Her Grief is Real

The photo and interview series Humans of New York recently did a group of stories on pediatric cancer, and the story of Max hit me especially hard. Like many of the others, it was a story of a child who died from pediatric cancer at age 7, as told by his mother; but unlike the others, his mother was in a lesbian relationship, and her son was conceived by IVF. She originally conceived twins, and aborted one of them “because I was scared at the time.” Now that her son is dead, she knows the decision to kill his twin “will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

What was your reaction on reading this story? I’ll be honest: I was crushed by the sorrow of it, but I also judged the mother. How could she have created her children so selfishly? How could she complain about one of them dying, when she purposely killed the other one? Why did she think it was a good idea to bring up children without a father? I almost felt as if she did not have a full right to her grief, because she wasn’t a real mother.

Then I kept reading. I saw tender details, like her memories of her son, the way she appreciated the tiniest pieces of his personality, the way she was unable to tell him he was dying, and blamed herself for not having the courage to do it. She was his mother. She suffered like a mother. She was as true a mother as any heterosexual, married, biological mother could be. Her grief was real.

To be merciful is to understand someone’s life, someone’s grief, as they understand it; not as you think it should be. To be merciful is to love Max’s broken, guilty mother, because she loved her son. Jesus have mercy.

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(4/5) “I think I have post traumatic stress. I have so many horrible flashbacks. Two weeks after Max was diagnosed, he asked me if I’d be his Mommy forever. I said, ‘Of course I will.’ And he asked: ‘Even when I’m ninety?’ And I told him ‘yes.’ What was I supposed to say? And there were all the times he talked to me about the future. We’d talk about college. I just couldn’t tell him. God I was such a coward. I should have told him. I just couldn’t do it. Even toward the end. The day before he lost consciousness, I read his favorite book to him. It’s called Runaway Bunny. And the little bunny keeps threatening to run away. And the Mama bunny keeps saying: ‘Wherever you go, I will find you.’ Oh God, it was such a horrible way to die. He couldn’t speak or move or swallow or see. He basically starved to death. And the whole last week I’m whispering in his ear: ‘Let go, let go. Please Max, let go.’ My seven-year-old son. I’m telling him to let go. I mean, fuck. That’s not supposed to happen! And the whole time I never told him he was dying. I was such a coward. But he knew. He knew without me telling him. Because a couple weeks before he lost his speech, he asked me: ‘Mommy, do they speak English where I’m going?’” ——————————————————–Today is the last day of our fundraiser to aid Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in their fight against pediatric cancer. Over 65,000 people have donated and we’ve raised over $2.3 million so far. Max’s tumor is the same tumor that Dr. Souweidane is working on curing. (See previous story). In fact, Max was supposed to be part of Dr. Souweidane’s first clinical trial but he passed away too soon. I promised Julie that all money raised during the telling of Max’s story would be given to Dr. Souwedaine and his colleagues to aid in their DIPG research. The gift will be given in Max’s honor. Even if it’s a small amount, please consider donating. Link in bio.

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Image belongs to Humans of  New York on Instagram; I do not own this image.



Making Peace with the Minimum

Barbie, Pregnancy, Doll, Education, Child, Childbirth

Remember the “Best Odds Diet” in What to Expect When You’re Expecting? As I recall from my anxious first-pregnancy reading, the idea was that you could eat junk food or you could eat healthy food, but if you really wanted to do everything you could for your baby, you would eat as healthily as possible. If you had a choice between a piece of whole-wheat bread and a piece of organic, whole-wheat, whole-grain, homemade, all-natural bread, why would you choose something with less nutritional benefit for your baby? Why eat something good when you could be eating something perfect? Didn’t you want to give your baby the best chance at perfection that you could?

I think I threw the book out when it suggested that it was okay to treat yourself once a month or so, but you should really try to make your indulgence something like homemade, fruit-sweetened carrot cake or a bran muffin. Sometimes this mindset is so obviously ridiculous that it’s easy to dismiss. But sometimes, it’s so subtle and logical-sounding that it can really get a hold on you. Do any of these sound familiar?

