy watching all the time, as I could another contender for number one, The Princess Bride.

But though I’ve seen The Princess Bride ten times more often than The Mission (maybe twenty), certain lines from The Mission stick with me as strong or stronger than Princess Bride quotes. That’s saying a lot, considering I can lip-synch the entire script of PB along with Inigo, Fezzik, and Westley.

I’ve also come to realize that though The Mission excoriates seventeenth century colonialism and the slave trade, its perspective is now dated. I love it for its music and imagery and powerful depiction of redemption and grace. You should probably stop reading this and go watch it for yourself before continuing.* But in case you don’t, I’ll provide context for my quotes. Spoiler alert for those of you who have been meaning to get around to watching it…since 1986.

Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert DeNiro) is a horrible, brutal man who, among other things, hunted and sold people as slaves and murdered his own brother. Then, through a process of penance and redemption that is at the heart of the movie, Mendoza leaves behind his life of violence and becomes a priest. Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) is the Jesuit priest who establishes a mission in northeastern Argentina and eastern Paraguay and who helps lead Mendoza to a point at which Mendoza can accept forgiveness.

However, the macro conflict of the movie–and it’s at least rooted in historical events (The Treaty of Madrid, 1750, and Guarani War 1754-56)–comes between the Portuguese government that wants to profit from slave-trading, the powerful leadership in the Catholic church, and these Jesuit priests who have established this mission. Thus, we have this climactic scene near the end of the movie.

Mendoza: I want to renounce my vows of obedience.

 Gabriel: Get out. 

Mendoza: I want to explain… 

Gabriel: Get out, Rodrigo. I won’t listen to you. 

[pause]

 Gabriel: Just you? 

Mendoza: No, it’s Ralph and John too. 

Gabriel: What do you want captain, an honorable death? 

Mendoza: They want to live, Father. They say that God has left them, He’s deserted them. Has He? 

Gabriel: You shouldn’t have become a priest.

Mendoza: But I am a priest, and they need me. 

Gabriel: Then help them as a priest! If you die with blood on your hands, Rodrigo, you betray everything we’ve done. You promised your life to God. And God is love!

Some might take this to mean followers of God should not get involved in politics. But Gabriel himself does get “involved” in politics. He confronts the evil and corruption he sees by speaking truth to power. He puts himself between the oppressor and the oppressed.

Gabriel rebukes Mendoza for turning back from his commitment to love–from following and obeying Jesus–and returning to violence-as-solution.

Great art should help us to see ourselves.

So should friends.


Two days ago, my friend Jeremy challenged me whether I spend as much time praying for Trump as I do criticizing him and his administration. Yet my friend made it clear that he wasn’t rebuking me for my criticisms–in fact he said, “I agree with you about all of it.”

I found that fascinating and challenging.

When people tell me I should “pray for Trump more,” usually loud but implied is “You should shut up and pray for Trump more.” It’s more a shaming rebuke than a real exhortation to prayer. But his was a genuine question.

As a result, I prayed more for Trump yesterday than any other day I can remember since this whole [insert your word here] began.

I’ve been very vocal that we should shelter in place, listen to and support our doctors and nurses, and protect others’ lives by helping flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases. We’ve all seen this go from uncertainty to concern to conflict to hostility. Today, conspiracy theories are circulating that the shelter in place and face masks response is an organized effort to increase government control and/or strip our liberties. I have good friends asking me what is true and what is distortion, clearly because I play a doctor on TV. (I don’t really.)

“Help them as a priest!”


Okay, I’m a pastor, not a priest, and I don’t currently hold an official position or title as “pastor.” I still know what I am and who I am. People ask me because I’m their friend and their pastor. Jeremy was right; I need to pray for Trump more. In this crisis, I need to call us to the way of love, not the way of violence. I’m not saying we should stop speaking up about the situation–political or pandemic–because we must speak up; I’m saying we can’t answer hatred for hatred, attack for attack. I can’t. I’m tempted to. It’s easy to dismiss, ridicule, and, when people attack me personally, fire back.

At the conclusion of the above scene, Gabriel states: “If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that, Rodrigo.”

I think about this often, too. It reminds me of Paul’s quote: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (I Corinthians 19:13) I believe in Love, not the fuzzy, feel-good, greeting card sentiment that means little (other than for marketing) in the “real world” of dollars and politics and power but the water-in-the-desert, stronger-than-death, worth dying for and worth living for Love of God because God is Love (I John 4:8). God loves us and therefore we have the power and the calling to love one another. I know billionaires are getting richer from this pandemic. If people who love money more than other people have this world right and making the most matters most, if might is right, then I have believed the wrong stuff and I deserve pity because I’ve squandered my chips in the only real game.

But I don’t believe that. If love has no place in the world, then I don’t think it’s a world worth living in, anyway. I don’t believe we were supposed to teach our children that dog eats dog, kindness is weakness, and they need to get ready to fight to the death, to add to the ugliness all-too-present in our world. I hope you don’t believe that, either.


I’m not urging people to stay home and protect themselves and–more importantlyour more vulnerable neighbors from COVID-19 because I’m trying to “bring down the President.” I’m praying for Donald Trump today. His actions and words are bringing him down, not me. I am staying home and doing what I can to keep the virus from spreading, to follow Jesus and love my neighbor. I know we’re all in crisis here and I am offering what help I can, using the means Jesus taught and modeled.

Jeremy caused me to ask myself, sincerely, have I let myself slip into fighting hate with hate? Have I, like Mendoza, renounced my commitment to Jesus’ way of love? The most insidious version of this, of course, is when we take up violence but tell ourselves we’re not, or we convince ourselves that we’re justified and this is still the way of love.

I spent a long time yesterday evening talking with my friend Debbie, who is an ICU nurse. She described how precarious our local situation had been, how close the hospital came to being swamped and overwhelmed by our local COVID-19 cases. I had no idea. They had to pull personnel from other departments to join in ICU and separate the Intensive Care Unit into two parts, one for COVID-19, the other for everything else. She told me how much money the hospital is losing because so many other departments have been shut down. She also explained how a member of her family is suffering because of the shut down of his small business. All of these things are true.

A close friend is flying today, on the one flight still available, hoping and praying to reach his father’s side before his father dies. My friend oversees pharmacies in nine hospitals (he’s with the pharmacists, not Big Pharma, to be clear) and has kept me updated from his perspective on how we are faring with the onslaught of COVID-19 cases. At one point he worked forty-two days straight or some such ridiculous number. He told me the news of his father last night. He knows the risks of contagion better than most. He would not be traveling if it were not literally his last chance to see his father alive. All of these things are true.


“Then help them as a priest!”

Now I’m talking to you, not just me. Jesus followers are the priesthood of believers. We incarnate God’s spirit–God’s spirit of Love–and offer it, offer ourselves, to this weary, beaten, brutal world. That’s what we do. That is our calling as Jesus’ image, those who live and bring God’s Kingdom here and now.

Help them as a Jesus follower. Help them as the priests we are.

If you’re struggling–of course you’re struggling, not “if”–then let that struggle be part of what you offer, your own empathy, our shared sorrow and grief, and even your anxiety. You don’t have to be “strong” or pull it together to help others as a Jesus-follower-priest. Jesus gave himself in weakness. So do we. It’s one of the things we are most tempted to dodge in this calling.


People are angry. Dear friends have let me know I have no idea what I’m talking about and a few have implied, if not stated, that I’m a dupe for a threat that either is not real or else is horribly, manipulatively overblown. “Help them as a priest.” I’m not screaming back. I’m not attacking. I’m not even defending (in case you need evidence of God’s existence, this happens to be a miracle). I’m praying. I’m breathing. I’m trying to understand what they’re feeling that they respond this way. I may be wrong. Clearly I, too, have limited understanding and limited information.

I have tried, throughout this crisis, to urge everyone to take the threat seriously and to protect one another. None of my friends in the medical profession (and I realize, when I stop to count, I have a surprising number of those) have expressed in the slightest that our response to this pandemic is disproportionate. I have had several express that we’re not taking it seriously enough. When I read the epidemiologists’ reports and models for the second wave, the threat is far from over.

I hate how much everyone is suffering and that we have a situation in which all of our possible choices will cause suffering. I am still convinced that the better we exercise precautions now, the sooner we will come out of it. I’ve communicated a lot of information about the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, to urge others to take this pandemic seriously enough. I realize (with some friends’ help) that too much information can also be unhelpful, when people already feel overwhelmed.

“Help them as a priest!”

How do I, as a Jesus follower, help you? How do you help me? How do we love, help and, when necessary, carry one another through this crisis?

I don’t have all the answers to these, but I know now I’m asking the right questions.

Thanks, Gabriel. Thanks, Jeremy.

*On second thought, The Mission is intense with depictions of tragic violence, and since I got feedback that even reading Charlie was a bit much right now, you may prefer to hold off. I leave that to you, but thought I should mention it. I’d also be interested what you think of it, if you decide to watch it. Does it successfully critique colonialism or reinforce the White Savior Complex?

A Glimpse from Here

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Annalise and I went to see a matinee of Call of the Wild in the theater because it had Harrison Ford in it. That was March 6. Everything was just beginning to close down, though nothing had been announced officially yet. We had not only our theater to ourselves, we were nearly the only non-employees in the whole cinema. Later that day, the governor would announce school closures for the state.

That seems like a long time ago now. I mean, a different period of my life long. Trying to wrap our heads around the passage of time is one of our current challenges.

Last night, our teenage daughter and her cousins* had Prom on our back porch. They dressed to the nines and danced and had punch and snacks. The dogs got excited about the whole event and started wrestling each other on one side of the dance floor; my wife said they took the place of those guys who always went out to the parking lot to fight. This event may have been our family’s best “making do” thus far. I wasn’t invited, so I made myself scarce. Apparently I’m not a teenager, however I might behave.

A friend asked recently what I’m doing to be okay right now. I’ve been looking at flowers more carefully. I’m taking the time, not just to “stop and smell the flowers,” but to take them in, study them, wonder at their symmetry and color and texture. I’m trying to let their wonder seep into me.

