Monday, May 30, 2011

The Shadow of Death

My three-year-old daughter stood on the scale last night, looked down at her feet and mused, "Thirty pounds and twenty-two, mommy."  I beamed and told her that that was wonderful, it was the perfect weight and I wished I weighed the same.  She waved her hand and shook her head, interrupting my glee. "No, no," she corrected.  "Thirty-one and twenty-two." I put on a perplexed face and repeated her newfound weight.  She confirmed that indeed, that was the result on the scale and she walked away, satisfied at my confused state.  I laughed out loud and of course, predictably, I saw her lying on a hospital bed and I heard the sound of beeping machines and I shuddered as I do everyday and whispered, "Thank you, Lord, she's here." 

If you know me then you know, of course, what happened to Alanna early last year.  I tell everyone that my husband picked up the swine flu from a local gym where he worked out religiously three times a week. I tell you these gyms are a laboratory for germs that'll kill you if you're not careful.  Wlad picked up the swine flu and then Nana got real sick, etc., etc., so I'd stay away from these gyms if I were you!  But the root of the virus' origin and how my husband and Alanna came across it I don't really know but the gym theory sounds plausible and so I tell it with conviction as though I myself had swabbed the equipment in the place and discovered H1N1 under a microscope.  I get "wow" and "oh really?" and then, a thoughtful reply, "I don't think the gym I go to has the swine flu, though.  It's pretty clean."  And so the message goes unheeded.

Alanna's fifth day in the hospital will remain seared in my memory for as long as I live.  There were numerous, harrowing moments lived in the depths of hell during that hospitalization but the morning of Alanna's transfer from Staten Island Hospital to Columbia Presbyterian will never leave me.  After never leaving her side, hardly ever sleeping and neglecting to use the bathroom that resulted in a bladder infection, my cousin, a respiratory therapist, and my best friend, a doctor at John Hopkins, convinced me to go home and get some rest.  My two-year-old was already on a respirator and all she needed now was close observation.  She had fought the doctors and nurses the night before as they struggled to put a C-Pap on her to help her breathe and she finally conceded, in pure exhaustion, but laid on her crib with a look of horror on her face, her mouth frozen in a frightened state, teeth exposed for a long time, an oversized mask over her tiny face.  She was paralyzed with fear and she searched my face with her large, bewildered eyes and I stood over her, helpless, asking for her forgiveness.  I could not help her and I could see that that was the only thing she wanted.  I called my husband who was recovering from the swine flu himself.  He had been begging to come and see Alanna but we all decided that it was better for him to stay home and regain his strength.  I told him to come.  Alanna might not make it in the morning and then I went to the bathroom, laid in a fetal position, and sobbed quietly.

The next day, she was placed on life support but before her elected intubation I looked at her and said, "Nana, you're going to sleep for a while.  You'll play with Gabba Gabba and eat all the strawberries you want."  I didn't want to frighten her with my tears so I fought them back.  She was fatigued, burning with fever, and every breath brought her excruciating pain.  The large mask on her face made a loud sound of air pushing in and out.  The nurses prepared to move her crib.  I said, "Nana, I love..." and through the sound of the machines, her fever, pain and exhaustion, Nana said loudly, "you."

That night, left in the care of ICU nurses and under the close eye of my cousin and my friend, I went home to get some rest.  By five o'clock the next morning I received a text from my friend.  Something had gone terribly wrong.  Alanna's lungs which were filled with infection had both collapsed.  I remember running wildly in the quiet hallways of the hospital, the security guards looking at me without asking for identification, their conversations diminished into concerned whispers as I kept repeating, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus," under my breath.  I got to the 4th floor and I could hear the sound of loud, furious beeping.  I could hear frantic commotion and when I got to my daughter's room doctors and nurses were running and there was my baby girl in a paralyzed coma, a tube in her mouth, her body sunken in the bed and life, life was clearly leaving her.  I stood over her bed and shook, "You fight, Nana," I pleaded.  "You fight, baby girl!"

