Tag Archives: yin and yang

A death, a Rain Delay and a Visit from Saint Pete

This is a continuation of the story that I started in “Meeting Jesus and the Team at 7-11: A Baseball Fantasy” and “A Ballgame with Saint Pete: The Confluence of Faith and Baseball.” I have edited this from when I originally posted in last year and reposted it. I wrote the original article on my way to California for my dad’s funeral. When I started the series I did not expect my dad’s death, despite his long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. I wrote this article and started another which I will now finish and then continue the story from there. Somehow baseball helps me make sense of the world and adds to my spirituality in ways that I cannot explain to the non-member of the Church of Baseball. I just hope that the series touches people with the grace of God in some way, and that maybe they too will experience the love of God and the wonder of this wonderful game.

 

The news the next morning came like a thunderclap, as I was turning off my alarm clock which is located on my cell phone the phone rang to the tune of the Panzerlied which is my default ringer, a good German Army tune for a patently military Padre with an affinity for German military history.  I was not expecting the phone to ring as you might well image and squinted at the display to see just who might be calling me at this hour.  Without my glasses it was hard to see the display but nothing can come from a call this early in the morning. I looked at my watch to make sure that the cell phone time had been correct and that the call was not coming from someone at work seeing if I was running late which this morning despite having been up late the previous night I was not.  I hit the little green button with a phone on the key and put the device to my ever ringing ear, a product of too much noise exposure in Iraq according to my ENT, oh well, that and the loss of speech discrimination that I am experiencing tell me that the diagnosis is likely true.

“Hello” I asked warily wondering just whose voice would announce itself on the other end of the call.

“Hey Steve” announced the voice on the other end, it was my brother Jeff and I could tell that something bad had happened. “It’s Jeff I just got a call from the nursing home and they say that dad is hasn’t got much longer to live.” The voice was measured but full of emotion.

“Crap, okay, go on Jeff” my voice hesitated as Jeff continued to talk.

“Yeah, they called a few minutes ago and said that dad had taken a turn for the worse and that they didn’t expect him to live.” He paused for a second and continued. “I figured that they meant a few days so I asked them and the nurse told me that she didn’t think that he would live another half hour.”

I interrupted “a half hour?”

“Yeah, tell you what I need to get up there quick, I’ll call you from there to let you know what is going on.”

“Thanks Jeff be safe driving up there.” My voice trailed off as Jeff replied.

“I will Stevie.”

“One question, does mom know?”

“No they called me, I’ll let her know when I know something and I’ll call you as soon as I get up there.”

“Love you brother, be safe”

“Love you too” and with that Jeff hung up the phone.

I find it funny that my “little brother” refers to me on occasion as “Stevie” but he is my brother but he has been the more serious and grown up of the two of us since he was about eight years old. Dad used to say that he was eight going on forty back then and he still is the more serious and reserved of the two of us. When I was in high school and college he looked in askance when I went on toilet paper raids with friends and later with Judy around town.

In shock I walked back to the bed where Judy was awake and putting her glasses on. As I climbed back into the bed she asked “what’s wrong?” and reached out to me as I lay down next to her. “It was Jeff; he said that he got a call from the nursing home and that they said that dad was dying.” I looked up at her as she simply said “I didn’t expect that.”

“I didn’t either; Jeff is on the way up now, I don’t know what to think.” She cradled my head in her arms as I lay there stunned from the news.

“We’ve known for a long time that this was going to happen but…” I cut her off.

“But I just didn’t expect it now. I know that he hasn’t been the man that I knew for a long time with the Alzheimer’s but I just didn’t expect it. Kay had said that he was doing about the same, had gained some weight again and the last time I talked to mom and Jeff they said that he looked about the same as he has for a long time, I just figured that he would go on longer.” I paused as I took a deep breath and she said “I know” and held me close.  Seeing that we were up, Molly our vivacious Papillion-Dachshund mix pulled her 15 pounds of red fur and personality over us and wrapped her body around the top of our heads after squeezing herself between us and ensuring that she kissed each one of us.

We lay there for together not saying much as I wondered what was going to happen in the next few minutes. I prayed silently for my dad to have a peaceful death and to be with the Lord even as I searched for answers myself. It had not been that long, just about six month in fact since I had started believing again after my Christmas miracle. That had been a time, after Iraq I was falling apart and only got worse for most of the first two years after my return. I struggled with PTSD, anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, severe depression, chronic pain gained a lot of weight and got out of shape but the worst part was feeling cut off from community and even worse cut off from God, the experience of feeling God forsaken shook me and it was not until shortly before Christmas that faith had began to return to my weary soul.  I hugged Judy and pressed up closer to her before realizing that I needed to get a shower realizing that I had just enough time to do this and get dressed before Jeff called back from the nursing home.

“Strange, yesterday I get the greatest news of my career and today this. It’s that damned Yin and Yang, those two have to always show up together why couldn’t I get time just to enjoy the news of the promotion?” It was a rhetorical question of course, I am not one that subscribes everything to God’s will which in my understanding would make God out to be a capricious and even somewhat cruel God, despite what the Calvinists and Augustinians say is part of his will for us. I have a problem with a God that would intentionally screw with his people like that and choose rather to believe that some things in life just happen, the good with the bad and that somehow that God will give us grace to get through the difficult times, even when we see no good reason for the timing of events. “Damned Yin and Yang, especially that Yang always shows up when you don’t want him to.