I’m walking a ton. I am socially-distanced solo walking for miles. And miles. Plus walking the dogs. Annalise bought me a Fit Bit in January, when she took a trip out to see my family. I promptly misplaced it, due to my organizational challenges. I remember telling my mom at one point, “Counting my walking steps isn’t really my mode of exercise.” Then we began quarantine. No ultimate. No basketball. Can’t hike with friends. I found my Fit Bit again. I now kick myself when I wake up and stroll around the house without putting it on. “You’re wasting steps!” Okay, I’m exaggerating. But I do feel like its continuous cheering messages–“Only 149 steps away!” “Hooray! You made your 250 steps for the hour!” “Congratulations! You hit your 10,000 step goal!” “You overachiever! You took 4,000 extra steps!”–have become my main source of affirmation right now.**

Having folks explain to me that “people with depression are struggling more with this situation” feels a little like having them explain to mermaids that life without water is dry. Yes, it’s dry for all of us, but for some of us it’s especially dry, and thank you for letting me know.

While I’m making comparisons, the debate between “people need to stay home so they don’t catch COVID-19” and “people need to work so they can earn money” strikes me as a debate between those who say, “People need to breathe!” and the ones who insist “People need to eat!” Right. And right. And also, if we’re not able to breathe, eating isn’t going to do us any good. And vice-versa. Forgive me while I indulge in sarcasm for one (more) moment: Perhaps if we shout louder that we need to eat, that will cancel out our need to breathe? So here we are, trying to figure out how to go forward killing fewer people, ruining fewer lives. It’s cold math.

None of this is easy. When it started, we all joked about how we could help save the world by staying home and bingeing Netflix. Those of us staying home, I mean. The divide between we who can help best by staying put to help flatten the curve and those who get to/have to keep working feels enormous now. I read their stories every day, nurses and paramedics, doctors and chaplains, grocers and nannies. They’re living a different existence than we are. I’m grateful for them and want to cheer them on and honor their sacrifice. But it also feels awful, especially for those who fear for their lives. I don’t want any sacrificial lambs getting slaughtered on my behalf.*** I’m especially sad for those who are underpaid and still considered “essential.” That’s a horrible contradiction, isn’t it?

I have hoped that we can come together as a people who are suffering a common affliction, working together and helping one another to get through this. That would be a tremendous redemption of this horror. I see many people helping others. I get lots of good news, people extending generosity and proactively looking for ways to love their neighbors. We are doing it!

Yet politically, we’re also more divided than ever. I’m inexpressibly saddened by this. I feel helpless and impotent in the face of so much suffering, nearly all of it beyond my control. I know I’m depressed in part because I’m refusing to release control–my illusion of control–over things completely beyond my power. One “secret” of contentment, perhaps one of the worst-kept secrets yet one that eludes many of us, is “Lord, grant me the strength to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I’m overwhelmed by the misery so many are suffering and I know, in response, I am louder and more insistent about how we got here and keep getting ourselves in deeper. I try to evaluate myself. It reminds me of culture shock: I know it’s affecting me, but I can’t tell exactly how and merely knowing doesn’t mean I can correct it. I can only try to be more aware that my reactions may be off and try to keep a closer eye on them. To put it mildly, I’m not certain everyone is self-evaluating in this manner.

Catan!
Photo used with absolutely NO permission.

This morning, I served Kim breakfast in bed. She is working harder than I’ve ever seen her work before, between learning to provide distance learning for kindergartners and working on her national boards. I’m not telling you this for anyone to praise me, far less to get anyone in trouble–“Hey! Why don’t you do that?” In truth, it had been a long time. I mention it because I am looking for ways to be the me I can be, within these strange constraints. Corin and I have a one-on-one Catan series going (because no one else in this household will play with us) and I have finally drawn even after he demolished me the first couple games. I’m connecting with old friends on phone and even Zoom. During my walks, I breathe more consciously, deeply, with intention (not so much when I’m with the dogs). I pray for the people I know who I’m afraid will die from COVID-19. I pray for our country. I pray for us.

Family visits through the window, 2020. ❤️
No photo description available.

*We’ve functioned as one household with them throughout the shelter in place because we functioned the same way before this

**In fact, I’m looking into something comparable that I can also wear on wrist and that will affirm me in other parts of my life: “You just washed a dish!” “Only ten more dishes and you will have cleaned the kitchen!”

***Not wading into Christology here, obviously. Jesus chose to atone for my sins. Different conversation.

Charlie (continued)

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[If you’re just starting this story, go here: Charlie]

They’ve told me his surgery will take six hours. Six hours in the waiting room. Six hours if it goes well. They didn’t say this explicitly, but if it goes less than six hours that would mean it didn’t work. Such a benign way to describe something I can’t even let myself think. Doctors here talk about “outcomes.” If Charlie has a “less than optimal outcome…” 

I know it sounds like I’m in denial, refusing to name it. You think you would?

I’m stupidly hopeful that Sheri will appear, running in breathless, apologizing for— explaining—some ludicrous thing that happened, asking rhetorically “Is he already in surgery?” But I’m not hopeful enough to come up with scenarios. They’re just too unlikely. What was that principle we learned in philosophy? Bottom line, it meant go with the simplest explanation. Did a pack of charging rhinos cut her off from the hospital? Did one of them slam her to the pavement and now she has amnesia, or a broken leg, or amnesia and a broken leg?

She left me. She left us

Oh, my God, my wife left me and our son while he’s undergoing brain surgery.

That, I can name.

I don’t know if I can handle this, she kept saying. She was freaking out. I wasn’t listening. I mean, I was, but I heard only What if our son isn’t okay? What if Charlie doesn’t come through it? I took her to mean, I’m scared! I’m overwhelmed! One of the nights she was saying that, I held her in bed for hours, smoothing her hair, listening but not listening. Not hearing. We ended up having sex, almost by habit. You touch that long in bed, not asleep, it starts to feel like foreplay, it turns into foreplay. But maybe that wasn’t listening, either. 

A door opens in my mind. Or a draw bridge. I get to second-guess every word, look, conversation, argument, action. Everything.

Or I can sit here thinking about if Charlie…if the doctors can’t remove this tumor…if he…

She left because she thinks he’s going to die.

She meant “I can’t handle it if he dies.”

I couldn’t hear that because I couldn’t say he might. I knew he might. They told us, Dr. Kisack looked me in the eye and told me “Charlie has a forty-five percent chance of surviving this surgery.” She couldn’t say “about fifty” or “just a little less than fifty.” Forty-five. No more, no less. But that’s a percentage, based on other “outcomes,” based on other people’s children, parents who were sitting in waiting rooms like this—waiting together—and they’d already said goodbye. 

I didn’t say “goodbye” to him. I didn’t say “goodbye” to her, either.

She said, “You go in with him. He wants you. I’ll park the car.” She was driving. It made sense.

I squeezed her arm and said, “Thanks.”

The waiting room is about two-thirds full. I’ve barely registered anyone else, but I notice now because a doctor just came out to talk with a family. I’m guessing mom, dad, and their two-year-old who was quietly coloring/scribbling. A quiet two-year-old. Maybe he’s a pro, too.

They nod and the doctor talks more and they nod. I’m staring but they don’t notice. I’m not even in their world. The dad’s brow furrows. He’s a handsome man, Ralph Lauren oxford, the first hint of gray in his black hair. He has his arm around his wife’s shoulder. The child keeps scribbling, paying no attention. Their other child will live. Their marriage will live.

I can’t sit here. I walk out quickly into the vast lobby. I’m resisting the urge to go search the parking lot again. It’s not that I’m saving my dignity; searching would encourage me to hope.

But she’s gone. I have one thing to hope for today.

I walk. I walk through Whale Level, where the happy sea mammals on the walls bound in the frothy waves and smile their dolphin and sea lion smiles at the children walking by. I go up a flight of stairs and walk through Giraffe. Giraffe feels heavier than whale, but that’s because I know this hospital well; Giraffe is long-term care. If you consider that everyone coming to Children’s Hospital has a major health concern, maybe minor in the biggest picture but major enough that they were referred here, that means after oncology, long-term care pulls the hardest on me.

Charlie spent time in Giraffe a few years ago, before his remission, in our early, frantic days here, what I think of as our rookie year going through all this. We came because our pediatrician had referred us to get more testing. We had no idea why. She would tell us nothing concrete, only that she had “concerns.” But when we got here, when we went to Otter for Charlie’s blood draw and other labs (I always argued they should name that area “Shark”) and got those results back and were given papers and stickers and name tags in lanyards, we were sent to oncology. I swear to you, that is how we had the news broken to us. And I love Children’s Hospital, I don’t believe Charlie would have survived these last three years without Children’s, but I think I would have preferred a friendly lab tech or even the Otter receptionist to say, “I’m so sorry, but Charlie’s test results came back and he now has an oncologist.” We were merely told to report to the receptionist at Antelope. Antelope isn’t exclusively cancer, of course; it’s the floor on which they have the oncology department, but Antelope has come to mean “where the kids with cancer go” for parents like us. Children’s Hospital parents.

Parents like me, I guess.

Giraffe, though. Giraffe has a greater variety of diseases and conditions they treat. Giraffe has the kids whose diseases and conditions they can’t identify or the orphan diseases they recognize but still don’t know how to treat, much less cure. Giraffe has the little boy whose mother told me he had an allergic reaction to his medication that caused his skin to bubble and blister. When she talked to us, he was recovering from third-degree burns over eighty percent of his body. No one knew why. The doctors kept trying to find drugs that they could use to treat his original condition—which, shamefully, I no longer remember. But I prayed for that boy every day for longer than a year. I don’t know when I stopped; I didn’t decide to, I just got distracted one day and then the next and sometime later realized I wasn’t praying for him anymore. I saw his mom for a few visits after first meeting her, which for us meant six weeks or two months, and we would stop and chat like old friends who know each others’ secrets. Then I never saw her again. Giraffe means them.

