I cried today, because I went outside.
A year ago, I wanted to sail around the world. It took years to get my boat, Ariadne, ready for this long journey. She was at the entrance to the Panama Canal, ready to pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific on February 6, earlier this year, 2017. I was living on a sailboat, and flying around the world to do my work, leaving Ariadne wherever she was. Now she is in a slip in Florida, for sale, where Hurricane Irma passed over her a few days ago, leaving no damage. Ariadne got a power washing as other boats were beaten, scarred, and sunk.
I came to Florida on October 12 for two days, and passed out while driving. An ambulance ferried me to a Tampa Hospital where I had open-heart surgery to replace a leaky valve. Three weeks later, in early November, I came out of a coma in Florida Hospital in Orlando, after a helicopter ride on life support that I don’t recall. I had a drug reaction to a blood thinner that clotted my blood instead of thinning it, causing a massive heart attack. From a weakened state in November, I left the hospital in a wheel chair, my sailing plans dashed, my sights lowered and objectives changed. I wanted to walk again, and to get a new heart. I wanted to go outside, as opposed to living outside, as I had done.
Six weeks or so after I passed out, Zamarys wheeled me outside. I guess it was late November, the first time the sun kissed my face. I remember it as if God touched my face. I cried then, and I cried again today, only this time, on my feet.
I worked to restore my body for months as I waited for a heart. My heart began to fail at a faster rate beginning in August, but a few drugs postponed the inevitable, and a transplant became more urgent. Once again, I am in a hospital ward, the intensive care unit at Florida Hospital as I await a heart to transplant.
I don’t think of sailing around the world. I do think of going back to work. But even that is not foremost. Now, I want to take a shower without tubes in me. I want to sleep at night and not wake up, no tubes or wires to pull at me.
I want to go outside. Today marked another month inside, a window keeping me from God’s world. Yesterday, I asked Dr. S, “Do you think I could go outside?”
I knew how difficult it would be and I was reluctant to ask, but he agreed. One nurse said, “The doctors always say, yes. It’s the nurses who have to do all the work.”
There had to be a wheelchair, although I walked. A large battery bank had to come along, just in case the power on any of the machines failed. They brought one of those machines that shock your heart back to life. There were three nurses and two technicians.
Three times a day I pass by the doors that lead to the elevator bank on my short walks. Today, I passed though them on the way outside. It seemed like a milestone, as I thought I would only make it past that point on a stretcher on my way to surgery. The entourage got into the elevator. As we went down, one nurse asked me what I thought. Already, I couldn’t speak, glad I was wearing a face mask, but wishing it covered the tears running from my eyes.
“This is the first time we have been able to get him not to talk.”
We made it off the elevator, then outside onto an isolated walkway, just us to avoid germs that might keep me from surgery. I just looked around, breathed in the air, so grateful just to be outside. We overlooked the lake behind the hospital. Such beauty, so often taken for granted.
“It is moments like these that I love being a nurse,” one said.
I never want to forget these simple moments, the simplicity and beauty of God’s space.
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I went to church today. It isn’t a Catholic church. If my mother were alive she would say, “You are going straight to hell for setting foot in that place.” I even took communion with the pagans. That would leave no doubt in her mind as to my eternal fate. I hope she is busy in heaven on Sundays and doesn’t see me there. Maybe she would take it easy on me now. Who knows? She might be hanging out with the Protestants and Jews in heaven.
There is not so much ceremony as the Catholics. That’s OK with me. The same thing Sunday after Sunday gets a little old. The pastor wears blue jeans instead of ancient garb. I wore sandals today, and let myself off the hook because Jesus wore them as well. I also had shorts on, a first in church. They start off with about 20 minutes of music and singing. I started to show up a little past the official start time, sort of like the movies. I don’t need to see the previews, especially since the three guys playing guitar only know four chords, drowning out one woman singing and another playing the violin, who I think knows what she is doing.
When I was a boy, my mother dressed my brother, Jay, and I in suits for Sunday mass at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Groesbeck, Ohio. My mother and my sisters wore hats, of course. My father usually wore a suit and a fedora, but removed it at the door of the church. I wish I could wear a fedora. Maybe I will buy one the next time I’m in London. I used to buy my hats at Bate’s Hatter on Jermyn Street, where kings buy their hats. I wonder how a fedora would look with shorts and sandals.
I take notes if the minister says things that are interesting. I never took notes in the Catholic Church. Look, I like the Catholic Church. I like any church, as long as good folks go there to find peace. That’s why I go.
