Rude (Part 2) – Why even try?

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People like me can not even fathom Betty’s kind of poverty, or what leads someone there.  Culture? Role models? Lack of them? Financial ruin? Death? Mental Illness? Addiction?  Our modern-day lepers – It’s just so easy for us to look the other way as they stand amid the traffic, cross to the other side of the street as they approach, and flip someone a buck when we’re feeling generous.  Haven’t they made their own choices?  And if they’re an addict, it’s their own doing!  Why would I feel sorry for someone who poked holes in the crumpled can to burn a rock, put the lighter under the spoon, or climbs inside a bottle with my dollar?

It’s not so simple.  Seriously, do you honestly think that kid sitting next to you in your high school memory really chose to end up penniless and begging?  Many do have substance abuse issues.  I’ve learned so much about addiction lately from Ryan Robertson’s story as well as a blog I read about Phillip Seymor Hoffman.  What an epiphany!  I had no idea.

Maybe it’s because I’m a lot older now, or perhaps life’s cruel lessons have made me better, more adept at saying what I really believe.  Or maybe I just believe different stuff now, because of those lessons.

“Doctor Klein, that woman with last week’s pyometra is on line 2,” declared the intercom, and I quickly finished the call I was on to grab the other line because I hadn’t heard a thing from her in almost a week.  My heart sank when Betty (not her real name) told me “Baby Girl” didn’t like the antibiotics, so she didn’t give them.  The dog “hadn’t really moved much” for the first two days after I had done the surgery.  My heart sank as I prepared for the grim follow-up sentence – the poor little dog had been so very sick from the infection that I knew, even with our surgery, without the antibiotics, there really wasn’t much hope for survival.  It just didn’t make sense.  Why hadn’t she…  This was all a big …  Hadn’t I impressed upon her enough how important this was?  Besides, Amoxicillin suspension tastes really good – I had taken it myself dozens of times as a child!

My worst thoughts were interrupted, “But then, all of a sudden, she jus’ started drinkin’ water again.  So I tried again, and then she drank it ‘real good.’  Nex thang ya no, she’s jus’ a runnin’ and jumpin’ and beggin’ at her food bowl.”  I thanked her for calling, scheduled a recheck, smiled from ear to ear, and did the “happy dance” in a circle around the medical treatment room.

My staff had heard the entire conversation, and although they were glad also, I think it was more because I really suck when I’m in a bad mood, and when I’m in a good mood, I’m basically a pretty big dork.  They prefer the latter.

Surgery is often time for interesting conversation in an animal hospital.  We typically discuss really important stuff like Jack Bauer’s return, last night’s American Idol performances, and the latest Netflix we’d watched.  My CVT’s (kind-of like nurses), assistants, kennel staff, and sometimes some of the receptionists and managers all participate in these important meetings, mainly because they end the morning, and run into the lunch period.  Sometimes we actually do talk about important things, like why the hell is it so hard to keep the controlled drug log exact, why personalities seem to clash, and medical ethics; often this morphs into real world morals and ethics – life lessons, if you like.

So today, after deciding last nights American Idol girls were mostly disappointing, I told them how funny it was that my blog about last week’s pyo had gone viral.  Admittedly, I’ve only blogged for a very short time, so most regular readers have been family, friends, clients, and a few other followers from last year, when I hiked the Camino de Santiago, and amateurishly began to learn to write.  Anyway, I explained that I normally get about 150 or 200 hits a day, and during the Camino there were a few days when I topped 700 views.

Well, the day I posted about our donating our time for Betty and her dog, I got 300 hits.  “Wow,” I thought, “People much prefer a veterinary feel good story (or maybe just a gross picture) than the embarrassing , personal, cathartic stuff I usually blog about.”  The second day 1000, the third day 3000, then 10,000 views. (Then a surge to 650,000 and as of today, views of 1.42 million)

Like me, my staff was amazed, but they weren’t unanimous about the merits of how it had played out.

Only then did I learn about the scene, in our front reception area, when Betty came in that afternoon with an intoxicated friend.  While she was rushing around, shouting, concerned that her dog had died, he was also up there, to a full waiting room, talking “crap,” certain that even if the dog was alive, we wouldn’t give her back to them; it was all a trick, that’s how “places like this operated!”  Even after she had her dog in her arms, she was still “rude and disrespectful.” When she was given the bottle of Amoxidrops, she didn’t even say ‘thank you,’ only a remark that she wasn’t gonna pay any more for it, that she’d already “paid in full.”  You can imagine how well this went over with the front staff, but they never shared this part, knowing for sure it would change how I looked back and viewed the whole case.

I could only laugh at these new details.  And I (who knew?) got back on the ol’ soapbox.  “Should I be indignant, that the ‘Supersavior vet’  and his wonderful clinic hadn’t been properly worshipped?  Come on guys, what do you need?  You are missing the entire point.  You don’t help someone because you want them to love you, or even thank you.  Think about it – why do you do nice things for people? Or give someone a gift?”  Before he could answer, I reminded him that this had been rhetorical.  “You don’t do nice things because you want the other person to reciprocate!  That’s not even a gift, that’s an exchange, and you’re always disappointed with what you get back.”

“Here’s the deal.  You’ll be so much happier in life if you always do the right thing, because it’s the right thing, not because you expect someone to do the right thing in return.”  Expect for them not to.  Then it would be a nice surprise.  What’s the point of even walking on this earth if we can’t make it better for our having been here.  Who cares if someone says, “Thank you.”

“I think you are naïve,” my tech said to me, “Why even try? You can’t rescue the world!”  “Daddy mode” kicked in, so I shared a paraphrased  Starfish Poem:

One day an old man was walking down the beach just before dawn.  In the distance he saw a young man picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back into the sea.  As the old man approached the young man, he asked, “Why do you spend so much energy doing what seems to be a waste of time?”  The young man explained that the stranded starfish would die if left in the morning sun.  The old man exclaimed, “But there must be thousands of starfish.  How can your efforts make any difference?”  The young man looked down at the starfish in his hand and as he threw it to safety in the sea, he said,” It makes a difference to this one!”

Someone else then thought they were agreeing when they said we had done it to help the dog anyway, not the woman.  My “daddy mode” was in full throttle now, and I’m sure the churlish cynics will also consider this all to be sanctimonious, holier than thou drivel, but I’m just sayin’…

“No, no, no!  It’s not an “either/or, it’s a both/and!  Although we obviously treated Betty’s dog, that’s not where it ends, or certainly not the “why?”  Remember why people even have pets!”  We had had this discourse plenty of other times, and all were in agreement about the importance of that loving bond.

Of course this story involves a pet, but only because that’s what we do.  It really involves another human being.  I did encourage them to be proud of what they do, and what they did, and where they work, but not smug.  “Because every one of us is an accident, a medical diagnosis, a fire, or a divorce away from living in that cardboard box under the bridge.”  (There, but by the Grace of God, walk I.)  Looking back over 50 years forces me to remember so many dumb things I’ve done, and wonder why not me?  “Besides,” just joining us from her kennel duties, Amy added perhaps the most wisdom, “Even if they have become addicts, I don’t think they drink or do drugs to get high.  It’s to numb the pain and loneliness.”

I remember a colleague at a convention shared with me that he had become a vet because he liked animals more than people, that he “hated” people.  I was stunned.  How do you “hate people” in this profession?  Perhaps it was his whiskey bravado talking to me, but his words still ring in my ears years later.  I do hope he found other work.  I shared this story with a classmate and best friend Jim, who practices not far from me.  We were enjoying a beer (seems to be a theme), watching our beloved Mizzou Tigers, and solving the world’s problems with our wisdom.  He also helps out our church’s philanthropies, such as St. Vincent de Paul and the Brevard Sharing Center (a soup kitchen), so I enjoy sharing our stories together.  Jimmy shook his head and agreed that, maybe he’s naïve, but all the vets he knows, the successful ones anyway, in order to really care about their patients, care about their people first.

And so it is a both/and.  I firmly believe we’ve placed here not only as stewards of our animals but to love and support each other.  At the end of the day, at the end of our lives, when we “que up in front of St. Peter,” which line would you prefer? – the naïve, giving, loving line or the “it’s all about me” line.  That’s the choice.

Betty’s calling us that day was no co-incidence.  Much Love.

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She wasn’t being rude

My receptionist Ericka was in tears. The caller had said some pretty mean things, and she’s sensitive to what people say to her. She thrust the phone towards me, and pleaded for me to deal with it, “She doesn’t understand we don’t have any appointments available and, anyway, we’ll be closed in 45 minutes.” Some lady’s dog hadn’t “eated” in 4 days, and so she thinks she’s really pretty sick, and what was I gonna do about it? On such a hectic afternoon, I was glad to take the load off the front desk, and proceeded with the best defense being a good offense. “So he hasn’t eaten in 4 days? Wow, you rushed right in! What makes you think it’s serious now” The colloquialism of her words and accents made it difficult to understand, even for a small town Missoura hick like myself, but I did make out something about not having much money, something about only having a hunnert dollas. Knowing it sounded like a major medical workup, our lab equipment had an hour back log of tests waiting, and it had been a really long day already, I told her that I could see her at 9:15 the next day. My technician Jenny cringed, knowing full well that I had no openings, even for something minor, at 9:15 tomorrow, or anytime, all day. She also thought the front staff might not be very happy when I had allowed someone so rude and disrespectful, accusing them of not caring, to come in when they had been telling good, regular, polite clients that we were booked until next week. I had a funny feeling about this one. I knew this woman’s dog was pretty sick, and a “hunnert dollas” wouldn’t even get her in the front door of the emergency clinic tonight. I hoped it would wait. And that it wasn’t too serious to throw my schedule into seizures tomorrow.

Frankly, I forgot about her until the next morning, when I walked into the exam room. My flippant attitude about her apparent lack of concern for “Baby Girl” quickly dissipated. The “homeless person” stench was overpowering and was immediately telling as to why the visit had been postponed. This poor 12 year old dog couldn’t even lift her head. Indeed, she had not eaten in 5 days now, but was drinking lots of water. “She’s not spayed,” Jenny whispered to me, in case I missed the obvious. We both knew what it was from the history. A pyometra is an infected uterus, life threatening, and one of the important reasons why a female dog or cat should be spayed if she won’t be used for breeding. I’ll spare you the details, but it is typically fatal before five days, from internal rupture, much like a child’s appendix can rupture, spreading bacterial poison and toxins throughout the body.

The pre-surgical workup of confirmatory lab tests and X-Rays alone is about $300, and if it was a pyometra, could easily exceed $1200-1500. And the patient could die, regardless of our best efforts, especially if the uterus had already ruptured. She hadn’t come in because she had been scraping together, begging, and borrowing to get some money together to get her dog fixed.