Most of these levels have endless hallways, staggered by reception areas for specialties within each department. Every one has happy art, the encouraging posters and signs and slogans. I’ve never seen a waiting area in Children’s that didn’t have toys. Some have game consoles and fifty-inch monitors. Others have puzzles and simple board games. Most also have art supplies: paper, crayons, and stickers, and you can ask the receptionist to check out scissors. Of course, some have dire allergy warnings and forbid certain things. No, I take that back—they all have these warnings.

I’m passing one specialty after another, not quite power-walking but striding hard, circling each floor before ascending to the next. Here on the fifth floor, you find the parents’ lounge and even sleeping rooms. Designated showers for long-termers. A refrigerator with clear instructions on how to label your food—full name, patient’s ID, date stored. A few computers, a printer. I walk past my favorite spot in the hospital, a nearly-hidden door that leads to a little sitting area, almost a balcony, where you can quasi-relax in closer-to-comfortable chairs and see the ocean. Where you can imagine what you could be doing with your child, had you drawn different cards. But I loved that sitting area because it was the place where I felt like Sheri and I could go and experience a tiny bit of privacy. A hint of privacy.

But I’m not going to sit out there alone. I keep walking.

The sixth floor is all administrative offices. We spent some time there, early on, to work out some financial assistance. Next to Superhero Saint Nurses, I appreciate the people who work in that office most. I think they must take hours and hours of training on how not to shame parents who are suffering both their children’s health crises and now fiscal crises…often caused by those health crises. I remember Jan and Cinequa, Helga and Amber (short for “Ambrosia”—do not make fun of her!), every one of them, because of how well they treated us, offering us unwavering kindness and guarding our dignity when our insurance kept trying to drop us. 

Conversely, there’s a special place in hell for insurance companies who, when they realize that they cover kids with brain cancer—or any cancer—try their damnedest to disqualify them. Us. I’m not making this up: we had an agent call our home every single week for a year, fifty-two calls, asking questions like “Has Charlie’s condition resolved itself?” Seemingly a parent’s ignorance, or even an exhausted slip of the tongue, could be enough for them to fire up the machinery that would toss a child fighting cancer out into the cold. I will not digress about these people, but in my cosmology, the accounts office was made up of souls who would be going the opposite direction in the afterlife for having played the opposite role in our lives.

An urge pulls at me to step in and visit Helga and Cinequa. Both spoke like they were Charlie’s grandmothers. But they would ask, “How is Charlie?” and “How is Sheri?” If they could just know so I wouldn’t have to explain and they would say, “Oh, you sit down, you’re our Hall of Fame Dad, we wish every child had a dad like you!” Because they said that to me on days much easier, it turns out, than today, on days when I thought the sky was falling merely because we couldn’t pay for the medical care Charlie needed. They found ways to work that out. They accessed funds and found assistance and created payment plans. God, I wish they were equally omnipotent in other areas. 

The end of this hall past their offices gets weird. Some strange art got hung here, different than in any other part of the hospital. I mean different. If you could put performance art on a wall, it would look like this. Some is Barbie-related. Another section relates to anorexia and bulimia. They’re all mixed medium, with spiked heels and shards of glass and jagged Diet Coke can shrapnel sticking out. If you ran up this hallway without noticing them, you could slash yourself. One of the works depicts self-cutting. 

I’ve wondered so often who bought these and how it went.

“Hey, I got some great pieces for the hospital!”

“You know we’re Children’sHospital, right? Happy hippos?” 

“Yeah, but these address serious issues the kids face.”

“We have three-year-olds who’ve already suffered trauma.” 

“Okay, fine. HR? No? The legal department, then?”

They have an exit at the end of this hallway where parents don’t come and go. It leads to a parking lot parents don’t use. I’m tempted to go out there now. Standing in that lot, you could pretend to be outside any nondescript business in the world. Brick wall, no signs other than “Finance and Accounting” and “Human Resources.” But this door requires a key code to enter from the outside and there’s no access to any other part of the hospital through that lot. “Staff Parking only.” It’s no accident. The time I exited here, I practically had to walk through downtown to find my way back to the hospital campus. The people who work in these last few offices don’t have to see any of us—or our kids—unless they choose to. I’m pretty sure they also keep the hospital running, on a macro level, so I try to keep that in mind.

I rest my head against the door and look at my watch.

It’s been maybe an hour and a half since I left Charlie in surgery. Surgery time is a separate existence, different than any other passage of time. It’s harder to kill time without her. Sheri. It’s hard not to think about Sheri while thinking that it’s hard to kill time without Sheri. I am not going to spend these hours trying to figure out why my wife left.

My wife left. Am I a single dad now?

Damn it, damn it, go to hell damn it! That’s not even the question. 

Am I a dad now?

By the end of the day? Will I still be?

The door opens outward. I almost fall through the doorway. A man sticks out his arm, a blue suit-coated arm, and breaks my fall, then steadies me with the other. He fills the doorway.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” he exclaims.

I push against the door frame to right myself. His grey eyebrows furrow and his head tilts forward, worried. His coat has subtle pinstripes. His purple tie matches the square in his chest pocket. I see these up close because I’m in his personal space. I step back inside as quickly as I can.

“No, I’m sorry. I fell on you. Thanks for not letting me hit the pavement.”

He chuckles. “Seems the least I could do. Were you going out?” he asks, still holding the door open.

“Oh, uh, no. I was just…waiting.”

He notices the buzzer in my hand, then looks up at my face. How can I describe the change in his expression? I’m dressed for my-kid-is-in-the-hospital-take-me-seriously: tie, oxford, slacks, loafers. I think that threw him for a second. But I’m not his peer, not a professional in one of these offices, nor on business with any of them. I’m not that kind of “pro.” I’m on the other side of the bridge.

Ha. “Bridge.” Make that “chasm.” There is no bridge. Pity, but no bridge.

“How much longer?” he asks.

I choke back something between a laugh and a moan.

“Four hours or so, they estimated.”

“Oncology?”

“How could you know that?”

He raises his large shoulders, a nearly-apologetic shrug.

“I’ve been here a while,” he says.

I nod.

“I’ll leave you in peace. I hope…” he nods back at me, “I hope it goes well.”

“Thank you.”

He offers me his huge hand, so I shake it.

I’m walking back up the nouveau art hallway when he calls out.

“Wait.”

I turn around and he catches up to me in two long strides.

“I’m John. Here’s my card. In case you need anything. And what’s your child’s name?”

“Thank you.” I take the card. “I’m Mike. He’s Charlie.”

He gives my shoulder a pat, which causes me to picture him playing college football twenty years ago. I’ll have to look him up to check my hunch.

He enters the second-to-last office on the hall. I glance at his card. “John D. Freeman: Vice-President, Corporate Development.”

I wonder what need might qualify for me to call John D. Freedman? I know he meant it, but I can’t conjure the situation. My needs are either too big or too small.

I study the paintings again. Does he pass them on his way to the cafeteria? Does he like them? Does he—

The buzzer vibrates in my hand. I jerk back and it falls to the carpet.

Oh, my God. 

I’m running, one motion to scoop it up and sprint.

I should have prayed more!

God, have mercy on my little boy. 

Sheri, he’s–

No. No thoughts. Just hurrying—dodging—not colliding with children—fast as I can, not hurting anyone—because I have to get there—even if…

Just go.

I swing around the last corner to the waiting area, take in that the nurse and surgeon are talking to—Sheri. She has her back to me.

–OhmyGod, did I make all that up? 

–She’s shaking. I’m going to vomit.

“What—what happened?” I blurt into their conversation, then suck for air.

“He’s okay. He’s okay, Mr. O’Brien.” Dr. Kisack’s mask is pulled down around her neck. Her face looks sweaty.

“But how—you said—” gasp, “six hours—” gasp, “and it’s—”

“We’re not always right,” she answers and smiles a little. That shuts me up. “I was just telling your wife, I don’t call things ‘miracles.’ I’ve never used that word for surgery, I believe literally never. I just don’t think that helps us explain or understand anything. But your boy had a medulloblastoma growing rapidly in his cerebellum, so rapidly that we halted other treatment and moved directly to surgery. Now he doesn’t. I still had to operate, but the tumor was half the size we expected and all the places we thought it would be most difficult to cut out, it almost looked as if it had withdrawn. I can’t explain that. There are many things I can’t explain within my field of expertise, though I hate to admit to any of them.” She glances up at the ceiling then back at us, a whole different conversation spoken only in her head. “This is one. But I’m happy to give you the news.”

“So he’s going to be…?”

“He’s going to leave here with no more cancer in his body. It was a simple procedure to remove the tumor, contrary to all expectations. I can’t promise you anything after today. As you know too well, this type of cancer has a significant rate of recurrence. We will run all the tests we can to make certain we haven’t missed anything. But at this moment, to the absolute best of my knowledge, Charlie is cancer free.”

My knees wobble. The floor and walls spin. Doctor Kisack reaches out to steady me before I discover whether the ceiling is spinning, too.

“I’m sorry. Thank you, Doctor. I don’t…” I can’t figure out how to finish the sentence.

“This is a very normal response,” she reassures me. “I truly am glad I could give you good news, even if I don’t fully understand it. Nurse Jackson will take you to see Charlie when he’s ready to move from Recovery I to Recovery II. He’ll be asleep for some time still and very groggy after that, but he’ll want to see you both. I told your wife Charlie was asking for her even after we thought he was under. I’d never seen that before. Patients talk in their sleep sometimes, but he just willed himself awake for one more moment, right after you left. He’s a determined child. That will serve him well.”

“We can’t thank you enough, Doctor Kisack,” Sheri says, grasping both her hands.

“Take care. Take care of Charlie,” the doctor tells us, patting my shoulder once more before she turns to hurry off.

Charlotte steps in.

“It will be about half an hour before we can move him to Recovery II. I’ll leave you to celebrate a little. Or just breathe again. Hold onto that and I’ll buzz you again when it’s time to come see Charlie. You’re doing great. The hardest part is over.”

