Friday, August 30, 2013

Pops...


August has always been a pretty big month for my family.  There are a lot of birthdays, my sister Sarah’s birthday is the 11th, my brother Dan is the 24th, my son Liam is the 27th and my father Patrick was born on the 29th of August 1946.  My wedding anniversary is August 5th, the day after my parents’.  We have many friends and other family that celebrate birthdays and wedding anniversaries and whatnot during this month as well.  August is great for this, the waning days of summer, the closing bookend to vacation from school and an opportunity to finally say goodbye to the last afterglow of life and fruitfulness, preparing the way for autumn, and the seeds of next year.  I think it is appropriate the school year starts in autumn.  I know it has more to do with the cycles of an agrarian society than with existential symbolism, but the idea that the start of the school year begins as the seeds from the maple trees and the walnut and the peach drop to the ground and take root seems to coincide well with our hopes for our children.  The seeds, once planted, face a protracted stasis with the end result; blossoming and life.  August seems the end of life and the beginning of a new one. 

   As I muse on this, I remember my father.  I think of when Liam was born and I remember, my father, sick but hale, dying but living.  He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer three years before, but we were lucky to have five good years with him after that point, plenty of time to work through our crap, pack up the baggage and throw it out the window into the wind.  As Liam was taking his first breaths, the cancer that was eating my father was getting the upper hand.  It was August of 2004 and little did we know but the battle against my father’s dragon was more than half over.  His grandson’s birth was important to my dad.  They were able to know one another.  Liam visited him, played with him, jumped on grandpa’s bed when my Dad was to ill to stand.  It was a stark reminder of the cycles of creation and destruction, death and life. 

  I may have pointed this out before, but my father was 30 when I was born, just as his father, John was 30 when my father was born.  At 30, I had just lost a father and fathered a little girl, Sophia.  The two of them passed as strangers in a fog, one exiting as the other was making ready to arrive.  Though he never had the chance to hold her, or to call her by name, my father loved her, just as he loved me and his entire family.  He loved life, despite its many disappointments and right crosses.  He bore his burden with a hand to his forehead like a visor and a squinty grin, sometimes mistaken for a grimace that has been inherited by myself and my youngest child.  

I take a breath, as we all are about to step into a new school year, even we who do not go to school anymore.  I take a step forward and whisper a few words, hoping that my father can somehow hear and nod his head in assent.  I ask for strength and courage.  I find myself asking others for courage quite a lot.  I have never really considered myself a courageous man.  I don’t claim to be one.  I see the value in it and I strive to stand up for the ideas and people I love.  I think perhaps I just love life a little too much sometimes, life and comfort.  The truth, one my father showed me, is that comfort, instant gratification is fleeting and pointless if tomorrow you are a slave or dead.  I try to take the long view of things but it is difficult when faced with the amount of work it takes to change oneself.  I guess that illustrates yet another obstacle I face to self-actualization, my work ethic, but that is probably fit for a different post.  (See how I did that? I procrastinated until the next post that will never be written.)  This digression is almost painful, so I will skip along… Let me continue…no there is too much, let me sum up, August had been a time of beginning and now as I have gotten older, I see it has become a time of endings as well.  The great thing is that endings are rarely the last word on a subject, but a footnote.  I miss having my dad around to tell me how to do things in the most efficient, simple way (he was the self-described “King of Low-Tech”.)  I miss having him around to feed my love of all things Irish and Bob Dylan.  I even miss his latter-day rants about everything that Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck told him to be angry.  I miss him and that doesn’t go away just because his body has.  But even through his passing, new life continues to spill forth.  And as long as I breathe, I will stand my children up in a row and promise them a shiny penny if they promise to die for Ireland.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Three Ladies, Two Stars and One Little Angel...


