See Beyond Yourself

I am white.

But beyond checking the “white” box when asked about my race, I am also quite pale. Freckles give my skin a hint of color, my cheeks flush bright red when I’m mad or nervous, and my green eyes require constant protection from the sun. I burn if I even think about going outside and I reflect the light of flash photography during the winter. Seriously – I’m very white.

As a pale, white woman with a dimpled freckly face, green eyes, and big smile, I do not know what it’s like to have my skin color put me at a disadvantage in interpersonal or institutional relationships. I do not know what it’s like to have to change the way I act, speak, or react to a situation so that others in the room won’t feel uncomfortable because of their incorrect assumptions about who I am, or the threat that I pose to their safety. I do not know what it’s like to have someone cross the street because I am walking their way. When I get stopped by security in the airport, I’m the person they search to show that they aren’t profiling others. No one automatically assumes that my method of payment is fraudulent or will be returned for insufficiency; and when I take my four nephews out to a movie or to the playground, no one wonders how many fathers are (or are not) in the picture. My skin color has never once been a hinderance to my life, the way I live it, or the ways in which others interact with me.

Being white has only ever kept me from one thing: fully understanding what it’s like to not be white in this world; in this country; in this political and cultural climate.

My heart breaks with the injustices that occur against people and communities of color. I get angry. I weep. I feel overwhelmed. I want to fix it. All of it. But because of my experiences and privileges, I am often left completely blind to the totality of what “it” even consists of, the many ways in which “it” rears its ugly head, and the instances when I am guilty of “it”…no matter how diligent or well-intentioned I try to be. Racism is a deeply rooted and finely polished machination of many in our society, and my personal experiences have left me ill-equipped to make a dent in its armor. But that’s okay, because my personal experiences aren’t what it takes anyway.

I must be willing to listen to and heed the experiences of others. I must be willing to make myself vulnerable to the heartache, outrage, fear, distress, and disappointment of those who do experience racism as a part of their daily lives. I must be willing to risk feeling embarrassed or ashamed when I am told, or realize on my own the ways in which I, too, have perpetuated the injustices that others absorb. I must intentionally seek out their experiences so that I can learn. I must bear witness to the totality of it. And I must be willing to acknowledge that the entire breadth of emotion that I will experience in doing so pales in comparison to what it feels like to live it first hand, every day.

I must also acknowledge that it is not others’ responsibility to educate me on this subject. It is especially not others’ responsibility to educate me according to a timeline which I dictate. When I think about the emotional expense of recounting any difficult experience in my life, I cannot fathom being asked repeatedly to relive micro and macro aggressions as anecdotal evidence of a life that the other person can never truly experience. It would be exhausting and painful, and I have no interested in causing further harm. Instead, I must actively seek out the abundant resources that are available to help equip me with understanding, perspective, and empathy.

Thankfully, many persons throughout history have been willing to provide testimony of their experiences. Thankfully, we live at a time when information is easier to access than ever before. Thankfully, there are people in my life and in my circles of community, faith, and friends who can and have helped point me in the right directions. There are resources that I have come across, or that have been given to me, that have helped me develop better understanding and empathy around what it means to not be white in our world. They have made such an impact on me that I would like to make them known to others. I will never know what it feels like to not be white, but there is much that I can learn and do to lessen the negative impact of my words, actions, and attitudes on those who are.

See Beyond Your Point of View

There are lists and lists of books that have helped me move beyond my own point of view – including on the topic of race and racism – and they are available for every age range. Representation matters. There are other printed materials that work well, also, but I’d like to address some other options.

Movies, documentaries, podcasts, videos, and other forms of media also provide a never-ending glimpse into life beyond my own point of view. They allow me to tackle difficult topics that will elicit a wide range of emotion on my own time, in my own space, and in shorter intervals than most books require. These types of safe encounters with seeing beyond my own point of view cannot be the only type I allow myself to experience, but they are helpful in broadening the scope for me, and can be a very good starting point for those who aren’t used to confronting the ugliness of racism and privilege. We have to understand each other better if anything is going to change, and I think movies and other forms of media can help do that.

Film critic Roger Ebert once said: “The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people, and for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.” But you don’t have to take my word, or Mr. Ebert’s word for it. Science agrees. In an article he wrote about whether watching movies may help you build empathy, Christopher Zumski Fink explains that part a little more:

“Dr. Jim Coan, associate professor of clinical psychology and director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Virginia, says Ebert was right. We ‘immerse ourselves in the perspective of another person,’ Coan said. ‘And in doing that, we start to subtly accrue those perspectives into our own universe … and that’s how empathy is generated.’

Coan says feeling empathy for someone who seems familiar—like a friend, a fictional character, or even a public figure — is ‘almost effortless’ for most people. It’s much harder to extend our empathy to those who seem very different from ourselves. But Coan also says empathy is like a muscle, and ‘the more you use it, the stronger it becomes.’

