Archive for the ‘Red’ Category

What if Stories Were the Real Medicine?


If any hospital is like a damp green canvas supply tent perched on the edge of the universal war zone where we all do battle against the fading light of one last breath; then the Evanston North Shore Medical Complex would be akin to the General’s Headquarters. Saddam’s Golden Palace where American troops now walk the halls. The stately French villa bathed in a Monet sunrise where Patton or Eisenhower planned the war.

Under the towering ceilings and golden teak wood and marble splendor of the lobby reverberating with the unseen messages sent by money; the 3 of us walk out past a gleaming black grand piano that plays a homogenized Gershwin tune all by itself. Ghost fingers striking keys in technically correct soulless precision.

A fireplace circled by comfortable chairs and a high ticket carpet. No one sits to warm themselves by the electronically dancing orange flame. A uniformed doorman, as if this was the Ritz, professionally courteous greeting guests.

But buried not so deep beneath the sprawling mushroom bastion of red brick wealth adjoining this eternal war against the roar of illness and death; at the level where the boundaries of time disappear, comes forth the silver swinging doors and sickly sweet antiseptic smell of pain and the green painted halls that slither into a circular desk that says CENTRAL REGISTRATION.

I am 4 or 6 or 12 and in the weaving past the gurneys with IV tubes and old men with parched yellow skin and empty eyes; green smocked workers, nurses in white and holy men doctors in the gray coats; there is only the subdued hospital hum of my terror numbed by the fact that I’ve been here before.

And my Mom is with me.

Here on the edge of that battle against the dying of the light, my Mom is here. So I survive.

Poked and prodded and ripped and torn bleeding because no one knew what was wrong.

But my Mom is here with me. So I survive.

Then one day they injected a dye into my neck. The early days of X-Rays.

And then all these years later in this bleakest of midwinter days, I can still feel the searing freight train burning pain in every last capillary, every cell blazing in a screaming numb horror of hurt as the dye coursed deep into the wretched bottom of my little boy soul and burst out the top of my head splaying pain like bullets of molten hot rain.

I do not know how, but if you feel that kind of pain and then it stops; believing in things you can’t see becomes easy. Faith is a breeze. Not a stretch at all.

And my Mom was with me, so I survive.

The dye of all encompassing pain lights up the tumor inside me like a blazing firework next to that neighboring battlefield of death. Then the surgeons go to work.

My Mom and Dad walk the hospital halls, linoleum then, and hours and hours later, they walk in slow motion into intensive care, where a beeping sound tells me I have a heart. Its three days later and I survive.

I’m still here.

Now I sit in that same waiting room. The layers of money not fooling me at all. It’s still the same outpost on the edges of the death war against the dying of the light.

My wife is inside. Arthography and an MRI. Because a year of silent chronic, not one complaint,  pain is enough. A lifetime of dancing and then you have to stop. You still teach. But the hip stops you from dancing. For a year. And this time you can’t even blame the victim, because it wasn’t even the dancing that did it. It’s just the way she was made. No complaints, not a word. Just a shadow in her eyes and a bravery that runs beyond what I can fathom. Not one word, as money started draining like pus from a wound. And she bit her lip, then smiled. Till it was enough. And we’d just do it. So we found out that there would not need to be a new hip. But there would be arthroscopic surgery. So we came to that same room where I had felt the injection of the dye they didn’t use anymore.

Back behind walls I couldn’t see through; that same strain of medical arrogance as the chest puffed out doctor fumbled to hit the vein and was quiet and what was supposed to take 15 minutes took an hour. And the same cold blind institutional ignorance that said it was OK to dress her up in a hospital gown, complete ½ the procedure, and then walk her too fast across the public lobby so everyone who looked could say to themselves, “Look, there goes a patient.” She tells the technician to slow down, he does for three steps and then looses her request in the war haze of his indifferent mind and speeds up again.

But somehow. Here on the edge of this battle. She draws Nancy. And Nancy, the nurse, says to her, “You just squeeze my hand as hard as you can.” Somehow, someway a human connection, like a story, cuts through the pain and gets her thru it. God gives you what you need.

While out in the waiting room, swirling in a haze of long ago  pain mixed with a pain that cuts even deeper because the very breath of your life, your life’s love, is behind a wall in a hospital. And hospitals, sitting on the edge of that terrifying battle hurt people just as much as they help them. Hospitals can kill and maim. Never, ever, ever, trust a hospital. Especially this one.