I can’t keep myself from glancing at Sheri, but she has her eyes closed. Maybe breathing.

“Charlie, you’ve been wonderful,” I tell her. “Thanks for taking such good care of our son.”

She beams at us.

“That’s why I do this. It doesn’t always turn out so well, but I pray every time that it will. He’s a great guy. To still have such a sense of humor after everything he’s been through? I’m so glad he’s going to be okay. I’ll see you soon.”

She leaves me with my wife. Children’s Hospital revolves around us, the nurses and doctors striding past to get to their next patients, the moms and dads walking slower with their babies, some pushing IV poles or wheelchairs. Some aren’t going home today. Some aren’t going home again. Our Charlie is coming home with us.

Time to man up.

“I’m sorry. I thought you had…left—I know, God, that sounds horrible. I jumped to a terrible conclusion when you didn’t get back before he went in. Just all the stress and fear going in there, they actually let me go in with him—not that I’m excusing it, my thinking that–I just couldn’t figure out what could’ve… Are you okay? What happened?”

“I did.” She glances at me, then looks away. “I was halfway to Bellingham.”

“Oh.”

I have nothing left. I need to sit down now. I land hard in the nearest open chair. 

She doesn’t follow right away. My chair is against the wall, so I let my head drop back and close my eyes. Will she be here when I open them? She came back, so I think she’ll wait until Charlie wakes up. I think.

But what do I know?

I hear someone settle next to me. A moment later, I can smell Sheri, the conditioner she loves and her perfume she wears only for formal occasions, her version of “take-me-seriously.” I bought her a bottle one Christmas and concluded I’m glad it’s for formal occasions.

“Do you want to talk to me?” she asks, a serious question, not to start a fight.

“I don’t know.”

We sit here. I feel minutes drifting by. Is Charlie really okay? Is this our last time sitting together waiting to find out? Is this our last time sitting together? I don’t have the energy to start this conversation. I don’t have it in me to find out. 

Charlie is okay. That’s enough for now.

That’s all for now.

Charlie

Standard

We’re walking in the sunshine. It’s deceiving. I can’t believe what a beautiful day God made for this. I call that cruel. If you decorated my house with balloons and streamers today… So this morning we’ve got seventy degrees with sunshine, three puffball clouds, and the lightest breeze. What do you call that? 

Indifference, maybe.

Sheri parked the car. She told me to walk in with him. I get it. Nobody says it. Nobody has to.

“What time do the Yankees play tonight?”

I look at my son. Really look at him, as hard as I can. The sun is glowing through his brown, whispy hair. It still feels recent that he has hair again. We took him for a haircut two days ago. I tried not to think “last haircut.” You know what happens when you try not to think about something. Everything could be the last. And “could be” is optimistic.

“7:05, I think. Wanna go?”

He looks at me, all hope and faith. Shit. He gets sarcasm, he uses it too much, but oh, my God, I’m stupid sometimes. 

“Sorry, Buddy, I’m hoping we can watch some of it when you wake up. There should be a TV in the recovery room.”

“I didn’t mean tonight,” he says, ducking his head apologetically. “I just want to go sometime this year.”

There aren’t words for this, but I can’t be silent, either. I’m stuck. Unbelievably stupid. 

“I will get us tickets for any game you want to see, as soon as we get out of here. You kick this thing’s butt, and we are there. Front row, first base line.”

Empty promises. Those are useful. They’ll make me feel a lot better, later, when I remember all the things I didn’t do while I had time. It’s hard to choose, but pre-emptive guilt may be my favorite thing about parenting

Yes, that was sarcasm.

We’re through the door. Children’s Hospitals always smell antiseptic like hospitals, but a little better. I can’t say it smells cheerful, but close. They’re lighter than other hospitals. People care a little more, or maybe we just pay better attention to who’s around us, because there’s always a child right next to us who has it worse than we do.

Except maybe that’s not true today.

We check in at the reception desk and the woman looks at us with the hugest, most sympathetic smile.

“Hi, Guys! I think we can get you straight back. Just let me have one minute to make sure we’re ready for you.” I stand waiting for the buzzer thing that tells us it’s our turn. It always reminds me of the old Simon game. That’s when I know I’m old.

“I don’t think you’ll need one today,” the receptionist says, reading my mind. “Like I say, one minute. Or less.”

She reaches for her phone. We go to sit down.

“Charlie? We’re all ready for you now,” the woman calls. I had just turned my head to look at the magazine selection. Do people still read them, or do they just sit on their devices? I glance around the room to see three adults reading Good Housekeeping, Sports Illustrated, and Business Day. Answers that. 

“My wife will be here in a second,” I say as Charlie and I pass the desk to enter the catacombs. I always think that one way you can divide humanity is between the people who have walked into the oncology department of a Children’s Hospital and everyone else. Of course, you can take that two ways. The positive is the people who have the privilege of a Children’s Hospital oncology department when they need it and everyone else.

That wasn’t sarcasm.

Charlie perches up on the table without being asked. Routine. A nurse walks in right after us. This is the quickest we’ve ever gotten back here. That doesn’t reassure me.

“Hi, Charlie. My name is ‘Charlotte.’ I go by ‘Charlie,’ too! Isn’t that funny? Charlie and Charlie. But I think let’s call me ‘Charlotte’ today, just to avoid confusing each other. Unless you’d prefer to be ‘Charles’ today?”

“I’m not ‘Charles,’ I’m Charlie,” my son responds. I nod. Not really the time to start being Charles.

“Does anyone call you Charles?” she asks, reaching for his elbow. He doesn’t glance down. I look at his Calvin-thin arm, the four hundred marks where they’ve pushed needles in, then up to his eyes to see if he wants me to explain.

“My given name is ‘Charlie,’” he tells her. “’Charlie Chaplin McCarthy O’Brien.’”  

That stops her. She looks up from the blood pressure cuff she’d expertly secured around his tricep.

“Wow. Really?” she asks.

“No,” he grins. She laughs hard and real, not the required polite chuckle.

He loves doing that with nurses. They’re trained to be kind and gentle with the children who enter their care. Charlie looks like a cherub with a hint of bangs. We need to update his joke, as I’m sure there are some nurses too young to get it. But Charlie is ten and he gets it. He made it up. It’s become his standard greeting/test for his nurses. When he doesn’t feel well enough, he expects me to deliver it, though it comes across differently when I try. I started to explain that to him, but then changed my mind: who cares if a nurse thinks I’m strange, compared with cheering my son by pulling his favorite gag? When he feels that bad, everything else becomes a distant second. I mean “distant” as in beyond the horizon, out of sight.

“You had me,” she tells him, removing the blood pressure cuff and taking his temperature. I love how much easier taking temperatures is now. I wish they could make a comparable advance with blood samples.

“Okay, I know you know the right answers, but I have to ask: when was the last time you ate anything solid?”

“Eight PM,” Charlie responds automatically.

“Liquids?”

“Ten.”

“Clear liquids?”

“This morning at, I think, like…six?” He looks at me to verify. I nod.

“Good job! I knew you’d have that down. You’re a pro.”

He grins again, pleased at the affirmation. I’m glad he isn’t cynical yet. Yeah, he’s a pro…

Nurses save lives and we’ve had only good experiences with our nurses at Children’s. I’d say with one or two exceptions, I’d call them anomalies, we’ve had all good experiences with Charlies’ nurses. That’s pretty impressive. I’ve probably had my life saved by them once or twice. So if one’s cheeriness offends my cynicism, that’s my problem, not theirs. 

Not that I always remember this.

“Charlie, the anesthesiologist will be here in a few minutes. Do you need anything?”

Charlie shakes his head.

“Good. I’m going to need you to change into your gown now. You ready to do that?”

“Sure,” he tells her, grabbing it and hopping down in the same motion.

Would a sick kid do that? I learned to stop asking myself this about a million years ago, although obviously I haven’t really learned. I’ve stopped letting the answer carry any weight. 

“He’s feeling better lately?” Charlotte asks me as the bathroom door clicks, semi-reading my mind in her nursely way.

“I mean, he hasn’t done a treatment for five—almost six weeks now. He’s got his energy back. It’s normal, right?”

She nods and gives me the sad eyes.

“Of course.”

I consider it a kindness that she doesn’t explain. She’s read through his chart. We’re all pros here.

Charlie comes out again, blessedly too young to feel self-conscious in his hospital gown. I’m not a glass half full of silver linings guy, but I do think this would be tougher if he were two years older.

Then again, if he were we would for sure have had those two years.

“I’ll be back soon, Charlie, and then we’ll head in together. Do either of you have any questions right now?”

Ha.

“No, not really. Do you, Buddy?”

Charlie shakes his head, then asks an obvious one.

“Where’s Mom?”

“She was parking the car.”

“I’m sure she’ll be here in a minute,” Charlotte reassures him. “If you do think of a question, be sure to ask me when I return. Sometimes it can help to get any concerns out before we go in.” 

Charlie nods, but now he’s staring at me. He really wants an answer to the one he’s already asked.

I pull my phone out and call Sheri. Straight to voicemail. Her battery might be dead. I text, just in case it isn’t.

You close?

Charlotte finishes her preparations, then pats my shoulder once as she walks past me. I lift the sides of my mouth at her while clenching my teeth. The black hole is much closer to the surface than I realized.

“Daddy, where’s Mom? Why isn’t she back yet?”

“I don’t know, Son. You want me to go check?” I need to be here when the anesthesiologist comes in. Have to. Plus, I’m not losing any of these minutes. I could be very angry at her in two tenths of a second for costing me even one moment. But where is she? Did someone blindside her in the parking lot? There’s no reasonable explanation. There’s no way she’d be losing these minutes, either. 

Except she is.

The door opens. I whip my head around. 

“Sher–”

But it’s the anesthesiologist. Now I really can’t go. 

“Hi, Charlie. I’m Doctor Brennan. I’ll be administering your anesthesia today. Looks like you’ve gone through a few of these already, so I’m sure you remember. I need to tell you about it, anyway, because that’s my job, but don’t think that means I’m treating you like a little kid. You’re not. I’d have to explain it all to your dad, too.” Doctor Brennan winks at both of us.

