Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Nine months

Today is nine months since my 56th birthday, which means it is also nine months since my life fell apart. I set in my living room tonight listening to Obrecht and watching Barbara's and my Marriage Encounter candle flicker and burn for the fourth time since the visitation last December, when I awakened it from its long slumber. On the way home today I stopped by the cemetery and wept. A grief observed takes many forms. Today I want to recount some other significant dates in our all too brief history together.

May 17, 1988—I have my first date with Barbara Elaine Hutter Sellers. I take her to a nice restaurant, even though I'm not sure I can afford it. We eat rack of lamb and share a bottle of Chenin Blanc. Afterward she tells me about the brain tumor diagnosed on her 23rd birthday that she barely survived and the first husband she lost in a tragic accident. I tell her about my history with depression and my ongoing struggles to find a job. We instantly bond, and so begins the love of my life. We are both 32.

Jan. 14 1989—We are married in the same small Lutheran church in Pomona, California in which she had been baptized nearly 33 years earlier. I am unemployed, but she has just received a large financial settlement over her first husband's death. This allows us a memorable honeymoon, even though it is plagued by uncertainty about my future.

Dec. 1 1991—After a series of medical interventions for infertility, we complete a successful pregnancy and our first child, Jennifer, is born. For most of the next two years I will be her custodial parent while Barbara supports us through her work as a home health nurse.

Feb. 24 1994—After further interventions, our second child, Jeremy, is born. I am still under-employed, although I now have an adjunct teaching position that provides enough income for Barbara to take an extended maternity leave.

May 1994—Ten years after receiving my PhD, I am finally offered a tenure-track teaching job at Converse College in South Carolina. Our family, launched amid uncertainty and conceived on faith, will move cross-country that summer to a new home and a bright future. We are both 38.

February 1999—After four and a half years of professional fulfillment and administrative purgatory, I am awarded tenure. At 43, I have finally achieved my professional and personal goals. I have a secure job that I love, two children that I adore, and a devoted wife who means the world to me.

March 2000—While I am attending a regional meeting as President of the Southwest Chapter of the American Musicological Society, Barbara suffers a stroke: the first sign of complications from the massive dose of radiation that saved her life exactly 21 years earlier. For a few months her vision is seriously impaired, and she retains a lingering visual aphasia that will baffle and frustrate her for the rest of her life.

July 2000—Barbara wakes up and is unable to hear out of her right ear. She gets out of bed and falls flat on her face. The hearing never returns, and the balance only returns gradually and with great effort. The diagnosis is six months in coming, but it is grim. She has suffered another stroke, this one in the small capillary that feeds the inner ear. All of the blood vessels in her brain were damaged by the radiation, we are now told. In order to postpone or minimize future complications, she is put on Plavix, a blood thinner. She will take it for the rest of her life.

June 2003—On the very day that we plan to travel to Texas and look for a house in Waco, where I have just gotten a senior appointment at Baylor, Barbara suddenly loses the hearing in her left ear. With no warning, she has gone completely deaf. This is a devastating experience that completely dwarfs everything either of us has been through previously, and it casts a pall over what should have been one of the happiest episodes in our life together. Two weeks later, we dutifully go through the motions of the house search while barely able to communicate.

Nov. 2003—Barbara receives a cochlear implant in her left ear. A month later, on my 48th birthday, it is activated. The results are disappointing, and a long period of retraining now begins in which she will struggle to learn to hear again.

Dec. 2004—Barbara receives an implant in the other ear, and it too is activated a month later. We now know not to expect too much, but we are tentatively encouraged by the improvement in her hearing. We are confronted, though, by the stark realities of advanced hearing loss. Among the things we will never be able to do successfully: hear a concert, attend a movie, attend a public talk of any kind, participate in a group discussion, talk on the phone without struggle, carry on a family conversation. At the dinner table, the kids talk to me and largely ignore Barbara. In the car she can't hear them even when they do talk to her. We make furtive lunch dates simply to find a quiet place where we can talk to each other. We continue to hold out hope that her hearing will improve, but it never really does.

Sometime in 2007 (the dates seem to be getting less clear as they grow closer to the present)—After several dental procedures and a tooth extraction, the increasing pain that Barbara has been experiencing in her right jaw is diagnosed as trigeminal neuralgia, an inflammation of the main facial nerve that is known to cause the most excruciating pain that a human being can experience. (The condition's nickname: the suicide disease.) The only effective treatment for this debilitating condition, also likely caused by the radiation, consists of large doses of anti-epileptic drugs, which make Barbara's balance problems much worse. She now begins to walk with a cane, and the rest of her life will be a trade-off between her compromised ability to walk and the attempt to attain a respite from the unbearable pain. Repeated surgical procedures bring only temporary relief.