Anyway, Pastor Billy is a young guy. I was disappointed that Pastor Mike was standing in the back, as I like to listen to him. I suppose he was in the back to size up Billy. Billy managed to hold my interest with his message and delivery, even though I suspect I might be more critical than most. I even took notes.
Pastor Billy spoke about the day Jesus was confronted by the elders who brought a woman before him, who, they say, had been caught committing adultery. According to ancient law, they said, she was to be stoned to death. Now, Pastor Billy went into the message in detail, and I liked what he had to say. One part that struck me was, Billy said, that Jesus judged, and was not judgmental. Then he went into how today, we are judgmental, and claim we should not judge. Reverend Billy then said, “The heart of Christianity is judgment without condemnation.” I like that. The proof, he said, lies in what Jesus said to the elders. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Then he told the woman, “Go, and sin no more.” According to Pastor Billy, Jesus knew he was destined to suffer for the sins of the condemned woman.
I guess I cannot claim to be a particularly religious man, but I do believe, and I think I am better for going to church and listening to a good man while in the presence of other good folks. I might not be as well versed on the Ten Commandments as I should be, but I I know it takes two people to commit adultery. The question is, am I judging, or being judgmental if I wonder where the son-of-a-bitch was who was with her?
The service ended, and left me with a few questions to ponder as I drove to Publix to pick up the failing Sunday New York Times. I was lucky to park close to the front of the store, so I could leave my sunglasses and hat in the car, and dash to the store as fast as my sandals allow without burning my bald head.
As I made a dash to get out of the sun, I saw about fifteen Black folks in front of the store. A young girl of about 15 approached me. It took a bit of courage for a young Black girl to stop me, alone, a White man of 67. If nothing else, she deserved my attention.
I don’t often mention my father. We never really saw eye-to-eye on much, and he chose to live his life in a way that was different from me. Maybe some of it wasn’t so much his choice versus mine, but just the way life was. One thing he taught, was that his children were to look up to no one, and down on no one. Dad had a smile for everyone, a smile that was contagious. He would have stopped to chat with this young girl. Maybe I learned it from him. Maybe not, but he was a man who men liked.
Now, I judged this young girl. After all, she was asking for money. I wanted to know why, what they were going to do with the money, and who was in charge. Turns out, these folks were on a church project to raise money for school supplies for kids in Jamaica. She did a good job of answering my questions. She spoke well, carried herself well, and looked me in the eye. I teased her a little. “You’re not planning to use the money to go to the beach are you?” She said she wasn’t, and I said it was OK if she had some fun while in Jamaica.
This seemed like a good project to me. I like the idea of young kids, Black or not, raising money to help someone less fortunate, and going to see where it is used, in a place of severe poverty. I asked a lot of questions, and gave her more money than she expected.
This young girl asked for my attention, deserved it, and I gave it to her. When we finished, I complimented her and told her I was impressed. Did I judge, or was I being judgmental?
As I started to leave, another girl approached a man, burly and tattooed. He didn’t even offer her the courtesy of a look as he brushed past her into the store. The girl grimaced. I could tell it hurt. I stopped her, and said, “Don’t take that on yourself. That says nothing about you, and everything you need to know about him.” She nodded.
Did I judge him, or was I being judgmental? Was he in a hurry? That’s no excuse to not smile and move on. Not even acknowledging another’s existence is a terrible thing to do to another, especially a child. I saw how painful it was to her. It begs a terrible question…was he racist? Did he do it because she was Black? Am I being judgmental? I judged the girl and asked a lot of questions. Am I racist?
I don’t like the class of folks who are in the other political party. I find them stupid. Well, at least until I talk to them. I find that I even like a few. Trouble is, few people talk anymore.
In today’s world, stopping to talk to people, greeting them has become odd behavior. Its gone the way of my father; it is dead. My father never had a cell phone. He never sent a text message. He never thought he was so important that he had to be available at all times. He wore a suit and tie to work and had a corner office. He didn’t go out to the factory floor because of some social idea from human resources. He never fell into the trap of thinking of those folks as “less than.” He liked to hang out in the factory with the folks he called, “real people.” I never, in all my life,
saw him ignore another person. Has it really become our nature? Are we afraid to talk to one another, or do we just not care? Have we become that cold? Or just lost in our machines? I am waiting for a heart transplant. What I want to do once the wait is over is to turn my phone off at night, and leave it home when I go to the store. I want to turn it off when I am with someone I like so I can talk to them. You know, the old fashioned way, while looking that person in the eye.
