FAMILY MEDICAL HISTORY – Marilyn Armstrong

We do not know nearly enough about the health of our parents and grandparents. We don’t know enough because they didn’t care to tell us about them. The freedom we feel know to discuss our ailments and cures is relatively new. When I was a kid unless it was lethal or it directly affected our day-to-day lives — no one said much.

Sometimes we got “hints.” Clues. Listening to the grownups talk sometimes dropped information that we could later put together. We learned more as we got older, especially if we were nosy enough to ask, but mostly, people in general across races, ethnicities, and religions, people didn’t talk about their medical issues.

It simply wasn’t done.

I knew, for example, about my mother’s breast cancer because it was unavoidable. And also, because my mother talked to me about grownup things to a degree that was unusual in parent-child relationships at that time. Also, knew about her radiation therapy because she had to explain why she could not go into the sun at all. They don’t do radiation (or surgery) like that now, but back then — well, let’s just say they have come a long way since then. They may not be able to cure cancer, but they treat people who have the disease with considerably more kindness.

I also knew about my father’s bone disease that came from being dragged by a car when he was a child and because they didn’t yet have antibiotics, it got into his bone and was not healed until he was in his fifties.

I knew who needed eyeglasses. Who was near-sighted. Who was far-sighted. My mother’s far-sightedness was a bit amusing because as she got older, the books she needed to read needed to be farther and farther away. At one point, she could only read the phonebook when it was on the floor and she was standing up.

What I didn’t know was close to half my family had been born with club feet. I knew my then-husband had been born with club feet (it was hard to miss), but because I knew nothing about its presence in my DNA, I didn’t know that Owen had a pretty much 100% chance of coming up with the same problem. As did Kaitlin, too. It turns out — and no one told us — that club foot is a very common genetic ailment among children. Almost every family has traces of it in their DNA.

But no one mentioned it so I was genuinely surprised when Owen showed up with it.

I didn’t know my father’s heart problems were genetic or that I had the same problem because they are not typically tested for. I’m pretty sure my father didn’t know he had it. He was told he had “congestive heart failure” which is a bucket term the medical community uses to describe just about every kind of “old age” heart problems.  Except that they don’t just show up only in old age. Young athletes die on basketball courts and football fields because no one knew they had Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. It’s not something a family doctor can hear in a stethoscope. You need a specialist and unless someone knows it runs in the family, no one checks.

Garry knew about deafness. It was kind of obvious. But he didn’t know that both parents suffered from Glaucoma. Now he has tests coming up. Bad news? Yes, but not terrible news because treatments for it have come a very long way. Use your eyedrops, get regular exams and you are good to go.

But he didn’t know. Because people didn’t talk about it. He did vaguely remember his mother using eyedrops. When he called his brother later in the evening, he discovered both parents had it.

My thoughts? Tell your kids about your medical history. A lot of things are genetic and we don’t always know it. Some things are genetic and the link has yet to be discovered.

Discovering your newborn has something you had no idea ran in your family is a hard way to discover the truth.

THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY by JAMES ZERNDT – Marilyn Armstrong

“Americans. They think everybody is snowflake. Only one snowflake. Only one you. But in Korea we think like snowball. Everybody snowball.” Yun-ji packed an imaginary snowball in her hands, then lifted it, palms up, as if offering Billie a present. “You see? Snowball.”

Both of them looked at Yun-ji’s hands holding nothing.

“Snowball,” Yun-ji repeated, then looked at Billie, at her unhappy mouth, at her face that looked like it had been bleached, and she pictured that soldier sitting in the tank, listening to headphones, maybe reading a Rolling Stone magazine, then the call coming in over the radio, the hurried attempts to think of an excuse, some reason why he didn’t see two fourteen-year-old girls walking down a deserted country road in South Korea.

“Never mind,” Yun-ji said and dropped her hands.

KoreanWordForButterfly

There are a lot of levels to this book. It’s a book about cultures and differences, but it’s also a book about the similarities that underlay human societies. In the end, our humanity trumps our differences and enables us to reach out to those who seem at first unreachable.

It’s about women and men, their relationships, their failure to communicate. The endless misunderstandings arising from these failed efforts — or failed through lack of effort. It’s also about the assumptions we make based on appearance and how terribly wrong are the deductions we make based on what we think we see. And how we use bad information to make our choices.  And finally, the pain that results from choices — even when the choices are the best available.

