Missing Our Parents, Helping the Hurting

Fifty years prior, his WWII daily K-Rations had included just enough unfiltered Camel cigarettes to start a life-ending habit that would eventually rob us of our newly sober father.

None of his children were with my father when he died.  Earlier that same day, Mom had assured me that, although he was in an oxygen tent and probably wouldn’t come home from the hospital, death wasn’t imminent.  .  I should start looking at plane tickets and adjust my schedule accordingly for probably the next week.

I was in surgery just a few hours later when the call came; my back slid along the wall and I wilted to the floor as the news was relayed to me.

I vowed to drop what I was doing if I ever received such foreboding news about Mom.  And I was with her, but only because I took seriously the news that she had stomach pains and was in the hospital for observation.

I tried not to let her see my gasp of horror when I entered the room and saw her in that hospital bed.  Who was this old person, with her hair flattened and unkempt, looking so feeble and weak?  This face glowed and smiled as she looked up to see who was clenching her hand and leaning down to kiss her.

Only then did it really hit me, and I was absolutely terrified.  My beautiful mother was, for the first time, very mortal.  Until that moment, when I thought of her, she was 48.  I have no idea why that age, but I remember her being that age, and regardless of how many decades passed; that was the image I conjured up in my mind when I thought of her, spoke with her on the phone, or saw her handwriting.

Maureen Blanton Klein

At about age 48, this is the way Mom will forever live in my memory. Maureen Blanton Klein

That day is mainly a blur.  A surreal experience where nothing made sense.  A Chagall or Dali painting where something, or everything, was out of place.  I had spoken to my mother the day before.  She was 83, but the picture of health: vivacious, bubbly, energetic, the quintessential do-gooder volunteer.

She was supposed to live for another 20 years; in fact had I built an extra ground-floor bedroom with a walk-in shower for her to finally retire to, when she decided to join us in Florida!

Mom had hosted a dinner party that night in her home, cooking and serving to 10 of her close friends.  When everyone was leaving, she remarked that she had a bit of a stomach ache and so didn’t want anyone to stay to help clean up, she’d just do it in the morning, because she felt like she wanted to go to bed.  She had not been sick a day before this.

Who was this person in this hospital bed, writhing in abdominal pain?  As the sole medical professional in the family, I would take upon myself responsibility for her proper treatment, “Where is her medical record? What have you found, and what tests have you performed?”  The staff smiled at me sympathetically, and condescendingly assured me that everything possible was being done.  I would certainly be allowed to look at the medical chart, if the doctor approved it.

The problem was that there was no doctor.  Her primary care physician sent her here in the middle of the night.  The admitting doctor then turned over her care to the “hospitalist,” what-ever the hell kind of doctor that is.  I certainly wasn’t impressed with him, or the system at St Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau, where Mom had been taken.  I’d now been there for over 6 hours and no doctor had even walked in the room to examine her.  I was “assured” that he had been by once and “saw” her, and was well aware of what was going on, because he had been on the phone with the nursing staff several times over the course of the day.  Finally, after my constant harassment, the nurse winked and told me he had consented to my looking at the chart, and that she’d be glad to “explain things to me.”

As we walked to the head nurse’s station she asked me a question that will forever haunt me, “You must take comfort that your mother is at least resting comfortably now, has this been an extended illness?”  When I told her, “NO! She hosted a dinner party just 9 hours ago, and hasn’t been sick at all,” she turned quickly towards me, and almost shouted, “REALLY?”

The medical record was astonishing.  The complete and total lack of any semblance of a medical workup was puzzling.  I remarked outloud, “She presented for stomach cramps and nausea, where are the blood profile results?  Why have a CT, or even a simple radiograph (X-Ray) not been taken?  The incredulous look from the nurse also haunts me. “Because, Mr. Klein,” the nurse now speaking matter-of-factly, she has a DNR request on her chart and on her wrist band.”

“Nurse, actually, I’m Doctor Klein, and I demand that you call the physician immediately.  DNR means (or so I naively thought) ‘Do Not Resuscitate,’ NOTDO NOT TRY!

