Stitches for Christmas

I hadn’t planned on the Christmas traffic and so I was a bit late for work.  “I’m not even on the highway yet,” I phoned my receptionist, “So you might want to call my first appointment and advise them to come in 15 minutes late.”

“Just be glad you’re not early!” she exclaimed.  “We had an emergency run in, and the poor thing was torn wide open from getting caught under a fence, and bleeding all over the place.”

“Are they waiting?” I asked as I sped up well past my comfortable speed.  “No, I sent them to Dr. Elsewhere.  Besides they’d never been here before, and said the dog wasn’t even theirs!”

I’d seen the schedule and knew we were slammed; it was good that they went down the road.  I had 18 appointments scheduled for the abbreviated 3 hour day, and that would be plenty.  Besides, it was Christmas Eve and everyone would be anxious to get home after just a half day.  I was glad I wouldn’t have to feel guilty.

I’ve  come to really enjoy my hour and a half commute.  I listen to lots of audiobooks and, now that I’m enrolled in University postgraduate classes again, I listen to my professor’s lectures a few times as well.  But it does make for a long 13 hour day, and there’s not much of me left when I get home.  My coping mechanism involves an hour of silence, contemplation, prayer early every morning.  And I find myself struggling, pleading, praying for peace and joy from each hectic day.

Some days it’s hard to find much joy.  I’m sometimes immersed and submerged in grief of lost life and love.  And so I plead with my Creator for consolation.  I want to know that it’s not all in vain.  That we’re here for a reason.  That I’m here for a reason.  Give me your eyes to recognize opportunities to love and serve as you would have me.  And that I am living my life as He would want – that the world is better for my having been here.  I’ve been having a bit of a dry spell, and feel like I’m just checking the box some days.

I realize I’ll never cure cancer.  And I’ll never make enough money to create a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to end a disease like rubella.  Or embrace the “humans discarded like garbage” as Mother Theresa did.  And so it would be easy to see my ordinary, everyday life as just that. But I strive to find Jesus with every encounter – every time I smile, touch, or open my mouth.  I pray for patience, and compassion, and the vision to realize who it is that is actually standing in front of me, and overlook their human faults.  I ask for wisdom to recognise those opportunities that I’m given where I can draw closer, but be indifferent to those which push me away.

Sometimes people aren’t very kind, or appreciative, or forgiving of my own faults – my forgetfulness, my schedule, my often sarcastic personality, my tardiness.

And so, I zipped into the driveway, with almost 20 cars already in it, knowing that the day would be another challenge.  My first two appointments were waiting, along with two unplanned emergencies; 6 pets had been dropped off for me to examine “in my spare time,” and over 40 charts were on my desk for me to evaluate lab results and to call to discuss treatment options.

After years of this script, my employees know I have a routine, and to only jump on me if someone is bleeding.  Since they didn’t, I made a dash for the baño and returned the three mugs of coffee I’d inhaled almost two hours ago.  I grabbed my stethoscope, and slid into the first exam room.

Soon I had dispersed, delegated, prescribed, and advised everyone waiting to see me, and was shocked to see no charts in front of me.  I looked at the clock and was confused that I had a little down time in the middle of a busy, busy morning.

As I turned to tackle my stack of charts, one of my receptionists spun me around and said, “Dr. K., the person that came in so early this morning, the one I referred to Dr. Elsewhere is back, and begging for you to look at the dog.  I know what you’re going to say, so I’m not sure why I’m even asking, but she wants your opinion. Remember, it’s not even her dog, and she has now told me three times that she doesn’t have any money.”  The other doctor had told her just to hose the dog’s wound off every day and it would probably heal fine.

I shook my head and smiled, “Tell them to bring the dog in, and I’ll have a look.”

“No,” she said, “They’re too embarrassed to come in with no money.  Can you go out to their car and just have a look to see if you agree with the other doctor.”

“Sure.”

The gash was deep, and blood was everywhere.  There was little chance this would heal on it’s own.  Not without antibiotics, and she really needed stitches.  I looked around and “for some reason” there were still no cars in the parking lot.  The little dog looked up at me and wagged her tail.  I looked at the wrinkled, worried forehead of the couple who had cared enough to bring in a dog that didn’t even belong to them.