The story takes place in South Korea. Billie, a young American woman, is in the country to teach English to grade school children. She has come there with her friend, lover, and partner and shortly realizes she is pregnant. It’s the wrong in her life to have a baby and probably the worst possible place she could be.

She is far from her home and isolated by distance and culture. The story is told in the first person by Billie as well as two other first-person narrators, both South Korean.  Yun-ji is a young woman approximately the same age as Billie who also becomes pregnant and a man named Moon who is divorced and suffering through a painful separation from his son.

All the characters deal with problems springing from damaged relationships and miscommunication, misunderstanding, problems with parenting, pregnancy, and abortion. Despite cultural differences, in the end, the pain is personal and remarkably similar for each.

There are no simple, happy answers.

It’s well-written and held my interest from start to finish. Whether or not the book will resonate for you may depend on your age and stage in life’s journey. For me,  it was a trip back in time to the bad old days before Roe Vs. Wade. Of course, one of the issues made very clear in the book is that the legality of abortion doesn’t make it less of a gut-wrenching, life-altering decision. Anyone who thinks abortion is the easy way out should read this. Whatever else it is, it’s not easy.

It’s a good book. Strongly written, presenting highly controversial issues in a deeply human context.

The Korean Word for Butterfly is available in paperback and Kindle.

ULTIMATELY, WE ALL ARE ORPHANED – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Orphan

Although most of us never plan to go home again to live, there’s always somewhere, way back in our minds, the realization that if terrible things happen and everything else fails, we can go home.

We wouldn’t like it and they probably wouldn’t care for it, either. We might even hate it.

Otsego Road – Photo: Garry Armstrong

But the thought is there. Almost hidden by the rest of our lives, friends, work, children.

I never went home except for the occasional dinner. I swore when I left I’d never go back … but there was always a tiny corner in there. Not even a set of words, but a fragment of a thought. There was a last-ditch place I could be if the rest of the world collapsed around me.

I never went back, even when things were bad and I was sick. Never wanted to be there, not even briefly. Then, my mother died. Eventually, my father died though losing him wasn’t much like losing a parent. I hadn’t seen him as a parent for many long years. Garry’s father passed and eventually, his mother too. He never went home, either.

We are orphans. We can’t go home because this is home and there’s nowhere else to be. We haven’t even the fragments of those unspoken words.

Eventually and ultimately, we are all orphans.

THERE’S NO CRYING IN THIS NEST – Marilyn Armstrong

A woman, younger than me, has no children and asks: “What is ’empty nest syndrome?’ What does it mean?”

I gave it a bit of thought. After all, my nest is empty except for two terriers and the handsome husband.

The empty nest is one in which the children have grown up and moved out. They have independent lives. These newly made adults have left the family nest and assumed the mantle of adult responsibility.  Isn’t that what we wanted all along?

Swan family all lined up

My mother’s life did not revolve around me, though I kept her pretty busy for a long time. She was a dutiful mother insofar as she did the right stuff. She fed us, though this was her least shining achievement. She clothed us … and to this day I wish I’d better appreciated the clothing she made for me. I was just too young, awkward, and afraid someone might notice I was dressed “differently” from the other kids. Big mistake.

The whole family!

She talked to me about adult things in an adult way. She gave me tons of books and if I look around, I probably still own more than half of them. These weren’t the books my friends and schoolmates read. They were grown-up literature. Sometimes, I had to ask her what it meant because if anything, she overestimated my understanding of the larger world. When I was ready to go, she was proud of me for taking the leap.

It freed her to paint and sculpt and travel. To read, go to the theater, spend time with her sisters. Not cook and clean all the time. Make her own clothing instead of mine. She was glad my brother and I were independent and built lives.

I doubt she suffered from any kind of empty nest issues.

Nor did I. Of course, my son and his family kept coming back. For years, I yearned for an empty nest. Having finally achieved it, do I miss the patter of little feet? Or, for that matter, the thunder of big ones?

Flocks of Goldfinch

I miss the thunder more. Is there something wrong with enjoying the company of adult children more than little kids? I really enjoy having real conversations with grownups who look like me. Even if we disagree, I’m delighted they have opinions. That they are part of a bigger world and standing on their own feet.

Maybe the difference is that so many women seem to prefer babies to adults. They don’t want independent children who don’t need them. Some parents urgently need to be needed.

Children need nurturing, but they don’t need it all the time and they definitely don’t need it for their entire lives. After some point, their drive for separateness should overwhelm the need for nurturing. The drive to be independent should become dominant. I have always thought it’s our obligation as parents to help our kids achieve adulthood because we won’t be here forever. They will need to go on without us.

