Thank you from the bottom of my heart: an open letter to Dr. Susan Blasey Ford

 

Tough_TimesOptimized
…to do the right thing.

 

Dear Dr. Ford:

I watched some of your testimony last week and want you to know that I thought you were amazing. You made sense out of something that was hard to make sense of, and you did it with elegance and good humor and decency.

It was easy to imagine you as a very popular and respected professor – when you alluded to concepts you teach, you did so in an accessible and welcoming way. I bet your students love you.

I’m sure your life has been so up-ended by this. I think I read that you had to leave your house, and that your family is all separated for their – and your – safety. That sucks. I hope you are not paying too much attention to people who have nothing kind or charitable to say about this or you. (Yes, that does include you, President That-Was-One-Shameful-Display and Press Secretary Shameful-Display-Enabler.)

I hope things get back to a new and better normal for you soon. Your display of courage and integrity might not have been enough to keep now-Justice Kavanaugh from being sworn in.  But it was more than enough to provide fuel to fans of doing what’s right even when it’s not easy, but are really, really discouraged and hurting right now.

These things change slowly.

I was so ashamed of what happened to me (we were in eighth grade and it happened in school when a teacher sent us out to fetch something from another part of the building). I was sure that it must have been my fault somehow.  I couldn’t possibly tell my mother (or heaven forbid, my dad!).  So I never did. It was 1973.

But in the 1990s, I had a conversation with my daughters when they were middle schoolers, and when a boy tried pulling that on one of them, he ended up with a swift knee to a tender spot. And now, here we are in 2018. There’s #metoo, and there’s you, who came forward with nothing to gain but preserving your own sense of integrity.

It might seem as if it made no difference.

But it did.

It will.

These things change slowly, but change they do. Make no mistake. Eventually, the power of our stories will overwhelm the deniers hanging on by a thread to power that is eroding. It’s power they don’t deserve. When that happens, our sons & daughters and their sons & daughters will live in a world that doesn’t reward violence and belligerence.

I’d like to see it in our lifetime, but I’m a realist.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart:

Amy Waldman

 

#Metoo vs. #Poormetoo: Senate Committee hears from Ford & Kavanaugh

I caught a little of the testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee today.

10155177205089919.jpg
What else am I gonna use? Something horrible? Thanks but no thanks. There’s enough of that already in this post.

It was horrifying.

The contrast between the two witnesses was stark. Dr. Ford told her story with remarkable composure. She was visibly upset, but did an amazing job describing her reasons for coming forward. She answered questions about the event that had brought her to the Senate hearing room, recounting the feelings of a traumatized teen and also using the vocabulary of an expert in explaining the biology of trauma. She was respectful of the process, answering the questions she was asked and asking for clarity when she wasn’t sure about a question.

Before today, I’d done a lot of thinking about Judge Kavanaugh and whether, if he did what Dr. Ford described, whether it should disqualify him from serving.

My conclusion was that while it would have been horrible and terrible and wrong, it would not necessarily have been a deal-breaker.

Why not?

It’s simple.

If Brett Kavanaugh had said, “In my youth, I did things I regret and one of them was sometimes drinking to the point where I didn’t remember things. I don’t do that any more and haven’t since (whenever he realized that this was not a great thing).”

Then, he would have apologized to Dr. Ford, and there might have been some sort of private meeting between them that none of us need know about. And he’d probably have been confirmed. Which he probably will anyway, but we’ll never know now whether he would have been otherwise.

What we do know after today is that Brett Kavanaugh is an overentitled brat whose sense of entitlement is only matched by his sense of outrage at the possibility that he might be called out for his behavior.  And I’m not talking about what happened with Dr. Ford. If I thought I was being falsely accused of something that big, I’d be salty, too.

It’s the other stuff, about his drinking and his actions around a woman who’d attended a nearby girl’s school.

He reminded me of Ex 1, who was at his nastiest when someone challenged his version of reality, whether or not it matched actual events. It was his way or the highway.

Kavanaugh explained away yearbook references to heavy drinking, eg:  “Treasurer of the 100 Kegs or Bust Club” and “Beach Week Ralph Club, Biggest Contributor,” to his love of beer and“weak stomach” and insisted he’d never been drunk enough to forget anything that happened under the influence.