Because in war, anything can happen.

And then, just as no book could ever be distracting enough, my eyes go wide as in through the door strolls my sister in law, laughing and saying, “Looks like the whole family’s falling apart huh?” A complete and total surprise.

Better than any birthday present I’ve ever had.

Her, with her own medical trials, gets herself a quick x-ray and then comes to sit with me and wait for her sister, my wife. Talking and sharing stories and making hours seem like seconds.

Talking and sharing stories. That’s all we did.

What if the stories were the real medicine? Here in the United States in 2010 as the eternal battle against that last breath mutates and multiplies with apocalyptic momentum into an all consuming fire to suck the very life from the will to just be healthy, or to get healthy if you’re not, what if that human connection of the story, remember that time when my Mom spent her days taking me to this hospital? When Nancy the nurse said to my wife, ‘just squeeze my hand’, when a sister in law became a friend because she stayed to wait; what if the stories were the music at the edges of the war?

Stories that could be heard like songs. Like when the poet Holly Near sang:

“The junta took the fingers

From Victor Hara’s hands.

They said to the gentle poet

Play your guitar now if you can

Well, Victor started singing

Until the shot his body down

You can kill a man

But not a song

When it’s sung the whole world round.”

What if the stories were the real medicine?

Mary Travers


The tent had collapsed in the blistering rain of the Outer Banks. Miles from any kind of light but our own and we just couldn’t stop laughing. Neither of us having any business setting up a tent.


Piling all our soaking stuff into the back seat. Didn’t take very long. We didn’t have very much. And then still laughing, driving through the night green soaked North Carolina forests. Back to your parents house in Chapel Hill. And if the ride were to take forever, that would be OK. The rain, the windshield wipers the tires gliding down dark deserted pavement through the trees.


And because we both knew every word to every song, we thought the ride might last forever.


Mary Travers sang: “Follow me, where I go. Who I am and what I know. Make it part of you, to be a part of me.”


Then when she sang “Though the cities start to crumble, and the towers fall around us, the sun is slowly sinking, and it’s colder than the sea” —-we thought we knew big thoughts and would do big things. There was no horizon to possibility. The night time North Carolina road went on forever.


Mary Travers, not just singing with Peter and Paul, but giving voice to us in that car, in that rainstorm, when she sang, “Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.”  We thought we knew what that song meant too. And maybe somewhere deep we both did. Maybe that’s why we both laughed in the rain when the tent came down.


Mary Travers gone. So is all our laughing innocence.


But Mary leaves us her song. And we remember the words.

The Wedding that Stopped Time




Was that us?

 Running through cool sand under 2:00 a.m. starry skies, clothes tossed along the way splashing into the sea then diving under the waves and coming up laughing shivering joy.


Was that us?


Not this time.


Aunts and Uncles, Moms and Dads, families you were born to, families you choose, all tucked away in the borrowed beach house rooms along the Jersey shore while the kids raced the sands and rode the waves.


Once it was us. Crashing the waves, or traipsing big city neon streets or even standing in your very own kitchen polishing off a bottle of really good tequila.


And now as it becomes the kids, the no-longer are they kids, kids—time stops. And it’s all just this one golden moment on the beach.

Aunts and Uncles, the chosen or the related kind, know the moment well. Because it’s those moments that are the crystal polished beaming diamond of what you get if you are one of those aunts or uncles. Aunts and Uncles are in it for the sprint. The moment

Looking around at the parents, those, unlike me, blessed with kids, they are in it for the marathon. The long haul.


Then what happens at the wedding is that both the sprint and the marathon come racing towards a finish line together.


And that’s when the time stops.


Seems like just a moment ago it started.

Now I stand on my sister’s porch, listening through the window, and hear that long gone little boy in the picture say to my father, “Bud, would you like me to help you carry that luggage?” And of course my father answers, “No, no, thanks Ben. I’ve got it.”


And Ben answers, “Well, I’m going to help you anyway.”


And just like that: the little boy is gone. Somehow in his place, a wandering, born to heal soul of that no one would ever mistake for anything other than a man.