Fence Gash

“Field stitches” are something that I learned from my boyhood mentor as I “helped” around the neighborhood vet clinic, a lifetime ago, working on cattle and horses, and most certainly aren’t taught in medical school.  They are fast, and require no general anesthesia.  I looked at the huge gash in the little dog, and realized that it most certainly wouldn’t be the best medical care, but one hell of a lot better than hosing it off every day.  Besides, I could shave and disinfect the wound, inject some lidocaine, place a drain, and “field stitch” the dog in about 20 minutes.  (To do it properly, with acceptable sterile technique would require anesthesia and over two hours of surgical time).

OK, so it actually took 30 minutes, and by then about 4 or 5 people were waiting. But, as I placed the final stitch in her neighbor’s dog who hadn’t even flinched, and gave her a shot of antibiotics, I knew it had been the right thing to do.

Her husband had looked at the floor most of the time we were in the exam room together, and finally, looking up, spoke with a cracking voice.

“I’m not sure why ya done this fer us, and I told you I didn’ haf any thing ta pay ya with. Would it be OK if we came back and paid you a little bit each week, when I get m’ check?”  He seemed to fear my response and was clearly embarrassed.

I was a bit moved by his offer.  I had known they couldn’t pay when I invited them in.

“No,” I said, “I only ask one thing.  Don’t go around and tell everyone that we work for free.  ‘Cause if I did this very often, (pointing to my nurse) she’d have to work for free, and then her family wouldn’t get to buy food.”

“What?” they were both clearly a mess now.  “You done all this fer nuthin?”

“Nope. We did it because we were supposed to.  Thanks for coming in today, and … Merry Christmas.”

I gave them each a hug, and high fived my nurse as I left the room.

She smiled bigger than I did.  She knew we hadn’t done it for them.  It was for me.  I’m selfish that way.

Clearly, a businessman can’t give things away on a regular basis, or he wouldn’t be able to pay his staff, and give raises, and pay for health care, or the mortgage.  But sometimes you can.  And it feels really good.

None of this is about “telling people about our good works so that others will know how good we are.”  It’s simply opening our eyes so we can see.

It’s not about doing good, or “giving back,” because others have been good to us.  No, that’s simply the “exchange” of Christmas gifts.  Tit for tat.  And as such, although trades are extrinsically good, they don’t really add good to the world.  The balance shifts when we do good where there is no possible way for the other to repay.

At the end of the day, isn’t that what Christmas is really about anyway?

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son …

JN 3:16

The original gift of Christmas was one given with full knowledge that it could never be repaid, and clearly there has never been that expectation.  We don’t do good because we owe God anything.  Or because we’re afraid of Hell.  We do good because God is good, and in our design we are programed to enjoy doing so.  There are no mistakes in our design.  He did this for a reason.  We are here for a reason.

Centuries ago, Blaise Pascal (consider also Pascal’s Wager) formulated a concept later described as a “God shaped hole” in our hearts.  We seek and try repeatedly to fill this longing with things of this world, trying to satisfy the craving, and fill the void ourselves. Sixteen centuries years ago Pascal observed power-lust and self-centeredness, with the resultant narcissism and addictions.

This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)

Only by recognising what “fits” in this hole do we “satisfy that longing.” Only through love and service for others are we truly happy.  What we did on Christmas eve was really no big deal.  Everyone can, and must reach out those around them.  Maybe you can’t stitch up a stray dog.  But you can help someone fix a flat tire, or unload their groceries, or shovel their snow, or give a blanket to someone who is wandering and cold.  Or just stop and, with a conversation or a smile, show a stranger that they matter.

ed. note:  I considered for a week before I wrote this. Last year a similar post about Betty and her dog Baby (Rude) resulted in a considerable number of folks being put off by what they saw as “attention seeking, and patting myself on the back for doing something we should all do anyway.” But that was the entire point of She Wasn’t being Rude, if the reader had actually read it and made it down to the end of the post.  Of course we should do good, and what I (and every other veterinarian I know) am able to do sometimes, is a blessing – to me.

After tragedy enters someone’s life, they see the world through a much different lens.  Everything takes on a new color, with depth and detail that was never before noticed.  When the bleeding stops, everything has purpose;  life becomes deeper and meaningful, and appreciated.

My vision is with other eyes now.  Mainly those of my father and my son.

myeeye2

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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.