He insisted that he and a bunch of his buddies who repeatedly referred to a girl named Renate and posed for a photograph as the “Renate Alumnius” did so because they had such reverence for her. That makes him sound like a) a really pathetic liar and b) a patronizing asshole. I mean, seriously. How dumb does he think we are?

It was painful to watch the contrast between the lack of respect he seemed to have for the process and Committee. It was even more painful to listen to Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) try to out-nasty Judge Kavanaugh.

Not a great day for the Senate, for Dr. Ford or the Judge Kavanaugh. And most definitely not a great day for We, the People.

Death: the most unlikely of happy endings or ‘Bossiest Eulogy Ever’

MomReadsPaper

Mom died on February 25th. Her funeral was in Utica, New York; yesterday was her memorial service. This is the eulogy I wrote and read yesterday.

Eulogy II

The first Tuesday after Mom’s funeral, I woke up and, because it has been part of my waking-up ritual for what seems like forever (even though it wasn’t) she was my first thought.

The picture that immediately popped into my head was her coffin newly lowered into her grave – a gorgeous, round-topped pine box the color of warm tea, black grain running through like tea leaves.

The feeling it evoked was a mixture of happiness, relief and serenity. Mom was okay. Mom was safe. She wasn’t confused, afraid or anxious. Her body wasn’t stiff and rigid because of a Parkinsonian freeze. She was beyond pain, beyond fear and I felt at peace.

This is not always how I feel about having a dead mother. The range of emotions I am experiencing on account of this loss are different than any of the others preceding it. Sadness. Relief. A little conflicted about the relief. Relaxed in a way I haven’t been in years. A little conflicted about that.

I am happy she got to see me finally marry the right guy, graduate from library school at 55, even if she slept through a good deal of the ceremony (lucky Mom, right?), share some of my life in Milwaukee and give me the most incredible gift of all – the absolute trust that I would have her back as she navigated the terrible and solitary torture of a slow, agonizing slide into helplessness and utter dependence.

For a woman who associated being dependent with being neglected, marginalized and abused – for valid reasons – this required an unprecedented leap of faith, on two fronts.

 

A little context – on two fronts

Mom’s upbringing, combined with the circumstances of my birth, had not laid the groundwork for dependence with dignity or mother/daughter compatibility.

She’d been a surprise.

Her parents were excited about another son to help with the planting, harvesting, milking and other farm chores. Instead, they got a fourth daughter. She was two weeks old when her sister Bessie suggested calling her ‘Arlene’ with an ‘I.’ (Her birth certificate reads “Baby Chernoff.”)

Mom grew up poor, Jewish, left-handed and unwanted on a farm during the Depression. A doctor told her parents, immigrants who hadn’t gone past sixth grade, that she shouldn’t be allowed to read outside of school because of her poor eyesight. The only toy she ever had was a doll her brother took apart. She once told me that when she really wanted to set her mother off, she’d walk around the house singing “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child.”

Her incredible tenacity in surviving her first year at Syracuse University with so little preparation for college life, eventually figuring it out (in part, after the dean in whose office she was crying told her to start doing the New York Times Crossword puzzle every Sunday) and going on to graduate and build a life in New York is remarkable.

 

A brief digression

I will now break from this eulogy to present a brief episode of “Irlene Chernoff: Life in New York.”

Scene: Girl’s night out. Syracuse Alumni Lois (tall) and Irlene (not so tall) enter the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to attend a talk by Eleanor Roosevelt.

They stroll across the lobby to the elevator and press the call button. The elevator arrives. They step in. The elevator is occupied by two women, one tall and one not-so tall.

The tall one is Eleanor Roosevelt.

The not-so tall one is Dorothy Parker.

Brief Silence. Furtive staring.

Lois: “Irlene. I never realized how short you are.”

Eleanor Roosevelt: “Good things come in small packages.”

Dorothy Parker: “So does poison.”