‘We fundamentally need to have empathy, understanding, shared goals, and cooperation,’ Coan said. When we lack that connection, “our sense of self literally, not metaphorically but literally, is diminished.” In other words, our identity is directly linked to our emphatic connections with others.”

If we are seeking connection with others and a better understanding of their life, we must see beyond ourselves and our own point of view. Mark Twain said that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Movies, documentaries, podcasts, and videos allow us to mentally and emotionally travel through the life and experiences of other people – gaining the same wider perspective that Twain attributes to physical travel and the lessons that stem from those formative experiences.

Movies That Widen the Lens

Before I begin the list, I think it is important to acknowledge that movies, unlike documentaries, sometimes take artistic liberties with historical realities. It’s often done to give viewers a broader understanding of the culture, politics, etc. of the time period that the film takes place in. Sometimes it’s done just to add excitement or drama. And other times, especially in films depicting slavery and/or civil rights issues, it has been done to “lessen” white guilt by either downplaying the impact of racism and discrimination on the persons depicted, OR by creating a white “savior” figure(s) in the film. I would argue, though, that even in cases where these artistic liberties are present, the movies provide a place to begin understanding the impacts of racism and discrimination in our past, present, and future in a relatable way.

I also think it’s important to recognize that movies told from the point of view of persons of color are difficult to find in comparison to movies told from a white point of view. Movies about the lives, histories, and current realities of black Americans, told from the point of view of black Americans, and directed by black Americans are thankfully on the rise. Movies starring and/or directed by persons of color from other races, depicting the lives, histories, and current realities of their race/ethnicity are still quite difficult to find. If you know of any that can be added to the list, please do in the comments.

Below are films that I consider to be a good starting point to help widen the lens through which we see issues of race and racism. In this list, and the list of documentaries below, I have included several films about discrimination against Jewish persons and against Muslims, as well. While religion is not race, given the swell of discrimination against both groups, I felt their stories fit here. Many people are also unaware of the fact that most persons who descend from the Middle East and areas of Northern Africa are classified as white by our census bureau. Given the discrimination that so many face, the fact that they do so although they are classified as white by the U.S government, and that the intent of this writing is to offer a way to encounter the realities of people who are discriminated against, I wanted to include their stories. The films are listed in no particular order, and there are many, many others you could choose from. I chose a mix of old films, classic films, recent films, as well as a few which are lesser known.

Within Our Gates (Oscar Micheaux)
A 1920 American silent film by director Oscar Micheaux that portrays the contemporary racial situation in the United States during the early twentieth century, the years of Jim Crow, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, the Great Migration of blacks to cities of the North and Midwest. This review is what inspired me to watch it.

The Learning Tree (Gordon Parks)
The story, set in Kansas during the 1920s, covers less than a year in the life of a black teenager, and documents the veritable deluge of events which force him into sudden manhood. The family relationships, the fears, frustrations, and ambitions of the black teenager in small-town America are explored with a strong statement about human values. The Learning Tree, based on Parks’ semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, which was published in 1963, was the first film directed by an African-American person for a major American film studio

To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan)
Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the Depression-era South, defends a black man against an undeserved rape charge, and his children against prejudice.

Hester Street (Joan Micklin Silver)
Gitl and her son arrive on the Lower East side of New York in 1896 to join her husband Jake. While Jake, who has job in a sweatshop and an English-speaking girlfriend, has completely embraced America, Gitl clings to her old country ways. Jake is embarrassed to be seen with her as he struggles to assimilate by shedding his ethnic heritage. As the film progresses, Gitl finds a way to become victor instead of victim.

Amistad (Steven Spielberg)
In 1839, the revolt of Mende captives aboard a Spanish owned ship causes a major controversy in the United States when the ship is captured off the coast of Long Island. The courts must decide whether the Mende are slaves or legally free.

The Pianist (Roman Polanski)
A biographical war drama in which a Polish Jewish musician struggles to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. It is based on the autobiographical book The Pianist (1946), a Holocaust memoir by the Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman, a Holocaust survivor. The film was a co-production of France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Poland.

The Visitor (Tom McCarthy)
The story kicks off in earnest when dispassionate professor, Walter, returns to his New York City apartment after time away only to find a young African woman taking a bath in his tub. There’s a confrontation, and Tarek holds Walter against the wall as Zainab wraps herself in a towel and shouts in French. The image of a strong, young Muslim man threatening a fragile, old white guy is potent, but the rest of The Visitor turns that potentially inflammatory image on its head.

Woman in Gold (Simon Curtis)
Maria Altmann, an octogenarian Jewish refugee, takes on the Austrian government to recover artwork she believes rightfully belongs to her family.

Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi)
This 2016 American biographical drama film is directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder. It is loosely based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly about black female mathematicians who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the Space Race.

BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer from Colorado Springs, CO, successfully manages to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan branch with the help of a Jewish surrogate who eventually becomes its leader. This film is based on actual events.

Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg)
In German-occupied Poland during World War II, industrialist Oskar Schindler gradually becomes concerned for his Jewish workforce after witnessing their persecution by the Nazis.

