Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Bryan Chronicles

This one is very hard for me to write. It’s a very personal story. It can be construed in so many ways. I guess I still feel a tinge of guilt, and I worry what others will think of me. But it is one of those things that I need to tell. For myself.

I had been laid off from a construction job and had difficulty finding another in a slow time for construction. I was fed up, however, with the whole industry. I began to look at other options. I found myself checking out a massage school program, and enrolled. As part of the program, we had to accumulate intern hours where we actually performed massages outside of the classroom. An opportunity opened up to massage hospice patients and caregivers on a volunteer basis. I signed up, knowing that it really fulfilled 2 purposes – my desire to help people, and my desire to graduate.

I was able to massage cancer patients and 3 caregivers after a short time. I enjoyed my time with each. And then I received a phone call about another patient—close to my age. A man, Bryan, with a muscle disease. HIPA prevents the hospice from giving any other information. I nervously called his home, and made the appointment through his father. I would be lying if I said the thought didn’t scare the poop out of me. What would he look like? I envisioned a wheelchair bound person who could not hold his head up, who drooled, and could not communicate. I assumed it was a problem from birth.

I nervously approached the door to the family’s home, in my scrubs, with my massage lotion in tow, and my racing heart. Bryan’s mother answered the door, and ushered me up the staircase to the 2nd floor. Bryan’s room was at the end of a hallway. I entered, in terror. What I saw, was not anything I expected.

I saw a young, dark headed man with blazing blue eyes lying in bed. He looked as nervous as I felt. He was not drawn up, he was not drooling. He was deathly skinny, and his limbs were stiff, but he looked normal. I introduced myself, and promptly began to massage with care because I was afraid of small talk. He informed me that he wasn’t going to break. His speech was understandable, but he struggled at times to get it out.

Bryan’s gleaming eyes spoke volumes. He was vibrant on the inside. After massaging him, he told me he had Lou Gerigh’s (ALS) disease. It came on him suddenly, and no one knows the origin of such a curse. It hits randomly. It is the disease that is usually behind assisted suicides. Healthy people quickly degenerate, unable to feed themselves, to walk, to communicate. They are alive on the inside, and dead on the outside. It’s a horrible way to die. Usually, they suffocate to death, within a few short years of diagnosis. The only treatments merely buy you a few more months. Every muscle atrophies.

Bryan kept asking questions. And I found myself completely at ease. We laughed as I massaged. We talked about who he was before the illness—he had worked on computers and was independent and was healthy.

His family called the hospice and requested I return. They said Bryan's demeanor was nearly his old self again after I left.

I began to make a weekly trek to his home. Massaging him. Talking to him. Laughing with him. He would have a flower for me every time in the beginning. I would stay after the massage and we would watch Dr. Phil. And I found myself falling for this dying man.

I grew to love Bryan. Coming from bad relationships and a failed marriage, this guy couldn’t hurt me. He was safe. He couldn’t disappoint me. And I believed in the power of miracles. Couldn’t God heal him? Wouldn’t he? I had never been so open with a man in my life. Bryan taught me to bare my soul, and be OK with it. He didn’t care about my oddities or my social inadequacies. We would go to movies and dinner. We went to the museum. He was able to his arms slightly and operate his wheelchair when we met.

My parents met and loved Bryan. I saw an amazing love in them that made me proud. They treated him as if he was one of us, and never flinched taking him into public. He loved them as well. They prayed with me for him. They were not ashamed of him.

Over time, Bryan deteriorated more and more. I can’t tell you how hard it was to see that happen. Eventually, he struggled to operate his own wheelchair. His speech became less understandable. He had a feeding tube. I took him to a healing service at my local church once, much to his mother’s disgust. Nothing happened—no healing, no changes at all. His deterioration was much slower than normal. Unexplainably slow. That was both a blessing and a curse. I had researched other possible reasons for his condition, since he did not fit the ALS mold completely. But no one seemed as interested as I was in finding a better answer to his degeneration. Maybe they had been down that road. And maybe they were tired of fighting.