End Scene

 

Two-front context – continued

Then, a 50’s-era miracle happened. After having all but cemented her place in the family as the cool aunt and successful old maid career woman, Mom snagged the hottest bachelor in Utica. Being “Mrs. Rabbi Waldman,” in the words of my friend Debra, was her favorite job ever.

Here’s Mom, describing Dad in a letter turning down a job offer in New York in April 1958, because she’s getting married:

“…he is everything I ever dreamed of in a man. He is warm, sensitive, human, strong and the most understanding man I ever met; in addition to being liberal, of diversified interests and professionally a rabbi …”

By the time I came along, Mom’s older siblings had all reproduced. Used to being bossed around by the four elders, none known for being shy about their opinions, she was nervous in the way of any first-time mom. Unfortunately for both of us, I was born by emergency C-section two weeks after my due date, and because of Mom’s reaction to anaesthesia, by the time she was fully awake and ready to be the Best Mother Ever, I was a week old and had bonded with Dad.

Things were different 17 months later when Debby came along, and thus, the family rectangle (Amy/Dad, Debby/Mom) was established. It worked well until 1974, when Dad died.

A seismic shift

Until about 2005, Mom and I did not have the easiest relationship. Sometimes that happens with mothers and daughters, and if the daughter is lucky – which I was – she gets to a place where anger, sadness and resentment are replaced by gratitude for (in my case) the care she does give, and for a great husband and in-laws, supportive friends and the ability to have built different relationships with my own daughters.

One by-product of Parkinson’s disease was that – to paraphrase Mom – she stopped seeing everything she didn’t like about herself in me and started seeing me. Our subsequent relationship was deeper and more satisfying for its having happened long after I’d had enough therapy and done enough interior work to understand that parent-offspring compatibility is an add-on, rather than part of the standard package.

Nothing compares with what it feels like – after almost 50 years – to suddenly have a mother who goes out of her way to tell you you’re terrific and you feel it it so much that you could spend the rest of your life lying on your back and rolling around in it.

Even if that had never happened, and I was standing here, I’d still be grateful for everything Mom gave me, because once you know that nothing you do will please someone, it gives you the freedom to not worry about displeasing them.

Which, like the love you can roll around in, is also a gift.

And as the daughter who ended up being Mom’s Primary Person on her Grand Exit Tour of Planet Earth, it was my job to make sure she faced some unpleasant stuff in the service of making sure that her Grand Exit went the way she wanted.

Son of seismic shift –  the nursing home version

It would not be an overstatement to say that Mom’s Exit Plan did not involve a slow agonizing slide into helplessness in a Milwaukee nursing home. She had ordered up a serving of being “carried out of here feet-first,’ “here” being the condo she’d bought on Cape Cod in 1982.

I have vivid memories of visiting nursing homes with 50-something Mom. We’d walk into a facility and the smell – a melange of stale, damp and vague decay – would hit us. Near-comatose people with wispy hair and rheumy eyes sat in wheelchairs in the halls or rows in common rooms in front of a TV, some aware of us, some staring at nothing. On our walk back to the car, Mom would utter a variation on the same theme.

“If I’m ever like that, shoot me or give me pills.”

I didn’t shoot Mom, and I didn’t give her pills. But there were so many times, especially over the past two years, when I wondered why she was still alive. I went from being angry all the time to “she’s warm and I can hug her.”

And I came to rely on a group of people I had already grown to love and respect – the holy women (and occasional man) who cared for Mom and the rest of the people in the Helen Bader Unit with relentless devotion.

They helped Mom through these past brutal years, but they also helped Debby and me. It was a team effort in a game that ended with Mom’s death. And now that it’s over, I’m gonna tell you two things. First, we won. Second, we were able to because of three other things.

The most important – Thing One, if you will – was Mom. It was her decision to move into the nursing home. I’m not saying it was easy, and I’m not saying it was pretty. Debby was freaked out about her spending $10,000 a month on 24-hour care on top of rent for her assisted living apartment. I was slightly less freaked out but knew it wasn’t sustainable. That four months, though, gave Mom the time she needed to wrap her head around what she realized needed to happen. It was her idea to tour the Home; she chose Bader.