The Hate U Give (George Tillman, Jr.)
Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, at the hands of a police officer. Now, facing pressure from all sides of the community, Starr must find her voice and stand up for what’s right.

Selma (Ava DuVernay)
A powerful chronicle of the campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, and led by James Bevel, Hosea Williams, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lewis.

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
This 2013 biographical period-drama film is an adaptation of the 1853 slave memoir Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free African-American man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. by two conmen in 1841 and sold into slavery. Northup was put to work on plantations in the state of Louisiana for 12 years before being released.

Harriett (Kasi Lemmons)
The extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes, whose courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Justin Chadwick)
This 2013 British-South African biographical film is based on the 1995 autobiographical book Long Walk to Freedom by anti-apartheid revolutionary and former South African President Nelson Mandela.

The Boy With the Striped Pajamas (Mark Herman)
Through the innocent eyes of Bruno, the eight-year-old son of the commandant at a German concentration camp, a forbidden friendship with a Jewish boy on the other side of the camp fence has startling and unexpected consequences.

Green Book (Peter Farrelly)
A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.

Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler)
This film is based on the events leading to the death of Oscar Grant III, a young man who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008. The story details how he was killed on Jan. 1, 2009 by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle at the Fruitvale district station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in Oakland.

Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton)
This film tells the true story of Walter McMillian, and his world-renowned civil rights defense attorney, Bryan Stevenson, who works to free a wrongly condemned death row prisoner.

The Big Sick (Michael Showalter)
Pakistan-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani and grad student Emily Gardner fall in love but struggle as their cultures clash. When Emily contracts a mysterious illness, Kumail finds himself forced to face her feisty parents, his family’s expectations, and his true feelings.

Documentaries

Slanted Screen
Writer director Jeff Adachi explores the portrayal of Asian men in Hollywood films.

Resistance at Tule Lake
This film focuses on Tule Lake, the notorious camp, where Japanese Americans who were labeled “disloyal” were held. Aderer’s emotional, wrenching interviews with the “internees” – some of whom were deported to Japan because of answers to “loyalty” questionnaires – make clear the consequences of race, wartime hysteria and political expediency.

Pacific Gateway: Angel Island VR
Exteriors and interiors of the “Ellis Island of the West” serve as the backdrop to the virtually unknown story of immigrants detained and interrogated after passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned laborers from entering the United States for more than 80 years before finally being dismantled with the signing of the Immigration Act of 1965.

The Chinese Exclusion Act
A deeply American story – about immigration and national identity, civil rights and human justice; about how we define who can be an American, and what being an American means – the film examines the economic, cultural, social, legal, racial and political dimensions of the law; the forces and events that gave rise to it; and the effect it has had, and continues to have, on American culture and identity.

Shoah
This documentary on the Holocaust is intensely unsettling. It contains few of the traditional elements associated with documentaries. There is no disembodied voiceover nor archive footage – most of the film consists of survivors and perpetrators telling their stories and sharing their memories. Lanzmann, the film’s director, said he was skeptical whether anything but documentary form could adequately express the horror of Holocaust. “Fiction is a transgression,” he wrote, “[Films such as Schindler’s List, 1993] transgress because they trivialize, and thus they remove the Holocaust’s unique character.”

The Jewish Americans
This documentary is a journey through time, from the first settlement in 1654 to the present.  It is about the struggle of a tiny minority who make their way into the American mainstream while, at the same time, maintaining a sense of their own identity as Jews. Focusing on the tension between identity and assimilation, THE JEWISH AMERICANS is quintessentially an American story, which other minority groups will find surprisingly familiar.

GI Jews – Jewish Americans in World War II
This film tells the story of the 550,000 Jewish American men and women who fought in World War II. In their own words, veterans both famous (director Mel Brooks, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) and unknown share their war experiences: how they fought for their nation and people, struggled with anti-Semitism within their ranks, and emerged transformed.

Blacks and Jews
This 1997 documentary film examines the relationships and conflicts between Black and Jewish activists, from the 1991 Crown Heights Riot, to Steven Spielberg’s controversial visit, to the predominantly black Castlemont High School.

Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People
This groundbreaking documentary dissects a slanderous aspect of cinematic history that has run virtually unchallenged form the earliest days of silent film to today’s biggest Hollywood blockbusters.

Muslims in America
The series will begin with the first Muslims to arrive in North America as slaves and settlers, and trace the waves of migration and conversion that have made the Muslim population in the U.S. today the most diverse in the world.

The Muslim Americans
This PBS series explores the diversity of Muslims in America today, focusing on communities’ experience after 9/11, and contrasting life for Muslims here in the United States compared to Muslims in Britain and Europe.

Harvest of Empire
A powerful documentary that exposes the direct connection between the long history of U.S. intervention in Latin America and the immigration crisis we face today. From the territorial expansionist policies that decimated the young economies of Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba, to the covert operations that imposed oppressive military regimes in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, Harvest of Empire provides an unflinching look at the origins of the growing Latino presence in the United States.