“Dad?”

Charlie has one concern right now, and it isn’t what gas they’ll use to make him sleep.

“Hon, we need to hear this, because as Dr. Brennan said, it’s his job to make sure we understand. I’ll go as soon as we’re done.” My ten-year-old’s eyes relax exactly none.

Dr. Brennan looks from me to Charlie and back. Anesthesiologists are not nurses, in my experience. They don’t accommodate.

“We’re going into a longer surgery today. Dr. Kisack anticipates we’ll need about six hours to complete this one. That means we’ll need a lot of anesthesia to keep you comfortable. You haven’t had anything to eat or drink, right?”

Charlie shakes his head, once, hard.

“No,” he adds, to prevent being misunderstood.

“Good. Not even water for the last two hours, correct?”

“Correct,” I affirm. 

“Three,” Charlie says. He has put his hand on my wrist. He’s squeezing. We taught him this because he used to interrupt doctors all the time. Not your fault, I told him, sometimes they talk too much, but let’s just have you give one of us a squeeze, instead. If my boy were bigger, I’d have a broken wrist now. 

“Excellent. Then remember, when you get in there, I’ll be waiting, and when the other doctors are all ready, I’ll hold the mask and have you start counting back from one hundred. Do you know what flavor you want?”

“Root beer,” Charlie says, letting his eyes dart to the doctor’s face for a split-second before burning into mine again.

“Fine choice. I think that’s all. Do you have any questions for me, Mr….O’Brien?” Very brief pause. Hardly any points off at all, if I still kept score. I don’t. It doesn’t matter. None of it may matter after this. And where the hell is my wife? I text again.

SHERI? Trouble?!?

“No, thank you, I think we’re set. Set as we can be.” With fingernails digging into my wrist bone, that is.

“Good. We’re going to do our very best for you, Charlie. I’ll see you in there. I’ll have a mask on, but just look at my eyes. It’ll still be me.”

Charlie has yet to look at this man’s eyes, but he takes a full moment to glance at him. That’s a smart line, there. Charlie could tell me what color they are, now.

“Dad, where’s Mom?” he asks, before Dr. Brennan can get halfway to the door.

“I don’t know, Hon. You want me to—you okay to wait alone while I go look?”

I know the answer to the first—he couldn’t make that more obvious—but I hate asking him the second. I hate that I’m making him make that choice; I hate and I mean hate that I’m about to go sprinting out to the parking lot and leave him here by himself. Of all times to do this. What if they’ve taken him when I get back? 

And where is she? 

Charlie pulls me by the wrist he hasn’t let go of and gives me a big hug.  

“Yes, please,” he says. I lay my other hand on his shaved head and kiss him just just above his left ear.

“Okay. I’ll be back as fast as I can.”

I used to be an athlete, loosely speaking, before trips to the gym and running on courts were devoured by trips to the hospital and running to pharmacies. I always take the stairs when we’re in the hospital because it’s my only form of exercise other than clenching my stomach.

I’m running now. Hospital people stare. I guess if I had a lab coat I’d look normal, but we civilians aren’t supposed to run.

I slam through the door under the “exit” sign and hit the staircase without breaking stride. God, I hope no one is coming up. I grasp the railing to keep from falling, a controlled plunge more than a measured descent. I’m out the door and have to pull up hard to keep from plowing over two middle-aged women—okay, my age, but not looking like they’ve sprinted through a hospital in some time. I more imagine than see their expressions of affront, shading to pity. After all, why would a parent run through Children’s? Maybe to celebrate good news…but probably not.

I’m stutter-stepping to keep from hitting the automatic exit doors. They swing grudgingly, maddeningly. Open! Get out of my way!

I shove them the last bit to get through.

The parking lot is huge. This is Children’s Hospital. What was I thinking, that I could race out here and find our car in six seconds? Where the bloody hell is she? 

They have six levels for parking. They carved the hospital into a hill and cut and blacktopped all the way up. Like raised flowerbeds, my brain offers. I’m freaking out. 

Okay, think: either she’s already with Charlie right now or something went wrong. Really wrong. There aren’t any other options. Possibilities, I mean.

Are there?  

I’m still running but trying to calm down enough to focus. How long do I have? Normally, I’d say forty-five minutes from anesthesiologist to wheeling him back, but they got us in faster than I’ve ever seen before. Judging by that, I have ten. If that. And that’s just to get back to say—no, notto say “Goodbye,” to see him off, to say something before he goes, to lay my hand on his head and pray, pray something. As if I haven’t been begging God this whole time and here we are. But maybe for Charlie to hear the prayer. I don’t know. It’s a ludicrous question, an evil question: What are the last words you say to your child before…in case…you don’t get more?

Screw this.

My side aches like I’m a teenager back at basketball practice, sucking wind during sprints—“suicides,” we called them. My God. I’ve run a long way out here but I’m also in crappy shape and I have to get back. Now

Sheri? Sheri!” 

Then I stop. Because I know. I’ve never had a premonition in my life, or a word from God, or whatever this is. Until now.

She’s not in his room. She’s not in this parking structure. She didn’t get hit or have a crisis.

She’s gone.

I don’t waste a moment puzzling how I know, how she could do that, how anyone could do that. None of it matters. Less than the trash in the parking lot. It’s done. It is and it’s done. 

At least now I’m running a straight line, the shortest route back to pre-op.

Oh, Lord, don’t let him be gone yet. It can’t go that way. You can’t let it. 

Yeah, now you’re praying.

We’ve had sixty-one hospital trips and sixteen surgeries with Charlie. It’s stupid that I count, but I can’t help myself. Those numbers ricochet around my head as I pound back up the stairs. I’m in the surgery hall now, making wide eyes and pointing as I blow past the receptionist. She nods vigorously. Thanks

Oh, please…

Charlie jerks his head up. He’s been crying.

“I’m sorry, Buddy, I—”

“Aw, Dad, thanks for going. Is she coming?”

My son—our son—looks at me. I see a tiny patch I missed the last time I shaved his head for him, now longer than the rest. He likes it all or nothing. He doesn’t want his hair growing in a little bit. If it’s gone, he’s going to choose that it’s all gone. 

But I still lie to him.

“Oh, Hon, I don’t think she’s going to make it before you have to go in. Something really…really difficult came up, you know she’d be here otherwise, but she’ll be waiting when you come out.”

He nods. I put my arms around him. He looks tiny, swallowed up in his blue gown, his brown eyes so huge as he tries not to cry again. Ten is hard. At eight, he could just cry freely. At ten, I can see him telling himself not to.

“I’m sorry,” I repeat, and try to hold him tighter without hurting him. “Charlie, I love you so much, Buddy. You’re gonna roll in there, inhale some root beer, count down, and then you’ll wake up to my ugly mug again. Just like every other time. I couldn’t be more proud of you, Brave Boy. I love you.”

“Love you, Daddy.” He pushes his head into my jaw. “You’re not ugly.”

Charlotte comes back in.

“Okay, Fellas, it’s time for us to take Charlie back now.” She hands me the black disc that will buzz and vibrate and flash when they want me. I made it by about four minutes.

She can tell Charlie’s been crying, but that’s got to be normal and expected here.

I want to tell her that Charlie has never cried going into surgery before. He really is the bravest kid God ever made, not just because he’s mine. But I’m guessing this isn’t the time to explain to Charlotte what’s different about today. And I—we—tried to help Charlie understand this surgery without terrifying him. Try that balancing act sometime.

No, I take that back. I hope you don’t have to.

They’ve got Charlie’s bed ready to roll out. Another nurse guides his IV poll. I take his hand and walk alongside until we reach the surgery doors. Our seventeenth separation at doors like these. I lean over to kiss him.

“You can walk in with him. Here, just put a mask on.” Charlotte reaches out her hand. I grab the blue mask, attempt a smile but manage a grateful grimace, then pull the strap behind my ears. She just nods.

They’ve never let me do this before.

But Charlie smiles at me. He looks tiny, already lying on the operating table, surrounded by gowned, masked grown-ups and tables of silver devices I hope he can’t see. But his eyes are on me. Thank you, God, for this small mercy. 

Dr. Brennan steps in next to me and looks around at the doctors and nurses standing by. Dr. Kisack nods. They’re ready.

“Hi, Charlie. Remember what we talked about. I’m glad your dad can be here to help us get started.”

“You ready, Buddy?” I ask. My voice sounds weird through the mask.

Charlie grips my hand harder but turns his head to look up at Doctor Brennan.

“I’m ready.”

“That’s marvelous. You’re a very courageous young man. One hundred, remember?”  

“One hundred…”

Dr. Brennan places the gas mask over Charlie’s nose and mouth.

“Ninety-nine…” Charlie’s voice comes through, muffled but strong. He’s locked on my eyes again.

Charlie breathes in.

“Nine–”

Then Charlie’s eyes roll back in his head. He’s out. His hand goes limp in mine. I set it down softly by his side.

Charlotte appears at my elbow, gently removing me from the circle, one hand on my back, the other on my forearm. Almost as if she expects resistance. I wonder if some dad sometime got hit by too much clarity and lost it, right here. Thought maybe he could protect his child by staying close. Or didn’t think at all. Just reacted.

“I didn’t say ‘I love you’ one more time.” It hit me too fast to hold in. I didn’t mean to say it to her. We’re alone in the hall.

“You said it. I heard you say it when I walked in. And you let him know when you had his hand.”

“He’d never cried before a surgery,” I told her.

“This one is different,” she answered, barely loud enough for me to hear. “I need to get back now. I promise we’re going to–”

“Of course you will,” I cut her off. “Thank you, Charlotte. I’ll see you afterward. I’ll stay close.”

She smiles a little.

“You’re a pro,” she nods, then trots back toward Charlie.

Oh, Jesus. 

*

To be continued…

Non-Partisan Encouragement

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First, I’m not claiming to be non-partisan. I’m writing an encouragement that will be.