I have taken the ninth anniversary of the birth of my first child to reflect.  I look at who I am, where I find myself and in short, I guess things could be much worse.  It has been another particularly difficult year for the McNassar clan.  In the last 12 months we have lost three members.  My aunt Jeanne (Henningsen) McNassar passed away suddenly last October.  Earlier this year we lost both my aunts Ann (McNassar) Zenner and most recently, Sr. Mary McNassar SNJM with whom Liam shared a birthday.  So this August 27th was a particularly difficult one.  As a matter of practice, we do not have a ceremony or major function on Liam’s birthday.  When we first lost him, we quickly joined a grief group and leaned heavily on the experiences and advice of our peers.  Everyone agreed that the first birthday as well as the first anniversary of the death of their child was the hardest.  Verily, I remember enough of those days to not want to relive them.  Liam’s (would-be) fifth birthday was 78 days after his death.  I always struggle with explaining that when asked about Liam from the casual acquaintance.  Usually, when first meeting a person, they ask if I am married and if I have a family.  I tell them I have two children at home.  I used to go straight into the story of Liam as it felt deceitful or dishonorable to Liam to ignore his existence to strangers somehow.  Well, now I find some people don’t want to know all of that and they will let my answer lie (the tacit : I have TWO AT HOME, but elsewhere?)  The occasional person pursues the conversation and I am all too happy to open up.  Still, I find myself getting hung up on the question of his age.  Liam was amazing.  He acted wise beyond his years and just had a competency about things that continues to blow me away.  So, to think that he had only experienced 4 birthdays throws me for a bit of a curve.  How old was he when he died?  Well, he was almost five, or he was a couple months short of his fifth birthday…  it all seems cumbersome.  I think somewhere in my heart I worry that people will hear, ‘oh, he was four’ and think, well that must suck, but the kid was practically a baby so they can’t really miss the person that badly, just the idea.  I worry somehow people won’t recognize the value of a four-year-old for the incredible person they are versus the obvious tragedy of the loss of the person they could possibly become.  All these things swirl around in my head and I can at times sit down and rationalize to myself that it is all misperception and neurosis but it doesn’t make it any easier.    I made a promise to myself when Liam died.  I told myself and the entire church full of people that had come to honor him that I was resolved to learn from his strength and resilience, his honesty and bravery and would incorporate those things into my life.  I would live a better life than I had up to that point, one that is happy and joyful, to take delight in the small things, the crickets and the butterflies.  I feel I have done a fair job, though I can’t stop holding myself to a standard that seems at times above my capabilities.  It is funny how so many men, when they are boys, try to hold themselves to a standard dictated by their father.  I wonder at times if I am the only man that tries to be more like his son.  It is reassuring to know those gifts, the gifts of unconditional love, unshakeable optimism and unquenchable curiosity that defined Liam still exist.  In the dark moods that occasionally still appear as background lighting in my mind, II have doubted these things, I have doubted my devotion to myself and to getting up again and dusting myself off and continuing to walk.  But, now I find there are little stars in the night sky.  I see two small shining stars that reach down with their slender arms of light and reach out to me.  The call me by name, ‘Daddy,’ and I don’t end up having much of a decision in the matter anymore, and that is liberating.  When I no longer have the choice as to whether or not I will give up or fail myself, the question morphs from will I get up? To HOW will I get up?  How will I take another step?  I don’t really need strength to decide to wake in the morning, I just need discipline to pace myself and go to sleep at night.  Standing up half the night with Baby Liam in my arms, followed by Baby Sophia and Baby Mario was PT for the big show.  After the darkest part of my life, there was a question as to whether the light would shine again.  Thanks to my little stars, the path seems lit.  I know this all reeks, it reeks of hyperbole and sappy misplaced metaphor, but sometimes you just need saccharined schlock to keep you from tasting the bitterest parts.  I am not ready to have a poster of a cat that tells me to ‘Hang in there’ on my wall or anything, but I will take this one conceit, this exaggeration of reality since it brings me comfort.

   Jeanne, Ann and Mary were all good at that, bringing peace and joy, each in their unique ways.  Jeanne, with her wealth of children and grandchildren, the eternal hostess and matriarch, so beautiful and graceful, I never knew how she could keep it all together like that.  Stunning.  Ann was so thoughtful, sometimes to a fault, about the needs of her family and the desire not to want to impose her grief or disposition on others.  We didn’t see much of her in the last long stretch of time, but I was lucky enough to do a little work for her in her home with my father and reconnect.  Her love and kindness were not something blunted by her separation from the family.  She loved us all and it was apparent through her words and actions.  Mary, it was a shock that she passed so quickly.  I was certain after Liam’s experience with Leukemia that we would have time to say the things that were expressed every time we saw each other, through her faith, love and compassion.  Mary loved each and every one of us without exception, without pause, without any expectation of reciprocity, though it was always there.  Mary could elicit some of the finest behavior from some of the most dour, taciturn characters.  Don’t worry, I shall not name names.  Mary was a nutcracker, one that could break through even the most closed off and jaded individuals.  She was a go to person for the schools where she worked, for the order of The Holy Names and for the McNassar family.  She was our ‘point man’ and she loved it, not for the glory, but for the feeling of usefulness and completeness of spirit.  She was at her happiest and at her best form when helping others which was pretty much every day.  On several occasions Mary would come to my live performances and asked me several times if I knew the tune, The Rose of Tralee.  I always felt like a bum when I had to shrug and say I didn’t.  When I learned that she was ill, I decided to learn the song.  I practiced it a lot as her illness progressed and was tempted to blurt it out when asked at the funeral if anyone else had something to say.  I opted to say a few heartfelt words as I felt both my own words and my own heartbreak were more honest and more celebratory of Mary than of myself.  Still, I find myself humming the Rose of Tralee and thinking of Mary, the beauty that was and is a beautiful blossom of the family McNassar: 

 

“She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer,

Yet 'twas not her beauty alone that won me;

Oh no, 'twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning,

that made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.”

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Thank you...