Nor could I promise her that her little dog would live through the surgery. “So what are you telling me?” the woman shouted at me, with tears in her eyes. Deep down, I knew she had been rejected before, a lifetime of it. I knew she expected me to say to go away, that if she had no money she wasn’t welcome here.

I told her I wanted to run some tests, and that it would cost her “a hunnert dollas.” That wouldn’t fix anything, but we needed to know what was wrong.

Jenny was correct. The test confirmed a high white blood cell count (indicating infection), and the radiographs (X-Rays) confirmed a huge swelling in the area where the uterus would be.

As I delivered the news and the grave prognosis, her eyes reddened and became teary.

Having pets is a commitment. And an obligation. And owning pets is a choice that involves responsibilities and expenses. Therefore, keeping a pet is not a right, nor is it the grocery store’s obligation to feed the dog for free, nor the veterinarian’s obligation to care for it for free. Pets, like people, should have a basic minimum of care: annual examinations, inoculations, and other preventative health care, and the planning for the possibility/likelihood that something may go wrong – an accident or an illness.

So, are people living in poverty allowed to have pets? If she can share what she finds in the dumpster with her only friend in the world, or if she and her cat split a can of food, is that “good enough?”

As I spoke with my staff, receptionists, as well as technicians, I told them that this woman was not rude. The astonished looks of disagreement on their faces faded as I explained. “You can’t be rude if you don’t know what rude is. She doesn’t fit our picture of how we should behave or talk, but she’s not intending to be disrespectful or unappreciative. She just doesn’t know any better. She’s never had anyone give her the benefit of the doubt. How many times had she been excluded as a child, or looked down upon as an adult? How do you expect her to behave?”

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how high a value I place on the “human-animal bond.” That unconditional love thing is impossible to put a price tag on. Of course this dog is suffering now, but what about the past decade of loving relationship? Do you honestly think this dog’s life didn’t live a happier, worthier life for having met this woman instead of starvation on the street, or the animal shelter’s needle? As Pope Francis said in different circumstances, “Who am I to judge?”

“I can only promise you two things,” I told her solemnly. “I’ll do my very best to save your dog, and she most definitely will die without the surgery.” I was emphatic, because she needed to really understand how sick her little friend was. “Baby Girl” couldn’t lift her head, but her eyes followed my every move and she wagged her tail when I scratched behind her ears.

I told her that we had all discussed it and that we were willing to do surgery during our lunch break, and that it would only cost her the “hunnert dollas.” I’ve learned over the years that even if you work pro-bono that the client must contribute something, to take ownership, and to feel the value – something about pride, that they had contributed also.

I don’t take any credit. And I honestly do not write this story to look like some kind of a hero. My staff clocked out over the lunch hour and also donated their time. We’re all confronted with choices in life where we can make others’ journey’s better, or at least less miserable. I know pain, and anguish. We all do. We have a choice to be angry at God or whomever for allowing/causing crap to happen, or we can rise up from the ashes and be better for our losses. Is it to better to be bitter and angry, or realize what suffering feels like, and gain empathy?

“Really? No one’s ever done anything nice for me before,” this smelly woman wailed and wanted to hug me, so I embraced the leper. If you’re skeptical, of course this may seem disingenuous, and I do get it, I’m from Missouri (this is the origin of “show-me”). We are constantly barraged with cardboard signs on the off-ramps. Are any of them really willing to work for food? At the end of the day, does it make any difference? “I was hungry and you gave me to eat.”

It’s easy to puff your chest out when you do something difficult. But this wasn’t difficult. If I’m not there that day to fix the torn ACL knee ligament, the liver shunt, the heart defect, the broken hip … someone else would have. I’m truly not particularly intelligent or even very talented. But I sleep well tonight, knowing that no-one would have done this simple surgery for this indigent woman. This was truly no big deal, a very simple surgery that took just a few minutes. But after so many years, these opportunities to make a difference, make it all worth while.

I usually ask for comments, but not on this one. Please don’t leave any comments. Like it if you want, and share it. If you like this story, pay it forward. You think your life sucks? Look around. Make a difference. This isn’t even a story worth telling if you don’t use it yourself and think about it tomorrow as you look around. This story would have remained untold if I hadn’t had a couple of beers and like to write. Your life is charmed and blessed BECAUSE you are reading this, are capable of thinking about the big picture, and can make a difference. It’s not the big things we do that are heroic.

At the end of the day, this woman ran in, frantic about her dog. She didn’t have a phone so had no idea if her dog made it through surgery. Certainly, she thought the worst when she was escorted into the room, and told the doctor would be with her shortly … she stomped and shouted and cried for some answer, “How is my dog?!! PLEASE dear God, please somebody just tell me, did ‘Baby Girl’ die?!!” I ran from the appointment I was with when I heard the commotion, but Jenny beat me there. All I heard was, “She’s alive?!!! She’s alive?!! Oh dear God, praise dear God! My Baby Girl’s ALIVE!!!”

I’m sure they heard the shouting and crying next door.

Pay it forward. Much Love.

Please Continue with PART TWO

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I Should Be Standing Up

“I really doubt I’ll have a job soon,” replied the man sitting next to me at the GCN convention in Chicago.  Like me, Rev. Danny Cortez wasn’t really sure why he was there, but felt quite confident that he needed to be.

Cortez has been a traditional, conservative Southern Baptist minister in Southern California; happily married, four kids, a big congregation that loves him, and today he has a problem.  About five years ago, one of his flock, a 20 something girl “came-out” to him, and challenged everything he had taught and had been taught about homosexuality.  Sara had been one of his “shining stars,” a youth leader who genuinely witnessed for Jesus; the Pastor considered her a Christian to be admired and emulated.  So when she admitted to him, in confidence, that she had a same-sex attraction (SSA), nothing fit.  Although she, and they, tried desperately to  “pray away the gay” striving for a closer, more faith filled relationship with our Lord that would “fix” her, she continued with her SSA..  She had done this for years, and would continue to plead that this burden be lifted, and reparative therapy was also tried, even though it sounded absurd:  The idea of “repairing” a disordered sexuality was based on the premise that children formed a SSA when they had a faulty or dysfunctional relationship with their parents.  But her’s were model parents, who love each other and their children, and both have a healthy relationship with her.  Sara eventually switched to a more “affirming” church, but continues her sharing and mentoring, pastoral relationship with Reverend Cortez.

However the Pastor wasn’t really sure who had done the mentoring.  She had showed him that his ideas about homosexuality were built on a crumbling foundation.  He had been misinformed about SSA, and he was now very challenged, and very troubled.  Had some of his sermons wrongly condemned?  Had he caused self-hatred in adolescents (and adults)?  Had his messages split families?  Was he to blame for bullying, or worse yet – suicides?  The next five years were filled with research and discovery, anxiety and guilt.  Finally he simply came to the conclusion, “I can no longer do this.”  His wife knew the torment he was enduring, and supported his decision to tell his church elders at its next meeting.  He was quite confident that this would lead to him being out of a job, and he would need to tell the kids to prepare for some belt-tightening.

The next morning he was taking his kids to school when the infamous “gay equality” Macklemore song came on the radio; he turned up the volume.  This would be a segue for the conversation he needed to have with his children.  When the song was over, as he struggled to put his pending unemployment into words they could understand, his son asked why he had turned up the song.  “I really like the lyrics,” he explained.  “Really, dad?” asked his son in astonishment, “but do you understand what the lyrics say?”  “Yeah, son, actually I do.”  There was a five-minute pause, before his son said…

“I’m gay,” his son sobbed, having dreaded this conversation for years.  (Just this week, his son Drew posted this)

Suddenly all the angst and theological gymnastics precipitated by Sara’s coming out to him all made sense.  This certainly did not feel like any kind of coincidence.  Even though the sequence of events now was starting to feel like the hand of Providence to Pastor Cortez, this was all still very foreign, nothing really made any sense at all. At least he had a better acceptance, if not understanding, of the journey.  How many of his colleagues had asked members of their own congregations to worship and seek counsel elsewhere? They would only be welcome back when they were “normal.”  So there he sat at the Gay Christian Conference, worried about his career, and his family.

So why was I sitting there, next to Danny and his wife?

On the Camino de Santiago, I had made a decision to make a difference with my own life.  Before his accident, my son had such a strong and loving connection with God that it overflowed onto every one he knew.  Surely he had confusion and anxiety about his SSA.  This was a challenge, adding some stumbles to his rocky road, but we all have some.  So how did he work it out with God?  Why did he enjoy such a healthy relationship and so many others, straight as well as gay do not?  I honestly don’t know, and I certainly don’t take any credit.

I can say that my son Cullen never heard the hateful sermons that I have read about.  They are “always our children,” and my minister has only pounded the lectern with messages of God’s love manifest through Jesus, who seemed most angry with those who sat in self-righteous judgment as hypocrites.  Our Church is a “hospital for sinners, not a sanctuary for saints.”  As a father, I embraced every conversation with him to use as a “parenting, even pastoral moment.”  Faith without journey is blind and shallow.  Our God invites our questions and doubts as we stumble through.  If there’s proof for everything and it all makes perfect sense, it’s not “faith” at all!

For my readers well versed in the Bible, we’re all aware of the seven famous “gotcha” verses in scripture which “seem” to condemn all aspects of homosexuality.  I’m not a scholar, but I am well enough read to know how the many versions, translations, and commentaries differ for a myriad of reasons, including cultural context.  I honestly only know one thing: I am sure of much less than I was a thousand bible hours ago.  I’ll not go into any more details here, it’s so easy to Google search until you find something you want to believe.  If you’re curious, and have no idea where to start, look at these people:  Rachel Held-Evans, Justin Lee, Andrew Marin, Alan Chambers, Susan Cottrell, Matthew Vines, Daniel Mattson, Kathy Baldock and Julie Rodgers.  These are really incredible people and really thought-provoking links, and many vehemently disagree with each other; All challenge the way we think, so come back and look at each one thoughtfully…

If reading and research sound like too much work, start by watching this video of the Robertsons, who lost their son Ryan to a drug overdose, with their initial evangelical rejection of his orientation playing a huge part of the story.  A shorter slide-show version here and also an animated one (bring tissues when you watch Ryan’s story).

I’m most devastated when I hear so many stories of rejection by their own families.  If we fail to provide unconditional love to our children, what message are we sending?  Are we the hypocrites so often condemned by so many of Jesus’ parables?  How can we possibly expect forgiveness, acceptance and unconditional love from our heavenly Father when we refuse to forgive, accept, and love our own children? (Mt 18:33)

These are statistics that most certainly must make Jesus very sad:

When gay youth are unaccepted by their family, they are:

  • eight times more apt to attempt suicide than those who are accepted
  • (The Trevor Project was formed specifically as a gay child suicide prevention website & hotline)
  • six times more susceptible to depression than those who are accepted
  • three times more likely to get involved in drug and alcohol abuse than gay youth that are accepted
  • three times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS and STD”D than gay youth that are accepted?