An empty nest is when you don’t need to do a load of laundry every day. Where the sink isn’t always full. You can park your car where you want it.

Photo: Ben Taylor

Extra rooms revert to your use, even if you use them as closets for all the stuff you collected. If you have a life of your own, interests of your own. There’s no such thing as an empty nest. It’s a time when your kids have achieved maturity. It’s when the work you did to raise them right pays off.

Adult children are great. If you still need to nurture, get pets. Adopt dogs and cats and ferrets and parrots. They will always need you.

If you do it right, your kids will always love you, but not always need you.

SOME THINGS SHOULD GET EASIER WITH AGE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I believe that one of the benefits of age and experience is that romantic relationships should be easier than when we were young.

When I was young and married for the first time, I was insecure and didn’t know how to stand up for myself. But I was way too rigid and sure of my opinions and views and way too intolerant of people with other perspectives. I was hypersensitive to any slights or criticisms yet unsure how to express those feelings constructively. Looking back I realize how difficult I was, in many ways.

When I met Tom, my second husband, at age 49, after 25 years of marriage and two kids, I was a different person. More confident and not willing to put up with shit from people, yet easy-going and accepting of differences. Tom and I bonded instantly over the similarities between both of our mentally ill exes.

We got along seamlessly and talked until 3 AM on our first date. We spent the next weekend together and from that point on, we were a couple. That was 20 years ago. We didn’t marry for three and a half years, mainly because my kids were still living at home. But we knew we were till death do us part from the very beginning.

Tom and I on our first trip together early in our relationship

Our relationship has been as easy and positive as our prior marriages were difficult and negative. We understood what was important in a relationship – two ‘normal’ people who respect and accept each other as we are; who enjoy and appreciate each other without reservation, and who support each other 100% no matter what. All the rest is window dressing (except making each other laugh and the passion part, which goes without saying). Maybe we should have known all this in our twenties, but we obviously didn’t. We thought we could ‘help’ or ‘change’ our spouses. That rarely works.

My relationship with Tom has been smooth since day one because when there’s an issue, we talk about it and it’s over. We don’t hold grudges or bring up past issues. We deal with the issue at hand and never attack the other person. Then we immediately go back to friendly behavior with no anger residue. All of this is basic ‘Relationship 101’ advice. But I think time and experience helped us understand the importance of these maxims.

Another trip before we got married

I have two friends, one in her mid-fifties and the other in her late sixties, who have been dating online. Each had a recent nine-month to one-year relationship that ended a few months ago. Both of these relationships were difficult and up and down with lots of negative mixed in with the positive.

I felt that these men were wrong for my friends because they weren’t a good fit. It wasn’t ‘easy’ for them to be together. These women saw the negatives but didn’t want to give up on the positives. One woman kept questioning if she should break up with this guy and the other actually did break up, at least two or three times. I just don’t believe that if a person is right for you, things should be that full of angst at our ages. No roller coasters for the fifty and over crowd if you’ve found ‘the one’.

Luckily both women have met new guys with whom things are going smoothly and quickly. One had a first date on a Saturday night that lasted till Tuesday! Way to go! The other said she felt so comfortable with this new guy after just a few dates that it felt like they’d been together for a long time. That’s what I’m talking about! Both women have slipped easily into relationships with major positives and no major negatives. No obvious ‘red flags’. They both feel as if this is too good to be true but they’re going with the flow and enjoying every minute.

This is the first time with these friends that I feel they’ve found the right guy for them. At this stage of life, it should come relatively easy if it’s right! I wished for them what I had with Tom from day one and I think my wish for them has come true.

NOT NOW, DAD – Rich Paschall

A Father and Son Tale, Rich Paschall

As he was nearing the end of his life, Mr. Fine often reflected on the past. He could not help but do so. As for his health, he had good days and bad. Sometimes he felt as if nothing was wrong. On other days he could just feel that his body was wearing out, and the illness was doing him in. He tried to keep the situation as a private matter between his wife, his doctor and his lawyer. Before it would be too late, his wife knew there were others to tell.

Work room

Mr. Fine’s contemplations were mostly about his son. He wondered if he should have done anything differently. Should he have been more strict? Less? Should he have pushed him into certain sports? Music? Something else? Should he have made him work harder? Perhaps he should have been less demanding regarding work. He just could not decide if his parenting decisions were correct.

When Samuel Fine was young he seemed to enjoy watching his father work. He would follow him around and stare at the things Mr. Fine was doing. At times, he just seemed to be “under foot” but Mr. Fine tried to be patient with this.