I started to write a post here, and the words "I find myself.." were pouring off the proverbial pen when I realized that I write that a lot.  I find myself when I write these messages, like a note to be stuffed into a bottle and cast into the internet sea, drifting to your eyes and simetimes straight to your heart.  If that is the end result, I am grateful to you, grateful for accepting my honesty and gracing me with your acceptance.  For that, thank you.  I, in this serial expression of self discovery, realize through contemplation that above all else, I wish to express my gratitude.  I have much to appreciate in this world.  I am blessed (to borrow a phrase from the faithful) with many amazing people in my life.  Some of those people have gone before us, several long before their time.  For those of you still present to hear my praise, I want to tell you what your love and support, especially in my time of greatest trial have meant.  I want to, but I fear the attempt.  I fear missing a name, an instance, a moment, an intention of love that you held in your heart for a fleeting moment when you remembered that we went to school together twenty years ago, and even though we didn't hang out or even necessarily like each other much, you felt, through the beauty of your heart, compassion for a fellow traveller in life, with whom you have shared space, air, real estate, cognition.  I really can't name names because I will offend, and my goal is to honor not slight.  But I will recall to mind a few, just a few of the acts that were bestowed upon my family nearly 4 years ago when we said goodbye to Liam.  The Funeral Home that took care of our son, they took care of his body, dressed him, laid him in the coffin I had built for him and provided all of their services free of charge.  A woman with whom I went to high school, with whom I had maybe spoken twice sent a beautiful flower arrangement to the celebration of life.  Friends from college who once again were mere acquaintances brought food to our home while we were grieving and not really interested in cooking.  To you, thank you, thank you thank you.  Our friend, th epriest that married us, baptized all of our children, he helped us bury Liam.  For that, and every gift, thank you.  My family, my brotheres, my sisters, my mother, my second family, Lisette's family, our uncles, our aunts, our cousins...so many people, so much love.  The gifts of love and support, the financial support, the remebrances, when our family and friends donated to charities or our toy drive in Liam's memory, thank you.  When prayers were spoken in Liam's name, thank you.  The friends that have put up with my absence and still love me, thank you.  The family that love me despite my inability to call back in a timely manner, thank you.  Tangible gifts and acts are easy to describe and recall, but the countless instances of love, expressed to us (throughout our lives as well as during the last four years) by your presence (in body as well as in spirit) is something that had I a thousand lifetimes, I still feel I could never repay.  However, I am intent on trying.  If you are reading this, I most likely owe you at the very least a thank you, but probably much more.  I think it is a reflection on your character that you probably just told yourself that I don't owe you anything.  I just want you to know that I recognize your gifts and talents and love.  And for sharing those with me, in an open-hearted manner, I honestly thank you.  Thank you all.

Monday, April 29, 2013

In my dreams...

As a young person I spent a lot of time imagining how things would be were I in charge, were I the adult, making decisions that affected myself and others.  I have discovered in my adulthood of course that a true leader and head of household is less adept at laying down rules and demanding obedience than crafting compromise and ceding the high ground for the sake of consensus.  I don't really know why I thought things would change all that much from my childhood to adulthood as far as how much control I have over my self and my surroundings, it may be optimism that I relied on to see that eventuality or it may be pessimism now that hides my true situation from my eyes.  Whatever the truth of the matter I wonder at times.  I wonder how things might have changed were I to make microscopic shifts in my attitude, my behavior, my goals...or rather if I had goals.
  Yesterday I was over at my brother Gabe's house, helping him put a few last touches on his house before it goes on the market.  He is moving for a new job to the other end of the state, for a while at least.  I was happy to help in my small modest way.  I looked at him and felt love.  I felt sadness at the pain he feels, at the end of a marriage for which he blames mostly himself.  A couple of friends from his program were helping out too and one of the guys looks at me and tells me, "Your brother is an amazing guy."  I know that.  I have four brothers and they are all amazing guys.  In my imagination, we are best friends, like some sort of non-criminal gang, like The Cosby Kids or something.  Don't get me wrong, I love my brothers.  I know they love me too.  We like spending time together, but we are all busy and separated by what feels at times to be an ocean.  For Gabe that was recently true.  We just got him back from Guam and now he's off.  I can't really blame him, I just lament every minute that passes without my family near me.  In the wake of my grief and the cobbled together life that Lisette and I have made for our little broken family, some things have fallen by the way.  Actually most things have fallen by the way.  Whereas I used to just be bad at keeping in touch with family and friends, I have now established a fully functioning hermitage in my home.  I wake up, dress and feed the kids, run out the door, go to work, come home from work, eat, spend a half an hour playing, put the kids to bed and crash.  That is it.  I do not say it like that to imply that there is something I dislike about the situation.  I just realize that there is something else that I miss.  I miss socialization with people with I associate by choice.  My co-workers are great, but they are not my best friends.  I miss making music and sharing it with friends and inviting them to share it with me.  I miss a little recklessness and a lot of great stories most of which take place on the beach or in the ocean.  Most of all I miss that connection with my family that was my identity for so long.  Granted, in my youth, my connection with my siblings, especially the older ones was not always so gratifying.  That was just as much my fault and failing as anything else.  Daniel was always off doing something mysterious and probably shady.  Gabe was off being tough and brooding.  Conor was studying or something and Phil, well, he was probably in some old lady's RV smashing the glass out of her oven door or something I don't know.  The point is that we didn't really unite back then and we were in the same house.  I guess I just thought once we sorted some stuff out that we'd be playing poker every Friday night and having cookouts every other weekend or something.  We have one in Seattle, one in Cali, another with a short while before he goes that way as well, one in the woods and Phil.  Now I love Phil as much as my other brothers and there is not "but" here...however, dude is newly married, with two little rugrats (of the canine persuasion) at home and nailing him down is kind of like getting a hold of Daniel to do something...ever.  I am not complaining, just noting.  Like I said, it is mostly my fault, or at least equal shares.  Who says that biological family needs to be close like that?  I'd like it, but I sure haven't put the effort in there.  There are a lot of things that I'd like but really haven't spent the effort.  So what right to I have to lament the collapse of an institute for which I have failed to fight?  Perhaps it hasn't collapsed.  Perhaps part of the fracture is just my perception.  I have a new perspective on many things these days, a little jaded, a little askew due to the black eyes and bruised heart and all.  I know that when we are together, we do well.  When we grieve, we grieve together.  When we celebrate a wedding or whatever, we are honest in our celebration and our joy at being together.  So, we do not experience, or more precisely, I do not experience my family in my day to day life so much.  Does that diminish their love for me?  Does it diminish my love for them?  I say no.  Perhaps that dream family dynamic I carried around in my head like a worn and faded wallet photo proved to be an illusion, just something that came with the wallet insert.  Perhaps my hours spent alone as a kid, living in a house with seven other people was an omen or strength training.  This should not be read by ANYONE and some sort of indictment of anyone but me as my home is quiet every night after the children are put to bed.  There is no din below as I remember from my childhood, a soft rumble of adult voices, communing, sharing philosophy and gentle laughter and a sweet pungent toke or two.  There is none of that below my feet, though if there was, chances are I'd still be here, sneaking away from "the crowd" to find a little solace in my thoughts, avoiding the anxiety at having to talk to people and pretend things are cool.  There is a lot of pressure (mostly from myself) to be good company, and I fear that I have waned in this gift mainly from lack of use.  I have my tricks of course, the tools I use to get a little breathing room.  I'll walk to the grill, or put the guitar on my lap, or put the glass to my lips.  Anything to avoid talking, to avoid proving I have nothing to say.  So, even if I could wrangle them up, guilt them into spending time together (or something of that nature) what would I do then?  Not that you have us here?  What next?  I don't really know and I don't really care.  The fact is that I love them, I want them and they're mine.  So back off world.  And quit fucking with me.  Okay, you can keep Phil...for a bit...just a bit.