It feels strange walking into that place, but the folks here are my friends now. I keep going back and have been for months. On the surface, I have little in common with these people. A few are good friends but everyone is kind. The folks who work there all greet me and ask how I am. The others are mostly old, some sick, and facing what I don’t have to face. I greet most of them. When I smile a them, they smile back, some surprised when I say “hello.” Maybe it’s because they are not being ignored.
We all share one thing; kindness to one another and a promise of only today. I will get a new heart. Soon, I hope, and put off what they face, then get on with a new adventure. They help me wait for a heart, asking if there is any news every time I see them.
“Not yet. Soon, I hope.” I look into their faces and feel as if I have disappointed them once again.
I had planned to be on the ocean now, sailing the South Pacific, living a life of adventure. I thought I would be sitting on a long white beach on the edge of the jungle, surrounded by women with long black hair and skin like oiled cedar, wearing grass skirts, eating freshly caught fish and drinking fruit juice by a drift-wood fire under the stars, resting up for the next leg of a long sail. Ariadne, my sailboat would be safely at anchor in a serene bay. She was my home for years, and is now for sale.
On the other hand, perhaps I am supposed to be leading a difficult engineering project as I have done to make my daily bread for many years. It might be project in China, where I only have a week or two to figure out a machine performance problem with a bunch of guys lost in some form of root cause analysis that only works when the answer is easy.
The woman in the grass skirt, and the guy lost in his engineering project all have something to teach me. So do these old people here. I only find out through the stories they tell me.
Several years ago I was in Bangkok with my son, then 20 years old or so. We were sitting at railing outside a cafe late one night watching people as they worked and reveled in the city of pleasure. He was having a beer, and I was having mineral water. I asked him what he thought about one woman of negotiable virtue as she passed by with a guy many years her senior. My son judged her a bit harshly, as a young man would. We then talked about what might be her story, a story we knew nothing about. I knew her story was as short as she was young, but likely a harsh one. She was doing what she could to survive one more day.
Mary and Dr. Raymond, both patients in their 90’s, have become good friends at this place, where I go for physical therapy three times a week, and where I lived for two months after coming out of a coma, weak, and unable to walk. I don’t just go for therapy, but because I want to hear their stories. I look forward to the hour I am there. I talk and listen, and know the therapists think I should spend more time doing therapy and less time talking.
Stories from people like Mary and Dr. Raymond are as long as they are old. There are harsh parts to the stories. Dr. Raymond was an infantryman in Europe in WW II, and became a trauma surgeon after the war. He has a hard time remembering names, but I love it when he calls out mine with a smile on his face from his wheelchair as soon as he sees me. I get to know him through his stories that are history to me.
Mary lost her husband not long ago, and it pains her to talk about it, but her eyes brighten when she tells me about her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Who are these people who tell these stories? Are they the people we spurned as foolish in the 60’s and 70’s? Are they the people who went to war in the 40’s almost all from humble homes constrained by good manners? This room for therapy is filled with kindness, and people from different races and languages. I have heard Thai, English, Spanish, and know there are people from much of the Caribbean. There are patients of many races, and therapists of as many races taking care of them, all mixed together. It makes up the story of this place. I am a little part of that story and can make it better with just a smile, an ear, and a little story or two of my own.
Mary walked over to me today while Melody sat not far away. It takes her a while but I knew she was coming to talk to me. I was lifting my legs in an exercise Melody had me doing.
Mary said, “John, put your legs down.” I did. “I prayed all weekend for you to get a heart.” She leaned over and kissed me, and I kissed her back. What a wonderful act of kindness!
Melody said, “I think I am going to cry.”
I am grateful for the chance to tell you a little about my story here at Florida Hospital and the Bartch House
My adventure in getting a new heart started in October. I had left Panama, where I lived on my boat and had prepared to sail around the world. I flew to Tampa on business, and passed out while driving. I had surgery to replace a leaky heart valve, had an allergic reaction to a drug, which resulted in a massive heart attack and coma. I came to, weeks later in November. My son, Sam and my former wife, Barbara, who is now my good friend, had flown down from New Hampshire and were with me.
I had no idea where I was. Sam said I was in Orlando, which confused me. I thought I was in Tampa. I asked a few questions, such as how I got here (it was by helicopter) and the date. I had been unconscious for three weeks. My skin was hanging loosely from my body, my hands were gloved and tied to the bed, and I had tubes everywhere. I looked around, wondering what had happened and they told me how close I came to death; that the doctors at the Florida Hospital had saved my life.