So I sat in my chair in the back of the room next to my new friends.  I looked around and I was honestly in awe.  I was in the room with over 700 people – many were parents there supporting their child and some were pastors learning how they could possibly change their approaches, but most were people with same-sex orientation there to worship Jesus Christ.  Yes, we were “in church” for much of the four-day conference.  I would look out at the crowd, and pretend that I was there with my own child and these were his friends.  They held their hands up high in worship, with every voice singing with such volume!  Every denomination was represented and standing together with the most ecumenical thing I have ever witnessed. This was, without doubt, one of several times in my life when I was sure the Holy Spirit was present and truly directing an experience.    (These are people that have been told not to return to their congregations until they had been repaired?)

Churches should be safe havens filled with a loving message of support.  The fact that many are not makes me confused.  Even if you think homosexual relationships are sinful, ESPECIALLY IF you think this, shouldn’t you be the one MOST welcoming to those seeking the love, forgiveness, and counsel of Jesus Christ?  As you sit in the pews and look around, you do realize you’re looking at the spouse cheat, the tax liar, the work thief, the hateful bigot, the one living in adultery, the porn addict, substance abuse cripple, and the jealous covet.  If you’re honest, you may see them in the mirror.  Who are we to exclude an entire group of others from standing next to us?

As you lament the fact that your own children have “lost their faith,” look closely.  This one piece of the puzzle may be a metaphor.  Our new generation has more empathy and is much more accepting of homosexuality today.  They see the loving “Christian” community that rejects and vilifies their gay friends as not very loving at all.  Clearly we don’t get much positive secular media coverage, but perhaps the biggest enemy of our faith is not outside the walls of our churches at all.

Before beginning the keynote address, the speaker specifically recognized the parents who were there supporting their children.  They stood to thunderous applause.  Pastor Cortez reached down and pulled me up.  “You’re son is here, and you should be standing up.”

I’m no theologian, and am an expert about nothing.  I have opinions that have been formed by my upbringing, my culture, my immediate environment, and my conscience.  If Pope Francis, who I believe is the Vicar of Christ on Earth can honestly say, “Who am I to judge?” then my slamming Leviticus over someone’s head would seem wrong.  If my boy could converse and embrace with our Lord the way he did, I feel I it a worthy enterprise to foster that kind of relationship in folks of all kinds, as best I’m able.  So, I’ve read dozens of books, attended this conference, as well as at The Marin Foundation.

In previous posts, I’ve described lots of my mistakes and failures and a few of the many times I’ve fallen far short; I’ve shared them for a reason.  Exposing your true self, warts and all, shows you’re vulnerable, approachable and able to relate.  It’s an invitation to others in my Church, my Community, and anyone who I might encounter who doesn’t know where to turn to approach me if they need resources. I’m not really sure what it will look like just yet, but I am forming a support mechanism, a ministry of sorts.  The perception seems to be that my Roman Catholic Church has no where to turn.  In fact, we have quite a few support mechanisms if you know where to find them; the most helpful support ministries are the folks themselves.

I have been there, walked in a parent’s shoes.  I’ve shouted at God, pleading for help, begging for answers. I’ve read dozens of books, spoken with mentors.  I’ve cried the tears of panic and anguish with concern for my son’s physical, mental, and spiritual health.  Because of the unique texture of my life Camino, I can be quite a resource.  There’s much comfort and consolation in knowing you are not alone when you face something so frightening.  I can direct concerned parents and their scared, confused children, as well as frustrated adults with many struggles associated with this journey.

Please feel free to contact me or pass this post on to someone who may need to hear this.

And, as always, I’d love to hear your comments.

Rev. Danny Cortez, Linda Robertson, me & Mrs.Cortez

Rev. Danny Cortez, Linda Robertson, me & Mrs.Cortez

“I Hope It’s Everything You Need It To Be”

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When I left to hike the 540 mile Camino de Santiago last May (2013), people didn’t really know what to wish for me.  Most knew I was working through a major grieving journey after losing my 19-year-old son Cullen, but no one seemed to “get it.”  My associate at work honestly didn’t expect me to return (was I to stay in the Pyrenees to herd sheep?)  In retrospect, I’m not really sure what I was hoping for either.  I wrote my siblings a letter informing them that I was going, and that I literally hoped to have some profound conversations with my God and my son.  Saints Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Bernadette, Therese, and blessed Mother Theresa are among many who claimed they very clearly heard the voice of God throughout their lives.  I think my family were deeply disturbed by such an expectation; lacking faith that such communications could indeed transpire, were scared that I would spiral into deeper and deeper anguish and depression.  Several simply said, “I hope its everything you need it to be.”

Regardless of my expectations, it was something that I simply felt compelled to do.  Watching a movie called The Way, was the last thing Cullen and I had done together, and its eerie foreboding of a father who must confront the accidental death of his son pulled me forcefully.  Martin Sheen plays an American doctor who learns of his son’s accident, and when he travels to Spain to bring the body home, discovers the accident had occurred as his beloved son was hiking the 800km Pilgrimage called Camino de Santiago towards the Cathedral at Santiago, where St. James is buried.  We agreed to make the pilgrimage together when he returned from China, after he earned his master’s degree.  I decided to make that Camino and enter the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela on the first anniversary.

On my 31 day Camino I did, in fact, have many such conversations.  Although I longed for the voice of Charlton Heston or James Earl Ray to come echoing through the woods or from the sky, those weren’t my expectations.  I learned from Elijah that the voice of God wasn’t in an earthquake, the wind, or fire, but instead in the “soft whisper of a voice.”  So I walked the weeks alone and most hours, there was only the silence.

On April 20, 2013 as I entered the tiny village of Utrega, Spain, the ground began to rumble, and as I wondered if there could be a train nearby, streams of people ran into the street and began to shout.

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May 5th, I began my trek across the Meseta.  I have no idea why I thought the Mesa would be dry and hot, but today it certainly was not.  The entire day was below freezing, and the steady wind varied between 20 and 40 MPH.  Fortunately it blew from behind me, but the sound of the wind was extremely loud and sometimes made it hard to carry on a conversation or even think.

Later in May, on the 9th, with the Meseta 4 days behind me, the weather was still chilly, and now included frequent showers, resulting in a bone chilling shiver that began to play tricks on me.  I struggled onward (as many pilgrims I had met liked to say, “Ultreya!” (an expression urging one to “go beyond,” or “onward with confidence!”).  sarcastically telling myself that these past few days had certainly fulfilled some of the requisite suffering to constitute a “pilgrimage!”  The rain had trickled off my waterproof pants, but the small drops that wicked onto my socks had taken a toll.  My toes were numb and my hands had tremored with shivers for hours.  The road forked and I committed to the albergue (similar to a hostel) 4 kilometers down this road.  As I neared, I realized I would have difficulty continuing, but the strengthening smell of wood in the fireplace kept my feet trudging forward.

My heart sank when I discovered the typical 8-12E cost 25E here, as I realized I only had about 20E until I got to the next town big enough to have a bank.  I shrugged as I continued on, realizing there were no other nearby accommodations listed in Brierly’s Guidebook.  But as I got further from the albergue, the intoxicating sweetness of the fireplace smoke seemed to get even closer.  Less than 100 meters later, just around a bend in the road, was something that made me start to sob.  Here was a farmhouse with “pilgrim accomodations,” including dinner that night and breakfast, for 12E.  Within 30 minutes, I had enjoyed a hot shower, a delicious home cooked meal, and sat with my feet by the soothing warmth of this fire, communicating something with its popping and crackling.IMG_5775

None of this clicked until the afternoon that I hiked for hours alone through the logging forest.  This was one of the emotional days, as I shouted out at God in frustration.  Why was he not speaking to me? I read scripture every morning to give me something to meditate on.  I said several rosaries every day as I walked.  I spoke aloud the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and “Speak, Oh Lord, your servant is listening” repeatedly.  “WHERE ARE YOU?” I finally shouted through the tears at the top of my lungs.  “I’ll do anything you want, but you gotta talk to me, show me something!

Later I would recall this day, as I read C. S. Lewis’ book, A Grief Revealed, where the devastating grief from losing his wife Joy to cancer made the author very human to me.  Here was the quintessential man of faith, that I had on such a pedestal for authoring such inspiring Christian literature (from the apologetics of Mere Christianity, humor of Screwtape Letters, thought provoking The Problem of Pain to his best known children’s books, so full of symbolism such as Chronicles of Narnia), having the very same emotions I was having.  Lewis didn’t doubt the existence of God, just “what sort of a God?”  “A loving God?  He wasn’t very loving to Joy!”

Lewis continues, I turn to God now that I really need Him, and what do I find?  A door slammed in my face.  The sound of bolting and double bolting.  After that, silence.  It’s like being in prison.”

That’s exactly how I had felt for months, and more specifically, at that moment.  No one around for probably miles, I hadn’t seen anyone for hours.  And silence was all there was up there in the Spanish mountains, except the sound of the wind rustling through the trees, which now was loud enough that I couldn’t have heard that “soft whisper of a voice” that I was trying so hard to hear.

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And then, out of no where, I was startled and jumped as the shadow of someone passed me, as if I was standing still.  He muttered something very softly, almost a whisper, that I couldn’t understand, maybe some other language, I assumed.  “Wow,” I thought, “that guy is really flying!”  And there was just something really strange about him, he looked so … familiar.  And he wasn’t carrying a backpack like everyone else, it was more like a rucksack.  That’s it, he had what looked like khaki or desert camo colored – rucksack.  And then it hit me like a ton of bricks.  This guy didn’t just look familiar, I knew exactly who he was.  But Mike Snelgrove was gone now.  (Mike is the subject of my next blog post)

So, I stood there in utter astonishment.  I really gotta read more of that “Old Testament” stuff that’s not “actually relevant” anymore.