Monday, April 1, 2013

In the Footsteps of Francis

With the election and elevation of the Roman Catholic Church's new pontiff, I was impressed....well less impressed, more affected by the name he chose for himself: Francis, after Francis of Assisi.  That particular saint has been very important to me for most of my life.  My formative years were riddled with Franciscan influences in a sense.  Now, a few weeks after the big show in Rome, I feel the need to indulge myself and ruminate on why I feel this pope, if he truly desires to model at least part of his leadership model after the holy man, the patron saint of animals, the environment and one of the two patron saints of Italy, will use this opportunity to humble himself before God and the world and try to breath life back into the church.  I do not envy him the task before him, but if any patron saint would be able to bring a sick, dry, barren milking goat back from the brink, it would be Francis.
  Francis was my grandfather's name, Francis Paul Moffenbier.  He was one hell of a man and I miss him dearly.  My grandpa Frank was a Marine, fought in WWII in Guadalcanal.  He was big, broad shouldered and a little thick through the trunk when I knew him.  I have a photo of him in uniform, with crisp corners, thin as a rail and straight as a ramrod, but the war took a toll on him, as it did many people.  My mother was told by the doctor that his seizures or "spells" as some of the family referred to them were the result of a head injury sustained from the propeller of a plane he was working on.  It could just as easily have been the war, the terror of walking point through the jungle with a browning automatic rifle, watching all of your friends die in front of you one by one and remembering the faces of those men on the opposite side that will never see their families again either.  We have seen wounded warriors return home and struggle, to regain their humanity, to find peace.  Frank was a peaceful man. He never spoke of the war, he loved sports and cards, Ol' Blue Eyes and telling my sister "Hey toots, gimme a smooch."  My grandpa John had died before I was really old enough to get to know anything more than his smile and kindness.  But Frank, we had many great get togethers, watching the grownups play Scrabble while the kids rolled around in the den, playing with plastic dinosaurs, cowboys, Indians, army men and farm animals, those little wax sketch pads with the red plastic stylus and the opaque plastic film that you can draw on and pull the film up and start all over again.  Dan and Gabe and I were captivated.  He taught them pinochle and all of us blackjack and poker.  Sarah lived with my grandparents for a while, I never really knew why.  My memories, so scattered and fragmented all hinge on a few basic scents, feelings, sounds.  There was the smell of roast turkey and the light, sweet hint of tobacco smoke from the den where Frank was watching the Yankees beat...somebody.  I remember watching the Mets in the living room and seeing a guy on the field that's last name was Strawberry and I thought that was cool.  I of course found out later that Darryl has a coke head, but he forever meant something to me as an emotional tether to Frank.
  Frank had a swagger, like the kind of sashay that made me always feel that he was a movie star that was just laying low or something.  It didn't help that he looked like a more handsome version of Telly Savalas, minus the lollipop.  He had those half tinted glasses, not the kind that the weirdos with a van have, but the kind that the guy whom you think just might be a cop wears.  He had this presence, sort of a sweet, gentle giant with a mile long fuse, a sleeping volcano that everyone was glad to have resting.  I know from personal experience what it must have taken him to put a tortured soul to rest, to find peace after such gut wrenching trauma.  Granted I knew him 30+ years after the fact and he was an old hand at it.  I never felt subtle rage, and bubbling anger below the surface like I feel or like my dad had sometimes.  Perhaps it is a German thing, being the child of Immigrants, having a dad born in the last third of the 19th century, being the baby of the family?  I don't know, but Frank was a prince.
  He couldn't find the steadiest of work after the war.  He worked as a security guard and the night shift at several places, but inevitably his condition caught up with him and the ADA was long way down the pike.  He stopped driving after he had a seizure behind the wheel and my uncle Mark, then 13, flew through the front windshield.  as if he wasn't buried in enough self-inflicted guilt.  Frank was a mess.  It was after much trial, failure and rebound that he started working at the VA.  He was a case worker for vets, trying to find work, something he knew all too well.  It came to pass that a certain "class" of vets were the hardest hit at finding work.  There were vets that were disabled, some that were mentally ill and some that were just different and by 1960s standards un-hireable (i.e. Transvestite/Transgender, abrasive personality, and I really don't know who else)  He found them jobs.  He did it.  I have no clue how, but he found his niche, serving the poor, the indigent, the most vulnerable of his brothers in the uniform.  Like I said, a prince.