“I’ve got to get cleaned up and dressed I’ll have to go in to work after I hear from Jeff and rearrange my leave.”

“I guess this means another anniversary apart huh?” Judy looked at me and I simply replied “yeah what’s new?” I had planned to take a good amount of leave around our anniversary this Friday just to be with her, help her around the house and relax through the July 4th weekend but that was now out the window with dad’s death.  Over the 27 years of your marriage we have been apart more than together on this auspicious date that we share with the 1950 invasion of South Korea by the North and the 2009 death of Michael Jackson.  I spent our first anniversary in Landstuhl Army Medical Center back in 1984 and over the years had only been at home for 11 of our anniversaries. I guess being in the military you get used to this in fact with us it is almost a running joke, but this year I didn’t think we would be apart.

“I think that this means that we’re 11 for 27” I dryly said.

“I’ve stopped counting dear I just figure that it’s going to happen.”

“Yeah, me too” I pulled my body which now felt like it weighed a ton off the bed and headed to the shower and Molly looking somewhat offended snuggled closer to Judy.

About the time that I was finished dressing the phone rang again and it was Jeff telling me what I knew he was going to tell me.  I answered the phone resigned to the message that I knew was coming. “Hey Jeff, what’s going on?”

“Stevie, I’m here at the nursing home, I made it just after he died.  It looks like he just passed away in his sleep, he looks at peace.”

“That’s how we hoped it would be no suffering.”

“I know, I just didn’t think that it would happen this fast. I thought they would call us and that he would slip into a coma and take a few days to pass away.”

“Yeah, same here, I just didn’t expect it today, but then who does?”

“Hey Stevie, I call you back I need to go let mom know that he’s gone.” It was 3:25 AM in California.

“Okay, hang in there and good luck with mom, it will hit her hard I’m sure. Talk to you later, love you Jeff.”

“Sure thing…. later.” The phone went silent as Jeff hung up.  I got my gear together gave Judy a kiss goodbye, filled me a water bottle and headed to my car.  After loading my gear in my trusty war wagon festooned with bumper stickers of baseball teams and military units and newly issued Operation Iraqi Freedom license plates personalized with “FLAK88” my favorite artillery piece of World War Two turned the key and nothing. The battery was dead.

I went back in the house and let Judy know that I needed to borrow her car and then proceeded to load her car for the trip into work.  On the way I called Derek, our assistant Department Head to let him know what had happened and by 7:15 I was walking in the office door wearing my Tides road jersey and hat. I sat down with Derek for a while as he and I have very similar family situations and both of us were wondering who would be the first to lose their father.  The talk was helpful and Derek prayed for me as our Monsignor, Father Fred.  Fred when he was on active duty had been my first detailer, which in non-Navy parlance would be a personnel manager or assignments manager.  Fred and I have had a wonderful ministry together as Priests and he came into my office, closed the door and spent time with me, finishing with prayer and letting me know that he would offer Mass on my dad’s behalf.  He was followed by Father Roy a Canadian Army Priest in our Clinical Pastor Education Residency who offered his condolences and then let me know that he too would offer Mass for my dad.  I gathered the things that I would need to include my Summer White uniform, or as I love to call them my Faggoty White Uniform as Colonel Nathan R Jessup, Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie A Few Good Men called them.  Once I was packed I was on my way home where Judy awaited me as did my laptop with which I would make my travel arrangements.

I could not believe the prices to fly on short notice and the aggravation that I had in trying to use my frequent flyer miles or get a real person on the line on all airlines except Southwest. Although I was able to talk with the kind folks at Southwest, who by the way are always the most courteous of all the airline customer service agents, at least to me, I went online where I got my ticket on Southwest to Sacramento and made my rental car reservations.  Following all of the time spent making arrangements my neighbor Larry jumped my car which enabled me to go to the auto part store for a battery.

Finally about exhausted and with the temperatures in the high 90s with unbearable humidity Judy and I went and got a beer and light lunch at Biersch before the ball game which I knew that I needed.  It is funny how baseball of all things works to calm me when nothing else will and how even when I experience great loss baseball is there for me. It is much as Walt Whitman once said: “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game — the American game. It will take our people out of doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair those losses, and be a blessing to us.” Baseball is a blessing to me, something that the Deity Herself must have figured when I was conceived to a couple of baseball fans who in addition to raising me right taught me to love this game.

I looked up at the sky and realized that there was a strong possibility that rain would affect the game as I got out of my car at Harbor Park.  When you live in these parts you can tell by the look, feel and smell when a storm is coming and this was one of those days.  I entered the park, as Bill “Spaceman” Lee once said “as one enters a church” paying my respects to the folks that I now know well at the front gate walking up the stairs to the concourse where I was greeted by Will, one of the ushers who helps people as they come up the stairs offering greetings to those that he knows while directing first time visitors in the proper direction.  I let Will know what had happened and he offered his condolences and said that he would pray for my family too.

I made my way across the concourse and looked out at the lush diamond below, the grounds crew was preparing the infield for the game as Rip Tide mugged for fans and the Tides band played on the concourse.  Vendors selling all types of food and drink were busily engaged in their work while Marty the Card dealer talked with a customer.  I stopped trying to figure out what I wanted to do next and decided to get a Tides dog and a beer before going down to my seat. This is a comfort food for me and like Humphrey Bogart said “A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz.” Going down to “Rosie’s Grill” on the third base side of the concourse I ordered the dog and the beer, a draft Yuengling Lager and after dousing the dog in mustard and relish I went over to a table and ate the dog there as I stared out at the diamond occasionally looking across the Elizabeth River to the shipyards and dry docks and the Staten Island Ferry that was high and dry in the dry dock directly across from right center field.