I just checked her diaper and it’s only a tiny bit wet, so I really don’t want to change it now. But now that I know, it would be wrong to wait–I’d be knowingly letting her tender skin come in contact with pee, and maybe she’ll get a rash! I better change it right now.

Maybe he has this inexplicable diarrhea because he drank water from that mud puddle! I could have stopped him but I didn’t. I figured “usually I stop him, but one time won’t be a big deal.” But what if this happens to be the one time that really mattered?

I’m sure I buckled her into her carseat correctly. But what if I didn’t, and she dies in a crash? I should go double-check, or triple-check. That would be the best thing for my baby. After all, I want to give her the best odds at survival.

Maybe you’re a normal person, and this doesn’t sound familiar. Or maybe you’re someone prone to worry, scruples, or obsession, and this is your life. But here’s a third option–maybe you’re normally pretty balanced, but right now you’re pregnant, or postpartum, or breastfeeding, and you’re not thinking logically. This is no way to live your life. It only ends in despair and self-loathing.

I recently saw a meme that rejected the mantra “fed is best.” Fed with formula is minimum, it argued, but breast is still best. Why would you want to give your baby the minimum when you could give her the maximum? Now, how you feed your baby is a lot more important that the little things I mentioned above, and breastfeeding is certainly best in itself; but even so, things get bent out of proportion when you elevate the feeding decision above everything else. If you look at it simply as a choice between what’s okay (formula) and what’s best (breastmilk), the choice is obvious. But that keeps you from weighing other considerations, like whether your mental health is up to the challenge, or whether your physical health is up to the loss of sleep. It’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to make a choice that’s optimal for every single aspect! Life just doesn’t work like that. Don’t let your mind bully you into thinking you have to make the best possible choice, every time. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

False Dichotomies

Men, Arrow, Red, Contrary, Group, Action, Protester

False dichotomies! I just love using that phrase. You’ve seen the memes: “Why are we paying for illegal immigrants when there are veterans without homes?” “Why are we all talking about genders and bathrooms when the real scandal is those fat cats in congress?” “Why do we care so much about saving animals when babies are dying every day?” It’s the same mindset that says “why are you complaining? People in the third world have it way worse than you do.”  There are two problems with this:

  1. If you follow this line of reasoning out to its logical conclusion, there is only one thing in the world worth caring about. You want to work for social justice? How about first making sure everyone has a right to life? You care about human life so much? Isn’t salvation more important? For me, this is a seductive line of reasoning. But if everyone in the world only cared about The One Most Important Thing (whatever that is!), where does that leave everything else? God gave people different interests, gifts, and callings for a reason.
  2. It’s possible to care about two worthwhile things at once! Just because someone cares about animals (or breast cancer research, or political reform, or domestic violence…) doesn’t mean they care less about people; they’re just budgeting their limited time and energy to one cause at a time. I believe this is why Pope Francis often talks about an integrated world view: a Catholic can, and should, care about social justice, the environment, just government, care for the poor, and discrimination as well as abortion and gay marriage. They’re all connected and they’re all important. And when it comes to your own suffering, that’s important too. Just because you don’t suffer as much as someone in a prison camp or a homeless shelter doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about what you’re going through.

This mindset is also handy for getting yourself off the hook. Who cares if that football player cheated? A lot of other football players raped people! Who cares if that criminal got beaten in jail? Our brave soldiers face worse every day! Again, this forces everything into a hierarchy, until you only have one crime worth caring about, and everything else can be ignored.

This way of viewing the world does have some truth in it, of course. Rape is worse than cheating, and we should focus more energy on preventing and punishing it. But that doesn’t mean you should be able to get away with cheating scot-free, and it doesn’t mean that people who investigate alleged cheating are petty or don’t care about real justice. I struggle with the amount of money, time, and energy that people devote to things like cancer research, when I consider grave issues like abortion much more important; but when I stop and think about it, I realize that we are both concerned with the same thing: the welfare of our brothers and sisters.

