Life Lessons Learned

A Mother and her Son

I saw this yesterday on Mr. Solomon’s YouTube channel. This is a timely and vivid portrait of the pain a mother feels for the loss of her child. It is my prayer that we come to an end of the senseless and meaningless violence that takes the lives of so many sons and daughters in my community. Before anyone says “It is not my problem,” or “That’s not my neighborhood,” you must realize that someday it could be. Tomorrow may see our sons and daughters slain in the streets if we do not fight the hate of today and ignorance of yesterday. If our past is not our schoolmaster, our present will be our misery and a pit will be our future.

Peace.

Shut up and listen.

You can’t wake up normal from this. But you gotta wake up.

My family keeps secrets. Secrets that are only shared when you are close enough to smell last week’s laundry rotting in the garage. And my mom does her laundry almost everyday. The thing is, most of what is kept is done so due to fear of others’ stigma and ridicule.
Like mental illness.
When you read that last sentence, did you feel uncomfortable? I hope so. Both of my parents have siblings with a mental illness. And my sibling has a mental illness. Not even friends we have known for twenty years know this. In our lives, psychiatry, psychology and counseling are not just career options, they are what we live everyday. But, we operate in two realities; that of home and that of the public. Even when our friends have similar circumstances, the confirming words are seldom spoken aloud.
There is a saying the outpatient clinic uses that is something like “Mental illness affects us all.” I think it is overused to us all.
The limited number of hospitals specific for treating mental illness and limited resources creates more stress on a family that has been up late with a loved one when the darkness came. Sometimes, the darkness comes suddenly, swiftly, and violently. Other times it comes in like a fog, hazed and grey, but nonetheless there. You learn how to “talk” and what to listen for.
But you really learn to listen the most.
Listening, not just hearing, is the most important action you can take. Listen to your friends. Listen to your family. Listen to what they are saying, how they are speaking, how they are changing. Look up from Angry Birds and look at those in your life. Look at yourself. Stop trying to drown the pain, escape the reality, or distract through disconnect. Educate yourself on how deep depression is. I wish I could say it gets better over time, but it doesn’t without help. The right help. From our own experience, it takes a family that listens as well as providers who will listen to the patient when the medication is just not working. A team who can recognize that the darkness is getting heavier and the fog thicker. Take depression seriously. Really, shut up and listen. Then, get help.

Peace.

Cinderella Story

Most of my friends believe that my favorite movie is Star Wars…all of them. Well, they are wrong. It is Cinderella, the version released by Disney in 1950. This is the only movie which I’ve watched hundreds of times and still cry at the same scenes. Yes, I just admitted this on the Internet. Disney’s Cinderella is deceptively simple. Looking at it as a kid, it was a simple fairy tale with the hero triumphant. As a teenage girl, I saw the story of the girl getting the guy. However, as an adult it became a different story. Below is what I consider the most emotional scene of the movie. It is not because we think Cinderella has lost the chance to go to the ball, meet the prince and change her circumstances.
All of this may have been what the writers wanted, yet there is more here.
Cinderella in the Garden

Leaning over a cement bench, she sobs the following through bitter and painful tears:
“It’s just no use…I can’t believe, not anymore…there’s nothing left to believe in…”

I imagine this is not the first time she has come to this garden in tears or pain. If you pay attention to the beginning of the movie, this is the same garden she and her father are shown in when he was alive. She may come here even when her stepmother and step sisters are asleep to feel a connection to her deceased father. What is clear is that this moment was her breaking point. Although she may not have been perfect, Cinderella is shown to be rational and reasonable up to this point. She has maintained her composure and dignity even in the face of humiliation and numerous daily set backs. Yet, it is the selfish, spiteful, and bitter tearing of her dress that finally breaks her down.
Does not life feel this way at times?
Of course many of us realize that tearing her dress is representative of all her hopes, dreams, goals, and beliefs being shattered and broken. How many of us have come to a breaking point when our world seems to come crashing around us? You, the person who has been optimistic and encouraging others, smiling through your own pain could not bear another set back. Yet, that set back came. The moment of crisis and the day of despair when what took years to build was stripped away in an instant were too much on your plate. In our darkest moments, how easy it is to say as Cinderella “There’s nothing left to believe in…”
I know it may be easier to quote James 1:2-3 than to believe it or to hear I Peter 1:5-9 than to take it to heart when in the middle of distressing circumstances. I know because darkness surrounds us all like a fog and the fog can be as thick as velvet. And the season can last longer than we would like leading us to pleading with the Father for the veil to lift from our life. Yet it is imperative and most urgent that you and I see beyond our present. Even as the Fairy Godmother said: “If you had lost all your faith, I could not be here. And here I am.” Your faith in its most honorable form is what God is after. He uses what we have, our heart, and our circumstances to get us where He needs us. The trying of your faith and the set backs, heart ache, heart-break, and pain on this side of life are the very things that can polish and perfect you, forcing you to stand out to our Prince of Peace.

