What you fear is what you get.

My husband had a poignant encounter with a fearsome beast, and a little girl wise beyond her years.  A few years ago Frank had a surveying job at a farm outside the city where we live. He finished, and was walking from the fenced-in pasture toward the farmhouse to let the owner know he was leaving, when he heard thumping behind him .

He looked back to see a very large cow approaching him. Alarmed, he started to walk faster. So did the cow. Then he started to jog, and the cow did too. It was catching up. Pretty soon Frank was running as fast as he could, his breath coming in spurts, his heart thumping.

The cow was nearly touching him when Frank finally reached the chain-link fence and scrambled up. He looked down to see the cow looking up at him. It mooed. Frank hoisted his legs and then the rest of him over the top of the fence, climbed down on the farmhouse side, and stood there catching his breath.

Pretty soon a small freckle-faced girl with a cowlick came marching up to him indignantly from the farmhouse. She had seen the whole thing. She stopped in front of Frank and looked up at him, her jaw set, her blue eyes boring into his soul.

“Rose just wanted to be petted, Mister,” she said fiercely.

Isn’t this what goes on between human beings so many times? So often a person just wants to be friends or get to know someone, or even just have a friendly conversation, and we misinterpret things, or we’re misinterpreted. We’re afraid to approach, to get close. We run fences like Linda Ronstadt’s Desperado, we scramble away like Frank from sweet affectionate Rose, we climb out of reach. We miss opportunities to connect. Rose just wanted to say Namaste, the divine in me greets the divine in you, bovine style. She wanted to be acknowledged in her tactile, animal way. It all went right over Frank’s head, but the little freckle-faced girl understood. If we were all more like children and cows, the world would be a better place. And that’s the truth, Mister.

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Father-daughter flashback

I watched Oklahoma on TV the other night. It was a time machine that brought me back to 1966 when my father took me to see the play. What I recalled most vividly was Daddy hallucinating while John Raitt belted out a song.

My father had been mentally ill for years, since before I was born. While Raitt sang, Daddy muttered loudly to someone in his head and twitched in his seat, and people around us began to complain. Sounds of sshhhhhh!! and quiet!! surrounded me. I don’t remember what happened, whether we were asked to leave or Daddy settled down and we stayed to the end.

I was 20, in the glow of youth and blooming sexuality and glittering hopes and dreams. And I was mortified. Before Daddy’s meltdown, I had loved the way I dressed and secretly admired myself in the mirror, silk-blend suit and high heels and all. I felt I looked perfect for the Circle Star, then a classy theater venue in the Bay Area.

But I was edgy beneath all the excitement, because my father’s behavior was unpredictable. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

How differently I see that day now, and my father. Back then I was just growing into womanhood, half confident, half painfully self-conscious. I wondered why I couldn’t have a “normal” father I could be proud of, instead of Daddy with his rumpled clothes, nicotine-stained fingers and Thorazine-induced trembling hands. Subconsciously I was angry at him for being an embarrassment, a failure, a constant worry.

He committed suicide a year after we saw Oklahoma, at 50. I’ve survived well enough, had a career, friends, raised my daughter through college, but I really never recovered from the trauma. I drank alcoholically—though functionally—until my daughter was three and have ongoing anxiety disorder. I made many mistakes with my daughter that alienated her. We are now estranged, to my great sadness.

I’ve blamed and punished and judged myself for years. But since remembering Daddy and Oklahoma, I see things in a different light. I’m no longer a 20-year-old with expectations of Daddy, wanting to go to a glamorous play with a suave and handsome father. Now I understand that for some unknown reason Daddy couldn’t help it. He had a profound problem he was unable to overcome. But he did the best he could. He tried so hard to give his little-girl-turning-woman a special gala evening. Having made my own mistakes and unintentionally hurt people I love, I don’t blame Daddy now. And I’m working on not blaming myself. Daddy’s little girl is growing up.

High anxiety in the parking lot

Please, tell me where my car is!

Not again. I came out of Target, gazed at the vast, packed parking lot and realized I had no idea where my car was. I always mean to make a note of the parking row, but often forget as soon as I’m out of the car. 

I managed to remember it wasn’t too far from the store, so I went down the first row, clicking my key button and waiting hopefully for the beep. Silence. I turned down the next row, clicking. Silence. Another row, silence….