We should be able to talk about what’s neutral, what’s important, and what’s non-negotiable without forcing everything except the worst crimes and sufferings out of sight. It’s an easy way to look at the world, but it doesn’t do justice to the complexity of our individual vocations. Instead, it’s a perpetual excuse to skim the surface of important questions just deep enough to glean a satisfying dose of outrage.

Who Deserves a “Living Wage?”

Market Basket : News Photo

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what a living wage means.  (Well, mostly I’ve been thinking about how we just switched jobs and moved across state to renovate and move into my parent’s house, and care for my mother with Alzheimer’s.  Which is why I haven’t written in so long, but I miss you guys!)  I understand the economic argument against raising the minimum wage, and I also understand the argument that a $7 or $8 minimum wage is sufficient because jobs like fast food are meant for teenagers, not for family breadwinners.  But here’s something that I haven’t really heard people talking about: what are you supposed to do in an economy where adults supporting families are forced to resort to minimum-wage jobs?  Sure, there’s still plenty of teenagers working at McDonald’s who only need spending cash; but there are also plenty of older or more qualified people, who have a much more important need for a living wage, but who couldn’t find any other place to work.

I’ve worked at McDonald’s, making $7.50 an hour, alongside a single mother with a mentally disabled son, who gave up her much higher-paying job as a nurse because she “couldn’t stand to watch people die anymore.”  I’ve worked at a factory, making $8.50 an hour, alongside a single mother who took on extra overnight shifts when she was seven months pregnant, to make more money.  I’ve worked at a grocery store deli for $9 an hour, alongside a woman who was mostly supporting her daughter and granddaughter, but couldn’t work more than a few days a week because of an injured back.  I’ve also watched my boss at the deli, a married father of two, who took nine years to work up to manager so that he can support his family–even though it meant working at least 50 hours a week.  These are not the people that minimal-wage jobs are designed for; but they are doing these jobs, and we can’t just pretend they’re not there.

I just heard a new argument, too.  On his Facebook page, blogger Matt Walsh argues that people shouldn’t be able to live comfortably on minimum wage, because it will make them complacent:

“Well, you can’t live comfortably on minimum wage.” Yes, of course you can’t. That’s the point. You aren’t supposed to live there anyway. You get in and you get out. You move up and on. And while you’re moving, you shouldn’t be pursuing a “comfortable life,” necessarily, but a successful and fulfilling one.

In this article, Walsh elaborates:

You’re supposed to get in and get out. Move in and move one. You’re meant to use it as a platform on your way to something better, but the platform is not meant to be a comfortable place to set up camp and hang out for a few decades.

Now look; I do actually know people who are perfectly comfortable staying at these dead-end jobs, just as long as they have enough money for beer and pot.  But I also know people who are stuck there, and it’s not from any lack of trying.  Does Walsh really think that people can automatically have a “successful and fulfilling” life just by working hard?  What about people in a poor economic area?  What about people with disabilities?  What about people who have had successful and fulfilling careers, but have suffered losses which make it impossible for them to continue?  At the factory, I worked with a gentle Vietnam vet who had lost a lot of his fine motor control because of a combat injury, so he could only perform the simplest assembly-line tasks.  I guess he should have tried harder to climb the corporate ladder.  At the deli, I worked with an chivalrous ex-Marine, firefighter, and steel worker who suffered from some sort of mental illness.  He was fond of telling me that he had delivered four babies on duty as a firefighter; but now his mental state was such that he couldn’t handle the stress of a small-town deli dinner rush.  I guess he should have dug deeper and found some more ambition.

I don’t know what the economic solution for this is.  I understand that, no matter how much these people may need or deserve a higher wage, companies cannot just raise their wages across the board without compensating by hiring fewer people or raising prices.  I recently had an idea: what if companies paid new hires on a sliding scale, depending on their circumstances?  Teenagers living at home could be paid the bare minimum.  People with young children would be paid more.  People whose spouses had high-paying jobs would be paid on the lower end of the scale; people who were single parents, sole breadwinners, or suffering the effects of disabilities would be paid on the higher end.