I was ushered out of the room and they closed the door.  I could hear the angry alarms of the machines and I could hear feet running.  I collapsed on the floor and I yelled out my daughter's name.  People say that life flashes before your eyes before you die and I think that may be true.  Because all I could see while I screamed was Alanna smiling, eating, laughing, and watching her cartoons.  Snapshots that I had just seen her do the week before.  And I wanted to rewind time to go back to the week before.  I wanted it to be the week before!

How maddening it is to live in the shadow of death!

An orthodox Jewish friend of mine whose company I truly enjoy surprised me with this information outside of the scriptures about Sarah, the virtuous woman:  "She died of a broken heart, did you know?  Goth, the giant, coveted her and told her that Isaac, her only son, was dead.  And she died on the spot.  She died of a broken heart."

I told him that I could understand that.  That losing a child may be the worst thing that could happen to any woman, virtuous or not.  Then I thought, what a shame it was that Sarah did not realize that Isaac was not dead, that the pain she suffered from the loss was in fact just the shadow of death and that that pain, though harrowing and excruciating, one day would pass.  But it's hard to tell a mother in the face of death that there's nothing to fear and that a miracle can happen.

I'm watching my daughter right now coloring and talking to herself, a smudge of ice cream across her upper lip.  She bosses all of us around in the house and we let her.  I remember asking God in her suffering to take her if it was His will.  I was shaking and heaving and wailing.  But God knew better.  He knew that Alanna was just under the shadow of death and that my daughter's pain and my anguish, though harrowing and excrucitaing, one day would pass. 

(To see Alanna's miraculous account please check out  and click under "testimonials.")

Saturday, May 21, 2011


So Doomsday, apparently, is in a few hours.  I had a chance to google it late yesterday.  The info was vague but the message, like those on torn boxes carried by a few homeless men in Manhattan, was clear:  The end of the world is here.  The good ones are being raptured.  The rest of you will suffer an inconceivable death.  Repent.

Thankfully, the time and date and year are provided so a handful of people have decided to throw "grown and sexy" (as per one post on facebook) parties but prepared to repent the very last minute and walk with ease into the Pearly Gates. May 21, 2011 at 6PM.  Some people at my 2nd job asked me what I thought.  One older woman, a bit panicked, seemed unsure about the lunacy of the whole thing and she wondered, what IF, what IF, Brooklyn was really going to be thrown across to California?  What then?  She seemed disheartened and I assured her that apparently she had plently of time to make it right with God and so, in essence, she was going to be just fine.  "You're right, dear," she said but didn't appear any less worried.  Then she pressed, "But what do you think, dear?  What if the world is going to end Saturday?  What do you think?"

I told her that I was going to be pretty upset.  I had been studying for a Board Exam that would determine my promotion in September as a director of our ABA program (I didn't give her all that detail, but I touched the surface.) And then I told her that I had always wanted a Gucci bag and my 3rd job was going to pay for it but you know, these Gucci bags are made out of secret diamonds and it would take me a year of working before affording one so Doomsday could not, must not, come this weekend! I laughed, amused at my own ramblings and the woman walked away.  I could hear my mother's rebuke, that I joke around way too much and I could see my brother, the pastor, and his pleading eyes for me to "please be serious for once" and finally my husband's somber face, reminding me that not everyone understands my humor.  I ran after that woman and touched her arm gently.  I knew that she was raised a Baptist and I had a feeling that if we grew up under the same spiritual tutelage, Doomsday was most likely used as a weapon to shape her into goodness.  If she had not been in her absolute best behavior, May 21st quite possibly brought her much terror.  I reminded her that no one knew the day or the hour.  No one knew it.  It was in the Bible, I said softly, loud enough for only the both of us to hear.  The same man had predicted the end of the world more than 15 years ago and here we were still, we were here still.  She relaxed and smiled, "You're right, dear.  That is what the Bible says."

On the drive home in the BQE, where most of my random thoughts take place, I thought about the many things I would love to put on my Bucket List.  Sky diving, going to India, learning how to ride a motorcycle (a fantasy I've had since I was a little girl after watching Grease 2), spending a day in a Tibetan village, etc.,  I chuckled at my own thoughts as I often do and then I realized that if I never get to do any of these things, it wouldn't really matter.   But running my own school, getting my PhD., speaking at an Autism Convention, writing a best seller, are personal accomplishments that mean deeply to me. 

