1968

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I went to my high school reunion this week.  I am not going to say which one.  Well, alright, I will, if you insist.  It was the 50th reunion.  I have known most of these people since I was 12 years old.  Several are life-long friends. When I was  in the hospital for most of 2017, these were the people who checked on me and visited me, and were in tears over the news of my death, which, of course, didn’t happen.

There was something that particularly struck me.  The people I talked to, all in their late 60’s, seemed comfortable with themselves and the lives they have lived.  Most, or many are retired.  Some were teachers, one or two served in the military, a few engineers, an investment counselor, and an attorney or two. A few who remained close to Topsfield, Boxford or Middleton, where we grew up. I spent my life sailing and traveling, and working around the world, and admire those who have a place they really can call home since childhood. 

Many are retired, but not to the golf course or a chair in front of the television. One works with special needs kids. A good friends is a park ranger.  He said, “All I do is talk to people all day.”  As a volunteer, he also helps people who are older than we are with small tasks. These good people who are my friends don’t look to the future.  They live in the moment, and do the best they can with the day at hand. These are people who are comfortable with life, and give of themselves to others. I cannot imagine reaching this point in life without a sense of giving and generosity.

Those I know who are comfortable with themselves have made an effort to atone for mistakes; not just to try to avoid the same mistakes, but to the best of ones ability, to try to atone and make amends. Everyone makes mistakes; doing nothing is a sign of a lack of conscience. Not recognizing that certain acts are mistakes is a sign of a lack of moral fiber. I found my fellow classmates, for the most part, to be comfortable with themselves.  I like that.  Most of life is behind us, and we live grateful lives.

Those early years when we were teenagers were tough for me. I never stood out.  I was shy, and it manifested itself as either withdrawn, or making silly or stupid comments which I could hide behind. There was a particular person I sought out at the Saturday reunion. He really didn’t know me, but I thought of him once in a while over the years.  

We grew up in an area that was, for the most part, upper middle class white people who went either to the Catholic or Protestant church every Sunday.  No one wore blue jeans, and the entire family went together in the station wagon.  Nearly every father was a World War II veteran.  No one wore a hat with the name of the ship or the division they fought with. It just wasn’t done. 

There were no people of color in my class of 1968  There was one Jewish boy.  He is the man I sought out at the reunion. I watched as he was taunted and abused more than 50 years ago. I did nothing.  It stuck with me, and bothered me. I was married to the woman who was courageous enough to stand up for this boy so long ago, well before there was much of a movement of any kind. She was, and is, kind to the core.  She has since told me she was not really courageous; she merely extended kindness and friendship. I didn’t.

I approached this man while he was with a small group, and asked if I could speak to him, and moved to an unoccupied corner.  

We chatted a bit, then I said, “I know there was a person who abused you.”

“There was more than one,” he interrupted, which told me that he remembered, and it cut into him. How awful for one who was bullied to have such instant recall of something so many years ago.

“Look, it bothers me that I watched and did nothing.  I am sorry.”

He was gracious, and said, “It was so many years ago.” I think he was, in some way, grateful for my contrition. Doing nothing was a lesson for me.  I have tried not repeat that mistake.  I gave him my phone number.  He lives near me in Florida and I hope he calls so we can meet for dinner.

There were no people of color in the our class of 1968.  It came up in conversation at a breakfast I had with a few folks this week. There were in the class behind us, someone said, but couldn’t remember her name. I do. Cheryl Langford. The day before, I had driven down the street and past the house where I grew up, and the house, right next door, where the “colored family” had lived.

“Her family moved next door to us in about 1964 or so,” I said to the breakfast group.

I went on to say that there were a few who tried to keep them from buying a house, denying an American family the freedom to live where they chose.  Those who thought of themselves as good Christians took it upon themselves to “protect property values,”  self justification for outright racism.  In the early1960’s, I doubt those who tried such a thing would have described it that way.  It flies in the face of the values which, I suspect, are held by every person who was at this reunion.  I pains me to think of where we were in my youth.  In the early 1960’s one person, one family, stood up for the family who came to be our good neighbors.  All it took was one. Thank God, for one good man, one good family.  