The Language of Life

image

I was once a decent musician. I played the piano and two types of saxophones. Okay, if you can play one type of saxophone, the key layout is the same…
My first college major was music. I wrote sheet music and helped local musicians write hooks. Yet, I eventually found my way to the biology department. Life became more science than music.
When I took my first music class, our teacher introduced music as a language. He called it the universal language. Just as years of Spanish allowed me to understand spoken and written expression, years of musical training allowed me to read and write in the language of music. Interestingly, just as my infrequent use of Spanish now limits my current understanding, so has gone the way of music. I began reading old sheet music for the piano and felt like a beginner again.
Then I thought about something: maybe music is not the universal language. Not everyone can read it and most people cannot understand it’s complexities. What of math, then? Music is a beautifully mathematical language. Could it not be that math is the universal language that binds us after all? Yet, there are many great musicians born blind and have never seen a math equation.
And there it is.
Life.
To live and experience all the sorrows and pains, joys and laughter under the sun binds humanity across all languages. It is expressed in the mathematical harmony of music we use as the soundtrack to our lives. Pain is not limited to ethnicity, country, or color. Joy is not preserved for American speakers of English. The same hormones are released in the stress response in our bodies when you and I see the hypothetical whatever that scares you/stresses you most. Life, lived full and wide, is not without pain and heartache. Pain is not limited to physical loss of another human or tangible material thing. Yet, this full life experience and range of emotional response we have is what knits humanity together as one. My pain may never be worn on my sleeve or written on my face, yet I can relate that emotion to the place that has caused you pain. The same goes for those times of great joy. In this, it is human emotion that is the universal language. You need not understand Spanish to interpret laughter. You do not have to read music to hear the song of tears. You only need an open heart.

The picture is one of the exercises from The Saxophonist’s Workbook by Larry Teal – as seen through my glasses.

Human Medicine

Still not done with my paper, I calculated how late I would be that afternoon. I stood in the hallway waiting for Dr. B to finish up an appointment. I checked the time and logged my hours before going to the triage room to chat with the nurses about the weekend ahead and random happenings. Before I could walk in, a little girl of about three or four walked out the rest room ahead of me. She was probably the only preschooler I have seen “sa-shay” instead of walk. She had her hands on her hips and looked back at her mom as if to say ‘hurry up!’ She was incredibly bubbly and her personality was brighter than her coordinated spring outfit, painted orange toenails and jelly sandals. Her mom finally came behind her as they went back into the open exam room. As Dr. B and I made our way to other patients, I wondered if that little bubbly preschooler would be getting shots. I hoped she wouldn’t cry.
We finally made our way to the bubbly preschooler. Dr. B introduced me and I said hello, waved at the mother and then the little girl. This little girl not only smiled, but after finally seeing through her dark brown curls, I realized even her eyelids creased when she smiled. I wondered as I usually do with the younger kids “Where will they be in ten or twenty years?” I always hope that the happy ones would remain so.
As the mother spoke quietly with Dr. B about paper work, the little girl began playing hide-and-seek. Okay, more like peek-a-boo…I could still see her but she covered her eyes so I guess I disappeared…? I usually try to pay attention to catch any information about the history before Dr. B tells me the diagnosis. My little distraction, however, made sure I was oblivious until Dr. B turned to me.
“Little E has an inoperable tumor on her brainstem. She’s here for clearance to get an MRI.” Dr. B said.
“…oh…” I murmured.
“She has been getting treatment and we need to know if it is working. From what I can tell, she has a lot more energy than before treatments began.” Dr. B said, picking up Little E and placing her on the exam table.
“Yes, she looks great!” I said. What a relief. This little girl is getting treatment. She just needs a follow-up to be sure everything is going well.
Dr. B examined her and cleared her chart for the MRI. No shots, no tears. Actually, anytime you look at this little girl, she smiles. Genuinely.
Her mother, who was just a bit more subdued than she, thanked Dr. B as I put her paperwork together. They went toward checkout and Dr. B and I went back to her office past the mural of children playing happily and caring for each other on the wall.
I walked in behind Dr. B and pulled my notes from my front pocket. I wanted to ask her more about the pathophysiology of the glioma.
“The glioma,” she began, “is in the brainstem, near the nucleus of the sixth cranial nerve. Our first clue when she presented were her eyes. When I first saw her, she was doing quite poorly. But look at her. She is in treatment and doing well.”
I thought about her ‘peek-and-seek’ play and agreed. “I see. She has so much personality, too. She’s such a pleasant kid.”
Dr. B sat at her desk, put her tablet down and turned back to me. “I wanted to let you know she is not expected to live beyond the end of the year.”
No.
My heart fell to my stomach, even if only metaphorically.
Not this girl. Not this bubbly, beautiful spirit. Not this three-year-old with a lifetime of giving smiles, laughter, and joy. No, this girl just hid her face from me and thought I disappeared. Not this beautiful, bright soul that still has so much to give this dark, cloudy world.
Not her.
I sat back, surprised at the stinging feeling of salty tears falling into the dry skin across my cheeks. I thought about why I became interested in human medicine. I thought about how depressed I was when I received a rejection and then two wait lists from medical school three years ago. I thought about how much of my life I had thought I would only be happy if I could get to this one point. Then I realized I was silently crying. With Dr. B’s back to me, I reached for a tissue at the edge of her desk. As I began wiping the tears before she could notice, she said, with her back still to me, “It’s okay. I’d worry more if that didn’t make you cry.”