Sam asked if I wanted to know who won the presidential election and the World Series. I kept looking around, still confused, and said, “Just tell me who won the World Series.”
I have to tell how much I came to actually liking being in the hospital and the Bartch House. I can’t think of another way to put it. Yes, I want to get out and to get on with life, but I like it here. Florida Hospital and the Bartch House are not just about my physical health. I know the importance of a spiritual center, and I work on it. As a transplant patient, I know I am responsible for my own recovery, and spirituality is key. Florida Hospital and the folks at the Bartch House make it easy. I like being treated as a spiritual being here, not just a patient. In the initial stages of recovery, there was a woman who came to my room every day to clean, and she held my hand and prayed with me. That is as important as meeting with the best doctors and nurses. The woman who drives the shuttle bus, a Haitian refugee, said she will pray for me.
When I made my first outpatient visit to the Transplant Institute, one of the nurses looked at me and said, “Mr. Allen, look at you! You look wonderful! And to think how sick you were just a few weeks ago!” I stood at the desk talking with her and a few other people. One said, “Mr. Allen, you are part of our family now and you will be for the rest of your life.”
Do you have any idea what that means to me? Do you have any idea what it meant to my son, who sat with me day after day, not knowing if I would live? The Bartch House family is part of that. I am grateful, and so is every other person who stays there.
The Bartch House is becoming a spiritual center for transplant patients and just as important, their families.
I am now waiting for “The Call” for a heart. I got the first one a few weeks ago. I hung up the phone, and was ecstatic. I would live! Then, I was annoyed with myself. Someone had died that day, someone much younger. His family, in the toughest day of their life, had seen their way to provide a stranger with the gift of life. I prayed for him, then as calmly as I could, made my way to the hospital. I must say, I was not in the least bit afraid, but I did pray until I was sedated.
I came to a few hours later, and thought, “Wow, there is nothing to this heart transplant stuff. I feel great.”
Then I was told that the donor heart was 31 years old with advanced heart disease, and rejected. The person who told me seemed more disappointed than I was. “Well,” I said, “They don’t make them in a factory.”
So, now, I wait for “The Call” once more. I always have my phone with me and if it rings now, I will have a look to see who it is.
This is the message I want to convey. The Bartch house kitchen, dining area, living area and the beautiful porch have become important places for people to meet. This is where people help me wait. This is where I have made friends with whom I will share a bond…for life.
There are women and men with loved ones with whom they spent a tiring day in the hospital. They come to the Bartch House tired, and possibly sad and frightened, and might be offered some tuna casserole made by another guest. All of them, to a person, talk about the care they receive.
More than once, I have heard a person say, “Where does this hospital find such good people?”
Some guests are frightened, but they find someone to talk to and share their story. A woman waiting for a lung transplant met another woman who had one a few months prior, and is doing well. By the way, she has become famous for her jigsaw puzzles and is now known as the puzzle queen. There are 11 completed puzzles now on the tables you have provided. Whenever someone checks in, we ask them if the front desk told them that they have to put in two hours a night on the puzzles. It isn’t the puzzles that matter. It is the talking and sharing that happens when we do the puzzles.
I also met a woman with six kidneys…a man who got a heart and kidney, another man whose wife has waited for years for an organ, and and how kind they are to one another. It’s there for all the people at the Bartch House to see. I met two men who had bone marrow transplants and I now communicate with one by email. I have made a few friends for life.
Soon, I will share the important gift, the treasure of a new organ that keeps so many of us alive.
Gratitude is what the Bartch House is all about. It is a place to share stories, and a place of comfort. It is a place where the staff is generous with their time, and as kind as the amazing people who work at Florida hospital.
Waiting for a new heart involves a bit of gallows humor. You just cant help it, but the fact is, someone younger than me will die, and will generously donate a heart which will become mine. You might read this and just think it’s interesting. Waiting for a heart which will keep me alive brings this theoretical paradox to reality. When I received the first call for a heart, I was in my car, and felt excitement, and relief. I would live! Then I chastised myself; someone had died that day, someone younger than me. I said a prayer of gratitude for him. It turns out, he was much younger; 31 years old. When I came to in the recovery room the next day, my first thought was, “Wow. There is nothing to this heart transplant stuff. I feel great!”
While still in a groggy state, someone, a nurse, I guess, told me that the donor had advanced heart disease. As Lucille so aptly said, it was a clunker. Now, I wait for a new one. It has been a few weeks, I think, and each day at the top of the list seems longer.