I’m really not sure if this could work economically, or how you could guarantee people’s situations would be judges justly, or what safeguards you could build in to .prevent the employer from playing favorites.  But I honestly can’t think of a better principle to base a solution on.  I do know of one employer who implemented something similar: a Catholic priest, who employed my friend to do maintenance on the church and parish school grounds, told him that he would get a raise when he got married, and another raise for each child he had.  I don’t know if this would work for most companies, but it sounds to me like an ideal policy.  What you think?  Do you know of any companies, or countries, that have tried something similar?

Virtue, Luck, Mental Health, and Pedophilia

Marble, Feet, Legs, Hands, Limbs, Art, Sculpture, Stone

In All the King’s Men, there is a tender scene where teenage Jack Burden and Anne Stanton find themselves alone in the house after a rainstorm and almost, but not quite, make love for the first time.  For some reason he can’t explain, Jack can’t go through with it, because it doesn’t seem right somehow.  Then his mother comes home unexpectedly, and he doesn’t get a chance to change his mind.  In retrospect, though, Jack decides that it was his great virtue that prevented them from sleeping together:

I suddenly had the feeling of great wisdom: I had acted rightly and wisely….And so my luck became my wisdom…and then later my wisdom became my nobility, for in the end, a long time after, I got the notion that I had acted out of nobility….and frequently, late at night or after a few drinks, thought better of myself for remembering my behavior on that occasion.  (p. 447)

This really hit home for me; how many actions or decisions do I pride myself on, thinking they were a result of virtue, when actually they were just a result of luck, or my natural inclination, or my particular psychology?

It is only at the end of the book, when Jack has come to forgive his father for betraying the trust everyone had in his spotless virtue, that he realizes the corollary to this principle: not only can virtue really just be luck or disinclination, but vice can actually be the result of an excess or perversion of virtuous intentions.  “A man’s virtue may be but the defect of his desire, as his crime may be but a function of his virtue.” (p. 660)

I’ve always loved this quote, and recently I realized that it’s very similar to something C.S. Lewis says in the preface of Mere Christianity:

No man, I suppose, is tempted to every sin.  It so happens that the impulse which makes men gamble has been left out of my make-up; and, no doubt, I pay for this by lacking some good impulse of which it is the excess or perversion.

He goes on to point out that God judges us, not by our outward nature–our inclination either to “niceness” or “nastiness” of character–but by what we freely choose to do with the personality we’ve been given:

If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are quite likely to be satisfied with your character as it is….You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper….You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing….it is hard for those who are ‘rich’ in this sense to enter the Kingdom….But if you are a poor creature–poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels–saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion–nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex  that makes you snap at your best friends–do not despair.  [God] knows all about it.  You are one of the poor whom He blessed.  He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive.  Keep on.  Do what you can.” (Book 4, Ch. 10)

Let’s talk about “those wretched creatures” who have to deal with something much more seriously consuming than an inclination to anger or vanity: sexual disorders.  It’s really upsetting to see how many Christians don’t realize that same-sex attraction is an inclination, not a sin in itself; that God (and the Church) does not judge anyone for bad inclinations, but only for acting on those inclinations.  Same-sex attraction is like any other inclination or temptation; something you did not choose for yourself, but which you have the responsibility to conquer.  And here is something I’ve only realized recently: the same is true of pedophilia.  I recently came across a heartbreaking website called Virtuous Pedophiles, which functions as a support group for people with pedophiliac inclinations who find themselves alone in their struggle to stay chaste.  The intention of the website is not only to function as a support group, but to spread awareness of this horrible struggle; to teach non-pedophiles that pedophiliac urges themselves are not sins or crimes, because, like other temptations, they are beyond our control.  Understanding this is the key to helping pedophiles resist temptation and keep children safe; because only if we understand that there is such a thing as a “virtuous pedophile” will we be motivated to give him the help he needs.  As it stands now, most people would recoil if someone confessed pedophiliac urges to them, and many therapists would feel obligated to report them to the police as potential molesters.  How can pedophiles get the moral support and psychological help they need, if we act as if temptations and urges that appear unwanted in their minds are just as bad as actual molestation?