Nuyorican Dream
This film chronicles the struggles and aspirations of a New York Puerto Rican family as they contend with the devastating effects of urban poverty.

Latino Americans (PBS)
This series is the first major documentary series for television to chronicle the rich and varied history and experiences of Latinos, who have helped shape North America over the last 500-plus years and have become, with more than 50 million people, the largest minority group in the U.S.

The Latin Explosion: A New America
In 1950, one in 50 Americans were Latino. By 2050, it will be one in three. The country is changing, and Latinos are taking their place at the table as the new American power brokers in the world of entertainment, business, politics and the arts.

In Whose Honor
This film offers a critical look at the long-running practice of “honoring” American Indians as mascots and nicknames in sports.

Native America
This film highlights 15,000 years of life, including origin stories, from the earliest Mesoamerican civilizations to more current issues and systems still concerning the native population today.

Teaching Indians to Be White
This film exposes the annihilation of Native American culture.

The West
This series, although it does not focus on Native Americans precisely, has a lot of information about how the settlers and early citizens of the United States interacted with and affected the tribal populations.

We Still Live Here as Nutayunean
This story highlights a more modern quest to reclaim lost culture and language by some of the native people in the USA.

American Experience: We Shall Remain
With depth, breadth and richness, Native American history is told through indigenous eyes in this revolutionary docudrama. Exploring five pivotal periods, the series spans 300 years of Indian adversity, resilience and self-determination.

Color Adjustment
This film traces the development of stereotypes through 40 years of prime time television.

True Colors
Diane Sawyer and news crew stage what is basically a “matched study” experiment by pairing John, who is white, and Glen, who is black, and follow them with a series of hidden cameras as they expose racism in a variety of settings.

The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross
This Emmy Award-winning series premiered in 2013 and looks at more than just Black history, it explores Black identity and what it means to be an African American in the U.S. today.

Slavery By Another Name
Did Slavery really end with the Civil War? The documentary Slavery by Another Name explores how in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation, systematic approaches were taken to re-enslave newly freed Blacks in the United States.

Eyes on the Prize
This award-winning series covers all of the major events of the Civil Rights Movement from 1954-1985, including the Montgomery bus boycott in 1954, the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the birth of the Black Power Movement, and the courageous acts of the crusaders that contributed along the way. 

Soundtrack for a Revolution
Freedom songs evolved from slave chants, the labor movement, and from the Black church, and were a vital tool as protestors stood up against adversity. They energized and empowered them, enabled them to sing the things they couldn’t say, and allowed them to meet aggression with dignity and non-violence. Written and directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, this 2009 documentary brings songs of the movement back to life again

Dark Girls
Dark Girls is an emotional exposé in which black women share painful stories about things their mothers, sisters and friends have said, in addition to what they’ve taken away from mass media. Overwhelmingly these interviews reveal the same thing: To them, Black is not beautiful.

Race – The Power of an Illusion
This series can help us all navigate through our myths and misconceptions about race, and scrutinize some of the assumptions we take for granted. In that sense, the real subject of the film is not so much race but the view, or more precisely, the notions about race we all hold.”

Unnatural Causes
This series offers an overview of the ways that racial and economic inequality are not abstract concepts but hospitalize and kill even more people each year than cigarettes.

Moving Beyond Just What You See

Maya Angelou once said “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

With new information comes the responsibility for me to put what has been learned into practice. I am not simply to love in word or speech but in action and truth. When my lens widens as the result of new experiences and new shared stories, and I become more aware of the micro and macro aggressions taking place all around me, I must respond. But the hardest part can be to know how. This three minute clip has helped me to put my words into action by actually speaking up confidently when it is necessary.

As the video suggests, if I want to have important and difficult conversations, it is imperative that I do so with specific vocabulary and narrow focus. In a person-to-person encounter, not getting caught up in “what you are” when the pressing issue is “what you did” makes a difference. Doing so can help keep the conversation on point and avoid personal attacks and assumptions. It’s also important that I remain specific in my vocabulary when having broad conversations in large groups about issues of race and racism – especially when trying to effect change. Failing to do so can muddy the waters of what we are trying to accomplish and lessen the likelihood of success.

The Way I See It

In our current political and cultural reality, issues of race, racism, and discrimination are as real now as they’ve ever been. In many instances they are obvious, but in so many instances we have become more skilled than ever at hiding aggression and injustice in polite smiles, fancier words (gentrification, for example), half-hearted diversity exercises, and disingenuous platitudes. Each time an act of pointed discrimination or racism occurs that enrages the masses, we cry out! We say that this is the one that will change things! And then we lose steam when we see how high and steep the climb toward justice and equality is. More of our willpower is lost when we realize that we don’t even know how to navigate because the trail is unfamiliar to us. And in so many cases, every last hint of effort is abandoned when we realize it will be painful to even begin the journey.

I don’t have the solutions. I don’t know how to fix it – any of it. What I do know is that I can take steps to learn more and understand better. I can be intentional about speaking up. I can help eliminate barriers that help others navigate the climb. And maybe on some occasions I will figure out a way to lessen the journey – even if just by a few steps.