My mind wandered thinking about the many times that dad had taken me to ball games and how much that meant to me.  The last game that we saw together was a Stockton Ports game at Banner Island Ballpark back in 2005 or 2006 when the Alzheimer’s was just starting to show up in his daily life and instead of being able to really enjoy the game he nervously paced the concourse behind home plate for much of the game.  That was so unlike him and I knew that he was slipping even though he did not yet recognize it. When I finished the dog I took my beer and my bag with my camera and windbreaker in it down the concourse where I met Chip the usher who greeted me in his usual friendly manner.

“Hey Steve how are you doing? Celebrating the promotion?”

I looked at Chip and sighed. “Chip it’s the damndest thing I thought that I would be celebrating and my brother called this morning to let me know that my dad died.”  Chip looked at me and shook his head.

“Sorry to hear that, he’d been sick for a while?”

“Yeah, the Alzheimer’s didn’t even know who the hell I was the last time that I saw him; at least he went peacefully in his sleep.”

“But still…”

“Yeah, really threw me for a loop, I just didn’t expect it to happen now even though I have expected it for the last two years.”  I paused.

“I’m really sorry Steve; I’ll keep you and your family in my prayers. When are you going out?”

“Tomorrow afternoon.”

“Okay, I’ll keep you in my prayers my friend.”

“Thanks, I better go down and see Elliott.”

“Catch you later.”

“You bet.”

I walked down the stairs to see Elliott waving at me having already wiped down my seats.  I got down to where he was and he greeted me cheerfully. “Hello Padre, just you tonight?”

“Yeah just me.”

“I hope we don’t get rain tonight”

“Sure looks like we might it feels like rain.”

“Yeah, so how are you doing?”

“Not so good, I won’t be here for a while I got a call from my brother this morning to tell me that dad is dead. I fly out tomorrow.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that Steve.” I knew Elliott like Chip meant what he said.

“Yeah, hard to believe, I thought that God might actually let me enjoy a full day with my promotion.” I paused as Elliot let me continue, a good usher like a good bartender is a good listener.  “But stuff happens, like those Chinese kids Yin and Yang, the good and the bad huh?”

“Yeah, seems that way.” Elliott paused. “How are you doing there?”

“I guess okay, he died in his sleep, we’ve expected this for the last two years, I just didn’t expect it now.” I paused and as before Elliott let me do so without prattling on. “You know I prayed that he would go in his sleep at peace without anymore suffering but now that he has I am just…I don’t know, I didn’t expect it now.”

“Hang in there Padre; I’ve got to get busy before Dave thinks that I’m ignoring others, I’ll talk to you later.” A couple came walking down the steps looking for their seats and Elliott turned to great them. As he did I looked up at the sky, the clouds were building from the west and well, if you have ever lived where thunderstorms are a part of daily life you know what I mean when I say that you can smell the rain in the air or feel the storms building.

I went to my seat and as the grounds crew finished its work and the teams began to take the field I wondered if we would get the game in.  The young woman who would sing the National Anthem came out on the field and the PA announcer announced the Tides as they ran onto the field each accompanied by a young girl softball player about 6-9 years old.  Obviously the “Field of Dreams Team” was a girl’s softball team otherwise they would have been boys.  The young woman sang the Anthem and Chris George the Tides starter went into his final warm ups, just then the rain started and the home plate umpire signaled for the players to come off the field as thundered rumbled and lightening flashed nearby. I looked at my cell phone and looked up the weather channel whose radar show a very big blob of red coming our way. I left my seat and walked up to the concourse and not long after I did the heavens opened and the rains came down.  As I and most of the other fans took cover from the storm a finger tapped me on the shoulder.

“Padre, I knew that I would find you here.”

I looked up and it was Pete.

“I thought that the boss sent you out of town?”

“He did but he let me come back when your dad died.”

“Really, why?”

Pete put his hand on my shoulder “Padre the Boss had me come back because he knew that you’d listen to me.” He paused and looked me in the eye. “The boss was going to send Thomas because he wanted to send me on a road trip but when he actually called Carl home he realized that you really didn’t know Thomas, I mean Thomas is a good guy but…” I cut him off.

“But Skip knew that you were right for this.”

“Yeah, Tom’s good but you know me.”

“True.”

“And he likes wine better than beer” Pete chuckled “and even though he’s on the team he’d rather sit down in a nice restaurant and share a nice bottle of Merlot and eat cheese, Skip realized that I was the better choice.”

“Makes sense, Skip knows me pretty well huh?”

“All of us my friend, all of us, heck I remember meeting him for the first time when he called me, changed my name on the spot from Simon to Peter, the Rock.” He chuckled “sometimes I think that he thought the rocks were in my brain housing unit, the time I corrected him and he told me “get behind me Satan” my Lord that was not fun, I felt so foolish, but he didn’t chase me away.”

“Sometimes I feel pretty foolish Pete, I mean look at me, my dad is dead, I fly out to California tomorrow and I am standing in the concourse of a baseball park with rain coming down in buckets.” My sense of frustration and confusion was showing. “I mean Pete, what should I be doing? I really don’t know.” I shook my head and my eyes first moved to the ground and then looked back up at Pete. “I don’t know what to do Pete.”