Bryan’s family was full of bitterness and anger. After being there a while, I realized that there was a constant power play. There was a harshness in that home. Bryan, his mom, and his father were all guilty. They provoked each other. When they felt attacked, they used the most hurtful verbal weapons they could think of against each other. They loved each other, but they hated what had become of their lives. Each of them had dreams, and all were squashed by the illness. Instead of retiring and taking it easy, they were lifting their 35 year old son from chair to chair, dressing him, and making their home more accessible. I began to dread my visits, to avoid his parents, to chide Bryan for his participation in the drama. But it only intensified over time. My stomach would be nervous before each visit.

After a year, I was mentally wasted. I was working 2 jobs – massaging by day and full time graveyard shift at night. I had to fit visits in with Bryan, and always ran on half the rest I needed. Bryan’s lungs filled with fluid and he was hospitalized. The reality of his looming death became even more apparent. He survived, but not without some emotional damage. He wanted our pastor to come by and talk to him, and so I set up a meeting. In the meeting, very little talking occurred, but Bryan cried. And his mom humiliated me by holding a glass of wine and staring the pastor down. She didn’t want anyone to make her son cry (apparently that was reserved for herself and her husband). Our pastor wasn’t welcome, and he left. As did I. In humiliation. In anger. In disgust. In mourning for the way things could have been.

My heart changed. I was taking a codependency class, and I realized that one reason Bryan had been so attractive to me is that he was safe. I was tiring of witnessing the manipulation in his family. And I was just . . . . . . spent. I had nothing left to give to anyone or anything. I had promised Bryan to be there until the end, and I would have, if it were not for his home and his increasing manipulation.

The more I tried to pull away to get a break, the tighter Bryan would hold onto me. He became possessive. He became manipulative toward me, and lied to keep me close. He seemed desperate. And I began to resent it. He had sucked the life out of me. I realized that even if God healed him physically, there was so much dysfunction in his home and his life, that he would still be a shell of a man. He would have to go through intense therapy to shake the craziness of the world he had been bound to since his illness kicked in.

Finally, I walked away, after almost 1-1/2 years. I knew that people would judge me. I knew that they would think I abandoned him. I knew his family would see me as a horrible person. But I couldn’t do it anymore. I had failed Bryan. I had failed myself. But I couldn’t do it anymore. I mourned that decision, but it had to be. My communication had to end, because I was such a victim to his pleas. I had to make a break and not look back, or I would go back and become as bitter as his family.

I now am thankful for my freedom, but find it hard to discuss this relationship with people. I usually get confused looks when I mention I dated a dying man, or I dated a man who was in a wheelchair. The assumption is that I have a screw missing of my own. Until you know someone like that you can’t imagine the humanity of the person and the beauty of their spirit. I have a whole new appreciation for physical challenges. I think Bryan is still alive today—3 years later. His father passed away recently, I saw it in the paper. Some days I wonder if God will heal him and I will pass him on the street one day, in awe. Or if he will find out it's not ALS, get treatment, and then find me and spew anger at me. He's had the disease for 13 years now. Whatever happens, I've made peace with my decision, and followed my heart.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Letting Go

I am a packrat. But living in a 1000 SF house has taught me the value of space. There is no reason why my 2 dogs and I cannot live comfortably in this house.

When I married, my wedding was awesome. I had a dress that made me feel like a princess. Literally, when I put it on, the ladies in the bridal shop stopped to look at me. A young child in the hotel came up to me as I was walking to my reception hall and asked if she could meet me, since I was a princess. Yeah, I was in heaven! My wedding band was platinum with diamonds. My gifts included 12 full place settings of china and nice silverware and glasses with silver rims. I didn’t have outlandishly fancy china—it was affordable as far as china goes—but it was a dream for me to ever be important enough to deserve those kinds of things.