I wish I knew how to eliminate the necessity of that steep climb by removing the mountain altogether, but I am certain that the biggest step I can personally make is to hold myself accountable. I can decide every day to do everything in my power to avoid making the mountain any higher than it already is for others.

That starts by seeing beyond myself.

Grief: Piece by Piece

Christmas trees are better in threes!

My favorite part about Christmas is the Christmas tree.

My favorite Christmas memories are tied to the process and people involved in decorating our family trees each year.

Every year growing up, I was lucky enough to decorate one tree at my house with my parents and siblings, and then go out to my grandparents’ house (they lived one house behind us) and decorate their tree with them. Even before Brian and I got married, he hiked with me through dry fields, muddy tractor trails, and knee-high snow to pick out not THE perfect tree, but the perfect TREES! In the years since, we have made memories that I will always cherish while decorating our own trees, and during that process, we often also have the opportunity to pay homage to the memories of the past.

One of the things that I remember the most about family tree decorating is singing along to the John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together album – from vinyl record, to cassette, to CD. The first song on the album is The Twelve Days of Christmas, and not only did every member of my family mimic the voices of each character who sings, but when we got to FFFIIIIIIVEEEE GOOOLLLDDD RIIINNNNNGSSSS we sung it at the top of our lungs. Between the 5th Day of Christmas and the 9th, we anxiously awaited our opportunity to add a hearty “badum-bum-bum” to our count of gold rings. From the youngest amongst us to the oldest, this song and this album always brought lots of goofy singing and laughter to the decorating process.

In true Muppet fashion, their album brings delight to little ones. But they also tackle broader issues that resonate in the hearts of the adults in the room. As a child, I always loved that my sister and mom (both altos) broke into harmony while my dad’s tenor carried the melody throughout, and being young, my brother and I always sang along with him. While singing along merrily, I never really understood why my mom would turn serious and sometimes shed a tear while singing The Peace Carol, When the River Meets the Sea, or Noel: Christmas Eve 1913. Decorating the Christmas tree is a happy time for happy people! There’s no crying in tree decorating! Didn’t she know the rules?

Well, as a 37-year old with some life experience and some loss experience under my belt, I understand better the source of her tears. The songs that occasionally brought a tear to my mom’s eye touch my heart all these years later. They speak to difficulties, injustices, and our desperate need for love to shine in the darkness of our world, so that if you listen closely, you can’t help but take their plea to heart. In understanding the source of my mom’s tears all those years ago, I also better understand the joy that she was intentional about finding and creating in all that she did – especially during the Christmas season.

The joy, love, and laughter that was always present as we decorated is the reason why the Christmas tree, and the people around it, are my favorite memories, rather than the gifts that would eventually end up under it. To this day, whenever Brian and I attend a Christmas party, go on a drive to see Christmas lights, or are somewhere shopping, the Christmas trees always catch my attention first and warm my heart. While that’s all still true, on December 8, 2015, my mom died after an eleven year battle with cancer, and that year’s Christmas tree was the first in a new reality.


Let me back up a bit…

Up until November of 2015, through all of her surgeries and chemo treatments, mom had always been incredibly mobile and was able to determine how and when she did everything. But in the weeks leading up to my mom’s death, we faced new and terrifying realities every day. After tumors were found on my mom’s spine, her condition deteriorated rapidly. She began losing the ability to move her legs on her own, and when they moved – through her own power or with the assistance of others – the pain she experienced was immediate and overwhelming. Everything about anything changed.

As soon as my mom was placed in hospice care, the Red Cross was contacted to initiate the process of bringing my brother home from Afghanistan. My bosses at Northwest Bank were incredible in allowing me to immediately take my remaining vacation until the Family and Medical Leave Act was initiated to protect my job while I helped care for my mom. My brother was home within a few days, and our whole family and many of our family friends rallied to make sure that everything that could be being done…was. When it was apparent that mom would need to remain downstairs and comfortable as her mobility deteriorated, a hospital bed was brought in to make that possible. Brian and I brought our truck out to my parents’ house so that we could move their dining room table to our basement for the duration of mom’s battle. Doing so was a simple physical act, but it ended up being an incredibly symbolic one, too.

As we took the dining room table apart, my mind immediately went to memories of family dinners, gross out nights, craft projects, and game nights. Dinner in our family was always served at the dinner table. When someone needed help with homework, it happened at the dinner table. Puzzles – literal and figurative ones – were solved at that table. Some of our most important family conversations happened there, as did some of our funniest. So much of who we were as a family was nurtured and developed around that simple slice of maple, and as we loaded it into the bed of the truck, I remember thinking that everything I knew about our family’s reality was about to be taken apart piece by piece, too.