We’re living in a very difficult and strange time. We’re having public debates I never imagined and, as one who has seen more than my share of post-apocalyptic movies, this is not what I pictured. At all. My training to fend off zombies feels a little wasted at the moment.

Now here is my encouragement:

It is not your job to convince people that they’re wrong. If you take that as your job, you are signing up for frustration and a lot of alienation. I suspect all of us slip up and find ourselves wearing that name tag occasionally,

“Hi, My Name Is Mike! I’m Here to Correct You!”

I do sometimes. Then I get discouraged.

The sooner I remember “Wait! I’m doing it again!” the better off I am. The longer I let myself try to succeed at this job that I neither have nor want, the worse I will feel.

Not everyone is like me. (Go ahead, rejoice.) Some people really believe this is their job and go around correcting everyone and telling them how wrong they are. We call these people “trolls.” Trolls, sad to say for them, don’t get to decide whether or not they are trolls. Trolling is in the eye of the beholder.

I’m assuming, for this discussion, that you and I aren’t consciously trying to troll anyone.

I might be someone’s troll. I sincerely hope not. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone sees me that way, however, because I do express my opinions often–and am doing so herein, as you read this.

This is my non-partisan encouragement: We are here to love one another, as best we can manage. Yes, if I see someone whom I think is dead wrong, let’s say driving the wrong way on a busy one-way street and about to hit traffic, meaning about to hit someone, I would really like to convince that person to turn around and I’m pretty clear I’m right and they’re wrong and, if only they could see I’m right, they would both correct course and thank me. Or, I mean they might flip me off because they’re angry and embarrassed, but sparing them and the faultless driver going the correct direction from collision, injury, and possible death would make that little getting flipped off worthwhile.

Here’s the thing: when we argue these days, we’re all convinced that our debate opponents are driving headlong into traffic–and wildly over the speed limit, to boot. These conditions tempt me to jettison my typical guidelines for discussion: The cost is too high for me just to stand by while you crash, right? Lives are at stake, and not just yours!

Oh, look. I’m wearing the badge again.

“Hi, My Name Is Mike! I’m Here to Correct you!”

But I’m not. I’m not here to correct you. I’m here to love you.

Here’s where this gets tricky…if we let it.

I have to ask two questions: 1)What constitutes an emergency? and 2)What are the chances you or I will agree that one of us is wrong?

I want to say that almost all of us who have strong opinions right now consider this an emergency. Pandemic. Sounds like an emergency, doesn’t it?

In response to question number two, after extensive personal research, I will propose this estimate: approximately zero.

That might strike you as a bummer. I could delve deeply into the psychology involved here, but I suspect that would either sidetrack us, edge us toward partisanship, or both.

But this helps me understand better what is happening and why we’re (mostly) all behaving this way:

All of us seem to think that the people with whom we disagree are racing toward an imminent, life-threatening head-on.

And we might be right.

But my experience, hard-earned from working with people trapped in addiction, is that even if it’s true, they might not change.

“You’re hurting yourself.” True.

“You’re hurting me and others.” True.

Still no change.

I know that seems discouraging. Believe me, when watching someone you love self-destruct, it’s gut-wrenching.

But I think it applies to our current situation and I think it can be oddly freeing.

If I can accept that nothing I do can change your thinking, then I can get on with the work of loving you, as best I can. I remember that even when I’m being my most self-destructive, I’m never, ever helped by my “friend” screaming at and belittling me. It also clicks in the cobwebby corners of my brain what has gotten through to me before, when I’ve hit bottom.

Grace.

Grace gets through to me. Kindness. Unwavering, patient, accepting friendship.

Weird, right? Being loved by my friends the way Jesus did and taught has cracked through my shell of self-damaging wrong thinking* when nothing else could.

Here, then, is my non-partisan encouragement for you today:

If you think a bunch of people in your life are wrong, don’t scream at them. They won’t believe they’re driving the wrong way. It’s not your job to correct them and get them to think right, the way you do. It is your job to love them, with grace, with encouragement, with forgiveness and gentleness and humor.

That might, it just might, help them see things differently. It might not. But love is never wasted. Love always changes us and those around us; Jesus is always present when we love one another, even when we can’t see it.

Practically speaking, I’m saying quit screaming. It’s not helping. Express what you need to, pray with all your might, speak your truth. Expressing our opinion is not the same as forcing someone to change their mind. Vent to your friends who agree with you but do not attack your friends–or, for heaven’s sake, strangers–who don’t. Say what you think will help. But take off that work badge and leave it off. I’m putting this one on.

“Hi, My Name Is Mike! I’m Not Here to Correct You! I’m Here to Love You.”

PS You might find that you stop screaming at them and they keep screaming at you. Jesus says something about that, too. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” is different than “Do to others as they do to you.” In fact, it’s often opposite. I’d add that loving people does not require allowing them to scream at you.

PPS When, not if, I fail at this and fall back into trying to correct people’s thinking, God will have grace for that, too. No soy Dios, Dios es Dios, gracias a Dios.

*And all my students know the synonym for “self-damaging wrong thinking” is…

Believing the Best, Optimism, and Wishful Thinking

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[My brilliant artist nieces strike again! Unicorn Credit: Annika and Aislyn]

Come, let us reason together.

Believing the best of someone is perceiving them as accurately as you can while choosing to focus on their positive qualities, affirming their character, and trying to encourage and draw forth the good you can see. You can believe the best of someone who appears horrible, who has done genuinely despicable things. That’s how prison ministry works. In fact, that’s how grace works. If God won’t see the potential in people inclined to self-destructive, sinful behavior, we’re all doomed.

But we’re not all doomed. God sees us as we are and knows we have more capacity for good than we realize. That’s the Gospel*. That’s the Prodigal Son. God knows that we have warped the image of Jesus and God still sees how beautiful and loving we can be. When we believe the best of one another, we affirm what God sees, that the drug addict stuck in his habit can recover and Johnny Cash can play a concert at Folsom Prison because he understands the darkness they live in. He lived there, too. But he knows they could be redeemed because he was. Believing the best in you means that your darkness is not the last word. God’s love is.

Optimism is a different animal. Believing the best is central to the Gospel, not denial nor superficial acceptance but clear-eyed hope for choosing good over evil. Optimism is a cousin of hope but can also dwell in the land of make believe. I’m an optimist. I choose to be a hopeful person, often directly in the face of my depression and a constant barrage of negative thoughts. But optimism is not identical to biblical hope. Biblical hope is rooted in God’s faithfulness and the certainty that all shall be well, even if nothing appears well in my limited range of vision. Biblical hope declares that we’ll be okay, not because God will prevent bad things from happening but because in Jesus, we can endure bad things, including death. Biblical hope is perhaps the most powerful force on earth, stronger even than greed.

Optimism is simply hoping for the best, but optimism is not always rooted in the hope that Jesus Christ has resurrected from the dead and overcome every enemy, including death. Sometimes we’re optimistic just “cuz we hope good things will happen.” In general, I’d rather choose to be an optimist than a pessimist, even though pessimists have sound logic for their position: “Never get your hopes up and you’ll never be disappointed.” I’ve decided there are worse things in the world than disappointment. Cynicism, for example.

But we had a baby die in our arms. Optimism says that bad things won’t happen to us, because…they won’t. Because it’s us. Then bad things happen and optimism looks a lot like believing in unicorns. Fun, but an illusion. That was never real. If it’s joined to our theology, the backlash will hurt. “But I thought God loved me!”

We went to a funeral with one of our dear friends in Nicaragua, Carlos, who was burying his little girl. We’d suffered the same with Isaac, so I could talk with him about it, share our experience, and let him know what I have seen of God’s faithfulness in tragedy. But here’s the truth: most people in developing countries (and everyone living in poverty) much more often suffer these life-rending tragedies. Their children die young more often. Their mothers die in childbirth more often. Optimism says that won’t happen to us, but optimism is also the luxury of people who can afford to make things go our way most of the time. Again, hope in Jesus Christ is that God loves me and Isaac’s death does not change or disprove that. I reached that point, but it took me years. You can see how different that is than optimism, the denial that bad things would ever happen to me. Or you.

I’m perpetually optimistic that I will arrive on time and I rarely do. A friend dubbed this “temporal optimism” and I thought that a brilliant term. I somehow can believe, in the face of how many years of evidence, that this time I’m gonna walk right out of the house when I need to, hop on my bike or in my car, and arrive 5 minutes early. It took Kim years (and years) to convince me that travel time took actual time. Doesn’t seem like a complicated mathematical reality, but I resisted, due to my temporal optimism. I’m a little better now–and I mean if you have a very fine-tuned instrument you can detect my improvement. Like a clock that counts milliseconds.

But you can see how this kind of optimism doesn’t reside in faith in Jesus Christ or hope in God’s grace. It’s just “I want things to go well so I’m going to believe they will.” Sometimes that serves us really well. Norman Vincent Peale made a fortune selling books about “the Power of Positive Thinking.” “If you believe it, you can achieve it,” that sort of thing. I’m not against that on principle, and certainly if you believe you can’t, you have proven yourself right without ever trying.

But what is the term for a woman’s thought pattern who convinces herself that her abusive boyfriend won’t hit her again? Is that “optimism?” Or is that wishful thinking? To be clear, it’s often a much more complex tangle of thoughts that involves negative self-image, believing she somehow deserves her abuse, and the ongoing manipulation that he’s the only one who could care for her/provide for her/keep her safe (ironically). But in the core of this mental issue we see a repeated insistence that, against all evidence, “he’s sorry and he’ll never do it again.” I consider that wishful thinking. Wanting to see what isn’t there and convincing myself I do.

Wishful thinking, in my view, is the opposite of clear-eyed believing the best. Believing the best, as I described it, means I will take every necessary step to keep you from abusing me again. If you can demonstrate that you are changing, I may take the chance to trust you again, or I may encourage you and pray for you but not enter back in (I can believe in someone’s redemption without having to put myself at risk to do so). Wishful thinking and biblical hope can look very similar. But wishful thinking is rooted in “this is the reality I want to see, so I’m going to pretend this is the reality I actually see.” As such, it’s wildly dangerous. Instead of clear-eyed recognition of another’s sins and faults, it chooses to overlook or ignore them. Wishful thinking and denial are first cousins. In fact, “wishful thinking” is the nice term for an addict’s thought pattern.