After the third row I got anxious. Evidently it showed, because suddenly I heard a sweet, angelic young voice. “Ma’am, do you need help?” I turned to see a pretty young woman looking at me from her SUV window, at exactly the same time I clicked my key and heard…my car!

Then the angel asked me again. “Are you lost? Can I help you find your car?”

“Oh, I just found it, finally! But thanks so much. I appreciate it.”

It was wonderful to encounter such a helpful, caring young woman in this age of self-centered individualism. Perhaps I reminded her of a beloved grandmother. I’m 71. At the same time it was disheartening to be so distracted I couldn’t remember where my car was and, the worst part, that it SHOWED. My anxiety was probably flashing like a warning light.  

I might find myself again someday wandering up and down parking lot rows, searching among countless nautical-blue Toyota Corollas for “216” at the end of the license plate. But maybe I shouldn’t be so anxious. “He shall direct your paths,” Proverbs 3:6 promises. The young woman was a reminder that God always sends angels. Almost always, anyway. Maybe I should have gotten her phone number.  

Better yet, maybe I should be my own angel and take responsibility for myself and enter the damn parking row in my iPhone notes. It’s time to grow up.  

Believe

One day my minister saw his beloved Maine Coon cat, Marcus, staring out the window intently. Wildlife sometimes wanders close to their apartment building, at the foot of a range of hills.  Marcus was meowing and agitated. Dr. Jay went over to look out the window and saw a feral cat in the process of patiently moving four kittens, one at a time, that were hidden under shrubbery. She returned after moving the second one and then left the yard with the third one in her mouth. She never came back.

Straightaway, Dr. Jay went downstairs to the bushes from his second-story apartment, and carefully picked up the tiny kitten. Mewing, eyes still closed and ears still folded, it fit in the palm of his hand. Holding it gently, he started up the stairs.

He had no idea what he was going to do with it. He had never taken care of a newborn kitten. He mentally took inventory. He had some milk in the apartment, and possibly a dropper around, somewhere, to feed it with. He wondered how he could get the kitten fed often enough. He remembered vaguely, from some conversation somewhere, a schedule of every two hours. It would be a challenge with his busy life. But those were details. He knew he would figure it all out.

Then he saw a young couple who lived a few doors from his apartment coming down the stairs. “What have you got?” the young woman asked. Dr. Jay told her the story and held the kitten up closer to her. 

“Oh,” she exclaimed, delighted. “Can we have it? We know what to do, we’ve taken care of feral kittens for shelters. We have all the supplies.”

“Sure,” Dr. Jay said. They tenderly exchanged the precious cargo and the young couple turned around to go back home and begin caring for their little lump of new life. Dr. Jay returned, alone, to Marcus.

My friends and I think this story is incredible. What an amazing and miraculous coincidence, we all agree. But Dr. Jay doesn’t see anything unusual about it at all. He has the most confident, unshakable faith I’ve ever witnessed.

He simply knows that if you expect good to happen, it will.

Main Coon

Doctor With a Heart

 


When my daughter was ten, doctors discovered a growth behind her middle ear. The intricate operation to remove it called for a surgeon with exceptional compassion as well as consummate skill.

There wasn’t much time to lose. The growth was a cholesteatoma, which often starts from a cyst that sheds old skin. The skin builds up, and can grow and destroy surrounding delicate middle-ear bones and cause other serious problems.  

Dr. Alan Nissen, a widely respected ear surgeon, was to perform Michele’s operation.  In one of several conversations we had about the procedure, he told me that a known risk of the operation is severance of the facial nerve that controls the mouth muscles. The nerve was very close to where surgeons would be cutting. When the facial nerve is cut speech becomes hard to understand, and the face is disfigured because one side of the mouth is noticeably pulled down. The risk was small, Dr. Nissen said, but he was duty-bound to inform me of all downside potential.

A few days before the surgery Dr. Nissen and I had a final conversation. I brought up facial nerve severance, which weighed heavy on my mind. I’d been pushing for an extra surgeon on the team to do one thing during the operation: observe the nearness of the cutting to the nerve and alert the team when they were getting perilously close. Dr. Nissen had told me this observing doctor was the most sure-proof way to prevent nerve severance.  