This morning is the morning of Doomsday.  I woke up before seven and as customary of my mornings, I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. Hair wild against my cheeks and resting carelessly on my shoulders. It is a phenomenon because it is in the very early morning, upon rising, that I look my best.  Maybe because I'm refreshed, maybe because the markings of the day's stress do not begin until 8 o'clock, or maybe because I often inspect my face in the mirror with the lights off in the bathroom.  I met my eyes and a thought hit me: What difference have you made?  It's not what you've accomplished for yourself but how you've touched the lives of others that matter when you're gone.  I really do not like these moments but I do get them and in this quest for Virtue, I've had to confront these moments more than I would prefer.  I thought for a while, jogging my memory of ways I've touched lives around me.  Had I really made a difference?  And I don't mean a difference in my nuclear family or close friends but those outside of my circle, outside of the people I see on a daily basis and inevitably give of myself to.  Have I been a source of dread or hope?  Have I extended kindness always, always, always?  Has my existence made another's life better, happier, easier?

Hell no longer scares me the way it did growing up.  It's imprisoning and haunting affect has lost its grip on me and so Doomsday whether today or tomorrow brings me no terror.  But my markings on this earth, the difference I've made because I lived here, the legacy I leave behind is what concerns me more.  To have lived and made no mark, no difference, is to have lived and not mattered at all.  That's worse than any apocalypse that could come my way.  I'm hoping a conscientious life of valour, honor and virtue would inevitably touch those I love, those I meet or encounter in passing.  And then I thought, it would be a tragic irony if Doomsday is really today, now that I've been forced to do some instrospection and I've been discovering some deeply hidden things about myself.  Because wouldn't that be the biggest catastrophe of all?  To have lived my whole life not knowing who I really truly was and giving of someone I really did not know? And since I'm still trying to make it there, the end of the world can't come.  Not tomorrow, not next year.  And certainly, not today.  Not yet.  I need more time.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Naked Truth

My most well read blog, "Quiet Desperation" took 2 weeks to reach an impressive amount of views.  But surprisingly,  it only took 3 days for my last blog, "The Reason Why I Don't Cry" to reach those same numbers and then surpass it quickly.  I think some people might have opened the blog in search for an answer to that phrase and as it turned out, most of them could relate.

One of the blog readers asked me a question regarding the last blog that made me look deep into myself, into my past and inevitably, into my childhood.  I'm not one to argue therapy but I must admit I have questionable respect for psychiatrists and their long, soft couches, and the delving into the past so we could answer questions like why can't we sleep in the dark alone or why do we have such phobias against spiders?  Maybe this is because I come from a different school of thought.  I am, after all, a behavior analyst and as such I tend to frown on the "mentalist" point-of-view.  Nevertheless, that hasn't kept me from intermittently acting like a psuedo pyschotherapist who try to convince friends that what happened in their past quite possibly shaped the condition of their present.  I remember sitting across a successful, brilliant friend in Starbucks in downtown Manhattan and urging him to confront the broken little boy from his childhood who was most likely lurking in the shawdows of his subconscious, causing him so much anger and turmoil.  I was sure I was onto something and I braced myself for a possible breakdown and a sobbing confession of, "You're so right! My God, it is because of my childhood!"  Instead, true to form, my friend looked me square in the eye and said, "Chic, if that kid is still following me around I'd like to see him so I can beat the $!#@* out of him!"  He wasn't going to take part of my pyscho mumbo-jumbo and inevitably, I was resigned to a fit of wild laughter.

But one of the readers urged me in my inability to be vulnerable to perhaps ask myself  what I was afraid of "in the mutual exchange of shared experience."  And included this quote: "You're one of those people who only give.  You never let anyone give to you."  It was, unknown to the reader, a question I had been asking myself for over a year.  I am accustomed to being awakened at all times of the night by phone calls from women controlling their sobs, by acquaintances who weep in my arms, and by friends who disclose excruciating secrets that they beg me to tell no one, not even my spouse.  None of these things shake me.  I do not walk away thinking any less of these broken souls and I feel privileged that they would share with me such intimate moments of vulnerability.  But a "mutual exchange of that shared experience"?  The very idea of it is frightening.