1 Kings 19:11-13

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

I had felt an earthquake, felt a toppling wind, and the warmth of the fire.  And finally, the passing whisper.  As I relived this day in my mind the other day as I was working around the house, trying to find the message, this song shuffled out of my playlist:

What Do I Know Of Holy(by Addison Road)

I made You promises a thousand times
I tried to hear from Heaven
But I talked the whole time
I think I made You too small
I never feared You at all No
If You touched my face would I know You?
Looked into my eyes could I behold You?
[CHORUS]
So What do I know of You
Who spoke me into motion?
Where have I even stood
But the shore along Your ocean?
Are You fire? Are You fury?
Are You sacred? Are You beautiful?
So What do I know? What do I know of Holy?
So, that’s it.  When we try too hard, when we talk too loud, when we make ultimatums and demands – we hear nothing.
“I tried to hear from Heaven, but I talked the whole time.”
C. S. Lewis also makes some progress in A Grief Observed:
     Imagine a man in total darkness.  He thinks because he can see nothing, that he is in a dungeon.  In the middle of that darkness, he hears a sound.  The sound is brief, and comes from far away.  Perhaps the sound of waves, or the wind in the trees; and for the first time, he senses that he is not in a dungeon, but in the open air.  Nothing in his situation has changed.  He still waits in darkness.  Only now he knows the unseen world is greater than anything he can imagine.
     It came in the same moment that I sensed that the door was neither shut, not bolted.  Was it ever shut?  Was it bolted from the inside by my own desperate need?  They say a drowning swimmer can’t be saved if he is too fearful, because he grabs and clutches his rescuers too tight.
Had I been doing that –  making demands, and ultimatums of God?  Was He talking to me, just as desperately as I was to Him, but I just couldn’t hear through all the shouting from my desperate need?
It sure looks that way as I write the words.
Much Love.
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I’d really love your feedback!  (either press the comment link above, or comment here:)

SuperSavior Vet

ImageEverything about euthanizing a pet brings me down, and wears on my morale.  I’ve practiced veterinary medicine for 28 years, and you’d think it would be no big deal, but it always is.  I felt called to help animals when I was about 8 years old, and never really seriously considered anything else.  I have devoted my life to doing this the best I was able, and I take my Hippocratic oath seriously.  Advising on end of life decisions is a rather large part of my day.  And when it comes to giving the injections, I don’t do so lightly.  Down deep I really wonder whether or not I really have the right to snuff out life.  Poof.  Just like that.  One minute the little guy is looking at me, sometimes suffering pitifully, sometimes seemingly not in discomfort, wagging his tail.  The next moment, limp and without the spirit of life.  Especially after my own recent losses, I value life perhaps more than most.

Pets are not just “important” to my clients and their families, they often ARE the only family some folks have.  I think it’s hard for some to understand how deeply attached pet owners are to their beloved dogs and cats.  If you’ve never had one, or keep yours in the backyard, you may not understand.  But the vast majority of Americans consider their dogs and cats members of the family.  Certainly this goes a long way to explain why behavior problems and obesity are issues I deal with in the exam room every single day.  We overindulge ourselves, and our children, so why not our dogs and cats?

More often than not I’ve seen an older client quickly fade and die when they lose their pets.  A dog is sometimes the only reason our seniors even get out of bed.  They provide an incentive to get dressed, and get some exercise on that morning walk.  Often a spouse has passed away, as well as friends, and children are distant.  Seeing a bright eyed dog jumping around ecstatically, like you are the most important person in the world, makes life worth living.  That wagging tail, expressing the epitome of unconditional love and acceptance is indescribable.

Likewise, the meow, meow, meow, meow of a kitty means you are the only one that can satisfy.  You are the provider, the bread winner, the hero of their lives.  You keep them comfortable and fed, and protect them from that awful brute that barks and slides around the floor and in general behaves like a complete idiot.  You have the most comfortable lap and know just where to rub under the chin and behind the ears.  The incessant purring and “making bread,” the kneading of the alternating front feet on your arm or in your face screams, “WAKE UP and feed me!”

Although I hate it more than I can completely put into words, there is something about the pain of loss that is so loving.  The circle of life is played out in front of our eyes; the dynamics of living and the struggles surrounding death.

I remember back in school some of my classmates said they chose veterinary medicine over medical school because they preferred animals to people, one in fact “hated people.”  That made me raise my eyebrows in wonder.  (In fact, I spoke to the one who “hated” people at our 20 year reunion, and discovered that he was now in research.  Those he hated so much must have reciprocated, and so couldn’t keep a practice going.)  Which reminds me, I had also gotten that acceptance into medical school letter, and a rejection for vet school.  About a month later, I learned that I had been placed on a “waiting list,” when I got the letter – I was next in line to be called for the freshman class when someone discovered she was pregnant. Funny how the turns life takes so change our journeys.

Anyway, I love veterinary medicine because of the people, not in spite of them.  It’s an honor and a blessing to have a families trust when they bring in that new puppy and kitten.  I smile down at the children who come in to watch me examine and inoculate their new best friend.  I know they’ll sleep together, and sob over a boyfriend breakup and not making the basketball team.  They’ll knock over the birthday cake at the sweet sixteen party, and chew up the $200 baseball bat (as well as mommy’s Coach purse and pee on dad’s shoes).  They’ll look up and love unconditionally when a child is teased at school or isn’t asked to the dance.  With such sad eyes, she’ll sit by the bedroom door everyday until they come home from college or on military leave, and run in circles uncontrollably, jumping up and down and howl with screams of delight at the homecoming.

She’ll benefit from prayers when I need to do an emergency surgery to stop the relentless vomiting, and tears of relief when I call with the news that I had removed the obstruction caused by the rawhide or acorn that they ate, or that the tumor was successfully removed, and everything’s going to be “just fine.”

And she’ll just sit by your side as you weep over the cancer, the job loss, the divorce, and the death that are all part of your family.  Somehow she understands that you just need someone to sit with you.  And hug.  She does too.

And when the time comes when the heart or kidneys fail, her own cancer wins, or the arthritis is just too bad to even stand, she’ll trust you to make that loving decision. Your unthinkable anguish can not be described here.  She has helped you raise your family, been there through it all, and now all you can feel is raw emotion.  We’ll cry together, pray if you wish, say goodbye and hug.

So imagine my surprise, when I’m asked to do the unthinkable.

Everyone in my office knows my feelings regarding euthanasia.  We certainly assume the one presenting the pet is responsible, loving and caring, and has suffered to make that final decision.  So its clearly not my intent to make it any more difficult on such a horrible day.  But I do take my mission seriously, and as such, if I don’t have an existing relationship with the client and understand the condition of their pet, I need to do so.  If you have a dog that’s 20 years old, and obviously in sad shape, that’s one thing, but if your dog doesn’t fit into your new apartment size, or cat doesn’t match the new furniture (I kid you not), that’s entirely different.  Some guys don’t care, if you want a perfectly happy, healthy animal euthanized, and are willing to pay for it, no problem.  But I’m not “that guy.”

Some days we’re just plain busy, and everyone does their job so efficiently that corners get cut.  One day last week was that day.  I finished looking at a lab test, and as I raced through the procedures room to get to my next appointment, I noticed my nurses placing an IV catheter into a beautiful boxer’s arm.  Something caught my attention and I stopped in my tracks, and inquired as to what they were doing.  “Exam room 3 is your 4:15 appointment, apparently he has cancer.”  Hmmm, really?

I pulled the chart off the slot outside of room 3, and discovered we had never seen the pet before.  There was a note inserted from the receptionist that although she had requested they bring copies of previous medical record with them, they seemed to bristle when asked if they had brought them, and said they had “forgotten.”  I opened the door, shook the huge client’s hand and asked about ‘Rocky’s’ condition.  “Oh my wife took him to a vet in Titusville, and they said he has cancer.”  I feigned surprise, and said, “Really? Wow, he looks great!  What kind of cancer?  What kind of tests did they perform?”  The guy actually chuckled as he replied that he had no idea, his wife had taken the dog there.  “What was the vet in Titusville’s name?”  He said her name was Dr. Lorraine something.  I replied, “That shouldn’t be too difficult, there can’t be many veterinarians in Titusville named Lorraine, I’ll be right back,” and quickly departed to do some “Googling” to find a vet named Lorraine in Titusville and get a quick copy of her medical workup.  Less than two minutes later, just as I discovered there were no Dr. Lorraines in Titusville, or anywhere in central Florida, my nurse rushed into my office to tell me that the client “doesn’t need you to do that.”

“Doesn’t need me to do what?” I asked.  “Get the medical history.”  This was all becoming a little interesting.  “Well he may not need me to do it, but I, in fact do need to do it.”

As soon as I returned to the room, I was met by an angry man who entered well into my “personal space.”  He asked, “Is there a problem, doctor?” (emphasis because of sarcasm).  “I understand that this is a really hard day for you.  Trust me, I get it.  But I hope you’ll understand my situation.  We are an animal hospital; we work very hard to save lives, and although we do perform euthanasia, we maintain a policy that it needs to be medically justified.”  His body language took an ugly tone, and he actually stepped even closer to me, and raised his voice to an actual shout, “Are you telling me that I’m willing to pay you for a service, and you’re refusing to?”  His wife slipped quietly out the door, clearly demonstrating the submission this man was accustomed to with his show.  Quite certain that a little intimidation and the almighty buck would convince me, I think he was stunned that I actually took another step towards him, looked him directly in the eye, and said with a softer and gentler voice, “Sir, that’s exactly what I’m telling you.  You gotta believe me, I’m not trying to make this difficult for you, but you didn’t bring in any medical records, and my staff looks to me for leadership.  I have to maintain morale around here.  Taking a life is very difficult on us as medical professionals, and so, in order to sleep at night, I need to be able to justify it.”  He was absolutely furious, and I was quite certain that he was going to hit me.  “So what are you, super savior  vet? OOOH, I’m so impressed!”  He shook his hand in exaggerated fashion with pretend fear.  “So now I gotta ‘F’ing do this all over again somewhere else!”  The terrified dog was now cowering in the corner. Had he seen this temper before?   I remained as calm as I could, which just seemed to fuel his rage.  “Sir, I understand you’re upset, and if you can find your previous medical records, or if you’d like me to examine ‘Rocky,’ I’ll certainly do that.  “And you don’t need to use that kind of language.”

But it was much too late for logic.  He ripped the poor, scared dog by the attached leash and stormed out, threw fifty bucks at the receptionist, and shouted, “You can tell Jesus Christ back there, “Thanks for nothing!”

The funny thing is, no one thought it was funny.  This guy was clearly going to have his dog euthanized today.

I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially lately.  Regardless of its happy, healthy appearance, it is quite possible that this poor pet had some serious problem.  Maybe in his sorrow, he simply forgot to bring the records, and was too embarrassed to admit it.  I do feel bad that things went the way they did, but I still don’t think I was out of line for requiring justification for ending a life.

Life is precious.  Please remember to remind everyone that you love, that you do.

Christmas in Sanford – Just Like Us

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Sanford, Florida brings forth vivid images of Trevon to most of us – Images of hatred, intolerance and separate worlds. This is both unfortunate and ironic, since for decades, Sanford has been a microcosm of middle-America in the South.  Black and white can work, and despite the headlines, it usually does.

Most families have memories of holiday get-togethers that didn’t go well.  Ok, typically alcohol was involved.  It’s frustrating and painful because its family, but much funnier when it involves a spouse’s family.  My brother-in-law is considered a “rascal” for reasons and stories that aren’t my business or relevant to this post, except that he and my other brother-in-law had “words” again, this year involving Sanford.