“I know, and Skip knows, that’s why I’m here and not Tom. The fact is Steve you can’t do this alone, that’s why you’re here tonight; you need to be around this place, your friends and in a sense your dad. Your dad is here at least in spirit.”  Pete paused “Let’s get a beer and sit down out of the rain.” Pete walked me over to a stand on the first base side of the concourse where a vendor was selling Killian’s Irish Red. Pete looked at me and said “I’ll get it so put your wallet back.” Walking up to the stand he said “Sir, two Killian’s, make them large” and laid a twenty dollar bill on the stand. As the man reached to make change Pete said “keep the change my friend, tips might not be too good if this rain keeps coming down.”

The man behind the stand smiled as he finished pouring the second beer, “Thanks there buddy, you have a good night, thanks again” as he put the five dollars of change into his vest pocket.

“Let’s go over here Padre.” Pete led me to one of the tall round metal tables near the stand and put the beer to his lips. “Not bad, of course it isn’t named after Saint Killian, but we can pretend can’t we?”

“Always Pete”

“Cheers my friend, to Carl.”

“To dad” I replied as we lifted our cups.  The rain continued to beat down on the tarp spread across the field; I looked down at the display on my cell phone and noted the large amount of red, yellow and green on the Weather Channel, and I looked at Pete “looks like the rain isn’t going to let up for a while.”

“Well then let’s hang out for a while then.”  We’ve got a little bit of time, besides; you don’t want to get soaked on the way out to your car.”

“True, I am not a big fan of torrential rain.”

“You know that some of the good times early on came with the boss in the rain, well actually in the rain in little boats in raging storms.  I will never forget the time that he came walking across the water, shocked the heck out of me, enough to tell him that I wanted to do it too” Pete took a drink of his beer and laughed “I laugh about it now but when I saw those waves around me and realized that there was no boat under my feet I freaked out.  As I started to flail about and sink Skip walked over to me like he was on pavement reached down, grabbed my arm lifted me up and hauled my ass back in the boat. He then stilled the storm and the rest of the team; even guys like Judas had a laugh.” The rain was now coming down in sheets and with the exception of a couple of ushers and diehards everyone in attendance was on the concourse under cover or under the overhangs on the upper decks and the party deck.

“I’ve been through some storms at sea too”

“But you weren’t foolish enough to jump out of the boat.”

“Patently Pete, patently” I raised my cup “cheers Pete?”

“Cheers Padre” and Pete raised his cup to mine and each of us took another drink.

“So anyway, you wanted to talk to me.”

“Yeah, that.”

“So?”

“Well, last night I mentioned that you were in few a few changes or something like that before I left the park.”

“Okay, go on.”

“Well, that call from Skip, he kind of let me know that he was going to take Carl, your dad home.” Pete paused “And he kind of told me that he was going to send Tom as he had other work for me to do.”

“But that changed, you already told me that.”

“Yeah, yeah anyway, as I was saying, um where was I?”

“Changes and Skip telling you that he was taking my dad home” I paused and looked at Pete.

“Yeah, that let me continue.  You know that Skip liked your dad a lot, and I got to know your dad before you were even born, played some ball together on Guam.  I was on his team, I remember when he slid head first into second and broke his collar bone.”

“You’re kidding?”

“You dad was a young Petty Officer and a heck of a ballplayer, he was a solid hitter, knew where to hit the ball, aggressive on the base paths and good defensively at second base, sometimes all of us on the team would go out for a San Miguel after the game” and then paused for a drink and I took the opportunity to interrupt.

“What were you doing in Guam?”

“Come on Padre, what I’m doing here, Skip keeps us busy, that thing about “the great cloud of witnesses,” well some of us are more like low cloud cover or fog, a bit closer to the action than some of the others.” Pete laughed, “Skip likes us to be involved and I just happened to be in Guam when Carl was, it was totally coincidental.”

“Like the past two days?”

“No not at all, this was one of those God ordained things, you know Skip, when he wants something, well what can I say?”

“So you’re telling me that playing ball with my dad was coincidental and this was God ordained?”

“Yeah, so why can’t it be that way?”

“It just seems too coincidental to me Pete, I mean why this why me why now?” I was still in shock about dad’s death and though I knew that Pete was telling me the truth I didn’t really know how to react or what to say. I looked down at my beer and back up at Pete. “Pete I’m sorry I just don’t know what to say, I’m still in shock and kind of numb.”

There was an awkward silence and Pete reached out to me. “Padre, you needed to be out here tonight, you needed to hear this, it’s been so long with Carl not being himself with Alzheimer’s that you needed to remember that he was once young and enjoyed life, he loved you and your brother and your mom. He wasn’t perfect but there is a lot of him in you. He was proud of you and your brother and your families and I was glad to have known him back then.”

Though there were people all around us chatting and rain coming down mixed with thunder and flashes of lightening.  It had been nearly an hour since the rain began and it didn’t look like it would be letting up anytime soon as water began to puddle in the right field corner and other places in the outfield and warning track.  There was also water building up in my eyes, and I tried to be inconspicuous as I wiped away a tear.

“Padre, its okay, your dad died this morning.  It only happens once to most people and Carl was a good man, he’s getting a chance to hang out with Skip and well a lot of others, he’ll be fine.”

“So Skip really knew dad?”