But the scattered surprised response I got last year when I cried helplessly in the ICU while my baby girl fought for her life deeply disturbed me.  When I fought back tears over the phone with my son's godmother six years ago after he, barely two years old, was diagnosed with diabetes and she panicked, Wait, are you crying? I was not the least bit surprised.  And when my husband peered under my hair at my grandmother's funeral and asked, perplexed, Babe, are you really crying? I wasn't bothered.  But for heaven's sake, here was my daughter on a respirator barely alive and surrounded by doctors who prepared us for what they thought to be the inevitable--wasn't I, the mother, atleast entitled to a moment of absolute, unrestrained hysteria?  A long time friend could not keep himself from repeating over and over, "Wow, I never thought I'd see you cry like this.  Wow, I never thought I'd see this day."

Well, needless to say, the shocked response to my most vulnerable moment have forced me to look deep into myself.  Why was I so afraid of vulnerability? And so, I've stumbled upon this distant memory in my childhood that may have  been the genesis of my fears:

I had a friend when I was five years old who gave me a shirt, a skirt, a pair of slippers and a clean, white underwear.  I don't know why but on this particular day I decided to wear everything she had given me and I went out with my sister to play with her and a few other friends.  As customary of most kids, an argument ensued and this time it was between this girl and my sister.  Because my oldest sister was the bulldog in the neighborhood and I was the perpetual, whimpy cry baby, that little girl focused her anger on me.  "Give me back my clothes," she demanded.

I think even I as a five-year-old thought this demand was rather ridiculous but I could tell that she was serious.

"We don't care about your stuff," my sister said.

"Give me my clothes," the little girl hissed.  Then she added, "Cry, go ahead and cry."

"Don't cry," my sister said firmly.  She looked at our friend.  "She doesn't want your things and she won't cry."

"Give me my shirt!"  I gave her her shirt.

"Give me my skirt!" I gave her her skirt.

"Give me my slippers!"  I gave her her slippers.

"Give me my underwear!"  I started...

"No!" my sister interjected.  Thank God for big sisters!  I kept the underwear on.

"Cry," the little girl hissed.

My sister and I left that play date.  I walked home, a good ten minutes away.  No shirt, no skirt, no slippers.  An underwear--but no tears.  I can still see everything so clearly as though it happened this morning.  I can feel the urge to wail and heave and sob---but I can also feel every fiber in my being pulling together to do what I could never do before.  Hold back my tears when I was falling apart inside.

I think that may very well have been the last time I allowed anyone to see me come close to falling apart.  I learned a misconstrued lesson at a tender age that people can take back what they give you and prey on your vulnerability.  That some will stop at nothing until they leave you barren and naked and they will rejoice at your brokeness.  And perhaps that's why I can give and give but "I never let anyone give (to me)."

It wasn't meant to be a lifelong lesson.  It was just a play date gone wrong among innocent, young children.  But I learned a lesson on the power of stoicism.  I may have walked home as good as naked but I was able to maintain my dignity because I refused to cry. I'd like to think in some way that that 5-year-old little girl walking home that day, summoning her will power to stay strong, has taught me to do the same when life over the years became difficult and unkind.  But I too have to admit that while an undressed 5-year-old may evoke just curious stares from everyone, a 37-year-old walking in the same manner is not only creepy but highly unlikely.  There's probably no reason now to  be afraid to allow myself to be vulnerable to those closest to me knowing full well they will never hiss or prey on my vulnerability.