  Frank was diagnosed with prostate cancer in late 1987, early 1988.  He went into the hospital and had a surgery.  He was still strong.  We visited him in the hospital and after a while, the nurse let us know it was time to go.  We shuffled out and the nurse moved him to change his bandages.  I wanted one last look before we left. I peeked in the corner of the shade from the entry of the room and I realized I was not supposed to be looking.  My grandfather was nude from the waist down and the nurse was cleansing the incision area, changing his dressing.  I uncovered his nakedness like Ham and his father, Noah and I felt shame.  I immediately turned and hurried away to rejoin my family.  A few days later Frank went home to recuperate.  He woke up in the night and went out to the living room so as not to wake my Grandma Chris.  He sat in his recliner and the pulmonary thrombosis that had broken free lodged itself in an artery and killed him.
  Now I of course didn't know my last glimpse of my Grandfather would be one that was so (some might think humiliating) intimate.  I never told anyone of it, mostly out of respect for the man that was private and reserved. Then again, he was a fucking Marine, slogging through hell and shit for years, bearing a cross ever since and finding love and compassion enough to raise his four kids right, provide for them and their mother and show me enough about love, strength and faith to know that he'd forgive me.  I feel that the nakedness I uncovered was not the nakedness of his flesh, but the nakedness of his soul, his beautiful beautiful soul.  I miss you Frank.

  Frank Moffenbier was the most important Francis in my life of course, but not the only one.  The Catholic Parish in which we lived when I was small was St. Francis of Assisi in SE Portland.  The church itself, my experience as a faithful youth up until the age of six or so was molded by Francis.  My parents, with several other families...you know who you are...well they begged, stole and borrowed...okay they did not steal, but really did beg and borrow to start a soup kitchen to feed the poor of Portland, the transient population that had nowhere to go.  Our families lived in a community, the Portland Catholic Worker, a group of homes on  a block in SE, near the church, where we shared pretty much everything.  Communal yard, shared childcare, we ate together a lot, we were friends and close as blood.  We still are.  Anyway, at first the parish did not want to allow the soup kitchen in the school cafeteria.  They had  a lot of great excuses I am sure.  So after much fruitless negotiation, my dad and (I'm thinking it was Jim Barnhard?) anyway the who is less important as the fact that they opened up a soup kitchen down the street at the little Prod church on Pine.  How's that for a lesson in Christian charity.  Well as far as I can recollect from the story my pappy told me like ten years ago, eventually, the priest and church council saw that the world was not going to end as a result of being more Christlike and they assented to allowing the kitchen to open up in the St Francis cafeteria...and there it remains as far as I know.
  My older siblings and I attended the school at St Francis, until we made the move to Holy Redeemer in North Portland in 82-ish?  I know I only went to school there for a year, but Sarah graduated from St Francis and Dan and Gabe were ripped from their friends and transplanted into a whole new world of crazy. St Francis was great.  Our principal was a sweet woman, Sr. Susan (I'm pretty sure she was the principal - there was another nun, but I have no clue who she was) and we had great people all around us.  there were Vaughns and Hornbeckers and Spens' and Suttons galore, not to mention our PCW family...you know who you are...  The dissolution of our community, which led to the end of our affiliation with the parish was hard for all of us, but for the young ones that didn't understand why or how, it was confusing and frightening.  St Francis had always been a place of great innocence.  The priest, Don Durand, was blessing pets for the feast day of St Francis.  It was a cool October morning and the mist was in the air.  I had no pet, but a stuffed triceratops.  I asked Fr. Durand if he would bless the dinosaur.  Though I am sure in his heart he realized a blessing for the dinosaurs was about 230 million years too late, he did so peacefully and with a smile and true Franciscan humility.  I heard years later that Fr. Durand had been accused in the priest abuse scandal.  I have no pertinent information to this point other than the fact that in my time in that parish with him as our pastor, we were well served and he had a wicked awesome beard.