Recessive Desire

Autosomal recessive EN
By Aymleung (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I have a desire to get married and have a family. As a (younger) adult, I wanted four children and a family like the Cosby’s. I did not want to compromise this desire. I also didn’t share this desire aloud.

I cannot hide behind this screen and tell the world that this is some unselfish dream. Just reading those first sentences, there is an air of immaturity and selfishness behind my desire for a family. For some of us, this desire becomes selfish when unchecked and misunderstood. It leads to selfish actions. We end up with selfish motives entering our relationships. Yes, I went there. The word packed with sting, selfish.
It is purely a want and desire that I see as something to benefit and satiate a yearning within my heart. Children that have my genetics. A husband that loves me. A family of my own. Even in the wrappings of nice and sweet terms such as “sacrifice” and “submit,” the desire is intrinsically selfish.
I saw how selfish this desire was when (after nearly [x] years away from dating) I was asked on a date (…yay?). I don’t “date” in the Western term of the word: we will casually form a friendship and watch how things go from there. No use “jumping in” a relationship for the sake of having one…
So, there we were, getting to know each other and the topic turned to my career field: biology. More specifically, the field of genetics. Genetics and biochemistry. Genetics, biochemistry and diseases (I’ve been in school too long…).
I carry an autosomal recessive genetic disease. In its homozygous form (that means you have two copies of the gene) it is a severe, painful and deadly disease. It is painful to watch and painful to have.
And I can pass this disease on to any children I have with another carrier.
That is inheritance.
That is (basic) genetics. I carry it and my mother carries it. My mother didn’t know she was a carrier when she met my dad, married him, and had her little bundle of baby test positive for this genetic trait. She always says how lucky she was that my dad was not a carrier as well.

Yet, I know I am a carrier.

And so is he.
This is not new information. You see, he told me this in the eleventh grade. He then mentioned it again about two years ago. And again last year. Each time is as if this is the first time he is giving me this information. We have discussed marriage. We discussed children. We confront the same information: What decision do we make with this information being known to us?

There is a 25% chance of having a child with both copies of the defective gene.
There is a 50% chance of having a child with one copy of the defective gene.
There is a 25% chance of having a child with two normal copies of the gene.

In that Cosby family, one child would theoretically suffer due to our selfishness.
Theoretically…

“Theoretically” leads to two overly simplistic responses:
“Don’t trust genetics. Trust God.”
“God gave you this insight into the genetics and this revelation for a reason.”

There are wonderful qualities to this person. Yet, this is the information we were given well before the idea of romance entered our minds. [X] number of years without dating aside…could there be someone else who is not a carrier for both of us? Information and insight given for a reason?
In this light, how selfish to ignore this information and move forward. It seems these are not questions another human can answer…

Changes

For my thirtieth birthday, I cleaned out my journal drawer. Well, it is not really a drawer, it’s a cabinet under my writing desk. Okay, I digress. In cleaning out this cabinet, I became distracted by reading a few of these entries. I have kept a journal since I was seven, so needless to say it was a long distraction. Well, I came across the following note I wrote at seventeen. I think that seventeen-year-old was a psychic because they were words that spoke to this thirty-year-old. Below are a few of those words verbatim:

…Life hands us things that are gonna change us forever. Life can change our perspective on things for life’s challenges ahead. Life can be cruel, but it can cause us to take a look at ourselves differently. Change is something that is always gonna be around us and is always going to happen. But, I think and I have grown to realize that things happen for a reason. God puts things in your life to make you think and for change to come about inside you. If it were not for the changes in life, we would not grow.