“Still does, and I know that after Iraq you wondered if God existed and struggled with faith but when Skip said that he was with us and would never leave us or forsake us he meant it. He didn’t say that we wouldn’t have problems but he said that he would be there. Sometimes that’s hard to believe, I know I had a number of times where I doubted more than Tom ever did, thankfully Luke didn’t take the time to report all of those events.”

“Good thing I guess, better than these ballplayers, every error they make get’s published and recorded for posterity.”

“Good thing Padre, good thing, those statisticians would have been great sin counters in the Middle Ages, they would have known exactly the amount that you would need to pay to get your sins forgiven and an indulgence or two…I’m surprised that brother John Tetzel isn’t their patron saint.”

“So the reason that Skip sent me back is that he knew that you needed a bit of a pep talk and know that he really does care about you. He wants you to know that things will work out and to find a way to make sure that people remember your dad before Alzheimer’s took everything from him. Skip thinks that it will be good for them and you too.”

“But what?” I asked.

“I don’t know, Skip didn’t tell me. I guess that he will give you inspiration, he’s good at that you know.”

“Yeah, but until this inspiration comes I don’t know what the hell to do.”

The rain began to let up; I refreshed the Weather Channel and noticed more storms in the area.

“Pete, I have a long day tomorrow, I need to get home and pack, if this game does get going it will be close to midnight before it’s over and I’m still tired from yesterday. I’d better get out before the rain starts coming down again.” I finished the last bit of beer in my cup. “You will talk to me again?”

“Of course, I’ve been assigned your case.”

“Thanks for being here and thanks for the beer too, it tasted good.”

“Sure thing Padre, I’ll see you here again, maybe we’ll even find some way to get a game going, I think I can talk Dave into renting out the park for a day.”

 

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The Sacrament of the Smile….Making it Real

In Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie Ryan mystery “The Archbishop in Andalusia” the character Bishop Blackie makes a comment after celebrating Mass in the cathedral at Seville. He said “Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

I’m the kind of person that if I’m angry or not doing well my face can show it even if I don’t want it to.  It’s sometimes hard to hide emotions even though I try, but I have gotten pretty good at hiding them by putting on a poker face and smiling, even if it hurts to do so.   This works most of the time, but sometimes with people who know me pretty well it catch me.  They ask me if I’m doing okay and they are pretty good at taking care of me in those moments, which unfortunately are a lot more common after Iraq than before it but occasionally happen.

However on the whole I remain a pretty upbeat person.  I think my most common greeting with people that I work with or see relatively often is “Hey, what’s up, what’s new, what’s happening in the world?” Most of the time I’m a pretty laid back kind of person. I think that this is due a blend of genetics from a recessive gene in my family as well as having grown up on the West Coast and spending a lot of my adult life somewhere in the former Confederate States of America.   The genetic factor has to be a recessive gene as a lot of folks in my family can get spun up and pretty serious pretty fast.

Since being upbeat unless I am downcast is the baseline for me, even with my PTSD I find a lot of humor in life and still manage to have fun.  I love the folks that I work with in my ICUs and being in those places with those colleagues does me an incredible amount of good.

One thing that I have noticed is that it is important for me to smile; in fact I generally like smiling except when I don’t.   I admit that there are some times and some people that I am like the scene in the movie Patton where Patton is forced to make conversation with a Soviet General after the war.  In those kinds of times the smile is definitely faked and thankfully most people don’t realize it.

However what I find is that many people respond positively to a genuine and caring smile and greeting.  Let’s face it times are not the best, all the economic problems and political conflict coupled with ongoing wars and wondering what is going to happen stress a lot of people out.  A lot of this is the news media’s fault as they heap one negative story after another on their viewers, particularly those who are addicted to 24 hour non-stop cable news and talk radio.  As a result it is amazing to see the number of people out in town who don’t smile.  Since I work in a pretty good sized teaching medical center I see people going through a lot of health and life crisis, but even here I don’t quite see the level of disgruntledness that I see out in town.  Frankly I’d like to see a lot more gruntled than disgruntled people.

In the past year that I have been here I have endeavored to be as positive and cheerful as possible and with some exceptions I have managed pretty well.  In fact I have made it my crusade to honestly try to greet everyone that I contact with a kind word or smile and often a God bless you or simply “blessings on your head.” What I love to see is someone who has been obviously beaten down; do a double take when they realize that someone; that being me, is taking the time to say something nice to them.  I love the sheepish smiles, the surprised thank you and God bless you responses that I get in return.

No place is this more important than church or chapel service when I or for that matter any Priest or minister serves God’s people.  Grumpy pastors, who are too bothered to care, perform their duties in a perfunctory manner or worse are rude and disrespectful to the people that God entrusts to their care  do damage.  It’s like Archbishop Blackie said, the encounters that we have are occasions to share the grace and love of God, to be with them, care for them and are in a very real sense both evangelical and sacramental occasions.  When I was in Jacksonville Florida as a Navy Chaplain I would occasionally serve at the altar of our cathedral church.  People would almost always comment on how joyful I looked while celebrating Eucharist and serving communion.  How can I not be when I am entrusted with such a great gift for God’s people?