Two days after my mom died, Brian and I went Christmas tree shopping with my brother, sister-in-law, and their boys. We had so much fun watching two-year-old Wyatt determining which tree was the best. His opinion changed as quickly as his big blue eyes could scan the field. Finally, after much deliberation, a handsome, seven-foot tall Douglas Fir was chosen for my sister-in-law’s parent’s family room, while a much smaller, not-quite-Charlie-Brown tree was chosen by Wyatt for their front porch. Wyatt’s joy was infectious and I was excited to pick out our tree(s) next.

After Brandon, Liz, and the boys paid for their trees and made their way to lunch and nap time, Brian and I looked for our trees. Without the exuberance of a cute smallish person, the Christmas tree farm became unnervingly desolate and quiet. Every other year when we’ve gone tree shopping, I have longed for solitude – I wanted the run of the place so that no one else had a shot at my perfect trees. That year, all I wanted was the noise of the crowd and the excitement of the upcoming holiday to surround me. What I got instead was the whisper of the icy wind.

Brian and I spread out looking for our perfect fir tree – spruces are too prickly and cedars are too flimsy. While I was walking my row alone, the wind picked up and stirred the woods. Tears sprang to my eyes. With the rustle of branches and blast of arctic air, I acknowledged for the first time that my mom wouldn’t be waiting at home to lay witness to the perfect trees. My knees buckled and my chest grew tight. For the first time ever, I didn’t really care about Christmas trees, or even Christmas in general for that matter.

Our trees sat in our garage for the next few days drying off and letting their limbs down after being wrapped for their journey home. I was in no hurry to bring them inside. My emotional well-being was safer with them in the garage. I could visit them if I was feeling festive, but while they sat in the garage there was no pressure to observe tree-decorating traditions. If I wasn’t observing tree-decorating traditions, I didn’t have to observe the absence of so many of their origin.

A few days after mom’s funeral and a few days before Christmas, I finally decided that it was time to suck it up and decorate. Furniture was rearranged, trees came in, and decorations came out of hiding. I connected my phone to a set of speakers, turned on John Denver and the Muppets, found (and untangled) the first string of lights, and I set to work. By the time I had gotten the lights untangled, plugged in, and had begun weaving the lights into the branches, The Peace Carol‘s opening lyrics poured into the room…

“The garment of life be it tattered and torn..”

I started sobbing. I sat down on the floor, buried my head in my hands, and was overwhelmed with grief. When the tears began to subside and I was able to catch my breath, I stood up, balled the lights up haphazardly, stuck them in the tree, and walked away. That’s how everything stayed for the rest of 2015: one tree completely barren; one with a tangled string of lights discarded within its branches. It was such a sad state of affairs, but so was the Christmas season for me that year. There were occasions when I walked past the tree and felt nothing but sadness. A few times I felt bitter. Sometimes nothing. I did end up plugging in that lonely line of lights on two separate occasions – a nod to the persistence of a season that I just wanted to be over.


The following year, we went tree shopping again. I was determined to feel the joy of Christmas. Brian and I spread out, found five trees to bring home with us, and after a few drying days, we began to set them up. While decorating that night, I played all of the songs that my family had always decorated ours trees to. There were a lot that made me smile and several that made me cry. With no smallish children running around bursting with Christmas joy, the sorrow of mom’s absence tugged at my heart a little harder when her favorite songs would play. But when I was done, the whole tree had lights and the decorations were all hung.

As I decorated, each ornament was placed more deliberately than in past years. I took the time to remember the stories and moments that are tied to each little snowman, frog, black lab, or Santa ornament. I missed my mom terribly as I decorated and it was a lot of the little things that were the hardest. But by acknowledging my sadness while decorating, I was more attentive to the love and memories that are a part of my fondness for Christmas trees and the joy with which they fill a room (or two if you live in my house.) My 2016 moments of grief weren’t necessarily easier, but they didn’t stop me in my festive tracks that year either. I was happy to take this step forward.

In late November of 2017, I began a new job working for the United Methodist Church. Because of the time of year, I hit the ground running helping to prepare for the Advent season. All of a sudden, my entire working day was devoted to preparing for Christmas. There was a lot of decorating, Christmas music galore, worship prep and practice, and the totality of it consumed my festive energy and emotion. When it was time for Brian and I to talk about Christmas trees of our own, I just didn’t have it in me. Brian understood and didn’t bat an eye before saying “okay” as he pulled me in for a hug.

The decorations stayed tucked away.

There was no John Denver and the Muppets.

Our house looked devoid of any Christmas spirit.

And that was okay…

2018 was the same. My festive energies were expended preparing the church for Christmas, and I had nothing in reserve with which to face decorating traditions at home. Brian understood, said “okay”, and pulled me into a hug. We celebrated Christmas in other places and found tremendous joy in the season, but our home remained a space to acknowledge what was missing.

This year, when Brian has asked me if I wanted to go Christmas tree shopping, I have been non-committal. I want to, but I don’t. He lets me vacillate. Throughout this Advent season, I have expended tons of festive energy preparing the church once again, but this year I find myself with a little festivity left over. I’ve listened to carols (included John Denver and the Muppets) while going about my days. I have a few decorations out in our house. I wrote (a limited number of) Christmas cards for the first time in forever. And I don’t dread any of our family traditions. There’s still no tree, but that’s okay.