I have seen – and continue to see – new people coming in who didn’t choose. Some are angry, and what’s hard is made harder, both for them and for the staff who care for them. It is a stark contrast and a constant reminder of the remarkable courage my mother displayed in making her own decision to move to a memory care unit.

I also know that part of the reason she was able to make that courageous choice was because she knew – Thing Two – she could count on me. By then, we were far enough down the road that, given the choice to stay and help or have me do it, she jetted off to California to hang with her sisters, allowing me to set her room up in a way that it could serve multiple functions (seating and dining facilities for six) and favorite pieces from every room of her former home(s).

The “as happy as possible under the circumstances” ending

Bragging about your childrens’ achivements – the albums, the concerts, the book deals, the degrees, the awards, the jobs – that’s easy.

Entrusting your own well-being to their care is a whole different level of affirmation.

I did it as right as I could, and I think, for the most part, I got it pretty right. But I got it right because she helped me get it right. I got it right because she was honest enough and courageous enough to face her own death, and when she wasn’t, she borrowed my courage and my love for her and we got through it together. And when I wasn’t courageous enough to face her decline, I had spent enough time at the nursing home to be on a first-name basis with the people who were caring for Mom, and they helped me. That’s Thing Three.

If your mother lives in a nursing home, it’s a nursing home. But your mother lives there, so it’s also your mother’s house. When you come around more, your mother might not get more attention and more care than the people whose families don’t come around, but I know this – she gets better care. Because as good as those caregivers are, no one has time to rummage through your mom’s drawers and discover the several-sizes-too-small bra that belongs to the lady across the hall. Also, they are going to have your mom’s back like nobody’s business if you show up, because you’re going to see what they do and how to make your mom’s life and their lives as easy as possible, given the circumstances.

So this isn’t really as much a eulogy as it is a message, and kind of a directive from us. Mom’s death was beautful, and it was beautiful because I never stopped telling her, right up to the end, that this was her old age and eventual death and that she was in charge. And I never stopped believing it.

In truth, I started pushing her to talk about what she wanted and what we should do long before she was ready.

But because of – or maybe in spite of it – Mom and I were able to have all the hard conversations, and even find some light moments in the midst of them. We planned her funeral and this memorial service together, and the comfort of knowing what she wanted and being able to make it happen has brought me the kind of comfort that only a supportive mom can give.

Police shootings, mob violence and the comfort of strangers: A Dispatch from Milwaukee

While Sweetheart and I were somewhere loud and happy Saturday night (a wedding),  loud and not-so-happy things were happening close to us.

In the morning, my friend Walter, a Baptist minister, posted this selfie on his way to his church. He invoked Nehmiah 1.

Walter_Selfie.jpg

By then, we’d heard the news. Riots had broken out hours after a police officer shot and killed a 23-year-old who’d refused to put down the gun he was carrying. Mobs of people gathered, shooting in the air, burning businesses and, according to one video on Facebook that I did not watch, looking for white people to beat up.

There were photos of the businesses that had been burned. A gas station. A bank. A beauty supply store. Before it burned, looters were carrying out bags of weaves.

My house is a mess. We got written up by the city for “weeds” (we have a  prairie in our front yard). I do not spend enough time with my mother or my grandson. But it could be worse. I didn’t lose my business, and I still have a job to go Monday.

It would be great if the world got better by burning things down, but it doesn’t. It just makes more heartbreak and fear which, last I heard, isn’t high on the list of building blocks for neighborhood stability.

I had to go over there and see if I could help clean up something. I’ve driven by that gas station a gatrillion times, and when I go downtown after work, I drive past the bank and the auto supply and beauty supply stores that were burned.

I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I got to the intersection a few hours after Walter had left. He’s black and big, and I am white and not. It didn’t matter. Being afraid isn’t enough of a reason not to do something that matters, and for some reason I couldn’t articulate, this mattered.

What I found were groups of people in the park across from the gas station. I instantly recognized my neighbors, Michael & Carolina. On the grass just off the sidewalk, three people were sitting alongside a pallet-sized stack of bottled water. There were bags of gloves and cartons of garbage bags.