The chaplain who later visited me in the hospital and mostly listened as I pontificated about this paradox gave indication that she wanted to leave when she said, “Let’s pray for a new heart for you.” I said, I couldn’t, and would rather pray for the donor who lost his life and whose heart could not be used. How noble of me. My nobility is waning.
I was in the Fresh Market at the fish counter on Ash Wednesday, standing next to two women in their late 70’s or so, each with the sign of the cross on their foreheads in ashes. They asked the guy behind the counter about the salmon. I interrupted and said, “Don’t buy that. Its farmed fish, eats corn full of chemicals and antibiotics and has to be colored to make it look like salmon.” They were a bit shocked at my interruption, and asked what they should buy instead. “The Copper River Salmon. Look at it. It’s rich in color and the best you can buy.”
They were shocked at the priced difference. The farmed salmon was $6 a pound, vs. $19 for the Copper River.
“We are nuns living in the convent. We can’t afford that.”
My lingering Catholic guilt came to bear on me while standing there with no ashes on my head, and having skipped church for more than a few Sundays…many more. I went into a diatribe of elementary school, Sister Mark, who was as mean as a snake, and Sister Bernadette who as kind as a woman could be. They laughed as I told them of the paddling I had received from Sister Mark. The fish guy waited with his elbows on the counter.
“I will buy a pound of the salmon for you,” I said.
“No, we can’t accept such a gift.”
“It’s not a gift. We are making a deal.”
The fish guy then weighed out a piece that was almost a pound and a half, looked at me with a sly grin, wrapped it and handed it to the nuns. It was nearly $10 over what I had planned on, but the nuns were cautiously pleased.
“I am waiting for a new heart at Florida Hospital. I will trade the fish for a prayer for a new heart, since you two have a direct link to God.”
They took the fish, smiled, and said they would say much more than one prayer. I thought, my heart is on its way, and the hell…I mean, to heck with the nobility I had displayed to the hospital chaplain. I wish I knew where the convent is. I am still waiting.
Today, I took a more direct approach. I was back in the same Fresh Market today, where the nurses come wearing scrubs. There was one picking oranges from the same bin as me.
“Do all the nurses stop here for food on the way home?”
“I am on my way to work, just picking up a few things for lunch.”
“I am on the heart transplant list at Florida Hospital. Dr. Silvestry is my surgeon,” I said with a bit of pride.
“I have heard of him, but never met him. I am in the neuro ICU.”
“What’s that mean?”
“We deal with brain trauma. Many of the transplant donors come from our ICU. They are brain dead and we keep the organs functioning.”
“Well, its Bike Week and Spring Break here in Florida. Maybe I will have a heart soon.”
“Perhaps. You just might,” she said with a smile.
I should be working now, instead of sitting at my desk on the boat writing, but frankly, I am a bit tired and a little sad. Don’t worry, I will get over my sadness. I just have to be grateful for all I have, how lucky I am, and, that I am even alive.
I think of you often, Mom. I am, for the most part, doing well. You would be livid over our new president, but I doubt we would be arguing politics, as we often did. All I can say is, that he is not a gentleman. I didn’t vote for him, but I was in the hospital in a coma, so I cannot take the high ground. It reminds me of the comment I made when you were in the hospital when Jimmy Carter ran against Ronald Reagan, and I told you that God struck you down so you couldn’t vote. I never said I was sorry, even though you kicked me out of your hospital room.
February 6, I had a reserved slot to pass through the Panama Canal, spend a few days in the Las Perlas Islands off the coast of Panama to wait for a weather window, then make the long, twenty five-day sail across the Pacific to the Marquises, then on to French Polynesia, the Solomon’s and Australia and, countless other islands in the South Pacific. I had hoped to sail north to Japan, then to Alaska, and down through Puget Sound and stop in San Francisco. It takes a long time to prepare, and Ariadne, my boat, was ready. My Aussie sailing partners, Karen and Dave Pratt on S/V Amokura messaged me today, telling me how they will miss me. I will miss them as well. The Pacific this time of year is long swells, beautiful sea, and the wind behind the mast day after day. My boat is ready for this long adventure. My body is not, and never will be again. I told Mark, whom as you recall, has been my friend since I was 12, that I was disappointed and a bit sad that I would miss this adventure. Mark said, “You have had far more than your fair share of adventure in this life.” I have.