Francis of Assisi crept into my life in other small ways, throughout my life...small ways, less formative.  The prayer of St Francis, wherein he asks God to "make me a channel of your peace" has always been inspirational and the hymnal version of the prayer was a mainstay at Holy Redeemer, my family parish until I left the church.  I realize that this last admission will prompt the inevitable question, "so why do you care whether or not Pope Francis helps the Church or not?"  Well, first of course, as most Catholics know, just because you ditch the church doesn't necessarily mean you're out for good.  Like Michael Corleone put it, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!"  Second of course, my family, friends, colleagues, 25% of the US population,  I care about them.  Third, the Church can be a great force for good and if karma (or divine justice) exists the Church is do for some major act of good.  Today I went to Easter mass with my family.  I refrained from communion because Francis (before he was Francis) had made a statement intimating that people that hold certain political views which I happen to hold should not partake in communion.  That is to say that despite the happy-go-lucky watered down Catholicism that we in the US pass of as piety, there is a man in the Vatican, potentially the best single chance for change and healing in the last 30 years in the church and the very people that should be welcomed to the table for reconciliation have to this point (by this man's previous policy and viewpoint) been directed to abstain from communion with God, we are not worthy to receive the Lord.  Now granted, he did not say this as Pope, but if his tune changes just because he has a funny new hat, what does that say for his humility and honesty?  I am nothing if not a pragmatist and I realize that changing the course of the Catholic Church is analogous to changing the course of an aircraft carrier, it requires ages to redirect and will wipe out any nearby vessels in its wake without batting a lash.  I am not looking for a seat at the table, but I think if the Church is going to promise the flock that with the Church's help, they will find salvation and resurrection of the body, the Church should at the very least be able to demonstrate upon themselves.  As for Francis, I know he believes the poor should be a priority, that is true, but if you try to treat the cancer of poverty with a broken machine inside a broken hospital with broken doctors that have no ethics and no will to keep each other honest or the patients safe, what do you really think your outcome will be?  The Church is broken and frail, the priesthood has been rotten from the inside out.  When vows of obedience have trumped a priests duty to protect their flock, something is wrong with the church.  When the image of the church trumps the safety of the church's children something is broken.  When protecting tradition for the sake of tradition trumps making rational changes to the prerequisites for the priesthood, something is broken in the church.  Sometimes, reading Augustine of Hippo is not helpful, and sometimes Thomas Aquinas has crappy advice.  But Pope Francis, newly renamed and crowned, this I guarantee you, if you live the rest of your life, trying to emulate the faith, humility and compassion of Francis of Assisi, you just might make one hell of a pontiff my friend.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Bridal/Groom Shower...Thoughts

Tonight I went to a shower for a friend that is getting married soon.  I and the other guests, after they opened their gifts, took turns imparting a little bit of advice.  When it came to my turn, looking over the past 12-and-a-half years, I took a breath.  I thought about the trials I have faced.  I thought about the insurmountable tragedy I have faced in the last several years, I took a breath, hoping to avoid a sputtering, stuttering start As is my tendency recently and I told the bride and groom, that if I had one truth to impart is that the two of them, as a couple at some point will face adversity.  In my head I told them that if they did not face adversity, they were doing something wrong.  The married people in the room chuckled knowingly and the few unmarried and soon to be married people giggled nervously.  When that adversity meets us, we have the opportunity to face it together or allow it to tear us apart.  Granted, few couples will hopefully have to face the same crisis that Lisette and I suffered, but the details are secondary.  I told this couple, that they will face this adversity and I suggested that when it happens, they take a long hard look at their lives together, use their history together as a means to strengthen and support one another.  The two greatest tools to do this are communication and honesty.  Communication, especially in the thick of tragedy or crisis is the only way you keep from drifting or crashing apart.  In this communication, the couple needs honest, sometime blunt discourse so you get your needs met.  Communicating displeasure is only half of the job.  Letting your partner know your needs and hopes is the only way we have of sharing the same goals for the future.  I am sure that some of these thoughts or points occurred solely in my mind and as I write them down on the page it seems a bit disjointed or of topic.  So to clarify, I will put it in the context of my marriage and my adversity.  When Lisette and I discovered that our three-year-old son had Leukemia, well THAT was adversity.  We didn't have the luxury of stopping long enough to reflect on how we felt about it.  That came later.  We had 13 months of frenzied doctors visits, hospital stays, chemotherapy, lumbar punctures, bone marrow donor drives, fundraisers, solemn speeches from doctors and waiting, interspersed with profuse vomiting and prednisone induced roid rages.  Lots of fun.  It was after the funeral, after we laid the frenzy to rest with Liam that the work began.  After spending so much time on auto pilot, we had put of attending to one another and our marriage for a long time.  It was easy for me to see the reason why so many people that lose a child or suffer such a deep trauma lose their marriages as well.  With us, there was never really a chance of that.  Once I realized that I had a little girl that needed a father, I looked at my wife.  Lisette had just lost her son, as had I, and I made it my mission to save her from the grief of a ruined marriage as well.  We had gone through something unique, together.  There was no one else in the world that loved Liam the way I did other than Lisette.  There was no one in the world, despite the amount that those that loved him experienced their love, that loved Liam as I did except for Lisette.  I drew on our love for one another, on our shared experience.  I drew on that path we had walked together, sometimes shoulder to shoulder, sometimes one of us supporting the other, keeping them from stumbling.  The strength we had exerted to survive that was immense and if there was ever a moment in which I had considered throwing that all away (which there most certainly was NOT) I had to do no more than realize the scope of what we had accomplished together and realize that without her as my partner, I would not have survived this.  Besides, starting over would be WAY TOO MUCH WORK.  I love my wife and I love our life together.  I have spent half of my life with her.  For those that are beginning their adventure together, good luck, hold each other close, keep the lines of communication open and always strive to keep your love's heart and wishes close as you may to your own.