Donnie loves Sanford, FL for lots of reasons.  There is so much tradition – historical houses with Spanish moss, famous persons, and family lineage.  Jeff asked what seemed like an innocent enough question regarding “gentrification” of the neighborhood, basically the changing socio-economic evolution (and property values) of the historical. and surrounding neighborhoods, and how the whole Trevon Martin thing had affected everything.  Donnie got all upset, thinking there was an implication that he should move the family the hell out of there if the neighborhood wasn’t “improving.”  There were really, really bad neighborhoods (the ‘hood) just a few blocks away, and the folks often stepped outside to get a breath of fresh air.  He replied with something I never expected, but frankly I never really wondered why he lived here.

“Jeff,” Donnie addressed him tersely, “This is all part of the package; we live in the community, and we’re part of it.  We love Sanford, and embrace her with all her faults.”  Jeff was simply stunned that someone would live here by choice, regardless of how cool the vintage house is or how many wonderful friends he had, black and white.

Now don’t get me wrong, Donnie isn’t some “flaming liberal,” or someone who ignores common sense to make a statement.  He and I are both just to the right of Ronald Reagan on most issues, but only “tow the line” when it’s logical, moral, and practical.  For example, I do drive a Prius, but not because I really am convinced that hydrocarbons have changed our climate, and so I want everyone to see me shouting about it.  I traded my Jeep for my Prius, because I drive 94 miles each direction, and frankly, have already paid for it twice in four years worth of commuting gas saved.  Donnie’s the best joke teller I know, and his repertoire includes many of “color,”  complete with colloquial expressions and accents.  Never mean spirited, his jokes typically include Sheniqua, but if she heard them, she too would laugh.  (Alternatively, they may include Lars and Yan, Norwegian farmers in Meenasoda).  Anyway, so I did a double take to hear him preach about what it takes for us to get along and actually function with cultural diversity.

So, I was struck by Donnie’s realistic altruism, a kind of pragmatic open-mindedness.  This, though, is the love that makes the world go round.  It’s one thing to say you are tolerant, something entirely different to actively seek a world with tolerance.

Still thinking to myself, “Hmmm…,” I left the next morning for a training walk.  (I haven’t officially announced it yet, but I’m counting the weeks until my next adventure, one that may begin to define how I commemorate my darkest day, May 17th).  About an hour into my hike, I found myself walking along railroad tracks, a little bit lost, listening (of course) to Audrey Assad, Matt Maher, Sarah Kroger, Brandon Heath, and Chris Tomlin in a playlist shuffle that had me deep into thought (who would have guessed?)  Technology to the rescue! IPhone out, MapMyHike Ap opened, and there was the route I had been travelling – not lost at all!

I soon saw a sign announcing that I had wandered into “Washington Heights,” looking like a typical middle income suburbia.  It wasn’t gated, but was laid out with predictable cul-de-sac’s and dead end streets that had me passing many houses twice, coming and going.  As I put two and two together, I passed a “Neighborhood Watch” sign and began to actually notice that all my new friends were black.

The irony was haunting, the previous day’s conversation about a community with diversity that actually functions, how that process may well be forever tainted or even ruined after Trevon Martin, a guy from out-of-town (me) walking through a neighborhood which is clearly not my own, now looking up at a Neighborhood Watch sign.  The only thing missing was the hoodie.  Or maybe not if the hoodie was a metaphor for some form of dress code inconsistent with the locals.  I wasn’t exactly dressed like Ron Burgundy (Anchorman), but in my T-Shirt and plaid jeans, and my dorky walk and mannerisms, I certainly appeared as out-of-place as Treyvon did.  Ok, in all fairness to Martinez, my “hoodie” didn’t make me look threatening, or hide my identity, and there hadn’t been months of criminal activity by someone dressed like me.  So, fair or not, I wasn’t tailed by a “watch commander,” and the cops that were parked in the driveways actually waved back at me.

I forced myself to overcome the urge to cross-over to the other side of the street when I approached a group of teenagers, nodding and uttering what I thought would be an appropriate greeting, “Sup?”  After all, I was in their home and uninvited, but never once felt in danger.

Admittedly, this was not the ‘hood that was previously mentioned, but simply another middle class neighborhood in suburbia.  There were crime-watches because they don’t want crime in their neighborhood either!

I switched my playlist over to the soundtrack from “The Way,” because this was feeling more and more like another leg of my Camino de Santiago.  I’ve learned that we’re always walking on our journey, and its up to us to learn those lessons our Lord puts in front of us everyday.

This was one of the humbling days, and my embarrassment profound as I realized how surprised I was to discover these people really were my brothers.  I might have needed to travel to Haiti to recognize my that those who lived quite differently than I do are my brothers, but I shouldn’t have to go anywhere to recognize my brothers here at home.

Indeed, “these people” are just like us.  Better, in fact, in many ways.  Every one of the little children, playing on the sidewalks and in the streets looked me strait in the eyes and waved and responded when I said, Hi,” or “Merry Christmas.”  Would that be the case towards a black man in my own neighborhood?

I looked and smiled at the hundreds of empty toy boxes, lining the street next to the garbage cans, displaying all the toys that are popular this year, virtually shouting “Merry Christmas” at me.  Dozens of kids on trampolines, riding mini-bikes, skateboards, and bicycles.  Most young fathers (they weren’t absent in this neighborhood) also smiled and waved at me, one as he washed his dog in the front yard.  I was struck by the number of floks sitting in their front yard, socializing, watching the kids, drinking a beer, BBQing, being out together and enjoying Christmas together.  I saw company logos, Miami Dolphin license plate holders, Obama bumperstickers (who knew?), and believe it or not two NObama! and one Nobamunist! stickers.  Another “Hmmm…” this neighborhood of color had its own “diversity.”

I had spent almost an hour hiking up and down every street in Washinton heights, and headed out, towards my own Christmas dinner with the fam.  Two blocks further, and I started getting hustled by a few teenage kids, anxious to provide whatever it was that I “was looking for.”  Why else would this goofy looking old white guy be walking around through this part of town?  I just smiled, knowing sometimes the best finds aren’t looked for, but rather stumbled upon.

Many times when we stumble, we fall.  We naturally avoid those uncomfortable events and unfamiliar places to avoid the anxious tension that makes us squirm.  And so, as we lose our balance or realize we’re a bit lost, we often so focus on keeping upright and not falling, we miss the sunrise and the blooming flowers.  I’ve done this most of my life.

A few blocks further I again smiled as I declined another kind offer to get ‘something’ for me.  “Thanks, bro,” I replied, “I’m good.”  I was now in “the hood,” and realizing why I had seen so many “Neighborhood Watch” signs during my walkabout in Washington Heights.

Soon I left the classroom of this unplanned social experiment.  Guess I was gone longer than I had planned, so I’d better gather some ammo as an excuse for not helping prepare for the 25 guests due to arrive in a few hours.  Then I realized I’d been walking for two hours, and knew they’d be concerned, and wondering where I had been.  But as I opened the door I simply slipped in and started frying bacon for the brussel sprouts topping.

As I turned the sizzling rashers, I thought of the Christmas the families on the other side of town were having, and I looked around at my own, and smiled again.

Haiti, Part 2 – Speaking in Tongues

HaitiHuddleIMG_2426Cullen Village

This is part two – if you’d like to start with part one, click here.
Kirby’s was not a works filled food distributing, hammer-swingin’ mission.  We were there to evangelize, to spread the good news.  “Sure,” Kirby explained, “We can, and we often do, clothe them and feed them for a day, but when we’re gone, it’s still just a miserable existence for these poor people.”  By spreading the Gospel, we give them hope, something to look forward to, knowledge of our God who loves them and gives them strength and a will to life and love as they struggle through each day.

His logical explanation reminded me of Viktor Frankl’s observations of time spent in the death camps of the Holocaust – the ones that survived were the ones who had hope, a reason to survive, to scratch out an existence, to love and serve each other.  They knew that their captors, their misery, only had power over them if they chose to let them, they would then give up hope and autonomy, and quickly their lives faded away.

Each day we walked most of the morning to a neighboring village.  Only one had a well, and it was not potable water.  The village leader gave us a walking tour  as we were tailed by dozens of filthy and naked children, and we saw the well that the huts and the village were build around.  A naked woman was sponge bathing and washing her clothes there in a bucket as her friend washed the families cooking pot into this water source.  “Wow,” I thought, “This is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen – a living National Geographic magazine.  These kids will never forget this: This vision of true poverty, hunger and thirst, a third world culture, a three hour flight from home.”

These little villages all seemed to have a small church, and the best I could tell, were all served by Pastor Beau, a seemingly close associate of Kirby.  We would all stay up late at night discussing faith issues, and he was curious that I could clarify and scripturally justify some major misconceptions he had about Catholicism; He seemed most fascinated to learn that some random Pope hadn’t inserted 7 extra books into the Bible, rather Luther disliked them and so after having been there for 1000 years, they were soon removed.  Beau was equally impressed to find Cullen and me reading morning scripture as the sun was rising over the beautiful horizon.

The next morning found us walking a hot dusty road to the school that served the entire area.  Hundreds of children wore blue plaid uniforms that were crisp and clean.  Amazing.  They take great pride, we were told, in sending their children to school clean and well put together, as a form of family pride.  The children were all over us, but especially Noah and Cullen.  I doubt they had ever seen white children before, and everyone wanted to hold hands and touch their strait hair.  We arrived as they were beginning religion class, and were asked if we wanted to read to them out of our bibles; Pastor Beau and Kirby would interpret, line at a time.   I was a bit embarrassed to realize that I didn’t know an appropriate passage to look up and read.  I remembered the time Jesus was inundated with children, and the disciples were upset with them, sending them away, to which Jesus replied, “Let the children come.”  How I wished I could remember where that was, because it seemed so appropriate now, as we were each about 50 deep with these beautiful children.   So I blindly opened the book, initially disappointed to not have the Holy Spirit guide me to that very verse.  Beau was interpreting each phrase, with the animation that would have looked like he was using sign language.

Soon my voice cracked as I read aloud the passage that I had turned to, Mark 9:36

  36 And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Not exactly the verse I was looking for, but even better – I’m pretty sure my opening the book here was no accident.  (By the way the “Let the little children come” verse was actually amazingly close to where I had opened to (Mark 10:13)

Life is sometimes funny, and humility is so much more beautiful than pride.

I turned from my exuberant group, all jumping up and down and shouting for me to notice them,  to the other side of the room to tell Cullen what a cool “coincidence” it was for me to “find” that verse, and I was stunned.  Cullen’s group were all silent, staring intently at him, captivated by something.  I moved through dozens of children to get closer.  Instead of interpreting every his every line, Kirby was standing staring at Cullen also.  I have no idea what verses he was reading, but one thing was clear.  My son was reading out of his English bible, but the words that came out of his mouth were in Haitian Creole.  My eyes then met Kirby’s, as we both mouthed the same word, “Wow.”