Dec. 19 2011—As we are preparing to go out to dinner to celebrate my 56th birthday, Barbara suffers a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Because she is taking Plavix, nothing can be done to stop the bleeding, which pools around the base of her brain and chokes off not only her consciousness, but her ability ever to regain it. A little over three days later, in the wee hours of Dec. 23, she dies.

We were together for a little over twenty-three and a half years. For thirteen months we had it all: a secure job for me, children, health, prosperity. The rest of it was lived under the shadow of financial insecurity, career frustration, infertility and, finally, declining health and dire suffering. Every minute was precious—and, I now see quite clearly, snatched forcefully from inexorable fate. We loved, and we gave of each other in ways that are hard to describe and precious to remember. I have now completed a gestational cycle of grief and mourning, and I know that it is from the hard times that the most lasting memories were forged. So much joy, so much love. Life so fragile that there is none of it to waste. Tears that sting and memories that burn in my heart. Every moment is ours, Barbara's and mine. Every moment we love, and the loss follows as does the fall that will now turn to winter. It was in the spring that we met, and in the winter that we were parted. The winter will now come again, followed by the spring, and it is only love that continues unabated through it all.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The cartoon liberal

Every day, it seems, somebody posts a statement affirming that hard work and success are honorable things, and greatly preferable to depending on handouts. The message, whether stated directly or not, is that there are people who disagree. It is also clear who those people are supposed to be, and who they are not. They are liberals: the people who allegedly denigrate success and think that everybody should depend on government handouts. They are not conservatives: the right-thinking people who know better.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Nobody I know in either political party, whether liberal or conservative, thinks that hard work and success are not good things. Nobody I know of either persuasion thinks that it is desirable to make people dependent on government handouts. Nobody. That position doesn't exist. It just keeps getting attacked in a classic straw-man argument. It's easy to score points for your cause, apparently, by demolishing what you think your opponents believe, especially if others are predisposed to see it that way as well. It's easy to attack a cartoon liberal. I'm a real liberal, though, and I'm not going to take it lying down, so let me once again explain, briefly, what I do believe.

As a liberal, I believe in freedom: the maximum amount of freedom compatible with a just and decent society. I also believe that freedom is threatened in a variety of ways, most of which do not come from government as commonly perceived.

The common perception of government, though, is part of the problem that liberals seek to address. The fact, as Howard Zinn and others have convincingly established, is that the United States has always had big government and always will. It could hardly be otherwise, given that we are a bafflingly large and diverse society. Such a society cannot run by itself.

We do, however, have a rational choice to make. We can choose to be governed by largely open and transparent institutions whose avowed purpose is government, and which are answerable to the people, or we can choose to be governed by shadowy corporations and people of great wealth whose operations are opaque and who are accountable to no-one.

As a liberal, I believe that our precious freedoms are slipping away at an alarming rate and are being replaced by the power of the moneyed corporate behemoth. As just one example among many, that behemoth, operating in the supposedly free market, has devised a strikingly inefficient way of administering health care that maximizes profits and disempowers individuals. Until the passage of the Affordable Care Act, somebody who has had a serious and chronic illness - somebody like my late wife - could have his or her freedom taken away by the need to appease the arcane, self-serving requirements of corporate health care. The Affordable Care Act, by empowering people with "pre-existing conditions," has made all of us more free.

I have lost another significant personal freedom over the last few months. I can no longer go to a public place and relax without at least thinking about the possibility that a madman armed with military assault weapons will open fire and kill me and those I am with. As a society, we seem incapable of doing anything about this loss of freedom, since we are in the thrall of arms manufacturers, the NRA, and other representatives of corporate power. As a liberal, I think this is a horrible state of affairs, and we would be much freer if the government transparently regulated who can own such weapons and under what circumstances.

Notice that I haven't said anything about giving handouts. The fact is, I do give them. I recently gave a significant amount of money, for example, to Lutheran Ministries and Social Services of Waco to help fund its Legal Assistance Project, which provides low-cost paralegal services for those in the community who cannot afford them. This is a handout, and like all such handouts, it is intended to get those people back on their feet so they can gain a modicum of self-respect. When I sat on the Board of Directors of LMSS, it included both liberals and conservatives and we all agreed about this without question.

So please, let's stop attacking the cartoon liberal. That success-despising, handout-loving, anti-American figure of so many conservative imaginations simply doesn't exist in real life. It is a lie. Therefore, any argument directed against it is inherently dishonest in substance, if not necessarily in intent. For the record, I don't care what time Paul Ryan says he ran the marathon in. He may have been mistaken or her may have been lying, but it doesn't really matter because the issue is a trivial one. I do very much care if Ryan or anybody else attacks the cartoon liberal, because such an attack is dishonest at the core, and it matters deeply.