“To surgeons the risk may be small,” I said. “But for Michele it’s huge. It’s one more thing on top of the other facial differences she has. She’s dealt with a lot of challenges in her young life. Her courage amazes me. But why add another challenge that is so avoidable?”

Among Michele’s other issues were her very small ears. She was also hearing impaired and wore hearing aids. She had a deviated septum—a crooked nose that twisted to the left side. That could be corrected but not until she was older. If the facial nerve was severed, she would likely be unable to form facial expressions on the left side of her face and her speech would be slurred.

As the late-afternoon sun filtered into his office that day, Dr. Nissen gave me the bad news. An observing surgeon would not be added to the team, because the group had determined that risk in Michele’s case was no more than average. He looked at me somberly. “I know where you’re coming from—a lot of love for Michele,” he told me. “But we’ve weighed all the factors and this is the soundest decision when everything is considered.”

“Maybe the risk is statistically small,” I said, “but the effects on Michele are so very large.” He looked genuinely sorry. I knew that in addition to being an extraordinary surgeon, he was a compassionate man.

 “I wish I could say something that would change your mind,” I told him when I left, but I knew at that point there was no changing things and nothing more I could say. The surgery was just three days away.

Disappointed and sad, I walked to my car. I knew the growth had to be removed. I would pray that Michele’s facial nerve would not be touched. That was all I could do. Driving home I told myself the odds of severing the nerve were low. I told myself there were therapy programs to rebuild strength in damaged facial muscles. I told myself God had already brought Michele safely and successfully through four surgeries for other problems. I told myself all that and more…and I worried.

I was exhausted emotionally and physically when I got home to our cozy little apartment. Michele was at a friend’s house. We lived just a few blocks from her “mainstream” school, where she had just transferred from her special education class for hearing-impaired kids that was two towns away, an hour bus ride. It was an exciting change, especially when we walked around the neighborhood and she saw and played with kids she knew from her new school.

I went into the kitchen to start dinner and was peeling potatoes when I noticed from the corner of my eye that the answering machine was blinking. I punched the button to run the message.  And there was Dr. Nissen’s voice. “I wanted you to know right away that my colleagues and I talked this afternoon and we’ve decided to add an observer to the team. We will see you both in a few days. Don’t worry, everything is going to be fine.”

He had called while I was on my way home. It was one of the most beautiful phone messages I’ve ever received. I’ll never forget that day, and I’ll never forget Dr. Nissen and his compassion and skill. 

A huge and heavy burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt suddenly light and free as I got back to fixing dinner. I have never peeled potatoes with such joy and gusto as I did that day.

The operation was four hours long and successful in all ways. It’s been 26 years and Michele’s cholesteatoma has never come back, as they sometimes do.

 

Bring her home.

In the wild she’d sometimes swim a hundred miles in a day at thirty miles an hour. She could dive down as far as 500 feet. But she always stayed close to her family. Deeply bonded, her pod remained together over the years and included generations from calves to grandparents.

killer-whales-591130_640Those days are gone for her. Instead she performs for crowds twice daily and bobs, inactive, in her small concrete pool between shows. She hasn’t seen another orca since her tank mate Hugo died decades ago.

“She” is Lolita, an orca born in 1964 and captured in 1970. As of today she has spent 45 years in her concrete pool at Miami Seaquarium in Florida.

A campaign is under way to move her to a sea pen near her surviving family in the waters off the state of Washington. She would receive human care for life as needed, be guided on boat-led “sea walks,” and be provided with other exercises so that she might even be able to rejoin her pod someday. If not, she could see and communicate with them from her pen. Her natural skills and stamina have atrophied, but she is still clearly excited when she hears recordings of her family’s vocalizations, and she still vocalizes in their dialect.

The move from her “home” at Seaquarium to her waiting retirement sea pen would likely be extremely traumatic. The change for Lolita is a risk, no doubt, but it is one worth taking. Most experts strongly believe captive orcas are stressed and lonely in their bare, cramped tanks even if they do become attached to their human keepers. Humane retirement is the right thing to do for Lolita, and eventually for all captive orcas—these beautiful beings who once shared the ocean and should never have been taken from it.

       *For more information, visit orcanetwork.org.