It makes me think of the quotation, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing,”  said Andrew Marshall.  And I watched as the Jewish boy was bullied.  I have not repeated that awful mistake.

My first ride in a private airplane was with our neighbor, Mr. Langford.  It was good of him to invite me to ride in his plane, which he kept at Beverly airport.  We flew to western Massachusetts and back that day, as he explained how the radio homing device worked, changing frequencies to track from point-to-point, having written them down in a series of notes before we left.  Funny what I remember.  I even remember him checking the fuel for water. Maybe I remember because he took the time to explain to me what he was doing.  It was just the two of us. I was only 14 or 15 years old, as I wondered where he had learned to fly.  Years later, I had found out, and why he was such a disciplined flyer.

Gilbert Langford, whom several had tried to keep out of the house next door, was like many others who had fought in WW II in one respect; he kept his record to himself. His record, however, was special.  The man who lived next door had been a Tuskegee airman, and with the all-black flyers who earned a reputation as being among the best fighters to take to the sky in American planes, even though the planes they flew were not the best; the white pilots got them.

No one I grew up with knew the story of the man who was my neighbor.  One said, “That should be part of the history of our town.”  To me, it is. Mr. Langford rests in Arlington National Cemetery.  Those of us who served recognize it as a place reserved for special American warriors. 

This story is not ancient history. It is partially a story of what I saw, and the wonderful place where I grew up.  I wish it had been such a place for all.

 

Cheryl, thank you for allowing me to use your family name in this story. I know of your strength, admire what you have done with your life. I am grateful to your family for the kindness extended to my family, and to your father, who I was honored to know as a boy, and admire as a man.

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October 1, 2018

There have been a lot of emotional statements tossed around in the last two weeks Facebook has many pictures with Kavanaugh as evil, Trump as fascist, and Hilary as an opportunist, who supports no one but herself and doesn’t care about the women her husband attacked; democrats and republicans who care about agenda, and not the abusers from their own party. There really is little sense in trying to talk to anyone anymore.  No one changes his mind.  We choose a network to watch, think it is fair and objective, and claim the other is a pawn for the opposite party, with reporting being a thing of the past. We repost on Facebook, and get likes from those who agree and a viscous argument from those who don’t.

There are three or four books on the New York Times best seller list, representing the left or right. I suspect that not a single mind has been changed, but many hardened and think justified.

We are in trouble.

Our voices are shrill.  The other guy won’t listen.  Roe v. Wade will be overturned!  Women will be killed seeking back alley abortions!  The constitutional right to an abortion will be gone!

I asked myself, “What is Roe v. Wade?  Is there a constitutional right to an abortion?”

I decided to have a look.  I am not an attorney, but I know how to read.  As soon as I googled Roe V Wade, I was bombarded by pop up windows from both sides.

In 1973, the Court ruled 7–2 that a right to privacy under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendmentextended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion, but that this right must be balanced against the state’s interests in regulating abortions.

That made sense. Also in the search was:

Roe v. Wadewhich was decided by the Supreme Court on January 22, 1973, affirms the constitutional right to access safe, legal abortion. More than 40 years later, Americans overwhelmingly support the decision.

No, it didn’t.  A woman has no right to an abortion according to the constitution.  She has a right to privacy. That makes sense, and as a Libertarian, it is something I can cling to. However, once the fetus becomes viable (a person), it has the guarantee of due process.

The Constitution is a restraint on government.  U.S. exceptionalism is based on the premise that rights come from God, not government. The Founders, flawed men all, wrote the constitution based on constraining government.  It was a set of ideals, and no, it was not applied to every race, sex, and culture.  If it had not been written, I shudder to think where we would be. There are those who want to see the role of the Court as “social Justice.”  Justice needs no modifier.  The failure of the executive and legislative branches to perform, where the objective is re-election, not legislation, has resulted in the judicial branch as an extension of the party in power. We have reaped what we have sown.

As a Libertarian, I love my country and I fear my government. I trust the power of the states to those of the federal government.  John Kennedy sent troops into Alabama because the constitutional rights of Americans were being violated.  It was his responsibility to defend the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, a primary role of the federal government.