We sat and chatted for a while over an ice cold Coca-Cola from the good pastor’s private stash!

We were led from shack to mud hut, talking to people, praying with them, holding their hands.  We knelt and prayed over the village elder woman, very aged and feeble, beginning her transition to the other side.  We held hands with the young mother, with a “hemorrhage” that had lasted for years; I was asked if I wanted to say a prayer, and from somewhere I quoted Luke 8:43.  She was weeping and so sure that her sins were causing her disease.  By quoting this verse (also Matthew 9:20 and Mark 5:25), I did my best to remind her that through faith her sins WERE forgiven, through Grace; she was “touching the hem of Jesus’ garment,” and that her’s should be a familiar Christ message, “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”  The look on Kirby’s face was priceless – a Catholic quoting scripture in a “healing service!”  I turned to see how my young Catholic boys were processing this event.  I hadn’t noticed Cullen’s hand on my shoulder, and Noah’s hand on Cullen’s.  Our eyes met and I saw a look of pride in his father that I will forever hold as consolation that he knew what I was made of.

As we walked the long mountain trail back to the mission, Kirby asked me if I’d like to speak at the evening service that night, that someone could interpret for me.  For some truly unknown reason, without hesitation, I immediately told him that I’d love to!  I’d never preached before (my children might take exception), so I wasn’t really sure how to prepare.  All the folks at Bible study had their Scripture “tabbed,” so that seemed appropriate.  I chose a few passages to deliver a brotherly love message on, and inserted bookmarks, sticking out as tabs.

That evening we travelled by truck to a much further village, where apparently clothing was also optional.  Bad attempt at humor, but it all seemed so surreal.  The few clothes that children had were obviously donated, or left behind by some other “missionary tourist.”  Torn, stained Ron Jon surf shop and Van Halen t-shirts seemed out of place on children with nothing else on.  Again, this was a living National Geographic magazine.  Which reminds me of something that was pretty funny.  As we walked towards that village well that morning, I shared with my boys how my big sister Maureen and I used to dart to the bookcase with National Geographics when Mom and Daddy went out on a rare date night.  She was about 12, so I was 8ish and I remember like yesterday laughing ’til my sides hurt and her wetting her pants as we looked at the pictures of the naked African natives.  The four of us were still belly laughing at this image as we reached the well, to see that young woman standing there naked, washing her only clothes in the only water source.  She turned to see us, and made no attempt to cover up.  It was we who were embarrassed that she might think we were laughing at her.  Not such a funny a story after all.

Anyway, the leader explained that this village actually contained enough people that they had TWO churches.  Kirby must have told them about “us,” because it was quickly explained that one of them was a Catholic church!!!  This certainly piqued my curiosity.

Both “churches” were effectively huts – concrete block buildings held together by mud (rather than concrete mortar), with a galvanized steel roof.  Not even a cross (or crucifix) on either wall.  The Protestant preacher, Pastor Beau, was one of the leaders that had been walking with us, and he explained Father Sergio was equally friendly, and that we’d really like him, but that he served hundreds of villages, so only said Mass there about once every two months.  One of the parishioners lectored and served as acolyte, distributing the previously-consecrated communion each Sunday.

We met, saw, and talked to different groups of folks at each of these two churches.  Although only 100 feet apart, the members did not enter each other’s place of worship, supposedly out of respect, but I’m sure the misconceptions and superstitions of the culture played a huge role.

But here’s the rub.  Pastor Beau seemed to really connect with us (most definitely due to Cullen’s presence and his language abilities), and his request to Kirby that I speak that night I later learned was quite a coup.  Never before had a Catholic stood in front of his congregation, and no one could remember if the Catholic folks had ever been inside their Protestant church.

My message was basically that it was we that were honored to be with them, and that we are called to love and serve each other, with verses read intermittently, and my interpretation of how the message applied to our walk here together.  Afterward, Kirby, Beau, and I all embraced, with what I, at the time, felt was a bit of an exaggerated response.  I didn’t think it was really such a big deal.

Later, it was laid out for me quite clearly.  “You have no idea what you have done tonight,” Pastor Beau and the Catholic leader agreed.  “Our village has been very divided, at times violently so.  The mistrust, and misunderstandings are rooted in differences in religion.  As an outsider, you were allowed to do something we’ve tried to do for years.  You stood as a Catholic, and simply claimed to be a brother Christian, stating matter-of-factly that we are called simply to treat each other with love and respect.  If this white American is willing to come to us and tell them that they are his equal, his brothers…”  Beau just shook his head and kept saying he never thought this could happen, and that I just didn’t understand.

It still just doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  Of course I would feel differently if I was a Christian in the Middle East or a Catholic in 1500’s England or even 1970’s Belfast, or a Jew in Poland in the 40’s.

We turned on the iPod playlist as we readied for bed that night.

Third in line to turn up in the shuffle – Matt Maher:  “and I’ll be my brother’s keeper, so the whole world will know that we’re not alone.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Rosemary was Mom’s big sister and one of her dearest friends.  Two of her children, Lewis and Rosie, are still good friends, and when Aunt Rosemary passed away earlier this year I felt obliged to fly up to Missouri to pay my respects.  Lots of family came down for Cullen’s funeral, and I’ll always treasure that they cared enough to come; I now realize how much these gestures mean.  The closing song at Aunt Rosemary’s funeral was “Be Not Afraid:”
Be not afraid.
I go before you always.
Come follow me, and
I will give you rest.

You shall cross the barren desert, but you shall not die of thirst.
You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way.
You shall speak your words in foreign lands and all will understand.
You shall see the face of God and live.

“Wow'” I thought.  So many gifts left behind.  I get it.

Speaking in tongues forever takes on new meaning.

Much love

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I thought you should know…

“Billy, um… have you looked on Facebook lately?”  my brother Steve was calling me on the phone.  Not shocking, but certainly an infrequent occurrence.  “I thought you should know what Cullen posted.”

Being called “Billy” always startles me just a bit.  I haven’t called myself “Billy” since the 7th grade, so it generally means family or a childhood friend.

One of the few famous people I know actually called me out with that moniker in college, and I was forever treated differently afterwards.  Fraternity hazing was still a popular sport in 1977, so at the University of Missouri Theta Chapter of Alpha Gamma Rho, I was “lower than the fish-shit scum at the bottom of the ocean.”  I can still smell the foul mouths of Kevin Shopher and Jim Famuliner as they shouted at the tops of their lungs what an embarrassment I was to the upperclassmen, and that I might as well quit right then, because I just wasn’t cut out to be one of the “finer gentlemen” of Ag-Rho.  “Ha ha, what a bunch of jerks; If these two can make it into this frat, any one can!” Dave McKee and I used to double over laughing at these idiots when they weren’t around.  But during the “evening activities,” we’d “Sir, yes sir!” and complete the obligatory 24,410 push-ups (we actually counted that pledge semester) that were required to get our ticket punched.

Anyway, I was in Schnucks Liquor store in Columbia, Missouri, with my “big brother,” Don Cupps and several others who loved me dearly, getting the beer, etc. for the football game pre-party at the frat house, when someone shouted, “Billy Klein” from all the way down the aisle.  I cringed hearing this childish name that I had graduated from, knowing my “brothers” now had new ammunition to tease me with.  We all spun our heads around to see James Wilder, the BMOC running-back for the Mizzou Tigers, who was in the midst of taking us to the Big 8 (later the Big 12) conference championship, and an unprecedented number 4 in ranking polls.  Jersey number 32, known as the “Sikeston Train,” was a giant physically, and as it turns out, a really nice guy as well.  He would later be drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (keeping #32), and in breaking all their records, rescue them from being such an embarrassment.  His son James Wilder Jr, also wears #32 for Florida State (I do wish the Rams had drafted Wilder instead of the Bucs; Jr would be playing now for my beloved Mizzou Tigers, instead of the ‘Noles!

What nobody knew until that moment, was that I had grown up with Wilder in Sikeston, Missouri.  Number 32, as you can imagine, was quite a sensation in our home town also.  “The Mule” shattered every known record and the Sikeston Bulldogs went to the State finals for the first time in over 30 years!  We admittedly weren’t the best of friends, because that was back when blacks hung with blacks, and whites hung with whites; we also never met until 7th grade, since I had gone to St. Francis Xavier Catholic School for the first six grades.  But we did know each other from school, parties and athletic banquets; out of 365 kids in my senior class at Sikeston High School, only 5 went strait to the ‘ZOU, and so we certainly were acquainted.  So when James called out to Billy Klein, my esteem zoomed immediately.  Funny how life works.

(Back to that phone call)  So on that day, when my 16-year-old son Cullen “came out” on Facebook by saying he was “bi-” and “in a relationship” with a boy, it was rather upsetting to the fam.  I wasn’t thrilled that he had made the whole thing public, especially since Mom was alive and actively keeping up with all of her beloved family through FB, but I certainly wasn’t shocked.  I had known for years which team he’d be playing for, and as I’ve explained earlier, had anguished over every angle, and every “alternative.”  When we were going through the divorce, it was just horrible for everyone, and Cullen, as expected, acted out with some rebellious stuff, so I did take him to Anthony Feretti, a local family therapist to have “someone to talk to, and work things out with.”  (It would be disingenuous of me to deny that I would have thought it quite a relief to learn, in working ‘things’ out, Cullen had discovered he was just ‘going through a phase,’ and that he was now ‘normal,’ and playing for our team.)  Dr. Tony soon told me Cullen was fine, very healthy, and just a really good, sweet kid.  God knows I knew all of that already.

I was well aware that even then, long before Allan Chambers would abandon Exodus, that reparative theory really did originate from a loving approach, but was horribly flawed in its theory.  Sure, I blamed myself, blah-blah-blah, but I had read enough and educated myself well enough that none of this was supported by facts.  Just as many straight kids have horrible parents, and just as many gay kids come from supportive, interactive, loving, functional families.  Chambers and I have become friends, and I hope the world lightens up on him, as everything he did was out of love and honest integrity.  Remember, in the 50’s physicians appeared on TV commercials promoting cigarettes as a healthy way to relax.  It’s not lying if you believe current evidence supports your position.

Anyway, I’m not really sure what Steve thought I could do.  Get him “into therapy?”  Disown him?  Throw him out?  Give him a spanking, or at least a “good talking to?”  I know I’m being snarky, but it truly is as frustrating as hell, as well as all the other emotions I’ve described elsewhere.

But what about my poor dear Cullen?  It must have been so frightening, lonesome, embarrassing, and so many other emotions that I’ve had so vividly explained to me by so many gay people who have recently “come out of the woodwork.”