What I’ve learned over the last few years is that grief isn’t linear. In 2015, I was a wreck when facing our family’s Christmas traditions without my mom. In 2016, I made a massive step forward and not only decorated our own trees, but had a blast helping two of my incredibly cute nephews decorate my dad’s Christmas tree. A few tears were shed as the Muppets sang, but my nephews’ joy spread throughout the room and the season. In 2017 and 2018, I was able to enjoy the festivities that occurred elsewhere, but didn’t have the emotional energy to tackle traditions at home. In 2019, some of the season’s light is reappearing in our home. Brian’s patience and understanding have been remarkable as I have navigated my walk through the grief process – I couldn’t have made it this far without him.

As I write this, so many of our family’s Christmas traditions are alive and well.

Others have changed.

A few ended when my mom’s life did.

Several months after my mom died, Brian and I loaded the family dinner table back into our truck, returned it to my parents’ house, and set it back up for use. In the years since, many family dinners have been enjoyed around it, game nights have been held, puzzles completed, and the imagination of my four nephews has materialized right before our eyes. Those incredible boys, who each embody so many of the best parts of who my mom was, bring life and love into every room and every tradition we observe. The hope, peace, joy, and love of this season has remained through the most difficult times and carried us forward into new realities.

In a few days, we’ll all be around the dining room table together, and it’s a pretty incredible gift to realize that so much of who we are becoming as a family will be nurtured and developed around that simple slice of maple. My mom may not be physically present at the table anymore, but she is there in every other imaginable way. As we look to celebrate Christmas, everything I know about our family’s reality is being assembled anew…

…piece by piece.

The “C” Word…

Ten years ago, I sat in the waiting room at the Cleveland Clinic while my mom underwent the longest and most arduous surgery that she had faced in her five-year battle with colon cancer.

Six years and 109 days later, my mom’s battle with cancer ended.

At 12:00 a.m. this morning, Facebook Memories reminded me of what occurred so many years ago today.

Ten years!!!

On one hand it feels like ten minutes ago, and on the other it seems like an eternity. But I remember that day.

My mom was scheduled for a ten-hour surgery that would involve at least twelve surgeons. Her cancer was so widespread that the only reason they were even willing to attempt anything was because a new chemotherapy “wash” that the Cleveland Clinic had had in trial phase had been approved by the FDA that summer. It was the only treatment that had any shot at making a difference, and they were determined to at least try.

It had only been a few weeks since some of us had been at the Clinic. In July, when blood tests revealed an abnormality but scans had not shown tumors, the surgeon who had performed her prior tests, treatments, and surgeries opted for exploratory surgery just to make sure nothing was wrong. It turned out that everything was wrong.

My mom had cancer in her colon, all over her abdominal cavity walls, and on many of her vital organs. There was so much cancer that the surgery that they had hoped was just exploratory, or at most a simple procedure to remove one or two tumors, was aborted to brainstorm how to move forward, and to schedule the surgeons required. They would try again on August 21st.

When we arrived in Cleveland the night before mom’s surgery, we spent our time enjoying each other’s presence and doing our best to ignore the elephant in the room. My siblings were in from North Carolina and Pittsburgh, and having no idea what we would face the next day, we enjoyed the evening as much as possible. At some point, we went down to the hotel pool in an attempt to kill some time. The pool water was cold, but there were people in the nearby hot tub. We wanted to get into the hot tub and my siblings were annoyed when the people in it occupied it for a great span of time with no consideration for anyone else. I remember being so irritated with them for being so irritated about something so inconsequential! Mom’s body was overrun with cancer and this surgery was our only hope. Who cared how cold the pool was or how long the hot tub hoarders stayed? Tomorrow was what everyone should have been worried about.


Well, tomorrow finally arrived and my family made our way to the Cleveland Clinic. Mom’s surgery was scheduled early since it was slated to take so long and require so many people. My family and I sat with my mom until she was called back to be prepped, and then the waiting game began. It’s funny what you remember in the midst of trying times…

I remember that we had a large group, so finding space in the waiting area was difficult.

I remember that at the time, the Cleveland Clinic provided families with a pager that allowed the surgical team to send updates as things progressed. That pager seemed like a hot potato in the children’s game – everyone touched it, but everyone was afraid to be caught with it when the timer went off. What if the message it transmitted hinted at something bad? Who would be the one to know first and have to share the news?

I remember that when we went to sit on the lower floor because there was more space, the particular area that we ended up in had a water feature. It was meant to soothe. It ended up irritating me because it had been a rainy summer at home that year, and the water feature sounded like a downpour. I didn’t want the dreariness of a rainy day clouding my mood in the waiting room on surgery day. I wanted to remain hopeful.

I remember that at different parts of the day, my family drifted in and out of the hospital. No one went real far, but they couldn’t just sit and wait. I couldn’t do anything but sit and wait. I had brought several books with me, had a list of people that I was entrusted to update throughout the day, and I just couldn’t make myself walk out of the waiting room even though I desperately wanted to be anywhere else.