“How can you possibly make a decision regarding whether or not to treat something, if you don’t even make a minimal attempt to diagnose?” I pleaded on the phone with “the hospitalist” (again, whatever the hell that is).  His condescending words also continue to haunt me, “Well what would you like me to do, doctor?”

I’ll leave this alone for now.  DNR is a blog posting all by itself.

Although Mom didn’t hang on for all of her children to kiss her goodbye, she did get to hear their voices on the phone.  She was fading in and out of our presence, and so we called two others, who were rushing to be with her.  Tears dripped from our eyes and off of our cheeks as this seemingly unconscious vessel opened her eyes and smiled when she heard their voices.  Her limp hand clenched mine firmly as my siblings told her how much they love her, and – goodbye.

I never got the time to grieve into closure.  I had lots of “moments,” holding my wife and children, as we wept together.  But mainly there was rage at this poor excuse for a hospital, and my own guilt.  Lots of guilt (probably more of that Catholic thing that seems to be a theme in my life), because I was the only one there with the medical knowledge to understand what was happening, and what was not happening.  And yet I did not stomp my feet, make a scene, and scream at the top of my lungs until a real doctor showed up.  (Clearly I realize a hospitalist is a licensed physician, my point being the system in this hospital, perhaps the entire state, is dysfunctional and absurd).

And then the unthinkable happened.  Much like a woman who later gets cancer in a second breast, a man who survives chemo only to die in an accident, or an amputee to later discover metastases.

The Christian band Casting Crowns seemed to feel our pain in Praise You in this Storm,

I was sure by now
God, You would have reached down
And wiped our tears away
Stepped in and saved the day
But once again, I say “Amen”, and it’s still raining

and Natalie Grant also knows a continued hurt with Our Hope Endures

You would think only so much can go wrong
Calamity only strikes once
And you assume this one has suffered her share
Life will be kinder from here
Oh, but sometimes the sun stays hidden for years
Sometimes the sky rains night after night
When will it clear?

Just a few months later, in the middle of the night, we received the second call. Our beautiful, wonderful Cullen had been in an accident.

Clearly, there are some things we just aren’t supposed to understand.  I don’t understand.

As unfair as it seems at the time, life does go on, and others are allowed to continue on “as if nothing happened.”  We live our own lives, we walk our own Camino, even when we travel with others.

Maureen Blanton Klein with William Cullen Klein

Mom and Cullen

Maureen Blanton Klein with William Cullen Klein

Mom with Cullen

William Cullen Klein and Sharon Tidd Klein

Cullen and Sharon

Maureen Blanton Klein with William Lewis Klein

Our beautiful mother in 2007, on my wedding day

I wrote this post last year, but could never bring myself to hit the “publish” button.  It just didn’t feel right yet.  Things were too raw.  Those of you who have lost parents, siblings, or the unthinkable loss of a child know all too well these emotions.

Recently, I participated in training seminars focusing on end of life, grief and bereavement, and some concepts regarding how best to support those “left behind.”  The only thing that seems to consistently help is our “being present” when others are suffering from loss.  There are no correct words that always apply; in fact most of the cliche’s that are said are absurd and (however well-meaning) actually deepen the hurt.  But at least these people tried.  So many people pull back from those they care about, because they don’t have something profound or healing to say.  And so they say nothing.  They disappear.  They do nothing.  And that is the most hurtful of all.

Some of who I considered my closest friends haven’t spoken to me since my son’s accident.  And yet two acquaintances, whom I hadn’t spoken to in decades, reached out to me after Cullen’s accident, because they too had lost a child.  Their kindness will never be forgotten.

Being present means you know they are hurting.  Since they are loved and special to us, we hurt with them.  Just sitting together, hugging, and crying.  You are let in not because of who you are, but because who you are is formed by your history with the hurting, and your personal knowledge of loss.  Empathy.  It’s not something you read about, or something you do.  It’s who you are.

Its the age old question.  Its that which shakes our faith to its very core.  Why must we hurt?  Why does tragedy happen to good people?  Hurt is the price we pay for our love.  We truly wouldn’t know light without darkness for comparison.  Warmth without the chill of loneliness.  Compassion without our own hurt.