God help those of us who were blessed with healthy psyches, to not attribute our luck to virtue; and God help those who, as my husband pointed out, were saddled with bad self-esteem and attribute their bad luck to moral shortcomings.  Most of all, God help those of us with really “wretched machines” to work with, who need help and prayer more than anyone.

P.S. As I was writing this, I discovered a wonderful post about “Virtue Privilege,” where the author discusses the ways in which virtue without empathy can lead to a lack of mercy.  Here is my favorite part:

Only when we learn to differentiate between the accidents of our birth and upbringing and the truly universal will we find grounds for communion with one another. While I may not be tempted to the things that tempt you, I know what it is to be tempted. While my suffering has different causes and effects than yours, I do know what it is to suffer. Whatever our advantages, we know, or should know, all too well how easily we fall prey to our own pet vices. We need not be able to imagine how a woman could believe herself to be doing good while working in an abortion clinic—we need only be able to remember how often we ourselves have been tempted to ignore or deny a “lesser evil” out of disordered but sincere love for something or someone.

What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

When you think about how you got where you were, or why other people’s situations are different, how often do you think about luck?  Maybe you feel sorry for people in tough situations, but you can’t help thinking that it’s partly their fault–after all, if they didn’t have a good job lined up, they shouldn’t have gotten into so much debt…if they needed a job so badly, they should have worked harder at applying…if they wanted to live in a better neighborhood, they shouldn’t have dropped out of high school…if they weren’t in a position to get pregnant, they shouldn’t have been screwing around.

I’ve had these thoughts.  But the older I get, the more I realize how little good decisions have to do with it.  There’s a certain logic behind that horrible bumpersticker, “if you can’t feed ’em, don’t breed ’em”–but only if the person with the bumpersticker has never made any sexual mistakes himself.  For every couple shamed for an unmarried pregnancy, there’s a dozen more who weren’t chaste either, but who were lucky enough to never get pregnant, so no one ever found out; and there are hundreds more who made equally serious mistakes, but luckily they weren’t the kind of mistakes that cause such a public crisis.  I’ve talked to someone who thought he had the right to judge people on welfare, because he himself had “never made any poor economic decisions.”  Really?  My guess would be that he did, but that he could afford to, or someone bailed him out.  If not, I’m willing to bet he’s made other kinds of mistakes, just like everyone else has; he’s just lucky enough that they didn’t result in poverty.

Here’s another example: I recently heard from a woman who panhandles for a living, who said that she was very willing to work, but it was hard to get a job because she had shoplifting on her record from when she was 16.  Now sure, that was her fault; but what were you doing when you were 16?  I did plenty of stupid things; I’m just lucky that none of them were illegal.

This runs the other way, too: instead of judging people for making poor decisions, it’s easy to become insecure and bitter over people who didn’t work any harder than you, but happened to have the right connections to land a better job, or the family help they needed to put a down payment on their dream house.  It’s easy to feel like you’re doing something wrong, like you should be working harder, because your situation is so much worse than theirs.  But as my brother pointed out, if you’re living thriftily and working hard, but you still can’t make ends meet without some help, that’s not a problem with you.  It’s a problem with the system (or the economy, or probably just the whole fallen world). But the myth of hard work=prosperity still exists, and it’s so pervasive that we don’t even realize we’ve bought into it. Bill O’Reilly put it very succinctly when he said:

you gotta look people in the eye and tell ’em they’re irresponsible and lazy…Because that’s what poverty is, ladies and gentlemen. In this country, you can succeed if you get educated and work hard. Period.(Quoted in this excellent article, in which I actually agree with Obama about something)