Sokyo and Ben came together traveling India. In tiny villages, along quiet roads where there are no tourists. In teeming, ancient cities he once heard her laughter inside a building 1,000 miles and months since the last time they met. Circling Asia, he told me, they later found other times and places where their paths had almost crossed again. Places they stayed where they would both look out separate windows and see the exact same view.


Brides are the stars of any wedding. But this one kicked it up a notch.

The invitation was her freehand drawing of every single wedding guest. Drawing she did from photographs. The night it arrived at our house, I opened it up, thought “That’s nice.” But then my wife said, “Wait a minute. Look at this. There’s US! Sitting at that table!” And then proceeded to study this tiny masterpiece for about ½ an hour. Ben had hand scripted names to fold over each face or figure, so there was even a program to identify all the players.


Uncles keep a respectful distance. Both in watching the preparation for the ceremony in the church across the street. And at the wedding itself. 


Watching this bride glide from Korean flower arranging that rang of timelessness; to the preparation of the Indian food. And then suddenly Ben would walk by and she’d jump on his back and off they’d go laughing like two smiling young trees in the wind.


A snapshot at the wedding dinner. The 90 year old matriarch, Ben’s English Grandmother, goes to sit with Sokyo’s mother Mrs. Kim. Neither speaks the others language. But they talk and smile, pat each others arm, they laugh and nod their heads. And then, and only then, the bride sees them talking from across the room, walks through the crowd to just them, kneels down between the two women from different ends of the earth, holds both their hands and translates.


At the cake cutting, the bride doesn’t just make sure her husband’s face is covered with cake; she cuts pieces and goes and plasters them all over the faces of each of her bridesmaids in once again another explosion of laughter.


Then another gift to every single person in the room. All of the bridesmaids and the bride’s mother, Mrs. Kim, get up and sing a traditional Korean folk song. And there is no need at all for a translation. The sweet lilting harmony cascading like a waterfall joining the world. No translation necessary. Just a sweet song of joy.


When it’s time for the first dance, the bride and groom, both dressed in traditional Korean garb, he with billowing pants and a puffy pirate shirt, she in a lovely multi-colored Korean robe and red dots on her face, take to the dance floor—and perform the Rickey Gervais dance from the TV show “The Office”

Imagine this dance done step by step by two poker faced newlyweds in traditional Korean dress. Neither breaking a smile until it was done.



And then again comes the laughter.





The aunts, uncles, mothers and fathers now in the darkness around the dance floor; time stopping again for that entire room as all the flames of thanksgiving love and joy and heartbreak and separation and all that time and all that distance all converge in pools of what might have been, could have been and then somehow push back to what is. Back to right now.


The next day brings Ben riding a bicycle in the late summer sun, waving, saying, “Guess I best get to the bank or pack or something. We’re going to Peru tomorrow.”


That night there is pizza and Mrs. Kim cooking up something that simply tastes like it could sustain a person’s very soul. I dish myself some from the bowl on the table and she shakes her head a vigorous “No!” pulls me over, digs in to the bowl with her chop sticks and gives me 3 times as much —then she smiles and nods her head quickly, as do I.


The bridesmaids, Mrs. Kim and Sokyo present Ben’s grandmother with some small decorative Korean art. “Grandmum.” Says Ben, this is paper made the way it was made a thousand years ago.”


Then they sing the acapella song again. This time the words are passed around and I remember the first line was:


“It is no accident that we meet.”


That night the airport runs to Newark and JFK begin. Giant white whale international airliners arcing up into higher skies bound for Heathrow and Manchester and Seoul.  Snappy little domestic flights board for Chicago and North Carolina. Mini-vans wind there way up the coast to Boston and down to DC.


And I remember one more snapshot. Right after the Ricky Gervais dance, just for one golden instant, that kind of moment that an Uncle or Aunt can treasure most, the song below came on, a part of their music mix. It was quickly turned off. Not loud enough. Or new enough. Or something.


But as this song plays in my head and our little flight glides up and points back to Chicago, I think:

Will you look at that?  Maybe it was just for a moment. But was on their mix. They put it there. One of our songs. Written and sung by a blind man who I bet more than once has felt the warmth of an Asian sun on his face. A song that said: I’ll be loving you always.


What a gift they gave us with their wedding. Letting us stop time for just a moment and ask ourselves.


Hey. Was that us?