Rather, embrace your pain.  For this pain exists precisely because you feel.  You have not loved and lost, you have gained so much because you have loved, and have been loved.  To feel is a chance to live, and a chance to love.

Reach out to those whom you love, especially when they are hurting. And not just when they’re hurting, and not just to those you love.

“You don’t choose a life, you live one.”

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Haiti, Part 1 – Spring Break

Really?  You think I should just take off and go to Haiti for a week?”  I asked, incredulous at my wife Sharon’s random idea.  But it wasn’t really so random.  I’d wanted to mission there for a decade.

“Baby, Cullen’s going to be in China this summer, and then stay another two years getting his masters’ degree.  This is his last spring-break, and I think you should take him to Haiti for the week.  You’ve talked about going for years, and this will be good for you.

Cullen and I had been having a much better relationship, and he seemed so much happier, content with who he was since returning from his summer in Morocco.  At the time I wasn’t sure whether he had really “found Jesus” (or more correctly, fatigued by the incessant pounding on the door, finally opened it and let Him in), whether he was just “playing the game” and saying what he knew I would have wanted, or maybe just wanting to spend some moments with me before he left the nest.  It didn’t really matter at the time, I would embrace any of those reasons.  I had begged and pleaded for him to spend more time with us, as most of the preceding three years had spent at his mom’s house.  My son felt that I couldn’t possible see him as any kind of a role model for the two new ones in our home.

On the contrary, I insisted, “Noah and Kayla look up to you, and love you so very much.”  Cullen smiled and shook his head, “You and Sharon do not want them looking up to me, those kids are perfect!”  “Of course we do,” I insisted! (I hope as earnestly as I think I remember); We all have ‘stuff,’ and despite it all, you are a really smart person, and even more importantly, a really good person.  You are an awesome big brother for them, and a good friend.”

Sharon considered Cullen every bit as much her child, as I did Noah and Kayla, although the words were still fresh from our recent “remarriage” version of Pre-Cana: “Regardless of how much you will love your spouse’s children, when arguments and difficult times arise, it will be different.  You didn’t know them when they were cute!”

For some reason they are deeply repressed in my distant memory, but there had been shouting matches and arguments.  Regular hormone changes and adolescent rebellion were laced with confused angst that would come out, easily explained, if not justified, a bit later.  I knew what would become the eventual explanation for much of that rejection of our traditional, newly functional home.  I knew it long before he did.

But for once, Cullen actually wanted to spend time with me, and us.  That’s the stuff I keep ready for reference in my memory, one of the “gifts left behind.”

Cullen had planned to go to Michigan to spend his Spring Break week with Tim and his friends, but without hesitation, chose to spend the week with me.  He only had one class conflict with a test, and when she said it would be unexcused, he said something about her being unfair to him because of his religion, whereupon she laughed and allowed him to take it early.

When Sharon discovered that we actually were going to do it, she said she’d understand if I wanted it just to be Cullen and me, but that including Noah on our “boy’s trip” would be a good experience for him  as well.  I was thrilled.  Less than two years prior, when we were writing our wills, she had insisted that Noah and Kay would be going to Susan and Donnie, and now she trusted me to take her only son to another country, a third world country.  Besides, this would give Noah a chance to get to know his big brother before he left.

Kirby met us with an ear to ear smile and genuine joy at Port-A-Prince Airport.  As a hardline evangelical Protestant, Kirby had discussed several issues with me the week he stayed with us, a year earlier.  He seemed a bit surprised that a Catholic such as myself was actually familiar with scripture, and could reasonably well defend my faith.  Mainly, I think he was just relieved that Rick’s wife was loved by someone who didn’t actually worship statues, and seemed to know and love his same Jesus.

But my concerns were with what Kirby’s fire and brimstone approach to “some issues” might do to Cullen’s newly reconciled faith.  I now found myself less upset with Cullen, and more concerned with defending and protecting him.  Having never met Cullen, I was a bit anxious to see how they would get along.  Frankly I was concerned that Cullen’s mannerisms and body language would “give him up” and there would be tension, or even bigotry during the week.

This worry quickly vanished.  When Kirby found us at the Port-a-Prince airport, he swept us all up like we were old friends, and embraced my Cullen like he was family.