Friday, February 15, 2013

How a 3-year-old saved my life

On May 9th, 2008, I discovered my son Liam Patrick McNassar had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.  He was 3 years, 9 months old and he was an amazing boy.  My wife, Lisette, I and our daughter Sophia were shaken, shaken to our core and in the midst of it all, a small boy, brave and fierce, withstood great pain, great adversity and brought us close to one another in a way we couldn't imagine.  Much of Liam's treatment and remission and relapse and the end game is a blur to me.  Some of this stems from the fact that my role for the first part of Liam's illness was stabilizer.  Lisette and Liam were on the front lines, going to outpatient care, interacting with the doctors, facing the firing squad.  I had to work, keep up the insurance, provide in my own way, my small way.  Sophia was safely in the arms of Ti and Fuffet much of the time, buffered from the scariest aspects of Liam's illness, but also detached from our unit, our multi-front offensive against the silent glacial killer that enveloped all of us and slowly choked us out.  I went to work each day, caring less each day about what I was doing and where I was, my work suffered, my performance was poor.  The true performance was the illusion that I was anywhere but in the hospital room where my son lay, fighting for his life.  Fortunately (for I find this to have been the greatest of blessings should such a thing actually exist) I was laid off from work.  This was construction in 2008.  In retrospect, everybody was losing their jobs.  There was really no place for a carpenter that had no focus, no attention to detail and no will to be present in his work.  I stayed in the hospital with Liam and Lisette, as we transferred to Doernbecher in anticipation of a bone marrow transplant.  It was perhaps the most taut period of Liam's treatment.  We were at a loss.  There was no bone marrow donor to be found that was a close enough match to satisfy the doctor.  We went into full swing, calling on all of our resources.  There were bone marrow donor drives. one at Ethos where my sister-in-law Michelle worked and another at the University of Portland.  It was actually quite epic, the turnout was so huge that the Red Cross agreed to start collecting bone marrow donors in Portland again.  At that point, I had to drive to Vancouver with a group of friends to register on the donor registry.  My recollection of this period may appear to you from this recounting to be spotty or confusing, I tell you, that is an understatement.  A constant cascade of worry, followed by rage, followed by fear and then grief as we lost friends around us (Natchie, Darian, Ben, the many, many others...) and then the cycle began again.  So it was that we finally, after a couple months and several searches of the national bone marrow donor registry found a donor, we didn't know who or from where (as it turned out he was German [Wunderbar])  We jumped on it.  It required a seriously taxing round of full body radiation for Liam, a dark and macabre series of treatments that were tempered mostly by the fact that we met a great friend and fan in Dr. Dan Robinson.  His compassion and love for Liam, as he shared his grief with us over the recent loss of his own son was both moving and calming.  We pressed on and Liam received his cells.  We went home a while afterward, hopeful, peaceful and joyful.  That was a quiet winter of content, 2008.  we were snowed in that winter in out little townhouse condo in Murrayhill.  We hunkered down and had such a wonderful Christmas.  I felt like Bob Cratchit, not a penny in my pocket, but the wealthiest in love, thankfulness and happiness.  We were so relieved.  Liam's hair was growing back and he felt great.  Sophia was with us and we were good.  January passed and it came time for Liam's CBC and transplant review.  Liam was feeling strange and he was really wooried one night, telling Lisette that he felt something was wrong in his body and that the new bone marrow cells "didn't want to be friends anymore."
  When we were sitting there in the room with Curry, Lamkin and Glover...three doctors, dour  and grim, telling us that the battle, hard fought was over and we were not on the winning side, I felt it bubbling up inside of me.  I had been able to stave it off, slaked by hope and fatigue and fits of joy from small triumphs.  But there it lay, naked and freshly wounded.  I was staring at the mortality of my son.  I was staring at it as I had for so long done, but this time, there was no hope, no plan, no exit strategy.  There was only inevitability.  There was a period, a punctuation mark on the end of my son's existence.  It had been written and now we were playing a game of how long can we draw it out.  For weeks we had transfusions and life saving measures that he suffered without argument or complaint.  Liam, by this point had become accustomed to discomfort and fearless acceptance of his fate.  The grace that boy showed daily still haunts me.  I think of the sacrifices, the small deaths that boy suffered in a thousand ways on his road to oblivion that most of us would have been unwilling or unable to do.  It still amazes me.  We were supposed to take Liam in on Tuesday.  We had decided a few days before that the transfusions were too taxing.  His blood was thickening and sludging up in his veins.  