“Now just stand over there son so you will be out of the way, and I will tell you what I am doing.” At that Mr. Fine would explain the work.  He would explain each step of his painting projects. He would give detailed explanations of how he was fixing anything mechanical or electrical. He wanted his son to understand the importance of maintenance and the value of repair rather than throwing something away. Mr. Fine was under the impression that his son was learning from all this.

When Sam was a little older, Mr. Fine had determined that the boy was big enough to assist with his projects so he invited the boy to partake in whatever he was doing.

“Sam, do you want to help with this painting project? Today we will prepare the front porch and stairs for a new coat of paint.”

Front porch

“Not now, dad. I have to meet the guys, we are going to play a game at the park.”

“OK, son. Maybe next time we can work together.”

The next time, however, Sam would have something else to do. In fact, every “next time” Sam would have something to do. Every request for help by the father was met with “Not now, dad.”

For Sam, life was too busy for dad. He had a game, a school event, a meeting with the guys, whatever that meant.  He had homework to do or he just did not feel well.

“Son, can you cut the grass today? I am feeling rather ill and the weather is nice.”

“Not now, dad. I am not feeling too good either.”

For many years, this was the way of things. Mr Fine would ask for assistance and Sam had a reason not to help. Sometimes the father would gently try to push, even insist, that Sam help around the house. Sam would push back, then go off to do whatever he thought was more important.

University

When Sam was done with college, he left home for an apartment with friends. After a few years, he got married and had a family of his own. He had a nice job, a nice home and children who were expected to do their chores.

Sam would come around to visit his parents, but usually picked a time when his father would not be home. He just did not want to face his dad. He could not explain the feeling, but it was something that he knew went back to his youth.

“Sam, why don’t you come around when your father is here” Mrs. Fine would say.

“Oh mom, he will just want me to help with some project that I have no time for. I just hate to have to say no and see that look on his face.”

“What look is that?”

“You know, mom, that wounded look.”

“That disappointment look you mean, don’t you, Sam?” Mrs. Fine responded. Sam had no answer. He said his good bye and went on his way.

The final test results

When his doctor advised there may be just a few months left for the father, Mrs. Fine disobeyed her husband’s request and told Sam of the situation. She had hoped they would end on a better note than in recent years when Sam rarely saw his father.

One afternoon Mrs. Fine found her husband staring out the window. “Mort, what are you doing?” He looked around as if he was in great pain and could barely turn his head.

“I was just thinking that tomorrow I will cut the grass. It looks like it’s time.” Mrs. Fine just shook her head.

After a few moments, the doorbell broke the silence in the room.  Sam had arrived to see what he could do. He did not want to give up his mom’s confidence so he carefully chose his words.

“Hi, dad. I heard you might not be feeling too good today so I thought maybe I could help with something.”

Mr. Fine just stared at Sam as if he must be kidding. It was an odd sort of look that Sam had not seen before. At first, he did not know what to say and the two spent a few moments just staring at one another.

Lawn

“Perhaps I could mow the grass or something,” Sam tried out on his father.

Mort Fine stared at the man before him. He was assessing what his son had become. He flashed back through the years of Sam’s life. He remembered the good things and the bad. He remembered his school days, his friends, his activities. He remembered his dreams and his goals. The memories of Sam washed over him like the ocean tide in a storm. Finally, Mort Fine knew just what to respond to Sam’s offer.

“Not now, son. I don’t need you anymore.”

VIOLENCE AND THE EVENING MEAL – Rich Paschall

I think the worst culprit are mobile devices — phones etc. They have eliminated communication. Sad, but I have lost the battle and continuing to fight seems pointless.

rjptalk

Pulling the trigger on violence

“Hey pal, what’s up?”
“Hey! I got trouble with my damn kids.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. What seems to be the problem?”
“Last night they wuz shootin at cops and hoes all night.”
“What?”
“I said…”
“I heard you. That’s terrible.”
“You’re tellin me. I tried to call them little pests to dinner but they would pay me no mind. I spent a lot of cash at KFC, but it’s all good.”
“Good, what do you mean good?”
“I mean I can eat that chicken again today.”
“But the kids…what happened to the kids?”
“Hell if I know. They were at it all night.”
“What?”
“I said…”
“Yeah, yeah, I got it, but you must have terrible trouble with the police.”
“No, I don’t have no trouble. It’s those kids, they got the trouble, but I guess they’ll get the hang of it soon.”

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