Judy and my college room-mate Kendra is in town this week.  We had kind of a three’s company situation.  I had my men’s bedroom which was a total college guy mess and Judy and Kendra shared the other bedroom.  At the time Kendra was an Atheist being bombarded by many of our well meaning but hyper aggressive Christian friends.  We had a blast.  Kendra is like super duper deaf, lost all of her hearing at the age of four after she had learned to speak and read. She’s incredibly intelligent and as a 15 year old scored in the upper one percentile of the SAT where I not to be too flashy scored somewhere around the upper thirty-fifth percentile due to my abysmal math score. It was due to Kendra that I learned sign language.  All of Judy’s friends were deaf at Cal State Northridge and I needed it, but Kendra and her sense of humor helped make me do it.  When I first met her Judy had to run out and when Judy came back to her dorm room, this was before the three’s company” set up she found Kendra and I reading the “Official Sick Joke Book” and since I couldn’t sign just yet pointing to the jokes and laughing.  Anyway, Kendra eventually came to faith and joined the Episcopal Church in Pasadena just a few years back.  In her spiritual biography she mentions us not trying to convert her, even going to church with us without feeling pressure. She knew that we cared for her and our continued friendship was a part of how she came to faith.  I thought that was so cool.  My sign language is in the crapper now but I am going to do my best to have fun.  I picked up a copy of “Mommy Dearest” so we could watch it and relive great memories of chasing each other around the apartment with wire coat hangers saying “no more wire hangers.” Trust me you have to see the movie to get this one.

Of course I try to ensure that I don’t appear to be a total idiot when I do this, with some mindless smile or joke that is inappropriate to the occasion.  Let’s look at a unlikely scenario: With me in the room the Doctor says to the patient “Sir, I have good and bad news.”   The patient says “What’s the good news?” The doctor replies “the good news is pretty soon you will feel no pain.”  The patient says “Doctor that’s wonderful news, you know I’ve been in so much pain for so long.  So what’s the bad news?” The doctor replies “Son you’re going to die.” Then I as the chaplain with a mindless big grin on my face chime in, “Let’s focus on the positive now…have you seen The Bucket list? Gotta love Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman huh? They are such good actors.  Hey, I have an idea, you want to pray?”  As the nurses and doctors struggle to pull the man’s hands from around my throat I gasp out “so do you want me to come back later?”  That of course is extremely unlikely in my case; in fact I usually am the glass half-full kind of guy when it comes to dealing with sick people since I am neither a physician nor God.

I have a sense of gallows humor but am very careful how and when to use it and thankfully I am able to not smile like an idiot when bad news gets delivered.   It’s a gift.  Let’s face it there is that stuff about those Chinese kids Yin and Yang, everything has to be in balance.

All this being said there are times where the foot is in the other shoe. These are the times that the person who is afflicted with a life threatening condition or knows that they are dying is the one who smiles and comforts others, even throwing in a joke or poking fun at someone in the room.  Having experienced this even very recently I have to say that these kinds of folks do more for me than I think that I can ever do for them.   Often there is a time of interaction where the person allows me into their world, to share a story, a laugh and a blessing.  For a Priest it doesn’t get any better than that.  These are holy times where God shows up and tonight I have the honor of spending time with such a man and his family.  I am reminded at these times how precious the time is and just how in the midst of pain, suffering and even death, that the God who says “I will never leave you or forsake you” is truly with us as we walk through the “valley of the shadow of death.”

I’ll be smiling tonight in every ward that I visit and hopefully with every staff member, patient and family member that I encounter, knowing that in their lives, that smile might be the only good thing that happens to them all day, or maybe even all week.

Make sure that you smile and give a kind word to someone soon.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under healthcare, Pastoral Care, philosophy

The Art and Science of Staying Awake and Going to Sleep When You Have PTSD

“The blood level in my caffeine is getting too high” Woody Paige on ESPN’s Around the Horn

opus coffeeToday: 3 24 Ounce Cups of Southern Pecan Coffee with French Vanilla Creamer and Splenda

Which came first the chicken or the Egg McMuffin?  That is the type of life I have when it comes to a little thing that you never notice until you can’t do it…something called sleep.  Today is one of those days where the inner Chinese kids, Yin and Yang are trying to get themselves into some kind of equilibrium, or maybe even equilibriumnumnum after a pretty rough week and a night on call at the medical center.  As usual my insomnia and anxiety have joined their ever loving hands together to ensure that I have had less than optimal sleep.  Yesterday’s on call duty and that of last night was fairly relaxed.  I had my new residents with me getting oriented to pulling duty and I have to say they are a fun bunch. We have two Americans and two Canadians all with great senses of humor and all who have had some kind of combat tour.   I actually like being around them which I cannot say of everyone that I have worked with in 28 plus years in the military.  They are a joy.  Likewise I love being around the hospital staff doing my rounds at night and to top things off there were no tragedies.

This being said I still could not get to sleep last night which kind of tops off a week of crappy or too little sleep.  Love them or leave them crappy or insufficient sleep over a long period of time beat the hell out of you.  I know, it has me and to make an astute observation it makes me tired.

My battles with insomnia began about a third of the way into my Iraq tour. When we came back from a mission I would go to my “Can” and just sit awake either reading, playing chess on my computer or going out and watching the Dustoff helicopters coming in and out of the Surgical Shock Trauma Platoon helipad or looking off to the perimeter to see illumination rounds lighting up the night sky and hearing occasional gunfire and explosions.  It was incredibly hard to get to sleep no matter how tired I was.  That continued the whole tour and got worse.  Part was the late night flights that we so often took, part the danger that we faced and part the conditions that we slept in. At one FOB in Ramadi we stayed in an old trailer that we could hear the rats chewing on the ceiling. When we had to stay in Al Asad to catch a morning flight after having flown in our tents were near the flight line and F-18s flying in and out all night do not make for a quiet and restful night’s rest.  In some of the more remote FOBs the isolation and vulnerability made it hard to rest.  I think that it was about two-thirds of the way through that the dreams and nightmares started.