I certainly find myself thinking this way sometimes.  But I’m here to say that I work hard, and I’m well educated, and I’m still poor.  It’s not even just about hard work and responsibility; it’s about a lot more subtle things, like upbringing and family history.  I’m not trying to say that you can blame your shortcomings on society; but I think people are so eager to reject that line of thinking that they rush to the other extreme, and act as if your upbringing and your surroundings have nothing to do with it.  If you think about it, you’re not just lucky if you’re well-educated and have a decent job; you’re lucky if your parents taught you how to save money.  You’re lucky if your parents showed you how to work hard.  You’re lucky if your parents spoke English at home.   You’re lucky if you grew up in a good neighborhood, with good influences.  You’re lucky if your parents stayed married.

I don’t know why God allows some people to have such bad luck.  But I know He doesn’t look kindly on people who attribute bad luck to moral failing.  That’s the way people thought in the Old Testament, and it’s still alive today, in the “prosperity Gospel” and in conservative ideology.  In the Book of Job, Job’s “comforters” try to convince him that he’s harboring some secret sin, and that’s what he’s being punished for.  After all, God punishes evildoers and rewards the righteous.  But Job consistently affirms his innocence, even though he doesn’t understand why God is letting him suffer.  If we believe that poor people are necessarily poor because of their own shortcomings, we’re just as bad as Job’s friends or Joel Osteen.

“Where’s the Outrage?”

I wasn’t going to comment on Baltimore, but the memes and muddy reasoning going around are bothering me so much.  I’ve seen a couple of memes which imply that Freddie Gray’s death isn’t worth getting upset over, because of his long criminal record.  Along the same lines, Geraldo Rivera’s popular Facebook post compares Gray’s death to the death of the NYC policeman a few days ago:

Sitting behind the wheel of his patrol car, the officer was questioning ex-con Demetrius Blackwell about a suspected weapon when the perp whipped out the handgun and shot Officer Brian Moore at point-blank range….As far as I know, no civil rights marches are planned.  Nobody deserves to die in police custody….Officer Moore has died. He was 25, just like Freddie Gray.  Don’t cop’s lives matter too? Where’s the outrage? Where’s the demonstration?

Let’s be very clear on this.  The outrage over Freddie Gray’s death was because he apparently died an unjust death, at the hands of the very men and women who are supposed to enforce justice.  You don’t have to support rioting and looting to understand that his death was an outrage.  Officer Brian Moore’s death is no less tragic, but it is less outrageous; rather than being a victim of a corrupt police force, he was the victim of a criminal.  If the shooter had gotten away scot-free,  that would be an outrage.  But he is currently being held without bail and charged with murder.

If the police involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest had gotten away scot-free, that would have been a second outrage.  The fact that they manhandled him in the first place and expected to get away with it shows the corruption and double-standard in Baltimore’s police force that got people outraged to begin with.  The fact that the six officers in question have now been charged with Gray’s death is reasonable cause for calming this outrage.  Obviously, the system that led to this corruption still needs to be examined, and I certainly don’t have any solutions.  But the fact that the officers are facing justice means that legitimate outrage has served its purpose.

Notice that, by demanding outrage for Officer Moore, Rivera is implicitly saying that the outrage over Freddie Gray is illegitimate.  He doesn’t understand that Moore’s death doesn’t require a demonstration or a “civil rights march,” because civil rights were not an issue, and because his killer has been brought to justice.  He’s missing the point of the outrage over Freddie Gray’s death, and I think he’s hinting at his belief that Gray’s death did not matter as much as Moore’s, since Gray was a criminal and Moore was a cop.  To Rivera’s credit, he does say that Gray did not deserve to die the way he did; but his misunderstanding of the situation, I think, contributes to the mindset that produced the memes I referred to earlier.  This is what I find most upsetting of all.  Before you pass on one of these memes or quotes, please ask yourself: do you really want to live in a society where it’s illegal to murder good people, but it’s fine to murder criminals?

image: Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun