Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I want to learn to take in the suffering of the world, and still enjoy a cookie.

That was the answer provided by a student of Buddhism when he was asked why he would travel to France and study with Thich Nhat Hanh at the Plum Village Monastery, giving up the comfort of his quarters for a rustic space where he was made to wash dishes and chop wood.

With so much suffering in the news, I wonder how we do that. How do we look on the faces of broken parents, children in pain, families forever changed, and still enjoy a cookie?

We are all woven together in interconnectedness. This life and imminent death are strands of a web in which we all exist, together, with a single breath. If we wish to make the journey in peace, we must radiate peace to our children. We must hold them close, and open our hearts to those left behind.

Peace is not an empty platitude. It's not an ideal or an objective, or a political agenda. It is a practice of everyday life. We must walk peace in our choices - the words we speak, the things we choose to bring in to our home and the way in which we listen to one another.

The national media is consumed with the task of blaming. Is it a question of gun access? Cultural violence? Masculinity's representation in society? Insidious references that stigmatize the mentally ill and improperly correlate autism with violence, aloofness with insanity, an inability to read social cues with a lack of empathy. And while the pointing of fingers may or may not be important, may or may not elude to the questions needing answered for the sake of creating good public policy, blame is rarely much more than cathartic. At the end of the day, we are left to wonder  how any of us (meaning the murderer) could get so far removed from love, from sympathy, from compassion, from basic common sense and decency that they could coldly and mechanically take life from other people in such a callous, unconscious and destructive way.

In moving forward, we must be both realists and optimists. Suffering has a place in the world. It is inevitable. At the same time, we must recognize the possibility of alleviating that suffering and see the opportunities to create peace in our own lives and in our home. The intentions to be kind, compassionate, helpful, happy, and liberated are among the most beautiful qualities we have as humans. Our thoughts, words, and deeds of empathy, love and caring are the needed counter-forces to hatred, violence, and despair. Our own efforts to find inner peace, our example to our children, can be an important force of wholesome change for people who don’t know of that possibility.

If there is light in the soul,
There will be beauty in the person.
If there is beauty in the person,
There will be harmony in the house.
If there is harmony in the house,
There will be order in the nation.
If there is order in the nation,
There will be peace in the world.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The day my mother died I wrote in my journal, A serious misfortune of my life has arrived. I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother. But one night, in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut in my hermitage. I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk to her as if she had never died.

My mother.
When I woke up it was about two in the morning and I felt very strongly as though I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me. ~Thich Nhat Hanh

When someone dies, you realize how many of your memories are history revised. I remember so many things about my mother and, as I have grown, the context of those memories has changed. My mother was kind and gentle. She was awkward in public, but I liked that about her. She loved her children deeply, and she was wrapped in the possibility of the people she was raising.

She was also lonely and sad. Somewhere in her history or her mind, there was a pull so strong that she was always a little bit apart from the rest of the world. She could never grab hold of that thing, discard it, push it aside and rise anew. As she aged, she was buried under the weight of that burden until, at last, she was bathed in hopelessness.

It will be two years tomorrow since my mother officially died. But she was gone long before then...

I don't know when my mother was diagnosed with diabetes. Like so much of her history, her health was a tightly guarded secret and, like all things hidden, the mystery of it served her. For years, she alleged that she was dying of congestive heart failure. Her body was swollen, and fluid would literally seep from under her skin, through her pores, puncturing the taught flesh of her legs and stomach. Her feet were cracked. Her breathing labored. She kept us all waiting in suspense, believing that any measure to help her would be undertaken in vain. The end was always just around the corner, because she was hopelessly dying.

That's me, in my father's arms.
But so are we all.

She sat in the living room, waiting for finality, for more than 15 years.

All that time, I had no idea that the actual source of her ailments was, simply, uncontrolled blood sugar. My mother had been obese her whole life over. She was often embarrassed and ashamed of her weight, like so many women. And, at times, she tried desperately to lose that weight....only to gain it back, and acquire a bit more shame along the journey. She gave up. She proclaimed that she would "rather eat well than be thin," and settled on a diet high in refined carbohydrates, fast food, processed food. She abandon the exercise bike in the kitchen, quit taking her afternoon walks, and slowed to an existence so sedentary that, one year, she stopped even walking up the stairs. Instead, the living room became the sum total of her world.

She checked her blood sugar sporadically at best, and administered insulin irregularly and infrequently until, one afternoon, I called to check on her. She'd been battling a harmless virus for weeks, and was sinking further into illness. That afternoon, she was barely lucid. I called my sister in a panic and, together, we tore the moulding from the doorways of my parents home as we wheeled her body to an ambulance. Moments later, her body in septic shock and her mind deluded, she became combative an irate. She punched and hit, kicked and shouted. My sister and I held her down as doctors inserted a picc line in to her unanesthetized neck as my father waited behind the curtain, hearing her scream.

I spent the next 30 days watching her liver and kidneys fail, holding her hands to keep the doctors from putting her in restraints, and waiting as she had waited all those years...

For her to die.

It turns out that every failed organ in her body had been the victim of uncontrolled diabetes. Her heart failure was due to Diabetic Cardiomyopathy. So, too, her chronic kidney disease. She could have, at any moment, chosen a different end...yet, it wasn't until those last days that she found a desire to live on. The tragedy of her life and death was perhaps that bit: That her will to survive, to get better, came only in the moments preceding her inevitable passing.

Checking my blood sugar
at 4:00am before heading
to the gym
My children remember her. They miss her. They ask about her...wonder if she remembers them. Her life here goes on, she just isn't available to see it.

When I speak about diabetes, I don't often tell the story of my mother. After all, those of us with diabetes hear her story all the time. Every time I disclose my diabetes diagnosis, I hear of the uncle who went blind or the grandfather who lost his toes, or the aunt in renal failure. Of course, that is part of the diabetes story...

But I'd rather tell the other side of the tale - the side marked by possibility, by good health, by limitless opportunity. I'd rather race my bike and eat good food and laugh with my kids. When I am asked if my mother would be proud of my advocacy from the seat of my bike, I answer an honest "no." She wouldn't understand it in the least. In fact, she bitterly babysat my children once while I was at a race, only to remind me that she "never did that sort of thing" when we were young.
But I also know that she was proud of me, the person I became and the mother I am to Henry and Midori. I know she loved me all too much, and I trust she knew that her love was multiplied and returned. There are people here who miss her deeply, who wish sadly for her, who think of her often. My mother's life and her death have made me more compassionate to the struggles of those with Type 2 diabetes, who try and try again, and who never quite make it work. We all have our failings. We all die in every moment.

 I also know that the story of her life and death has its place in the context of my own disease and my management of it. I promised my husband, as I watched her gasp for breath and pound her fists in the air, that I would never do that to our son and daughter. It's not really about fear or inspiration. It's about finding your way in the darkness of diagnosis, to a spot where you can live fully without the weight of disruption from disease. I wish, often, that we'd found that space together.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

That's my daughter...and two dead fish.
You see, I was shopping the Thai Basil at Whole Foods when I looked to my right, and saw my daughter walk to the fish counter, stare at the selection, and then courageously order two whole trout. The guy behind the counter advised her to ask her mother. She was adamant.
I don't need to ask her. She's good with it. All good here. Now, please wrap my fish in that paper, and I will cook them.
I frowned, and walked over to her.
What are you ordering? I asked, a bit exasperated.
She looked sternly in my direction, placed her hands on her hips, and replied, I'm getting some fish. That kind. She points to the glass case, and two shiny fish, awash in ice, glistening under the lights. Oh, please, mama! Please. I just want to have fish. Can't we? Yes, yes we can. They are lovely and right here. Right here. He'll put them in paper, and we can bake them!
Honestly, I haven't any notion of how she came to this. I'm not entirely certain my daughter has ever eaten fish, and certainly she's never prepared one. Still, her beaming face...the stare of the man holding the brown butcher paper behind the counter...and the fish with their glassy looking eyes...
I relented. Okay. Okay. But I've not cooked a fish in more than ten years. I'm not even sure I'd know how any longer...
She clasped her hands together, and gleefully ordered the man to get her fish. Those two, right there! We'll take them. And don't worry, mama, I will know what to do.
I was not reassured. Nor was I assuaged to hear the man behind the counter affirm that she'd made a good choice. They are well priced and quite fresh. She knows her fish.

My delighted daughter took her two wrapped fish, and walked through Whole Foods with them nestled in her arms. She told every person she met that she was having fish for supper. I'm making fish tonight. I'm going to eat these two beautiful fish for my dinner!
The thing I perhaps love best about my daughter is that brand of confidence. She is fearless, determined. She knows what she wants, and she isn't afraid to assert herself to get it. That is why I, a dedicated vegan who isn't even wholly convinced that a person should eat fish for any reason at all, is massaging garlic and olive oil into the flesh of a dead trout. It wasn't her enthusiasm to try something new, or her sales job to obtain it. It was that the decision was made without me. I was merely a passenger to her adventure.
The balance of parenting can be found in embracing the moment, even in the context of the mundane: dinner, shopping. My daughter knows that her voice matters, and had I pushed forward with my preference, I would have squashed some part of that independence.
So, here I am. A vegan. Baking fish. I hope she likes it. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.
- Andre Gide

The other day, my daughter and I went for a walk before picking up her brother from school. It was an unusually warm day, so I figured we'd stroll down to a small lake nearby.

Along the way, my daughter found some sand beneath an oak tree, and she promptly sat down. I kept trying to cajole her to keep walking, just a bit further, so she could see the water in the distance. She wasn't having it.

I like it here. I don't want to keep walking. I like this sand. I'm not moving!

I knew she'd have a better time near the lake. I could see what she couldn't. I knew that the mountains and the water and the colors of the trees were more than she could even imagine, sitting in a small patch of sand under the oak. If only she were willing to walk a bit further...

And here we are, all of us, sitting under that metaphorical tree. We can only see this small patch of life and the world. We can't always know what is up ahead, if we persist just a little bit longer, go just a little bit further.

I've been so frustrated lately with my training. I never feel like I am where I want to be, and then I've had weeks of light efforts, thanks to injury.

I find myself sitting under the oak tree, thinking maybe I should just stay in this spot. It would be so much easier. 

Then, I remind myself that, perhaps, if I walk just a little further, things will be greater than I can imagine, and that someone might just have a bigger, better vision up ahead.

Looking forward to 2013 with Team Novo Nordisk.