Doonesbury-082108Too True I can Relate

Having talked to others with PTSD or other combat related injuries of the brain and nervous system I find that I am not alone and most of us are mid-grade to senior career officers.  It’s kind of weird because when you are young in the military you are taught just to “suck it up” and as you go through your career you tell others the same thing until it happens to you. Thus for us old guys I think PTSD is actually harder than for young people because it destroys our world view and our tough personas which most up us have cultivated over a long period of time.  My friends and I share the same or similar experience and we all are trying some way of managing it.  All of us have some drugs, the legal kind of course to help us with anxiety, panic, depression and insomnia.  However there are times when the drugs don’t work as well as they should, or they need to be adjusted or changed.  In those times you still have to find ways of getting to sleep and for the times where you can’t sleep ways of keeping sharp so you can stay in the game and not screw anything up.

bean church 1Staying Awake

Some guys I know have added to the mix other kinds of over the counter drugs and supplements.  I don’t do that, not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I guess I never grew up.  I like my medicine whenever possible to taste good.  Thus my self-medication is limited to caffeine and really good beer.   My choice in caffeine is coffee which I have been drinking since I was 12 and I believe that by my junior year of high school Navy Junior ROTC my index finger was beginning to mould itself into the shape of a coffee cup handle.  With caffeine there is little moderation because since I don’t sleep I need to stay awake.  My alcohol consumption is moderate and I don’t drink hard liquor.  I always try to maintain the Yin and Yang of the blood to medicine to caffeine and alcohol at some kind of balance so I can get to sleep and then not be exhausted the next day.  I make sure that I don’t mix alcohol with my meds since I don’t want to do the Karen Anne Quinlan thing and end up in a coma, and end up in a broccolitative or asperagative state (I don’t do just any vegetables thank you).  However I know guys who have a lot heavier load of meds than I do who have no problem ingesting them and alcohol close together and most of these guys don’t just drink limited amounts of beer.  I’m quite happy not to be there and mixing meds and alcohol.  So for me the equation looks like this.  Please note I am a historian and not a mathematician and that since this is a new field of study for me that it does not yet factor in sleep quality:

Drugs- caffeine² ± beer÷ “defensive factor” (anxiety+ hyper-vigilance) + normal work and life stress ÷ spirituality factor² = sleep

Now also since I am a Priest and Chaplain there is the spirituality factor which is hard to quantify but can be stated very simply “Please God let me sleep + have I been to a baseball game.”  This is hard to quantify but I have given it a numeric value for the sake of argument. Now I’m not a mathematician by any means but this seems to work somehow.

axieties and dreamsYep…Them Iraqi Snorklewackers Show up Often

Now back to me and the guys I know who struggle with this.  Pretty much to a man we all still manage to do our jobs.  In fact we all love what we are called to do which probably helps us as far as the management of our situation.  Many of the folks I know are like me and if we had the chance would go back to the fight.  You put us together with men and women who have similar experiences in combat and we are in our element, there is a shared brotherhood because of the real dangers that we faced.  However that is not necessarily true of others that we serve alongside who have not been, as is oft said “in the shit.” Within that category there are those who are people that help us and care for us, they are appreciated even if they have not been in our shoes.  The often exude a kindness and love that helps us make it when we have bad days.  But there are also those that don’t always seem to have our interests at heart or who would appear by their words and sometimes their actions to use our injury against us.

garfield show me the coffeeAmen!

So this whole deal gets weird when you can’t sleep due to anxiety or insomnia and have to maintain your ability to do your job.  Now this is where the art and science of self medication come together. You have to be able to figure out how things balance out. Medications are set by prescription unless you throw in a wild card of over the counter meds and supplements.  Thus for me they are a relatively stable factor.  Then you factor in the caffeine factor.  This may vary but in my case I drink 24-72 ounces a day of coffee which is usually spread over a 4-8 hour period, and maybe 12-24 ounces of Diet Coke, Coke Zero or Diet Dr Pepper later in the day.  My caffeine level is variable based on how tired I am. If I am well rested the amount consumed goes down.  Today I was maxing out the caffeine factor because my ass was whipped and it was all I could do to get through the day.  Today I was so wiped that I added in the Skittles factor to get the quickie sugar rush.  I hate skittles, when we were poor in seminary it was the only candy we got because the church food bank gave them out.  Skittles, Boston Baked Beans, Swee Tarts and Smarties are all great instant energy, the problem with them is that they are like lighting the afterburner; they are only good for short spurts.  Beer varies but if I am home I might have two beers at dinner.  I have stopped any late night drinks.  Then there is the “defensive factor” which for me includes my anxiety and hyper-arousal levels.  This is combined with normal life and stress and divided by the spirituality factor to get a night’s sleep.  That is the science.  The art is how to make the adjustments to the factors that are variable fit the current life situation and find those illusive Chinese kids, Yin and Yang.

pub1

So the week is coming to a close, I have now been up 36 of the last 40 hours and have worked every day since last Monday, though Saturday and Sunday were just a few hours each despite having the duty pagers. I am tired I had a decent meal complete with vegetables, several portions of fruit and other healthy things.   As soon as the Orioles game is over I plan on heading to bed and hoping my meds and my general sense of exhaustion will overcome any anxiety or insomnia that might join hands to interfere with me.  I think I have managed to bring old Yin and Yang into balance for the evening and if I didn’t I I do hope that the Deity Herself will assist this effort tonight.