I came to Tampa on October 12 to buy a few things for Ariadne, planning to go on to Ohio to teach a seminar with David. I was driving north on I-275 in Tampa in heavy traffic on my way to the airport, plenty of time to spare. I felt dizzy, then immediately passed out. Don’t worry, Mom. I didn’t hit anyone or anything. The car veered into a ditch, hitting no other cars, and doing no damage. There were two good Samaritans who came to my help and called the police and an ambulance. I said, “Yes” when the policeman asked if I could walk up the embankment, I stood, threw up, and collapsed. The cop carried my then 190-pound body up the hill and placed me on a stretcher. I was taken to St Josephs, a mile or so away, examined, and found to have a defective heart valve. Two days later, I had open heart surgery to replace it with a valve from a cow. After surgery, my sailing plan was still intact. I would be back on my boat in no time at all.
Two days into recovery, my world changed forever.
I came to in a room full of machines. Barbara was sitting next to me and Sam, in the doorway, tubes in my mouth nose, legs, chest…and every other place you can think of.
“Hey, Dad, you want to know who won the World Series and the election?”
I rolled over and passed out again, thinking he had a poor sense of humor. The elections were not for two more weeks, I thought, not knowing I had had a massive heart attack from a drug reaction, been in a coma for three weeks on life support machines, lost 26 pounds and flirted constantly with death. Nor did I know that the doctors in Tampa had no idea what was wrong with me, and helicoptered me to Florida Hospital in Orlando where the heart team there saved my life.
I thought a lot about this today. I remember when you came to me in a vision while I was in a coma, and said I would get a new heart on February 4. It has come and gone, Mom. Did you mean February 14? I hope so. I recall how you looked when you appeared to me. You were about 50 or so, younger than I am.
Lucille has done more for me than I can say, Mom. We have become close. She was present for all the important things that happened in the hospital and made decisions for me when I could not. Christine has called me nearly every day. She is a wonderful grandmother. You taught her well. Diane and Mary Ellen have kept in constant touch. Diane and Chris talked all the time when I was in a coma, my life in the balance, and cried, thinking I would die. I love it that they cried for me. I am glad I survived, so that I could find sort of a perverse pleasure in how many people were crying, and praying for me.
Ariadne is for sale, which breaks my heart. I loved living on a boat and the sea. I loved being in Panama, a place where I stayed longer than I wanted to, because I fell in love with a beautiful woman whose parents were from China. She was fun, laughed a lot, and could fish better than I could. I wanted her to sail with me, but she got miserably sea sick. I didn’t do the right thing by her. I have not done well in love. In the years that have long past, I told myself and those who would listen that my family was certainly first. That was delusional. My work and my ambition was first.
Now, I am tethered to a medicine bag, waiting for a new heart. Do you think you could have a chat with God? I don’t want someone to die to save my life, but would you please help those who make these decisions to see that there is a heart for me? On February 14, if that’s not too much to ask?
I miss you, Mom. I was close to being the first to come to see you in heaven, but I suspect I would have had to spend some time in purgatory with Dad before God let me into heaven.
As a young man, I sought pleasure, looking in all the wrong places, for all the wrong things. Pleasure was an escape.
Her name really wasn’t Chicken; it was Gai, which means chicken in Thai. Thai women have given names as long as your arm, often difficult to pronounce, so most end up with one-syllable nicknames, such as Lek which means small, Dang, which is red, or We, Oi, or Kung. Kung means shrimp. I don’t know what We or Oi means.
The Story of Chicken was told to me by my brother a long time ago over a period of a few months. I never met Chicken. I wish I had, but I have met many other good people with the same determination in life. My brother met her on a plane from Bangkok to San Francisco. Her plan was to get a high school education in the United States, a strange goal for a woman in her early 30’s. Bob became friends with her, and helped her in California, and over time, learned her story.
I have to fill in a few parts of the story I barely remember, but I remember the important bits. I told the story the first time at the Wentworth Country Club in Rye, New Hampshire to a friend who told me his son was getting an undergraduate degree in business administration. I suggested a month with Chicken would be time better spent.
Chicken knows business. She is an expert. I think she could teach at either Stanford or Harvard MBA program. She started life being poor; not poor like an American, but desperately poor. Like a few other people I have met, Chicken came to make an early commitment to work her way out of poverty, and to never be poor again. She wanted to live a life free of economic terror. Chicken knew the harshness of poverty. She knew hunger and starvation, dirt and filth. She also knew the kindness of strangers.