We’re living in a world suffering a virus for which none of us yet have antiviral medicine (clinical trials are happening as I type). It’s a pandemic, crossing all borders and boundaries. As always, it’s hitting and will hurt and kill people in poverty more. It’s also more likely to kill people with other physical vulnerabilities. “Underlying conditions,” we keep hearing. But I like that term about as much as I like “casaulties” when we’re talking about young men and women dying. If you’ve spent your life coping with and navigating a congenital heart condition, how unfair is it that now the pandemic we all face is more likely to kill you? Pretty bleeping unfair, I’d say.

This is not a time for wishful thinking. There might be a different term for nationwide wishful thinking. But if ever there were a time to get over the illusion “It can’t happen to me,” That Time. Is. Now. The novel coronavirus isn’t picky. It can happen to any of us. We might survive it. We might not. But nationally, we’re working together to prevent a much, much worse tragedy.

Denying medical science and the suffering and death other countries have already experienced is wishful thinking. Deciding it will be okay because we want that to be true is wishful thinking. Yesterday, I read an estimate of how many people would die if we reopened everything and sent our children back to school now. Stop and hear that. Estimating how many of our children will die.

Listen to me. I’ve had a child die. I barely survived. I feel fortunate our marriage survived (most don’t). Two percent of our total population includes more children than you want to see die, and some of them will be your children. Not only can it happen to you, it will happen to you if we pretend that we’ll be fine when all evidence tells us we won’t. This is not the time for wishful thinking.** Wanting it to be different doesn’t actually change our situation, any more than it changes the situation for the woman still living with her abuser. What happens still happens, he still does what he does, no matter how hard she tells herself he won’t anymore. If she doesn’t leave, statistically speaking, he will kill her.

We don’t know enough about this virus yet. That’s a big part of our problem. We don’t (yet) have the capacity to test everyone. We’re still learning how immunity works with this virus. We know that people can carry it for weeks asymptomatically.

Come, let us reason together. People, many, many people, are suffering in many ways right now because we have chosen to shelter in place. I’m not saying it’s all fine. I don’t have wishful thinking about our shelter in place decision. I’m certainly not saying “This is fine and who cares about people’s jobs?” I know, I really know that domestic abuse–another crappy euphemism, if you ask me, when we’re talking about (mostly) women getting battered by men–is increasing horribly. Likewise child abuse. I know, better and more personally than some, that depression is hitting us harder because many of our support systems we’ve worked hard to build have been removed. Likewise for people recovering from addiction. Our choice to shelter in place comes at a terrible cost. There is also a nightmarish underlying message here that home is so unsafe for so many people What do we do about that? Who’s developing that vaccine?

I don’t claim to have any medical expertise whatsoever and I don’t have all the information. But I’m representative because, like you, I have available to me the information from epidemiological experts. Like you, I also have available to me the information from people who are not medical experts who want to believe something conflicting with what the epidemiologists are telling us right now. I get that they have motives for what they tell us. But I fear, I truly fear, that decisions upon which the health, the very lives of millions of people (including our children) depend, are being made based on wishful thinking. I pray I’m wrong.

I have heard no one claim “this is all just fine.” Those saying we need to continue sheltering in place are not pitting people’s lives against our economy, as if these were two opposing options. If we let the pandemic rage uncontrolled, we will see millions of people–no, millions of us, our families–die horribly, and we will see our economy crash under the weight of it. It’s not one or the other.

I keep thinking people get this:

Our only choices are between

Containing this pandemic as best we can and then recovering from the economic damage

OR

Refusing to do what’s necessary to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, watching COVID-19 rage out of control and kill people we love, and suffering the collapse of our medical establishment and all the accompanying, calamitous consequences to our economy.

I don’t know how to weigh increased abuse of women by men in their homes and loss of income versus another one hundred thousand people dying. Yes, we can hope those people wouldn’t die if we all go back to how we interacted before the virus spread. That is wishful thinking.

I know this is all scary, even terrifying, and overwhelming. We have to choose not to let our fear drive us to anger against anyone giving us news we don’t want to hear. Right now, the fathers of two different young women I’ve mentored are fighting for their lives, trying to recover from COVID-19. It’s getting more personal for us each day. It’s easier to indulge in wishful thinking as long as this isn’t personal. This is very personal.

I’m tempted to excoriate those who have stated that “acceptable losses” of those with “underlying conditions” would be a reasonable tradeoff for us to “get back to business.” But I will settle for pointing out that they mean “those people” who will die. Faith in Jesus Christ means we trust that God loves us even beyond the grasp of death while following Jesus Christ means we value the lives of those devalued by our society, by our culture, and by those who count their own lives–and comfort–as more valuable. When I’m serious about following Jesus, I remember there are no “Those people.” Who is my neighbor?

Our people, our families, will die. We’re helping save their lives right now. Please, right now, pray for Luis and Scott, these two men who are part of my extended family in Jesus. [##While writing this, Connie, Luis’s wife, wrote me to ask for prayer for the rest of her household, as they are all showing symptoms and unable to get tested.##] Then consider how many more we can protect by following our medical experts’ recommendations. We need a plan, such as Germany just introduced, to restart everything cautiously, step by step. Support these plans, not the ones that suggest we could have packed our churches on Easter. We were told that the underestimates we received in January, February, and March when we should have been preparing for the pandemic were due to “optimism.” I believe that it was optimism, as I’ve defined it here.

Followers of Jesus are called to live by faith. We seek to believe the best of people. This is faithfulness. We should not mistake believing the best for optimism, nor for wishful thinking. Having faith is not wishful thinking; wishful thinking is not having faith. We choose to believe in people’s redemption, no matter what they’ve chosen up until now. We do not make up our own preferred reality and attribute that to obeying God. As people of the truth, we confront people living in unreality, as Jesus did, as an act of love. When we’ve seen how people behave, making excuses for–or denying–their poor choices is not “believing the best” of them. When we talk about decisions that put lives at risk, this becomes the wishful thinking that gets people killed.

In general, following Jesus does not mean always valuing caution over taking risks to be obedient. We’re not to protect our own comfort over our neighbors’ lives. However, in our current circumstances, erring on the side of caution does fit with following Jesus because by erring on the side of caution we protect our neighbors’ lives. All our neighbors. If we end the shelter in place too soon, there will be no way to undo this mistake of wishful thinking.

*Some people would be quick to say, “No, the Gospel is that we are totally depraved and have no good in us but God saves us anyway.” In my view, we are created in God’s image and God never stopped loving us or seeing that image in us, even when we warp and twist it. God made us in love and made us to be like Jesus. God still sees that capacity in each of us and God’s spirit works in us to bring that out. That’s how we are transformed into the image of Jesus.

**Yes, there is a time for wishful thinking: Opening Day of the season, when you can still believe your team will win.

When I’ve got nothing

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There are times I have to write while in the midst of the struggle to describe it accurately. You can write a novel about walking on Mars, though you haven’t. You can tell about the dark times when you were depressed years after the fact, when now it’s all sunshine and rainbows. If you’re a good enough writer, you’ll capture the essence of the experience. Yet I’ve learned that writing about hopelessness when I’m hopeful isn’t the same. I’m sure writing about the novel coronavirus pandemic will come across differently when we’re looking back at it in our rearview mirror (God willing).

I’m not writing about the virus tonight, at least not directly. I’m not severely depressed today, but I am flat. I have been for two days now. When I’m depressed, everything requires massive effort, including breathing. Remaining here becomes voluntary and not involuntary behavior.

Flat feels different and can be even harder to explain. I’m not summoning the will to live. But I have nothing. I’ll think about all the things I have to do…and do none of them. Forty-five minutes will pass and I’ll try to figure out why I didn’t just get up when I had the original thought–and then forty-five more minutes will pass.

If you’re thinking, “You just described my entire Shelter in Place experience,” uh-huh. That’s why I’m writing this now. Me, too. I have this right now. But it isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way.

I don’t know why this comes on me. Lack of sleep plays a part, but I lived in Nicaragua for seven years and suffered insomnia most of that time and didn’t hit this flat zone that often. When full depression hits, I don’t have any illusion I could just brush it off and get on with things. But in this experience of flatness I always thing I should be able to will it away. It’s harder to explain, harder to make sense of, harder to allow for, because it doesn’t seem that bad.

But I’ve got nothing.

It took a monumental will and all my daytime hours to start writing this and I like writing my blog.

Some of it, to be honest, I can attribute to taking in a constant stream of depressing-as-hell COVID-19 and this administration news. I wish this administration were handling it better, instead of recurrently acting as if they can wish it away. Reading about increasing death tolls should depress us. We might be soul-dead if it doesn’t. I’m praying for people’s lives, which leaves me drained and sharing in their grief. As it should. I’m also, speaking honestly, pissed off at “protestors” who would block ambulances from getting to hospitals. I think that’s a horrific, criminal act and “disrespect” for our overworked, exhausted medical workers doesn’t even begin to capture it. So yeah, that drains me, too.

But this is also the level of “I can’t quite do what I know I need to do to make this better.” I’ve got nothing and I know that means I need a long walk or a talk with a good friend or a long walk while talking with a good friend. Instead, I’m not doing anything from my personal “this will revitalize you” list. I know I should be. I know it…I know it…and I still don’t.

Prayer feels flat. I don’t believe the most important part of prayer is how I feel before, during, or after prayer. I believe the most important part of prayer is God. Fortunately for me (understatement here), God does not change with my moods. Prayer still counts because God is faithful, even if I struggle to say the words–to say any words–or even to groan beyond words.

But sometimes that wondrous thing, when you grit your teeth and push through a prayer time and somehow God lifts you up on the other end, sometimes that doesn’t happen and on the other end, you’re just as blah as when you went in.