Kirby Kepner was Sharon’s late first husband’s childhood best friend, and had served for years as a fulltime missionary, serving a tiny mountain village in northwest Haiti. It was late, so we spent the evening at an orphanage called New Life Children’s Home, there in Port-A-Prince.  I glowed with pride as Cullen astonished him, so successfully speaking with the (mostly disabled) Haitian children.  Cullen was flawlessly fluent in French (as well as Spanish and Chinese, and conversant in Korean, Italian, German, Portuguese & Russian), so within about 2 hours had become conversant in Haitian Creole as well.  He and Noah wandered through the mass of their new brothers, demonstrating how to throw the footballs we had brought them, kicking their soccer ball, and just sitting and talking with those who could speak and holding those who couldn’t.  The horribly disfigured, disabled children, thrown away from even the poorest culture in our western hemisphere were carried out to lay on blankets for a few hours, under the shade of the one tree in the playground, as their care facilities were cleaned and changed.    Tears come to my eyes as I remember Cullen cradling one of these children without hesitation, talking to them in Creole as if they could answer back, unfazed as the saliva dripped from the disfigured mouth onto my son, as his brother Noah held the child’s hand that squeezed back in a gesture of appreciation.

This is another one of many memories later recalled when I read “Gifts of Passage,” by Amy Hollingsworth.

At dinner, we were asked to join the schoolchildren for their Wednesday night prayer service.  I quickly accepted the offer before Kirby could gracefully decline, “Bill, I had wanted to pray together with you and your boys tonight.”  “We can, Kirby, after their service, and for the next five days!” I replied.  I was anxious to see worship in this culture.

Kirby and Cullen probably got the gist of the hour of Haitian preaching, but I was only drawn in by the music.  Initially, I was fascinated by the native music, children singing, and rhythmic drum beat, and felt bathed in the Holy Spirit, it just felt so raw and authentic.  And then, I was drawn in by something totally unexpected.  In a night so dark in a world far away, these kids started singing songs that we sang every week at Holy Name of Jesus Church in Indialantic, FL!  How did they learn English?  Our voices couldn’t match their volume and enthusiasm as they sang beautiful harmonic duets of Chris Tomlin’s “Our God is a Mighty God,” “Here I am to Worship,” by Hillsong, and “You are my All in All,” by Natalie Grant.  It’s hard to put into words the emotions I felt, sitting with my two sons doing my best to join these beautiful Haitian kids in prayerful song.  About a minute into it I just put my head into my hands and wept.

Soon the lights came on, and I looked over to comment on how awesome it was.  “Wasn’t that so cool that we could sing these songs with them?!!”  Cullen turned with swollen, puffy eyes and said he couldn’t sing very much of it because he too had cried the entire time.

The next day found us cramped in a 4WD truck for 9 hours travelling on what I would have never before considered roads.  First we had to navigate our way through the 3rd World traffic in Port-A-Prince, where traffic lanes and signals were pretty much just guidelines.  Everytime the traffic came to a standstill (repeatedly), we were confronted by throngs of locals begging or trying to sell something.  Believe it or not we bought several scoops of fresh conch salad from this large woman carrying around a big wooden bowl of fresh conch, spices, peppers, and whatever else goes into the stuff.  Kirby said it was probably ok, since they use vinegar dressing, and not mayo, so we gave it a try.  It was INCREDIBLE, and the cultural beginning to a day none of us would EVER forget.

The boulders in the road, the mud, the heat, mountain cliffs with no guard rail, the incredible “Travel Channel” scenery made for an exciting journey up to Kirby’s mission in “Petite (T) Paradise,” in NW Haiti.  Much of the way up we listened to music on my I-Phone, with Christian music including every Matt Maher song ever made.  Music was becoming one of those things that was touching our senses very deeply, and Maher’s song “Hold Us Together” seemed to play every time we restarted the 2000 song playlist on shuffle.  It became so predictable it was a little eerie.  This soon became our unofficial “theme song” for our trip, which felt pretty appropriate as we sang along our memorized lyrics.

“…and love will old us together

make us a shelter to weather the storm

and I’ll be my brother’s keeper,

so the whole world will know that we’re not alone…”

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