Chicken was orphaned at a young age. Before she was ten, her mother and father were killed in a motorbike accident in Bangkok. If you have been to Bangkok, you would wonder why more bikers aren’t killed. Chicken became a street urchin, a dirty ragamuffin, the kind you see with ratty hair, no shoes, filthy clothes and fingernails. Some have fear in their eyes, some a determined passion.
Chicken, like many of these children, made her way buying trinkets, candy and gum and selling to people stuck in Bangkok’s massive traffic jams, knocking on the windows with tourist’s in taxi’s, pleading with those in open tuk-tuks as they clutch tightly to their purses. Chicken knew at an early age the importance of buying and selling. She learned that nothing happens until something is sold, a lesson most Americans never experience. Whereas Americans want someone to give them a job to lift them out of poverty, Chicken learned to work for herself to get out.
A stranger, a woman, took pity on Chicken when she was a street child, and took her to live with her in a house of ill repute. Her savior was a prostitute, like Mary Magdalen. I pass gentle judgment on such a woman. I am not up on the bible, but I have wondered why Mary Magdalen had a last name, while most bible characters have only a first, possibly followed by the place they were from. I don’t know much about Mary’s life, other than her profession, and that Christ forgave her. Was she a mother? Did her husband say, “I divorce you” three times, casting her to the street? Was the life of a harlot safer than one of wife to a man who abused and beat her? Did he die, was he killed, leaving her with no recourse to feeding her children? Did Mary Magdalene have no family to turn to for help?
I was with my son in Bangkok one night, also years ago, at a sidewalk café when a young Thai woman walked by holding the hand of a man who would have been about the age of her grandfather. He was Caucasian, wearing brown wingtip shoes, short pants, black socks from which stuck an ugly pair of skinny legs, fish-belly white. It was late, and it was clear what was happening. I asked my young son what he thought of her.
Then I asked, if his mother would ever do anything like that. He got angry, and responded with a harsh, “NO.” Of course not.
“You might be surprised what she would do if it were the last resort to feeding you. Don’t judge harshly. She might have children to feed. Maybe she picked that guy because he is old and harmless. Maybe she can get him to pay a bit more if she is kind to him.”
For several years, Chicken worked in a bar where women of negotiable virtue plied their trade, in exchange for a place to live, and food. When deemed old enough, she took on that life as well.
After a year or two, it seemed as if she had found a way out. A man in his early 50’s fell madly in love with Chicken, promised to save her, marry her, and take her away to the Promised Land somewhere in Arizona. I suppose the other girls were happy for her. Chicken married, got her Green Card and a U.S. passport, and was on her way to a new life! Chicken’s life of ease, however, was short lived, as her savior severely abused and beat her, as she struggled to find her way in a new and strange culture. Somehow, she escaped, gathering enough money to buy a ticket back to Pat Pong in Bangkok, where she resumed her former occupation, keeping herself just barely out of the grim reach of poverty, but free from her abuser.
Chicken had seen a better life, and wanted it, but on her own terms. She promised herself that she would make her way out of poverty, out of this life, and never be poor again. Chicken was determined, saving every Thai baht she could. She spent only enough to get by, living a frugal life. She was a hard bargainer for her wares. She had no apartment, and slept where she could, but she was clean and pretty.
There are a lot of poor people like Chicken, but you can’t tell by looking. They might be poor, but they know the dignity of cleanliness and work; people who pull up their pants, get to it with a smile, living life on life’s terms, without anger or rage.
I have seen such people in the factories around the world where I have worked, among other places, China, India, and Mexico; especially Mexico.
People like Chicken know that you can’t look to the government to save you. They know that every government does two things well: take your money and kill people. A few more can keep order, and build roads and bridges, but few can even do that well.
Chicken continued to save, and soon had enough to buy a 7-11 convenience store in Bangkok. Now she had employees, and inventory to buy and track. Chicken was no stranger to commerce, no fool who was easy to cheat. Chicken knew the fundamentals of business and what she didn’t know, being smart, clever and determined, could figure out fast. She had learned to do quick calculations in her head. Her reading might have been poor, but her math wasn’t. Chicken was an entrepreneur, now with two occupations; working all day at the store and half the night at the oldest profession. Soon, she had enough to buy a second store. Chicken didn’t have a degree, but she could be a professor.
Chicken continued to save and work, but she felt something was missing in her life. She wanted to go to high school. That’s when she did something that to this day, I don’t understand. She sold her two stores, got on a plane to San Francisco, where she sat next to my brother. They became friends. He even took her to visit my parents, neither ever knowing the full Story of Chicken.