When my marriage ended, just 1-1/2 years later, I was devastated. My dream-like existence was shattered. I held onto that dress and that ring and that china, because it symbolized my dream.

A year or so later, the local church was taking donations for clothes to give away. Wedding dresses were accepted. I knew in my heart that holding onto that dress was pointless—it symbolized a failed marriage. But it was a piece of my past that I didn’t like letting go of. After soul searching, I finally decided I needed to get rid of it—for many reasons. So I donated it. The girl who won it at the bridal auction didn’t seem to hold it with such reverence as I. I think it may have really been too big for her. I was sad to see it go to someone who didn’t see the $620 dress as being important. But I no longer had any say in the future of that dress.

Then, I was in a financial hole and had been out of a job. I needed cash to make a mortgage payment. I had money coming in the next month because I was working again, but didn’t have it at the time the mortgage was due. I pulled out my wedding band, and again I struggled. I knew I would never own a piece of jewelry that nice again. I took it to my brother in law, who shined it up and found a buyer for it. I sold it for $1,000, knowing it was worth about $7,500. But my mortgage was more important than a ring I didn’t wear.

I gave my mom the china hutch that was taking up too much room in my house, and told her she could leave the china in it, but I wasn’t giving her the china. One day I went to her house and she was using the china. My heart skipped a beat. But then, I realized—better to be used than sitting in a case. Now, she uses it when guests visit.

Giving up those things helped me to let go of a lot more than material items. By holding onto them, I held onto a dream that had fallen through. But, I didn’t need any of it anymore. Since then, I find parting with material things much easier than it used to be. I have few possessions that are so precious to me now. So many others have so little. The least I can do is give away what I don’t use.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Misrepresented Tithes

From the years 1984 to about 1991 or 1992, my family attended a small independent church. It started in the barn of the pastor, Robert. We also met in a library. Then we moved on to a shopping center in Glenpool. The pastor was harsh and controlling, but had an immense knowledge of the bible and a passion for studying and teaching.

Although the church only existed for 7 or 8 years, those were my formative years. I was between the ages of 12 to 19 or 20. My views of God were formed at that church. I was, as we all were, a slave to the ministry. We attended 3 times a week. Period. My dad told me that he missed a service after his brother died, and was confronted about it his attendance. Tithes were dictated at 10%, and offering was 4%. If you didn’t pay tithes, you shouldn’t expect God’s blessings (and you SHOULD expect a confrontation by the pastor)! I remember Robert telling the story of a woman who had been blind, and she paid back-tithes for the whole of her life, and suddenly had sight. I didn’t want to go blind!!!

This was the church where the youth sat on the front row so the pastor could keep his eye on us. We were expected to raise our hands in worship. If not, we could be called out. Once he even handed out tests for the congregants to take to see if they had been listening and remembering his sermons. My dad was an elder in the church, and therefore his responsibility there was huge. He was a buffer for many whom Robert offended. He didn’t always agree with Robert, but he believed in his teachings and his heart.

Robert taught that if you paid your tithes you won’t have money problems. If you are faithful to God, you shouldn’t get sick. You get back what you give. So there was always this idea that one day, the money we gave “to God” would return to us 10 fold. There was this expectation and hope. So, my parents tithed. Even in the worst of financial times, they tithed. After I worked full time, I bought groceries and helped with what I could, so they never missed that beloved tithe check.

The economic times were tough, jobs were few, and the mortgage company was less than gracious when my dad was out of a job for several months. He took a job sacking groceries, after 30 years of management, and had to move back up into a good position again. But they never caught up on the mortgage . My parents lost their house, their car, sold off their possessions. We moved to a ghetto area in Tulsa where we lived in fear from the constant search lights on the apartment complex, and the violence in the neighborhood. But it was cheap. The anxiety and anger in my family was deep. In this hardest time, they still paid that damned tithe check. That was a very dark time for my family.