The end was close.  It was a good thing that we had cancelled the transfusion, because he wasn't going anywhere.  He really couldn't eat anything and we had ten different cups with different assorted drinks, juice, milk, water, chocolate, etc that he tried sipping from.  Everything tasted like ash on his tongue.  The family gathered and as night fell, one by one they parted, going home and waiting in their own ways.  I stayed close by, watching, feeling it close.  I picked up a pencil and started writing. At first it was a few thoughts.  Soon it became a speech, words to share that were a reflection on th elife and passing of my son.  I referenced the death of my father and the death of my niece Rebecca.  I mused on how those two experiences, so close to the tragedy awaiting us, had prepared me in some way for this.  I wrote, reflected and summarized.  I thought a little more and concluded.  As I lay down my pencil, Liam drew a strained breath and his mother kissed his brow.  Michelita slept upstairs and Sophia was in a sleepingbag nearby on the floor. A few more minutes passed by and Liam started talking to his mother.  He cried out and told us that he saw the train and that he was on it.  Then Liam breathed his last, laying back into his mother's arms.  I stared for a moment, terrorized, realizing that this was the last time we (the 4 of us) would be complete.  I called the hospice nurse and he came, confirming that our child had left us forever.
  The aftermath of this was darker and more vexing than the 13 months we had spent staring cancer and a child's mortality in the face.  I was done.  We drifted through Liam's celebration of life, an epic event, attended by hundreds of people that were deeply affected by the life and loss of our child.  I was moved by the turn out.  I learned the hardest part of losing a child is the fact that you spend more time consoling others than you do being consoled.  Liam's loss was so overwhelming that people would approach us in a mess of tears and emotion, looking to us for some support.  It was utterly draining.  In fact, at the end of the month I was drained, devoid of everything, joy, happiness, sadness, pain, tears, will.  I was at a tipping point.  I thought to myself, "how do I do this?"  How could I fill this void?  I could drink, I could find drugs, I had started smoking again (secretly) and was on the undefined path to self-destruction.  I had lost my son, my legacy, my creation.  If there was a God and he had created a man and a woman and made in them perfection, only to see them fall and become maggots, fraught with petty fallacies and original sin, his sense of loss at the spoiling of his great opus was but a speck of dust compared to the universal oblivion in which I was now lost.  I needed a tether, a life line.  I need a cause, a reason to remain.  I felt myself and my will to remain myself slipping away.  Grasping, like a frightened animal, searching for sure footing as a riverbank crumbles underfoot and a raging flood prepares to sweep you away, I looked frantically around, at my life, at my home which was being taken away from under our feet by the bank, at my wife, likewise overwhelmed in her grief that I couldn't save her let alone demand she save me, at my friends, the people I have known and loved for so long but cannot speak with as equals since we no longer are, at my family, that have moved on, at my son that will never change, forever a child, never to grow, never to love a woman, never to sin, never to disappoint us, never to prove his human frailty in any manner other than his mortality.  Then there she was, a little girl, three years old, tiny, a china doll haircut and more lost than I.  I remembered that I had a made a tacit promise to her once, to never leave her behind, to remember, to keep her and protect her.  Sophia was here.  I would get lost at times in the cycle of grief and blame and rage at the absence of Liam, but Sophia was here, looking for love, looking for answers, looking for peace and reassurance.  She had suffered a loss that was impossible for me to understand.  She had a brother, closer to her than perhaps anyone else.  Lisette and I were her parents (gods to her in a sense) but Liam was her equal, her life line in life.  They traversed early life together.  He guided her, giving her gentle nudges, reassuring hints in the right direction.  She relied on him for assurance that these grown-ups weren't crazy or just making this stuff up as they went along.  Liam gave Sophia a frame of reference and was fluent in her language.  Sophia was very quiet and needed a patience and understanding that Liam had in abundance.  It struck me then that Sophia's loss was unique and acute.  It was not something she'd be able to explain to us or probably even be able to identify herself.  The fact was that she was crippled by Liam's death in a way that nobody could remedy.  I had lost Liam, but there was no way in hell (if there was such a place) that I was going to lose Sophia.  In that instant, I realized that drinking or heroin, or fast cars, or defiling myself in 1001 ways was not going to cut it.  I needed to live.  I needed to rebuild, I needed to be present, supportive and whole.  It was because of a three-year-old that I decided to live and because of her that I am here today.  I am just certain of it.