Chicken got her wish. She somehow went to school, then back to Thailand. Now she owns and runs a fleet of taxi cabs and lives in a nice house away from Nana Plaza. She had two children by an Australian man. Last I knew, he was still living with her. No, she didn’t marry him. She doesn’t love or trust men enough to marry one. But she loves her children.
If you ever go to Bangkok and need a ride, let me know. I will get the number of her taxi company. Be prepared to pay full price. Chicken gives discounts to no one. She didn’t learn that in business school.
I was having coffee with a couple of close friends a month or so ago. I forget the context, but one, a very close friend, said, “I am not a gay man. I am a man who is gay.”
I thought about it at the time, and have been thinking even more about it lately. I think there is an important message in what he said. I want to know how I am like someone, no matter their culture, race, or what they do for a living. What do we share? What can we talk about? If we can find how we are alike, then we can talk about how we see things, and why we see them as we do. As Congressman Trey Gowdy asked, does unity matter more than diversity? Truth more than freedom? I seek truth and unity. I value liberty.
Now, I have known this man for a long time. I admire him. He has done many things with his life that I wish I had done. He is a good friend to many people, where I am not. He was born in New Hampshire, went to undergraduate and graduate school in New Hampshire. He left, as his career demanded, lived in a few places, then returned to his home. He has a home, whereas I don’t. He does important work now for free. He is with the same partner, and has been for longer than I managed to stay married. I envy his stability in life which I have not found.
We have many things in common and only a few that make us different. I have seen him as a man who is gay, not a gay man for many years. Since he said it over coffee, I have thought more about it.
When I was a boy, there was a girl who lived across the street who looked more like Mick Jagger than Mick Jagger. C could play the guitar better than Jim, Joe or Bill, and made it a career. I knew C was different. I was looking at C’s web site recently. Why, I have no idea. C’s name was spelled different. I thought it was an error. But I read the blog, and C had undergone a sex change. Well, not really. C is and has been, a man. I knew, in my little boyish mind, that C was more like me than any of the girls. C was one of the guys, and could play better than any of rest of them. If I can put it in a crude way, C was a man without a penis. And I don’t care that he doesn’t.
Now, this has very little to do with sexual preferences. It has to do with things I have in common with others, which is the basis for any relationship. It has to do with unity.
I am in Southeast Asia now. I don’t carry my phone. I use a real camera when I want a picture, but mostly I like to see and write about what moves me. To me, words are better than a picture; at least, they make a picture more powerful. I am avoiding the constant electronic interruptions in life. I don’t need to have NEWS FLASH after NEWS FLASH, especially now. I like life. I am a lucky man. News flashes impinge on my ability to find common ground with others who are very much like me.
There was a blog post I read yesterday that moved me, Make it Stop by Jon Carrol. It was beautifully written by a man I can find common ground with. I can also find things he wrote that I don’t agree with. So what? He expresses the sadness and insanity of the death spiral we, as Americans, find ourselves wrapped in. He talked about stupid people talking about stupid things. I hope he would pass positive judgement on what I am writing.
Just as I see a man who is gay, I wish to see a man who is black, not an African-American. I wish to see a man who is from Mexico, not a Mexican. I wish to see a man who is Muslim, not a Muslim. I am not interested in an African-American President, but a President who is an American man who has an African father.
I watched a video on You Tube yesterday, a speech by Trey Gowdy. It also moved me, and I hope to be a better man for it. Congressman Gowdy said that if you want to persuade a person to see things your way, do it without insulting him. He said that a good relationship can only survive in the absence of insults. Today’s social media is based on insults. I do it. I have reposted insults to Hillary Clinton. I insulted my ex-wife, thinking I was smart and witty, and said I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I am good at insults.
I write this because I was moved to do so by a man who is gay, Jonathon Carroll, and Congressman Trey Gowdy. Contrast that with the constant barrage of insults in the news and social media, with Facebook leading the way. They only make me angry. They insult me if I disagree, and I insult those with whom I do not agree. Its easy. Just copy and post.
From now on, I am going to do my best to seek common ground, to find unity, especially with those who share my American heritage.
If you post or repost insults, even if it is about Trump or Clinton, I will message you, telling you that I am going to ban your posts. If I violate my own intentions, feel free to call me on it.
I will try to persuade others to see the world as I do, a beautiful place for those who seek liberty and freedom from government. I will avoid those who run for office based on a campaign of insults. I won’t be voting for a Democrat or a Republican in 2016. I will vote for Liberty, only if the campaign is free of insults. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter who is elected anyway.