Suppose I don’t  like the idea of abortion.  Maybe I believe in life at conception, based on my religion.  The role of government has to be constrained, and cannot act based on my religious beliefs.   The right to privacy has to take precedent. The hard part, I guess, is when to provide protection for the fetus.  The government decided that it was to be at viability, meaning the rights of two people come into consideration.  That makes sense.  The trouble becomes, I guess, defining viability.

I looked up a few statistics.

Many abortions are not chosen by women, but children under the age of 18, starting at 13 years old. 50% are women under 25. 65% are performed on women who have never been married. 55% are women who are black or Hispanic.  An unmarried women or girl under 22 who does not get an abortion has an 80% chance of living in poverty.

40% of women have had an abortion. 10% will have an abortion before they are 20, 25% by age 30. If you read the statistics charts, there is a spike after women are 40 years old.

24% are Catholic, 13% evangelical Protestant, and 14% mainline Protestant. Most give no religion.  91% abortions are in the first trimester (Fox News.) Those who  have abortions in the second trimester are mostly young minorities, those will little education, poor access to health care, and children who were afraid to tell anyone.

It is hard to argue that very young women and girls understand much about the right to privacy.

I am not defending abortion.  I think no one has a right to one, and I wish people would stop yelling about a woman’s right to choose and a constitutional right to an abortion.  The decision was, that everyone has a right to privacy, balanced against the rights once two people are involved.  As a Libertarian, I choose the rights of the individual (not man, not woman.)  Privacy is paramount.

I have no idea when life starts.  If it is at conception, then God will sort it out. I hope the Court got it right, or there won’t be many women for me to hang out with in heaven.  If what I have learned about God is even close, he will be harder on the father who was not present than the woman who had an abortion, and hardest of all on those who were not available to those who were girls, not women.

Let’s see what kind of messages I get from this. Will anyone agree?  Will I lose my friends?

 

 

 

 

 

A Letter to My Donor

“We have a heart for you,” Doctor S. said on September 24, 2017, a few hours before midnight.

It had been nearly a year since I almost died and was offered this heart. I came out of a coma after nearly a month, bearded, hands strapped to the side of the bed, tubes everywhere, weak, emaciated, exhausted, confused and surrounded by machines. I had no memory of what had happened.  My ex wife, who is my close friend, and my son were at my side.  Why, I thought?  What had happened to me?  I was a healthy man, took care of myself, ate well, and was fit.  I had been taken care of while in a coma by just a few nurses and doctors, who, as I grew stronger, told me that I needed a heart.  I accepted what had happened, and physically and mentally prepared over the course of the next year.  My life had changed, but I still had one.  I lived in the moment, not allowing my peace to be compromised by what might, or might not happen.  I knew that not everyone received the gift of life in time. After all, there is a list.  A tragedy must occur for each person ahead of me to make way for a transplant, if I were to get one.

When Dr. S told me that there was a heart for me, I knew that my long wait was over. I knew that I would soon get out of the hospital and get on with my life. Never had I felt such mixed emotions; relief, combined with the fact that I would survive only because another had lost his life.  One tragedy occurs, and another tragedy, a loss of my life, would be avoided.  As I thought that I would receive the gift of life, I knew that a life had been lost, and that the donor, or his family, had been generous and strong, providing the gift of life to me.  They were facing the worst day of their life, but saw their way to provide the gift of life to a man whom they had never met; the most precious gift I had been given since the day my son was born.  I thought of the birth of my son, while someone faced the loss of theirs. I could not be euphoric.  I knew the cost of my gift.  Just before I was taken to surgery, all the nurses and staff from the floor came to my room.  We held hands and prayed, not just for me, but for the donor and his family.

I promised myself that I would take care of that gift.  When people ask how I am, my response is, “Living the dream.”  I am alive.  I am grateful.  And I think of my unknown donor every day.  Life as a transplant survivor is nothing like I had ever imagined.  It is strange to have a heart beat in me, that kept another alive for years, until some tragedy struck. No one can feel it, not even the doctors who put this heart in me. The other survivors do.  And they are all grateful to the donor and donor who is keeping them alive.

