Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Britt Barlow

I just met you - on your way out
I breathed the smoke of your snuffed candle
My eyes watered, my throat closed
As the smoke burned, sweet and sad
Liz's tears became my tears
Too soon. Too soon.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Things I Wish I Knew When I Was 18

In honor of my nephew Andrew Burgess’ graduation from high school, and as a cap tip to all graduates, I offer up some words of "wisdom" gleaned from a life of bumps and bruises.  Most of these I think are originals, except where otherwise noted, though some sound familiar enough that I apologize in advance for any unintended plagiarism.  

“I hope life isn’t a big joke, because I don’t get it.” - Jack Handey

“Youth is wasted on the young.” –Robert Sandbach

Success or failure in calculus is a poor predictor of success or failure in life.

Success or failure in calculus is inversely proportional to success or failure at Words With Friends.

The most important thing you learn in school is how to learn.  The second most important thing you learn in school is that you cannot hydrate with alcohol.

You may not believe in unicorns, but you will never know for sure, because unicorns "shun the non-believer."

You will never think you have enough money until you realize - it's not about the money.

To avoid sorrow, avoid joy.  To avoid pain, avoid feeling.  To avoid loss, avoid love.

To fear dying is to fear living.

The most overused and underappreciated word, in any language, is Love.  It’s the only thing we know that is true. 

“Too soon old, too late smart.” – Robert Sandbach

Congratulations and best wishes to the Class of 2012. Now get out there and start cleaning up this mess we made.  And don’t you dare screw up Social Security, anymore than we already have, or we're going to come live with you when we retire.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Hannah Grace Wilklow


Some stories are better told with pictures than with words.  It's been 5 years since Hannah was with us, yet she continues to be a blessing to all who knew her.  This video tribute from Keith Lanpher and Laura Shear is for those who miss her and need a Hannah fix, as well as those who never knew her and want to better understand who she was, and why she mattered.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Beautiful Baby

One of my favorite sources of wisdom on civilized social intercourse has always been the newspaper advice columnist.  Reading about the real and imagined traumas in other people's lives has been a voyeuristic habit I've enjoyed since childhood. 

I remember being quite struck by a letter I read to "Dear Abby" when I was about 12 years old from a woman whose friends had recently given birth to a child who was, in this woman’s view, about the ugliest baby she had ever seen.  While her initial reaction to this baby ranged from revulsion to pity, she was struck by the parents’ total adoration and love for their little charge.  Everything they did indicated that in their eyes, this must be the most beautiful baby in the world.  The writer was quite moved and humbled by this, and Abby of course agreed that we could all learn from the example of these parents. I don’t recall the rest of her answer, but in true Dear Abby style I’m sure she reminded her readers that all children deserved to be treated as if they were the most beautiful babies ever born into the world.

When our second daughter Hannah was born after a normal pregnancy and delivery, the only indication that anything was amiss was that her right eye remained closed.  Our doctor found no cause for concern, and sent us home from the hospital with a clean bill of health, explaining that it probably got a little swollen during the trauma of birth, and would open in a few days.  When that didn’t happen, a specialist diagnosed “third nerve palsy” as the culprit, and we learned that we were dealing with a permanent condition that would likely have a significant effect on her eyesight, including the likelihood that she would never have three-dimensional sight. 

We were quite distressed to learn that at such an early age doors were already closing for our child.  I remember making mental lists of professions that were no longer in her grasp: fighter pilot, golf pro, wide receiver.  In addition, we learned that although she could have surgery when she was older to help correct the drooping lid, her right eye, which pointed down and to the right, would probably never line up properly with her left.  I remember my chagrin as I pictured her as a 16 year-old, preparing for the school dance, gorgeous in a new dress, but with the unfortunate eye condition, which of course would be the only thing potential paramours would notice. We would later learn that this was among the mildest of many challenges that Hannah would face, but at the time the revelation was difficult to absorb. One of the joys a new child brings into the world is the sense of unlimited possibilities, yet at just a few weeks of age, limits were already being placed on Hannah’s future.

At the doctor’s instruction, we began patching Hannah’s good eye and taping the lid of her bad eye open, to train her brain to process images from that side.  Invariably, when we introduced our new little bundle of joy to friends, neighbors and even strangers, one of the first responses we could count on was some variation of, “what’s wrong with her eye?”  A normal enough reaction, but a parent quickly tires of the constant explanations and the unwanted focus on the flaw on the otherwise perfect canvas of their newborn.

“But,” I would ask myself, “what is the right thing to say in this situation?” Years earlier, when I was working at Special Olympics, a young couple who had been long-time volunteers had their first child, and we were all stunned by the news that the baby had been born with Down’s syndrome.  Though we all worked in a field dedicated to making the world more caring and welcoming to people with disabilities, we knew only too well that our friends’ lives had just veered abruptly onto a difficult and challenging path.  Do you send congratulations and best wishes, or is a sympathy card more in order?  I confess that I chose a third and worse option, and made no acknowledgement to them at all, and I suspect I may not have been the only one who avoided the issue in this fashion. 

I understood only too well the discomfort people felt when confronted with our new baby and her eye patch, and their struggle to say the right thing.  So I remember vividly the day I was standing in our front yard holding Hannah, and my neighbor’s brother crossed the street to say hello and to see the new baby.  He was an older Bolivian man, whose shaky command of the English language coupled with my total ignorance of Spanish limited our interactions, but he had always been friendly and kind.  I prepared to explain Hannah’s condition to him, but he merely gazed into the blanket that swaddled her and said reverently, “What a beautiful baby.” 

That was all.  He smiled and walked away.  I smiled, with a small lump of gratitude in my throat.  What else need be said?  Every parent, but perhaps especially a parent of a child born with challenges or appearances outside the norm, just wants the world to share their joy, and to see the beauty and the blessing that is their child.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Meaning of Life


A friend invited a number of colleagues to submit their views on The Meaning of Life for a book he was compiling.  As I thought about it, it occurred to me that might be the wrong question. Life itself has no intrinsic meaning; it's an empty vessel, waiting to be filled.

The real question should be what gives life meaning? Or what makes a meaningful life?  If you watch ants moving grains of sand, gaze at a gliding bird of prey, or admire the silent majesty of a centuries old Sequoia,  simply being seems to have meaning enough.

But for people, a meaningful life is often measured in more relative terms, such as the contribution one makes to the world during one’s lifetime.  But does the life of a severely disabled child, wholly dependent on others for subsistence and living only a few short years, have less meaning than that of a doctor who dedicates his life to research to discover the secrets of the imperfect human body?

Contemplate the question as you examine the black and white photograph of just such a girl, standing naked, her head grasped too firmly in the large hands of just such a doctor, as he prepares her for a lethal injection.  His research has determined that her imperfections, and those of thousands like her, must be eliminated from the gene pool in a quest for a more perfect race.  Her life deemed to have no meaning.  Her pained and haunting gaze stares out at us from a display in the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum. More than sixty years after her death, she is still stirring profound emotions. Teaching profound lessons.

A meaningful life can indeed be measured by the impact it has on those around it.  And even the humblest of lives can send powerful ripples across the surface of time as they continue to touch others for generations to come.