Peace, Padre Steve+

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The Art of Balance, Baseball and living as a Passionate Moderate

I subscribe to the philosophy that balance is essential in life.  This is probably because my kindergarten teacher took the pencil from my lf and made me write with my right hand which I believe made me amphibious.  I think that is one reason that God speaks to me through baseball.  It’s kind of like those mythical Chinese kids, Yin and Yang, who as I understand whose properties were fused by the Deity Herself into the perfect form of a baseball several millennia ago becoming the symbol of perfect balance in the world.  In baseball there is a certain balance and symmetry that transcends sports played on rectangular fields.    Baseball is the one team sport where no fat lady gets to sing before the last out, unless of course she is singing God Bless America during the 7th Inning Stretch. Time in baseball is measured in multiples of three: Three Strikes to an out, three outs in an inning, and nine innings of three outs each.  Likewise there are 90 feet between each base and 60 feet six inches between the pitcher’s rubber and home plate, again, multiples of three. There are 108 stitches in a baseball, again a multiple of three. Since we in the Christian Church understand God as a Trinity in Unity, One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it is apparent to me that baseball, being a game made up of “threes” is something that flows from God to us.  As George Will once said “Baseball is Heaven’s gift to mortals.”

This is why I am a moderate which to me an integral part of balance.  Moderation to the chagrin of many actually takes work, hard work.  Moderates are often mischaracterized, maligned or derided by people who don’t understand the difference between a principled moderate and waffling follower.  I don’t believe that lazy and unimaginative people who can’t make up their minds about which cola is better, much less examine a serious issue can be truly described as moderates.  They may be wishy-washy but they are not true moderates.  People who take a position so strongly that they can only see their particular view as the only way, be it political, social or religious often cannot understand a true moderate and because moderates don’t fit in their dualistic world view have to malign them.  Unfortunately moderates tend to have big targets on them which draw the fire of extremists on any side of an issue.  Moderates are often compared the Biblical church of Laodicea which the Lord says he will spew out of his mouth like a cheap beer.  I once heard a fiery preacher in Texas say that the only thing defining a moderate was “the tire track down his back as he was run over by people who really believed in something.”  Rush Limbaugh and others on the right treat moderates like traitors, and Limbaugh’s left wing counterparts pretty much see moderates in the same way.  It is much like the way conservative Catholics and Protestant Fundamentalists view the via media or middle way of Anglicanism.  Moderation does not go over well with people who live in a dualistic, black and white world.  Moderation is like baseball where there is no replay for a called third strike, where umpires can make a bad call and where decisions can go either way.  Football and other sports which depend on replays when a call is controversial seek to evade a key part of the human condition, they have removed as much as possible the judgment call and the gray area and unwittingly played into the dualism.

My understanding of being a moderate however is far from being wishy-washy spit coming from the mouth of God….oops, splurt.  I believe that real moderates seek truth, and far from being wishy-washy or milquetoasty are pretty tenacious, diplomatic and able to see the finer points of argument and debate.  Moderates occupy the crucial center ground on which the safety and stability of nations, governemnts and churches depend. As such true moderates must be principled and passionate in both seeking and defending truth.  They also must be willing to defend themselves from both the left and the right.  This is not simply pragmatism, though moderates tend to be pragmatic, it is necessity.  Likewise true moderates are passionate about life and truth, there is no waffling, as a moderate though moderates know that thye don’t have all the answers, and that somethimes there are no answers.  Thus for me I am according to my website title a “passionate moderate.”  This is far from being an oxymoron, or for that matter any kind of moron.  Being a passionate moderate entails holding a tension between opposing points of view, its the synergy of old Yin and Yang.   Passionate moderates have to be able to engage anyone in meaningful dialogue from both the right and the left. Passionate moderates also must be able to confront individuals or groups which have moved to extremist positions that are ultimately detrimental to them and others.  Being a moderate does not mean being a wimp, milquetoast or wishy-washy.  It means having the courage of conviction to pursue truth and do what is right even if it deviates from a political, religious or ideological point s of view which believes it to be the only correct reflection of what is good right and holy in the world.

Thus there is a wide gap between real moderates and lazy people who can’t make a decision to fart towards their left or right buttocks much less to take a position that may be contrary to those comfortably and immutably ensconced in their ideological, religious or political beliefs. Passionate moderates are the center which must hold in order for a pluralistic and multicultural society to survive political, military or economic crisis; natural disaster or other catastrophes such as the Leisure Suits, Disco, Chevy Chevettes, Ford Pintos, the Purpose Driven Church, artificial turf and multi-purpose stadiums which house baseball teams.

Moderation, like baseball takes both patience and balance and is not for the faint of heart.  Being a moderate means that you assume, like baseball that every pitch is a new game.  With each pitch there is a different situation with numerous, if not infinite possibilities.  A true moderate looks to the future and uses the past as a guide, not a place to remain.  Christian moderation involves holding to the truth of the Scriptures, the Tradition of the Faith and to Reason as a basis of moving forward in the grace, mercy and peace of God.  This requires balance, patience and fortitude, because the task is not easy.  It is like those mythical Chinese kids Yin and Yang who were fused into the perfect sphere which became the prototypical baseball; everything in balance.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, Loose thoughts and musings, philosophy, Religion