I remember people watching.

I remember witnessing moments of incredible emotional intimacy play out in the midst of anxious chaos.

I remember seeing the relief on people’s faces when they received the page that their loved one’s surgery was coming to an end.

I remember waiting.

And wondering.

And staring at the pager.

And hoping.

And waiting.

And fearing.

And staring at the pager.

And waiting.

And praying.

And reflecting.

As I managed my stress that day (I got mad at my coffee cup), and observed other people – complete strangers – manage their own, I remember knowing that the irritation I had felt toward my siblings the night before had been unfair. They were anxious, too, and their frustration had been placed at the steps of an occupied hot tub. It wasn’t about the people or the hot tub. It was about wanting to be able to affect an outcome; to be in control when we were overwhelmed by a situation in which we had none.


As I reflect today, I am astonished by the events that led us to that day and the events that would come after. Mom’s recovery was long and painful; her surgery had been all-encompassing and took a toll on her body. My mom had been through a lot in the prior five years since her original Stage 4 diagnosis (including a diagnosis of, and treatment for breast cancer), but this was the first time that mom showed signs of battle fatigue. As usual, though, Mom handled it with incredible patience, grace, and humor, and she was back to normal in a remarkably short period of time. If you had met her, you’d never had known that she was fighting a terminal illness.

Looking back, I know that the five years that led us to August 21, 2009, helped prepare us for the years ahead. The waiting, and wondering, and fearing, and hoping of that day ten years ago prepared us for the unknowns that accompanied the diagnoses that were yet to come. Waiting rooms and treatment facilities became familiar territory as mom underwent a total of more than one-hundred rounds of chemotherapy…with a few radiation treatments and clinical trials thrown in, too. While the ten+ hours of waiting that day seemed excruciatingly slow, the three weeks of transitioning to death that happened late in 2015 seemed to happen in a split second. Through all of it, though, three things stood out: We had mom. We had each other. And we had faith.

A little over a year ago, I wrote the following:

God didn’t give my mom cancer. God didn’t choose to not cure my mom. God didn’t choose to not answer the prayers of all of those who desperately wanted my mom to live. God didn’t. Cancer did.


Cancer happens. Life happens. Tragedy, illness, and heartache happen. God doesn’t cause it. Ever. God sees us through.


My mom had cancer…not because God decided to smite my mom for some sin or misstep, but because cells in her body multiplied too quickly and tumors formed. Cancer spread…not because God thought my mom deserved to suffer, but because cancer is; cancer does.


Through every single moment of her cancer, my mom believed in God, trusted God, thanked God. Not because she thought God would cure her…but because she believed that God gave her the strength to find the good in every single day that she didn’t have cancer, and every single day that she did.


My mom was first diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in 2004. It should have been the end, but she had eleven incredible years after her diagnosis. She got to see her kids get married. She got to see her kids start families. She got to meet every single grandson born into our family. She got to teach after she retired from teaching, and she retired early because she had a cancer fight to fight.

She lived to see my brother come home from Afghanistan after she was placed in Hospice care, and she died the day he turned 30. That might sound awful to you, but we actually got to celebrate my brother’s birthday because we weren’t worried about the deteriorating status of my mom. She couldn’t give him a gift that day, but she ended up giving us all a gift. We celebrated life that day instead of fearing her death.


Life happens. Illness happens. Death happens. Things we can’t control happen. The God that my mom believed in, and taught me to believe in, doesn’t cause them…but God does see us through.

Me

And God continues to do just that…as does my family.

It’s been ten years since my mom’s massive surgery. It’s been just shy of fifteen years since her original diagnosis. It’s been almost four years since she died. As I look back at all of the days between then (the many “then”s which we experienced) and now, I don’t see cancer anymore. I see a brief part in the continuing story of a remarkable family. Cancer may have facilitated the end of my mom’s life, but it in no way defined it. Her life was defined by love. Always love.

My mom loved life, she loved and was loved by her family, and she loved and was loved by God. Those days were full of cancer and all of its messiness, of course…but they were also filled with courage, laughter, friendship, hope, victories, celebrations, tears, fears, hope, patience, kindness, compassion, and strength. But most of all, love.

On this tenth anniversary of one of my scariest days, I am so thankful for the lessons that my mom taught – in life, through her illness, and in the way that she died – and all of the lessons that I’m still learning along the way. I’m thankful that I have reached a place where the realities of cancer no longer provide the lens through which I re-view the stories and life moments that happened between 2004-2015. I would give anything for my nephews to have had more time with my mom, but I look forward to the stories that I can tell them of her strength, grace, humor, and courage – the true scope of which I would never have fully understood had it not been for the battle she fought.

At the end of this day ten years ago, I was so thankful that my mom was alive. At the beginning of this day, I am so thankful that she lived. As I look toward tomorrow, I do so knowing that I can’t stop what’s coming – good or bad – but it’s still up to me to choose how I will respond. I’m grateful to have had such an incredible example.