Thank you, whoever you are. Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?

 

Survivor

It has been a long time since I have written much of anything.  My new heart is working well.  Only seven months ago today, I was gifted a new heart. It is hard to believe that this morning I walked two miles and lifted weights on my new weight bench by the pool.

I am doing much better than I thought I would be. I am healthy, physically fit.  I walk, lift weights, and ride my bike.  I eat well.  I manage to get more than 30 minutes of cardio exercise per day, and 10,000 steps most days.  I cheat on Sundays.

I owe it to my unknown donor to take care of my gifted heart.  I know the heart that is in me might not have been donated, and might have been given to another person.  I really am grateful.

There have been a few difficult things to adjust to.  While waiting for a heart, I had to live completely in the moment.  Not one day at a time, not an hour at a time, but moment by moment, doing the best I could to not think of the future or the past, to control, to limit, what went in and out of my thinking.  I have been trained to live such a life, but there are periods when survival depends on it.  The ultimate act of survival is living in the moment.  Or, perhaps, living in the moment is the ultimate act of survival.

In the course of my life, I have been banged up a few times.  I have had broken bones, been cut, nearly lost an eye, had a concussion or two, cracked a few ribs, and nearly broke my neck. I can’t recall the name of a single doctor or nurse who put me back together.  Getting a heart is nothing like that.  I was a patient for over a year, in and out of the hospital, but mostly in. I know the names of all the doctors at the Heart Transplant Institute at Florida Hospital.  One, I asked, “How did you ever get a job here?”  He was taken aback.  “I thought they only hired bald doctors in the Transplant Group.”  He laughed and showed me the growing bald spot on the top of his head.  Another was surprised how tall I am.  I guess he had only seen me in bed.  I know the nurses.  They supported me and kept me alive for a long time, encouraged me, and prayed with me. These are special people.  I always look forward to my appointments, so I can see my friends, and show off how well I am.  Once in a while, I stop on the fifth floor to see the nurses there.  They seem to enjoy seeing someone who was so close to death, grateful and recovered.  I like seeing the staff folks, the woman who cleaned my room, and brought my meals.  Maybe they don’t get to see many who have recovered.

My dream of sailing around the world is over.  I didn’t have to come to grips with that until I had a new heart.  You see, once I was transplanted, I had to get on with life, and blue water sailing was not to be part of it.  Oh, I will sail again.  I plan to charter once in a while.  My first will be in the Caribbean, soon, I hope, and the next will be in the South Pacific. It won’t be the same, but at least it will be.

I am back to work, doing what I love.  I spent the last two months building machines with my son, Sam, for a workshop I will be teaching in Ohio next week with one of my partners from Europe.  I will be back in Europe this summer, and visit my cousins in Italy.

I bought a house.  It’s a fine place to live, not too far from the ocean.  When I ride my bike, I can see boats, lots of boats,  few of which are as fine as Ariadne, which has been sold.  That was a sad day. Yes, I have a house, but a house is not a sailboat, and a sailboat made my home a place of adventure.

There was a period in recovery that was tough for me.  It started a short while after I was transplanted. I knew something was odd, but had no idea what it was. Now I do.  One of the challenges for me was to stop being a patient.  As I said, I had been put back together a few times in the past, but never got to the point where my being, my existence, was one of a patient.  I never had to make the transition from patient to…well, to survivor, I guess, is one way to put it.

When I was patched up in the past, I went on with life, and didn’t give being patched up a second thought.  I was on to the next thing.  I have not gone a day without thinking of all that has happened since October 12, 2016, when this started, as I passed out driving a car.  Every day, I live with gratitude for just being alive.  I won’t ever just get on with life, without giving a second thought to those who saved my life.  I think of them every day.

But I think I have made the transition from patient, to SURVIVOR.

I Want to Go Outside

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.

National Organ Donor Registry

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Judging or Judgmental?

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.6

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,

dadandmachine

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.

Mary Stole a Kiss…and Melody Cried

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.”

A Speech at Florida Hospital

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.”

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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.

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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.

John Allen

John.allen@tnsft.com

Waiting for a Heart

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.

john.tnsft@me.com