What a lesson I've learned about myself in this journey to Virtue! I told that same blog reader that perhaps only when I can get to know the real me can I become someone else--Elizabeth.   And perhaps Elizabeth was sent by God so that I can get to know the real me and who knows, maybe when I finally find the whole truth about myself I may discover that Elizabeth was in me all along.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Reason Why I Don't Cry

I recently took a personality test.  It revealed that I am mostly a woman who likes results, who's goal-oriented, no-nonesense, determined to accomplish what I set out to do.  To be honest the result did not shock me, as could be expected coming from the "Country of Control" (as per the personality test).  Words like "deep thinker", "strong-willed", "born a leader" that would make someone else wince give me a warm, fuzzy feeling.  I'd like to think that the Virtuous Woman came from the Country of Control.  I'd like to think that she had tenacity; that she wasn't wishy-washy and that when she had something purposed in her heart, she saw to it that it was met. (Okay, perhaps my country's a little inactive when it comes to waking early, praying, exercising, etc., but we already established in Blog 5 that the Virtuous Woman wasn't perfect.)

But what disturbed me and disturbed me deeply was when placed on the scale of human warmth, I scored an  icy 120 on the side of "hard" and my soft side merely met half of that scale.  I stared at that result for a long time, stunned by my score, my head buzzing with rebuttal as I fought the urge to declare, "My God, I'm the tin man.  All metal, no heart!"  It was a blunt revelation of hidden things inside my physical shell.  It explained with some attempt on euphemism that I am deathly afraid to show my feelings unless it's to someone I completely trust and even with that, the walls of protection rise up instantly at the very first sign of questionable support.  But 120?  What was the matter with me?  What trauma did I experience as a child buried deep into my subconscious that made me place an iron cast on my vulnerable side?  There is no way on this planet that the Virtuous Woman was emotionless!  I was venturing on a senseless journey with no finish line!

That week while driving through Prospect Parkway there was heavy gridlock coming from Manhattan, the opposite side of my direction.  As I came closer to the traffic I saw the cause of that volume--two collided cars, thrown in different directions.  An FDNY was attempting to open the side door of one car with a huge machinery to get to a woman who was slumped against the driver's side.  In the meantime, the EMTs had lifted a person on a gurney to put inside the ambulance.  The only thing I could think of were the families of these victims waiting for them to get home from work but here they were involved in an accident that may be fatal.  I burst into tears praying outloud in my car, "Please, God! Please, God! Let everyone be ok!" And I know it wasn't the proper time to think about it but this is the circuitry of my brain function--when I got to the light on my exit, seconds after the accident, I thought, "But wait, how could that affect me so deeply when I'm a cold, cold person?"

I immediately took out  a mental list that outlined situations in my life that evoked such responses.  Running out of work to meet an acquaintance suffering with depression.  Driving to the hospital after working over time to stand by a friend's side as they cried over an ill family member.  Taking out from my family's savings to help someone in need.  I am being honest.  I started making a list of all my good deeds that seemed to me were generated from a soft side in a dire attempt to prove, if only to myself, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that indeed, I do have a heart.  This very act, I must tell you, disturbed me---recalling acts of good work that the Bible teaches us to forget in order to pacify my fear that I perhaps did not care about anyone.  I had to get into a prayer mode in the middle of the BQE and ask God if indeed I was the tin man reincarnate.  Then I saw a haunting vision of a good friend who, upon discovering infidelity in her marriage, cried at my feet and wailed as she begged me to remove the pain from her heart.  I buckled down on my knees and we held each other and wept and I was awed by her open demonstration of pain.  I thought at that moment that I would never be able to exhibit outwardly that much pain nomatter how excruciating it was and I admired her honest and naked response which exposed the depth of her suffering.  I thought that she was one of the bravest women I knew.  To be able to declare publicly that she was in deep pain, for me, took immense courage.

So God made me realize that the hard part was directed solely at me, sadly.  That while I could be vulnerable for others it was a feat for me to be vulnerable for myself.  "You have to atleast trust one person," my husband has said in times past.  "I would love for that person to be me."

And this is my newest quest, in addition to waking up early, praying, stretching, etc., To work on the issue of vulnerability.  To believe, indeed, that vulnerability in me could come from courage and that it is, to some extent, a part of virtue.  I'll retake that test in a year and hopefully, the tin woman would have, in a year, found her heart.