Now I want to be super-duper clear here: I am not feeling sorry for myself. That is what people who do not experience depression often label depression: “You need to quit feeling sorry for yourself.” I’m not. I know how self-pity feels, too, and this ain’t it. I see the people who are struggling for real right now and I am doing fine in comparison. Truly. I’m not starving. I don’t have COVID-19. My wife loves me. I know people I love whose lives have become hell. Mine hasn’t. I’m not imagining that I have it hard right now and if you respond by telling me, “Buck up, Mike, it’ll be okay,” then you’ve missed the point of this post and probably it wasn’t for you, anyway.

Have you ever wondered why the starter in your car won’t turn over? I’m about that automotive, so that’s the extent of my car analogies, but when it goes “rurr–rurr-rrurr…” and won’t roar to life? No spark? It’s that. If you’ve had that, I’m certain you know exactly what I mean.

I’ve got nothing right now. Which means, when you stop to consider it, that I’m pulling off some fancy existential footwork, because I’m writing this right now, when I am flat and my starter won’t start. Again, if your takeaway (or giveaway, to me) is “See! You could do it if you just put your mind to it!” then the Positive Thinkers Overcoming Things with Positive Thoughts Group (PTOTPTG) meets down the street about three blocks. I’m not looking to be cheered up. If you don’t experience what I’m describing, then please hear this< Chirpy, cheery words when I’ve got nothing are like nails on a chalkboard, maybe combined with drinking slightly curdled milk. If you’re looking to help, that is not the way; conversely, if you’re looking to get revenge, this is certainly the way.

Okay, this is the part where I’m supposed to give some wisdom for all of us who deal with having nothing and trying to function on any kind of regular basis. I don’t have a lot to bestow. It passes. Sometimes I snap out of it when something wonderful happens and I’m just awed by the joy of life. Most of the time, I simply outlast it. My pep returns. It doesn’t tell me why it vacated but usually I’m just glad it’s back. But I guess that is a first point: I always outlast it. So do you.

Next, when I’m down I care less and when I care less I make worse decisions. But even though I care less about the consequences when I’m down, I still have to pay full price for those consequences and I don’t enjoy them when the bill comes due. If I do lots of self-destructive stuff while i’m not feeling much of anything, I still pay for all that damage I do myself and I still have to recover and heal and walk back out of it. So, when you’re flat, as much as you can, resist the turn toward “who gives a shit?” Because Future You will give a shit. Future You will have to pay this debt (figurative or literal, depending on if overspending is your preferred method to self-destruct) in full and life will be hard enough on Future You. Have a little compassion on your future self. I’m not saying, “C’mon! It’ll all be fine!” I’m saying you know what a stroll through the landmine field feels like from experience, so don’t walk through there again, just because at the moment you dot’t care whether you get ripped in two. You will care. It’s hard, but try to believe that.

Third and lastly, give yourself a break. You may need medication. You may need sunshine. You may need more chocolate (or, shockingly, less chocolate). But don’t, do not beat yourself up when you’ve got nothing. It only brings you down, which translates to longer that you’ll stay at this state of having nothing. Even if you can whip yourself into a frenzy of guilt, your body or your spirit is trying to tell you something in this flatness. Don’t whip yourself in response. If you can, listen to whatever that is in you. If you can’t, treat yourself as you would a friend who told you, “I just can’t. I’m staring at my screen for the past two hours and I’m stuck here.”

Grace. The word here is grace. Tomorrow may be a better day. Tomorrow may be flat like today and God will love us, anyway. This isn’t fun. Neither is it lazy nor some character flaw. I promise. If you can trust me about anything, trust me about this. Don’t listen to your critics, including–especially–the one in your head. If you’re feeling this Got Nothing for the first time with all this Shelter in Place combo of inaction and helpless anxiety, I’m sorry. It can really feel lousy and disconcerting. Have some grace for yourself. Try to do the minimum damage to yourself. Keep praying, even if it’s just “Jesus help me” or “God have mercy” or “Do something!”

The best news I’ve got for you is that God doesn’t feel about you as you do about yourself right now, not flat nor indifferent nor critical. God still delights in you.

And you’ll care again. In time.

I Was Just Looking for Soap

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[Stephen was the first real friend I made in college. We renewed our friendship in the last few years, for which I’m very grateful. I asked him to share his experience here. Please listen.]

For the first year of my life my family lived in Monterey Park, the Los Angeles suburb that was the heart of the Chinese American community. We didn’t live there for long, as we soon moved about 20 miles east to a newer suburb called Rowland Heights. It was quite literally the end of the 60 Freeway back in those days. It was semi-rural, with cattle drives heading down the dirt road behind our house.  My parents told me that we moved there because they didn’t want me to grow up only having Chinese friends. “We wanted you to be able to interact with anyone you wanted to” is what they said. “We didn’t want you to limit yourself.” 

When I was in elementary school, my father told me a cautionary tale of my life as a baby. My parents went to the supermarket with me in the cart and an older white woman looked at me with eyes of hate and disgust. “You were just a baby,” my father explained. “Who would look at a baby like that?”  Even at that age I understood the point: be wary, be vigilant. 

As children, my parents’ families were active members of the Chinese community of Los Angeles. My dad grew up going to weekly meetings of the benevolent association, a group that represented the social and legal interests of people from our ancestral region in China. They grew up in a world that used Cantonese in addition to English. My father used it in the home when he spoke with his mother, my only close relative who was not born in the United States. I, on the other hand, was given the choice whether I wanted to go to Chinese school or not.  I chose not to because Chinese school was on Saturday, and I wanted to watch cartoons instead. My cousins all made the same choice as me. We were proud of being ABCs — American Born Chinese. We made fun of FOB kids — Fresh Off the Boat. We thought we were better than them — they had accents, didn’t speak English well, and they weren’t American like we were. 

 “We’re gold rush people,” I would explain to friends to proclaim how long my family had been here. What I didn’t realize then was that it didn’t really matter how long my family had been in California, in other people’s eyes we were no different than the immigrant families my cousins and I looked down on. Groups of kids used to throw rocks at me when I walked to the library while calling me racist names. A kid in gym class nicknamed me “Chinkle” and “Nipper.” One day two neighborhood kids stopped me on my bike, blocking me from riding away. “Our mom said you’re a Chinaman,” one of them said. This was a woman I helped out at back to school night, someone I had always treated with respect. Why would she encourage her kids to call me a racist slur? I said nothing in return. Be wary, be vigilant. 

College was an escape from my home and these people. I felt that I could be who I wanted, study what I wanted. I worked as an admissions tour guide. One day I was assigned to a Chinese American woman and her daughter who were looking at the school. We were walking down the central hall of the science building when we stopped at a doorway and looked in a classroom. “What are you doing here?” called a hostile voice. I explained that we were on a tour and continued. When we exited the building, the mother turned to me and said, “That was racist.” I tried to voice an explanation for the man’s behavior and she stopped me. “You know that was racist.” The truth was, I knew she was right. I reported the incident to the Dean of the College. The explanation came back that I was wrong — the man was a valued departmental employee. He did community service. He worked with underprivileged kids. He was concerned for my safety. He couldn’t be racist. I was told that I was wrong. I don’t think the girl ever attended my college. 

I graduated with a degree in African history, a field I entered because I realized I knew nothing about it. I loved learning about history, particularly lessons of identity and access that are applicable in the contemporary world. After graduate school I began a career in teaching at a secondary school in Los Angeles. During my hiring process I kept being called back for multiple interview days. I came to campus at least three times — it was only a year later when I realized that didn’t normally happen. “We were afraid that seventh graders would eat you alive,” said one colleague.  “We thought you would be too meek,” said another. Meek? It was then I realized what they were saying. “Meek” was code. “Oh, you did that because I’m Asian,” I said. They looked shocked. They were shocked because they knew I was right. Be wary, be vigilant. 

Several years later I was asked to interview a man the school was interested in hiring to teach Latin. They were concerned that he might not be suitable to teach middle school. It turned out that he was half-Thai and half-Japanese and was an alumnus of my college. “We think he might be too meek,” said the colleague who had used the same word on me. “Could you go and talk to him?” I met with the guy for 15 minutes and came back — “he’ll be fine,” I said. He’s still teaching Latin there today. 

My parents’ goal was always that I interact with whomever I wanted to and not feel limited — they’re proud that I’ve achieved that objective. I taught history in independent schools for over 20 years. I am now the Head of Middle School at a large K-12 Los Angeles area preparatory school. I lead 60 teachers who are currently teaching our 300 middle schoolers remotely because of COVID-19. 

There are few Asian Americans in upper administrative jobs in independent schools, so I have achieved something that is relatively uncommon — I’ve gone beyond the bamboo ceiling. 

I’ve been working from home since mid-March, abiding by our stay-at-home regulations and watching too much news. Two weeks ago I made a rare outing to Target. I was in the soap aisle when I glanced up and realized that someone was staring at me. At the end of the aisle stood an older white woman, unmistakable hostility burning in her eyes. That same afternoon I was walking my dog around the corner from my house. Again, I had the feeling that someone was staring. A woman stood next to her car watching me while I turned the corner, even crossing the road to see where I was going. In both cases, I was not doing anything unusual. Be wary, be vigilant.

This is the insidious nature of racism. It can appear when you least expect it. Lately the reports of violence and harassment against Asian Americans due to Covid-19 caused me to think about how being an ABC with a couple of graduate degrees is no shield from bigotry and xenophobia. Over the past several weeks, I’ve noticed that my tendency to be wary and vigilant has kicked in. It’s 2020 and I no longer feel safe walking out in the open on city streets.  I have never felt this in my life before, but I just feel too exposed — what if someone hurled racial slurs at me? Or confronted me? Or worse? My parents’ admonitions still resonate, now more than ever. 


Drawn for Stephen by one of his students. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but having yourself cartoonized is right up there.

Stephen Chan

Head of Middle School

Middle School Coordinator of Diversity and Inclusion

Viewpoint School