Having tossed that ball around in my head for so long, I replied with the only thing I could reply with.  Remember “Pascal’s Wager?” this is my play on it.  Weigh one horrible extreme against the other, and choose between the two possible tragedies.

“Steve, I’ve thought long and hard, cried many tears, and prayed many tears about this.  I have come to the decision that I’d much rather hold my son’s hand as he’s lying there, dying from AIDS at age 30 than walk into his room to find him hanging from a rope in his closet at 15.  So we’ve decided, God and I, to accept him, support him, and love him unconditionally.  I’ll be there for him as much as he allows me to be, support him, and love him unconditionally.  I’ll cherish the small time I have with him (since he seems to prefer to stay with Debbie), I’ll support him as best I can, I’ll pray for him, and I’ll love him unconditionally.  And Steve, I ask that you pray for him, and us, as well.”

Steve really didn’t know what else to say, and I’m sure was , at that point, a little embarrassed.  I hope not, because he also acted out of love, the best way he knew how.  I did thank him for calling.

Every post I write seems so full of regrets, but how I reacted to the call, and Cullen’s coming out isn’t one of them.  It was the very best I was capable of at that time.  I love(d) him unconditionally.

I do however regret not telling Mom.  I also miss her so very much, and her warm loving smile, compassionate voice, and healing embrace.  In wanting to spare her “the hurt,” I robbed her of that true loving, honest relationship that she would have wanted.  I effectively kept my son and my mother apart.  I kept him from knowing her unconditional love.

I kept her from her reason for living, to love her family unconditionally, because she would have.

My mom was a true witness for God’s unconditional love through His son Jesus Christ.  If I really did love Cullen unconditionally, and I very much tried, it came from her.  Thanks Mom, and I’m sorry.

———-

Just a couple of footnotes.  None of my family, my brothers or sisters have never have had unkind words that I’m aware of (at least as adults), and all actions have clearly been rooted in love.  Feretti is a very competent therapist.  I do wish James Wilder, Jr. played for Mizzou.  Regardless whether or not you agree with his personal opinions, Alan Chambers is a good person.  Alpha Gamma Rho is a wonderful organization, and it does “build better men.”  I would join her again, in a heartbeat. I do miss my mom and my son.

Although I have lots of life regrets, I do have lots to be thankful for and feel very blessed.

 

The Mystery of Faith

“So that’s it?” “I’m just supposed to accept so many things that don’t make any sense??”

I just smiled at my beautiful 18 year old boy, who’s new-found enthusiasm and truth-seeking I found inspiring and a blessing.  “Cullen,” I replied, “you are a really intelligent person, a torch-bearer for the next generation.  You are supposed to seek the truth.  Fortunately, our faith tradition is a logical one.  Ours is the church that Jesus Himself built.  He appointed the apostles, He handed the keys to Peter, he instituted the sacraments, and on and on.  Question, research, dig and seek for the truth, the dig some more.  Pray for answers and revelation.  Our faith tradition has a reason for absolutely every thing we believe, either written in scripture, or passed along in the oral tradition, started before the followers of Jesus could even read and write.”

“You may well find that you don’t like what you find, and you may well not agree.  And that’s your prerogative, believe it or not, to disagree.  But you can’t leave it there.  Keep looking, deeper and deeper until you at least understand where these beliefs came from and why.  Two thousand years of theologians who devoted their entire lives to discovering the truth, and thousands of Christians over the centuries, martyred because they were convinced that their convictions were indeed the truth, have certainly made a case for the truths of our tradition.  Of course you’ll agree with most things, because it feels like common sense – you’ve been brought up to accept certain truths that others may disagree with.  But you will most certainly disagree with other things.”

“Like the whole Adam and Eve story, when science tells us that’s a ‘fairy tale’?”

“Yes, of course, Cullen, like that, among many, many other things.  But certain things in scripture may or may not have been meant literally.  There are lots of literary devices in the bible – prose, poetry, allegory, hyperbole, metaphors, parables, etc, etc.  The whole ‘Adam and Eve thing’ may indeed be literally true, or simply an allegory of how the first man’s original betrayal of God, because of his pride, arrogance, and disobedience led in some way to our sinful nature, our concupiscence, what we call ‘original sin.’  Could God have created two original people from “dust?”  Of course He could have!  Could He have caused the ‘big bang’ and directed an evolutionary process over millennia? Certainly!  Wouldn’t that be “creation” also?  We aren’t required to believe many of the traditional teachings of our faith, only the “dogma.”  Many things are symbolic and have very deep meaning even though we don’t interpret scripture as “literalists” would.  The stories in the Bible were written over many centuries for audiences in many different cultures, so they had writing styles that they would understand, and lessons that they needed to hear at that time.  So as we read the inspired Word of God, its important to extrapolate, to glean the real message that God wants YOU to hear for your own life in our own times.  This does take a lot of work sometimes, because you must immerse yourself into that culture.  St Ignatious of Loyola showed us one way to do this – to focus on one lesson or passage, and to meditate or contemplate on it deeply, placing yourself into the event.  Feel the hot dust through your sandals, hear the voices, smell the place, really feel the message because you are actually there.”

“Ok, I’ll try that,” Cullen promised, and then… “What about me, dad, doesn’t Catholicism teach that its a sin to be gay?  Doesn’t the Church say I’m going to hell?”

Of course, I was waiting for that, and I really thought I was ready.  I had read several books, and spoken with psychologist clients.  I had downloaded and almost memorized Always Our Children, the pastoral letter from Catholic Bishops directed towards clergy as well as parents on dealing with this difficult subject with loving compassion.  So I intended to pour forth with all my “knowledge.”  And I did, and I agreed it was pretty compassionate (compared to Westboro Baptist).  So out came the “Love the sinner/Hate the sin “clear explanation.”  We’re all called to chastity, outside the confines of a sacramental marriage.

“No!  Of course not Cullen, the Church does NOT say you are going to hell.  You were born with a same-sex-attraction (SSA), and we all have temptations that lead us to sin.   Now, acting on those temptations, now that’s another matter.  Yes, the Church WOULD consider the same-sex physical act sinful – just as it would consider it sinful for your unmarried sister to be having sex, or myself, before I was married.”

Knowing full well about him and Tim, his “best friend” for two years, I was quick to clarify.  “But Cullen, here’s the thing, and the beautiful thing about our faith.  Forgiveness is the biggest and quite unique component of Christianity.  We believe that God sent His son to walk among us to show us how to love, and the lesson he most often taught in words and action, is that of forgiveness.  We’re ALL sinners, and we all make mistakes.  Every Day!  I do!  In fact, I screw up more than anyone I know.  But God does know how hard I try, and how sorry I am when I fall, and how I really do love Him and other people the best that I can.  In walking with us, Jesus was like us in all things but sin.  He was tempted, He hungered, He felt loneliness, He grieved and wept, and He felt pain.  He really felt all of our emotions, because although He was fully God, He was fully human also.  Now here’s something that requires “faith.”  Faith is required not when something can’t be proven, but when it also can’t be disproven.  It’s a true mystery, the ‘mystery of faith’ that He was God AND man both at the same time.

“Yeah dad, I know all that, but you never answered my question.  Does the Church say I’m going to Hell?”

Cullen didn’t know the times I had literally wept over this very question – alone, in prayer, and in conference with priests at several of my annual Jesuit Retreats in St. Louis.  How could the loving God that I know, sentence my son to life with such a burden?  To create such a yoke of burden to bear all his life.  How could a loving God be so unfair?  To create a person who must choose between the love, affection, companionship and intimacy that we all long for or eternal salvation?  Seriously? That just feels so unfair, even cruel!  My Jesuit confessors were very sympathetic, it wasn’t the first time they had heard this lament.  One even cried with me.  “Remember, He is God, and we are not.  And He IS the loving, forgiving, compassionate Jesus that you know.  Love your son as He loves us.  Let your son walk with God, and he will find salvation.”  But we do suffer with our children.

I’m sure Cullen knew I was fumbling for his answer, but he knew I was always honest with him, and that I did my best to lead him.  “The Church’s official position is that your SSA is the cross you must bear, and that you are called to celibacy.  I realize it doesn’t feel fair, and frankly, I don’t know what I would do if I were in your shoes.  One thing is for certain however.  My strongest advice is to pray, talk to God, pray for guidance for the truth.  Your relationship with our God is just that – YOUR relationship with a God so loving that He suffered and died on the cross for YOU.  Kneel down in adoration at the cross, and see the definition of perfect love.  Close your eyes and talk to Christ on the cross.  Pray and contemplate like Ignatious suggests.  Listen in the silence for His love poured out for you.  That’s all I know.  And always pray for strength to do what you know he is telling you.  Just know that He will pick you up, time after time, when you fall down.  Remember that God loves us, but He doesn’t just love us, He IS love itself.  That’s why His is unconditional, unfaltering love.

I felt like I dodged the bullet, the hardest question of all time for someone like him when he then asked, “Dad, that’s the other thing, what’s the point of the whole crucifixion thing?  I get the whole cultural thing back then, about offering sacrifice and all that, but – really?  He was God.  Couldn’t he just snap his fingers and forgive our sins?”

In retrospect this was really the question of existence, His and ours!  But at the time, compared to the previous question, it felt like an easy one.

“Of course He could.  But we wouldn’t see His love.  He showed us He knows all our emotions: loneliness, isolation, and betrayal.  He showed us He knows pain and physical suffering.  That’s why He has the utmost empathy and compassion.  He actually walked in our shoes, because He was one of us.”

That’s the gist of what I remember about our conversation that night in the kitchen.  We both had lots to think about.

Shared Birthday “A Parent’s Coming Out”

My birthday was actually in August and that was the date I had wanted to post here for the first time since walking the Camino de Santiago, but the emotional energy required just seemed elusive.

I’ve tried several times, but I seem to sit and stare at the keyboard, and type, and delete, and copy and paste, and delete, and stare, and just find myself not at all sure where to start, and what to feel comfortable sharing.  It’s been 3 months since I opened up on any of my blogs, and my shield must be back up and trying to protect my “me.”  I got up from my session, and exited without saving anything.

Finally, on my 90 minute drive to work yesterday I had my epiphany.  I got my introductory thoughts, my segue to what I really feel like I need to say out loud.

It’s funny how our childhood events stay with us over the years.  I’m over 50 and I still am moved by some of these experiences; many make me cringe.