“People are just going out and cleaning up,” Michael said. He and Carolina had been there long enough to fill a couple of bags, and were taking off.

I got a pair of gloves and a bag from a woman, who told me that the effort wasn’t really being organized by anyone. People were just showing up. (Click here for a photo, courtesy of Neighborhood News Service.)

“Kind of like last night, only not” I said. She knew exactly what I meant. I headed out with my garbage bag and a pair of yellow gloves, the kind you use to wash dishes.

I hadn’t taken more than a few steps when a young black man asked me something about where the organizers were. I told him what I knew and pointed to the water stack. Then I asked if he wanted to pair up.

Which is how I met Chad, an electrician who recently bought his first house, some 20 blocks away from where we were (roughly the same distance away as Sweetheart and me, but in a different direction). We headed east toward the beauty supply store. There wasn’t a whole lot to clean up, but we picked up some trash, and some glass. And then I saw the bullet casing outside a storefront. I photographed it, then picked it up and showed it to Chad.

Slug_in_habitatResized.jpg

 

slug_in_hand_Resized.jpg

“Whoa, a slug!” he said.

We chatted between his cell phone ringing intermittently as he told people where he was and what we were seeing, and as we got to the beauty supply store, his phone rang. His cousin had come to help out. He went to meet her. The street had been cleared of glass and the windows were boarded up, but the ground between the board-up and sidewalk was a mass of piled glass. I dug huge chunks out of the dirt, filling up my bag.

Chad returned and introduced me to Tiffany, who’s working on her master’s degree in public health and works in the field already. We walked and talked as we made our way along the street, surveying the damage and talking about upcoming community events we knew about and were involved in. When we got back to my car, I gave Tiffany my gloves, and asked if they’d be willing to be in a picture. We got another passerby to take it.

Chad_Tiffany_MeResized.jpg

I took quiet comfort in the presence like-minded strangers who care as much as I do about the city I love and call home.

The mom and daughter from Whitefish Bay who were picking up garbage, the woman in traffic who called out from her car window to ask where she could drop off donations, and all the other people we saw along the way. Some were cleaning up. Some were just walking along. The front-seat passenger in carload of girls in an SUV announced (with a dash of salt in her tone) that they’d been there the night before.  In the park, groups of people were gathered in prayer circles, including a shirtless guy with a huge snake hanging from his shoulder.

There was a lot of work to be done before last night, and a lot of good people already doing it.

I hope it’s enough.

 

A bottle of wine and a cat: Surviving the first dogless days

 

Tuki&SweetheartOptimized.jpg
Tuki & Sweetheart, relaxing. This was after she’d reached the point where we let her on the couch and before the point where she couldn’t get up there by herself anymore.

 

The house is so quiet. No one needs to go outside before we go to bed. There are no clacking feet in the middle of the night, the prelude to a trip down the stairs and outside into the dark. No one needs to go outside first thing in the morning. And no one is chasing Sweetheart out of the driveway when he leaves for work.

How things went

Four of us left the house to go to the vet on Saturday morning. Three of us came back.

Tuki and I sat in back of Talia’s SUV. Sweetheart sat in front. T had put the seat down on Tuki’s side and spread blankets out, so she could lie comfortably. She’d also bought a bag of freeze-dried duck hearts for her Best Girl. I spent the ride feeding them to the grateful recipient.

When we got there and got her out of the car, Sweetheart took her over to eat some snow. It had snowed the night before. Fitting, as it had done the same thing the first night she’d been with us all those years before. That morning, she’d been in constant motion, dancing all over the yard, sticking her nose in the snow and tossing what she didn’t eat, openly delighted at this toy that spanned everything she could see.

I walked into the office. Joanne was sitting behind the counter. She’s been the receptionist there since before Tuki was born. I put my head down on the counter and burst into tears.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s the hardest thing we have to do.”

She took us into the exam room and got a blanket so Tuki wouldn’t have to get up on the table. Tuki, never one of Park Pet’s grateful patients, stayed true to form, growling at the vet. Dr. Poehlmann told us what would happen – first a shot to send Tuki into the Happy Place where Everything is Wonderful (or that state of mind where, as Talia said later, Tuki would be doing things like staring up and saying things like, “Wow! My paws are SOOOO big!!”). Then, five minutes or so later, she would shave Tuki’s back leg, insert an IV and inject the drug that would stop her heart.