I was never particularly athletic as a kid.  So (unless “captains” were best friends), yes I was typically picked last for sandlot baseball, football, basketball, and even pretty awful trying to do stuff like waterski or fish.  I didn’t know crap about how to do these things, I just hadn’t been taught.  My big brothers were much older and weren’t around much, nor was my dad. In fact, modern psychology would likely blame these experiences and their consequences on their father, or on his absence.  I suppose I should cross-post this to my blog involving him, and how the marriage counselor (who I saw as I desperately attempted to salvage my first marriage) had blamed all my faults and flaws on the absence of Jean Klein.  Not that I didn’t try.  I remember vividly climbing up in his lap to pretend I cared about Cardinal baseball or his one TV show, “Combat,” a 60’s series about life in the trenches during the battles of WWII.

We don’t usually see ourselves as others do, especially during childhood and adolescence, so I’m not sure if I was just a little guy and not very macho, or if I truly was the sissy that Paul Sherman referred to as he tried to beat the crap out of in high school; another time involving Sonny Riley also comes to mind.

The point is not that kids bully, or that I was bullied, but frankly, “Why are kids bullied?”
Today we tend to think bullying always involves a “gay” thing?”  Why else (as if that would have been a legitimate reason) would you pick on someone for being what you thought was a sissy?  Was it just to pick on someone who they perceived as weaker, so they could get away with it, ie. nature’s way to ensure the strength and longevity of the herd, by eliminating the weakest – survival of the fittest?

Or was it even more sinister?  Guess there’s no way to know for sure; I’d guess the perpertrators wouldn’t even know, or even remember that they had committed these horrible “hate” crimes so many years ago.  Probably just “boys being boys.”

I did my best to “push back.”  Although I didn’t even try out for the football team – I was just too tiny, and had no idea whatsoever about the rules or what most of the positions did – I did go out for the wrestling team.  I wasn’t very good here either but at least it was size appropriate.  I worked my butt off, and got into pretty good shape in the weight room, but still just wasn’t very athletic.

Not really sure what it was, but I must have put off some funny vibes too.  I remember getting a series of late night phone calls when I was about 14 from some anonymous boy, who was apparently attracted to me.  I was stunned that he agreed when I called him a queer, and kept prodding me to admit I was too!

Bear in mind that this was a small town in southeast Missouri in the 70s; I didn’t have a “odd uncle Donald,” nor did I even know that “homosexuals” even existed in the real world.  The closest I knew of such things was the reading the headlines of the Sikeston Standard Newspaper (as I rolled them for my paper-route) about a group of “perverted men” that were caught “running around naked at the rodeo grounds.”  I had (have) no idea what that even means – perhaps 2 were caught in the act in a car or the restroom, but it sounded to an eleven year old like a naked free-for-all where they were doing rodeo stuff like riding horses, or bulls, or even playing tag or some other worthy olympic endeavor.  Just wasn’t really sure why they wanted to be naked, or why it was against the law or newsworthy, or what a pervert even was, except something really bad.

Anyway, so this kid kept calling me late at night, and I remember getting really upset, and angry, and disgusted that I would be such a target.  He only stopped calling when I claimed that the police were involved, the phone was tapped, and I only needed to keep him on the line for 6 more seconds.  He never called back.  However, I did find these calls disturbing.  What signals or mannerisms had I been sending out?  I was clearly attrective to him, and never gave it any more thought that he (they?) might think I played for their side!

Clearly not.  I liked girls.  Alot.  Really. Perhaps too much, or perhaps it was normal to have my raging thoughts and fantasies about lots of girls.  I couldn’t even name them all without a yearbook, or a phone book.  Whew, what a relief.  I was normal, not a freak.  Hmmm… freak?  pervert?  queer? – what about – pansy?  sissy?  pussy?   Is this what the “bullies” were thinking?  When people were called these latter things, were they really thinking the former ones?

Have I been holding this crap in since I was getting “unsolicited” calls at age 14?  or since I got hit in the face batting in little league trying to bunt at age 11, or when I was laughed at when I ran onto the sandlot for a weekend 10 year old football game wearing my dad’s vintage helmet from his days?  Did they just think I was an idiot, or did they think I was a lesser “guy” because I didn’t have boy “stuff,” equipment or knowledge.  Was my lack of “skills” because my dad never showed me, or was I really some kind of a “borderline” sissy?

So this has perhaps been my lifelong shield – to overcompensate, to hide my “issues.”  Wow, the shrinks would have a field-day!  Hours spent in the gym, so I could look manly.  Dozens of girlfriends as “conquests,” again, proving what a “man” I was.  An embarrassing, phenomenal amount of alcohol (etc) abuse – was it to numb the confusion and frustration? or to be like my old man, so history could repeat itself, yet another generation?  Hundreds of weekends away, proving what a “great father” I was, at dance, gymnastics, and cheer competitions.  The only thing I’ve proven is that I can be a shitty husband too, since my first attempt resulted in her infidelity after 19 years, and immediate divorce.  I’m apparently pretty forgiving too.

So I’ve now spent a thousand words setting the stage, describing where I came from.  How could this crap really be relevant 40 years later?  Well thirty years ago, I became a father.  Certainly I wasn’t the first man thrust into this role without a guidebook, or even much of a role model.  Some of the finest men, strongest leaders, and successful athletes never even knew their fathers – or knew that they were a bum.  So I really and truly doubt that any of my faults were because my own father didn’t have much of a guidebook either.  His best friend, Mr. Dick Tongate, told us after Dad’s funeral that when they were kids together Papu would berate him and didn’t think he had ever told Daddy that he had done a good job (on anything), ever hugged him, and certainly never that he loved him or was proud of him.  Wow, my brothers and sisters were so moved to learn this.  So, would we kids be expecting too much from the old man?  I should expect him to realize that it was important to teach me how to throw, buy me football gear, take me fishing, watch my band concerts, little league games, wrestling matches, teach me how to tie a tie, jog with me, discuss the Lord with me, talk to me about love and sex, or even explain what was going on in the Cardinal baseball and the Mizzou football games?  To hold me with one hand, even if a Falstaff beer was in the other?  This is rhetorical, of course.

Perhaps Jean Klein really did do the best he could.  He had a rat for a father (had Papu’s father been inattentive and cruel as well?). Dad faced death in Belgium, France, and Germany.  I’m sure he saw (and did) horrible things during that war.  He had come home from that overseas hell addicted to nicotine and alcohol.  Mom told tales of war demons that would haunt him for decades, often through nightmares.  Life was frustrating also – as a farmer, he constantly pleaded for rain, or less rain, or less heat as his crops often failed, and his father berated his efforts for a bountiful harvest.  Yes indeed, Jean M. Klein may well have done the best he was “capable” of.

Anyway so I quickly fathered two daughters, and thought I was a pretty good dad.  Perhaps I was, but it was, in retrospect being a “pretty good mom.”  You see my parental role model was really Mom.  Maureen Blanton Klein was actually a bit of a supermom.  I can deal with that in a different post, but suffice it to say, her’s was really the role I was playing.

But, as I would later say in his funeral eulogy, “Although daughters are wonderful, and mine hung the moon, a man wants a son.”  So twentyone years ago, on my own birthday, I was blessed with William Cullen Klein.  Not only did we share the same first name and birthday, I’d soon find out just how much alike we really were; and how different.

Like me, Cullen had my daddy’s piercing beautiful blue eyes.  He was always so determined – it seemed like he could do almost anything he set his mind to.  Despite the fact that I really (or so I remember) tried to teach him to throw and hit a baseball, and throw and catch a football, or even shoot a basketball, he had about as many athletic gifts as I did.  I took him to Marlin and Dolphin and Cardinal games, and tried to explain the games’ rules to him, but he didn’t really care.  Regardless, he was incredibly intelligent, in the “gifted” program at Gemini Elementary School, honor society, and strait “A”s.  When I overheard a couple of his classmates call him a pussy, i flashedback to my own inner torment.  My beautiful son was me, all over again.  I saw a the proverbial “target” on the back of his head, and had to do something.  I enrolled him in Tae Kwan Do, and even went to classes with him.  He had his second degree black belt in no time, and we even went to the boxing gym together.  My son would NOT be bullied.

Not so deep down, just under the surface, I saw the writing on the wall, and when he didn’t act on the advances of an absolutely beautiful 12 year old neighbor girl, I knew for sure.  Cullen was gay.  It doesn’t take much digging to know that I knew long before then; its likely that’s why I tried so desperately to do those guy things with him.

Was it my trying to protect him from those hurtful words and fists that I had felt 30 years earlier?  Or was i actually continuing to protect myself?  Did those same taunts still keep me up at night? Would this prove them right, what a pussy I really am if I raised a gay son?

So this was my epiphany as I drove home.  Does this explain some of the pieces missing from the puzzle?

Of course I did the typical things all parents do when a child “comes out.”  This will be a later blog post, but here’s a snippet: I grieved the loss of MY OWN dreams – family name would not go forward, no grandchildren, no generational Christmas mornings or Easter egg hunts;  Fear for his physical and mental health and safety; Fear for his soul – as Catholics, we weren’t exactly “bible-thumpers,” but I certainly doubted this was part of God’s plan; We’d never do those things I had so longed to do with my own dad – football games, hunting trips, girl stories, grandchildren on the lap.  Yes, and as I’ve read, those are pretty typical selfish emotions for parents of a gay child.  But for me, there was much more, and I was just beginning to realize it.

So here it is.

To this day I have never posted on FB or even said to my social friends or employees, or even a single person on the Camino the words, “My son is gay.”  Lots of people know, of course, but I have never said the words, except to family and my closest friends.  This, in fact, makes me very, very sad.  I have lost my son and will never again on this Earth hold him in my arms, and yet I’m still too embarrassed to tell people.

I’ve always used the excuse that anyone’s (his) sexuality is a non-relevant detail – like blue eyes, or a big nose, or even whether or not they like asparagus.  These details don’t “define” the person; someone (Cullen) isn’t a “homosexual” or a “gay,”  they are not a noun, they are an adjective.  Instead, someone (Cullen) is a person that happens to be attracted to the same sex, and that’s ONE of many things about him, it certainly doesn’t define him.

That, in fact, is all true.  That’s what I often told him.  He wasn’t a “gay.”  He was a great kid who happened to have SSA, as well as all of his other attributes.  But has this all been a convenient excuse?  My belief set was clear – absolute unconditional love, and this one feature did not define him.  Although he didn’t choose this cross, he could certainly choose how to act.

But really.  Was all this rewording simply an exercise in semantics?  That’s the topic of a future blog.  But my point is, did this re-wording allow me to sweep under the rug this little fact?  When someone asked if he had a “little girlfriend,” I would smile and just say, “No.” Was I also obliged to share that his choice would rather be a “little boyfriend?”

Admittedly, there was a difference between asking Cullen to be discrete and not post “in your face” pictures of Tim and him embracing or kissing when Mom was alive and followed all her children and grandchildren’s every move on facebook.  But those days are past, so what’s my excuse now?

I just don’t know.  Hopefully simply expressing these feelings, and posting them, no longer so anonymously, is a first step.