Sweetheart held and petted Tuki, so she was distracted when Dr. Poehlmann put the needle into her left flank. The vet stepped out. We got Tuki settled onto the blanket, and Talia and I laid on either side of her and stroked her. We talked and sang to her.

When Dr. Poehlmann came back, Tuki was unconscious. Dr. P shaved Tuki’s leg. She told us that the knee was very swollen and that Tuki had practically no muscle in that leg.

“I take comfort in biochemical information,” Talia said. “Can you tell me exactly how the drug works?”

I don’t remember what Dr. Poehlmann said. It had to do with interrupting some process or other.

Pho and tears

After it was over, we dropped Sweetheart at home. Talia bought pho for lunch, and we ate at Oldest Daughter’s house. We hugged Layli, my granddog, and talked about Oldest Daughter’s impending baby (yes, I’m going to be a grandmother, which feels very weird although I’m told by all my friends who have grandchildren that it is amazing). And, of course, I cried some. But it was easier because I wasn’t home. Then, I was. I spent the rest of the day sobbing.

I was a little better on Sunday, though not much.

“You need a bottle of wine and a cat,” Sweetheart said at one point.

On Monday, Sweetheart took the car to work. I managed to get all the dog things – water dish on a stand, food dish, food container, grooming tools and toys – gathered up and put away.

Then, I picked up her bed. She slept, ala “The Princess and the Pea,” atop a dog bed under which several blankets were piled.

I am not ready to wash it, or throw it away.

Goodbye, Tuki, and thank you for 15 amazing years.

I’m writing this with a view.

TukiLastMorningResized20151121.jpg

Tuki is lying with her head on my outstretched leg. In two hours, she will be gone and I will be bereft. I’ve never had to put a dog down before.

In between writing, I put my hand on her head and stroke the space from just above her nose and between her eyes with my thumb.

We’ve had nearly 15 years together. Our 15th Doggiversary would have been November 30th. That was the night I found her, a three-month-old stray puppy gamboling in the grass with a friend’s dog.

“Who’s the other dog?” I said, as we watched the two of them frolic from a porch above the patch of lawn where they were having a grand old time giving chase.

“No idea,” she said.

I ventured out into the dark for a closer look. Lucas, Ann’s dog, was a seven-year-old Schnauzer/Yorkshire Terrier mix. He weighed about 10 pounds. The other dog was bigger but, as I got closer, I could see how young it was.

She spent one night with us, and those of us not crazy in love with her from the jump (my then-husband) were moving in that direction. Animal Control picked her up in the morning so she could be reunited with her owners. We filled out a “first dibs on adopting” form if no one claimed her.

Fast forward three weeks.

The Humane Society says we can adopt her. But, they say, she has kennel cough and they want to keep an eye on her for a couple of days. The next day, they call and tell us to pick her up. We bring her home.

A week later, we’re at the vet for the second time. The first vet said it was bronchitis and threw pills at us. The second vet says, “I don’t know if this dog is going to live through the night.”

I ask how what it will cost to see if we can save her. Money is short, but I decide I can handle giving up three months of cell phone service.

As we leave, I can hear her shrill puppy cries as the vet tech and vet insert an IV.

The next morning, the vet calls.

“Good news,” he said. “The antibiotics did the job. She popped up this morning and gobbled her food. We want to keep her another night.”

Fast forward to now.

There are not enough or the right kind of words to express the universe of love, kindness and joy this dog has brought me. She was the valedictorian of her manners class. You could leave a plate of food in reach and she wouldn’t touch it if it wasn’t offered. She caught two squirrels, and tried to be a good friend to all her feline housemates, some of whom were more receptive to her overtures than others.

So, I am going to get dressed now and the three of us – that 13-year-old, who is now 28, and Sweetheart, who’s been my best human partner for 10 years – are going to do the last, best right thing we can for someone we love.

Tuki&Flowers.jpg