Naturally, my mother resented it. She knew that the 14% they gave could have been useful in those harshest times. She had waited on God’s return on her faithfulness, and it never came. And I was pissed at God. I told him I hated him. I told him that my father was faithful—more faithful than any other—and he OWED my father dignity and money and hope. How DARE he not fulfill his promise of the tithe.

That anger and disappointment followed me for years. I never stopped loving God, but I resented him. Over time, I rejected church, and began to make my own conclusions. Years later, I sat with my dad, discussing the incident. I finally expressed my anger toward God to my father. My dad listened, and he said, “One thing that we missed, is that the return we get on the investment we make in church and God, is not usually monetary. It’s a spiritual growth. It’s an emotional growth. We were waiting on a financial payoff that we had been promised. But instead, we grew as a family. When we lost everything, I grew the most. I became closer to my kids and my wife. And in the end, I’m a better man for it.” But God should have honored what he knew was being taught, shouldn’t he? Doesn’t he honor the faithfulness of those freaky healing ministers, knowing they misrepresent him at times? People still get healed at those carnival-ish healing displays don’t they? Would it have killed God to honor this teaching in our family, knowing we followed what we were taught—right or wrong? I just couldn’t believe my dad wasn’t as bitter as I.

Over the years, my bitterness has waned. I still get confused over it, and a little riled up. But I know now that tithing isn’t just about cash. It’s not about legalism. It’s not anything I was taught that it was. It is about your heart, and giving to something that you truly believe in. Whether it’s Agora or the Red Cross. It’s about your time. It’s about your resources. It’s about your availability. It’s about a greater good, and not a pastor’s paycheck. I now give, but because I believe in what I give to. I know I get back for what I give. But what I get back is more spiritual than monetary. I’m cool with that because I understand it and don’t carry false expectations. And I give “with a joyful heart” as is noted in the scripture.

I talked to my dad about it tonight, and I asked, “Do you look back and regret attending that church?” Surprisingly, he began to sing, “I don’t regret a mile, that I‘ve walked with the Lord.” I was surprised. He responded, “I did what I thought was right at the time. I do regret seeing others get hurt. I regret not knowing enough to prevent that from happening. But I followed my heart.”

Now, I am not against tithing. Not at all. I just want the truth to be told. I don’t want people to think that just because they tithe, they are immune from bankruptcy, accidents, or other hard times. I don’t want people to expect a monetary payback. I want people to know that it’s a heart matter.

Eventually, Robert started a second church in the Oklahoma City area. Our church never grew, but decreased in size. So, his tithes decreased. He became bitter. He had a rent house or two that he gained income from, but he said it was the church’s responsibility to pay his bills. He took a pizza delivery job and made sure we all knew he had to sacrifice because of us. After trekking back and forth to OKC, and becoming more and more agitated, a matriarch of the church sent him a letter outlining what God had told her to tell him. The letter called out an affair he had been having with a married woman in the OKC church. He was enraged and resigned. The church immediately dissolved, to the relief of those who had stayed to the bitter end.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I can't remember her name

I was 21 years old at OU in Norman, and I had switched my major to Construction Science. It seemed like the perfect mix of business, architecture, and engineering. I had toyed with every major I could think of, and finally felt like I had found my niche. Being a female in the field was intimidating to me, but gave me more resolve. You see, I had been hurt by a guy I loved who was emotionally abusive. I believe I wanted to prove to myself and every man out there that they cannot define me.

OU’s program was small, and there were very few females. I was new to the major my second semester in Norman, and knew no one. I had classes all over campus, and realized that one girl I had seen in the college of Architecture was also the same girl in my physics class. Out of familiarity, we became acquaintances.

One day, she asked me to go to lunch with her, and I accepted the invitation. We went to a food court that was packed with students. We looked in vain for a place to sit, and she turned to me and asked, “Hey, you wanna go upstairs and sit in one of the club offices?”
“Sure” I said, relieved to get away from the crowd.
I began to follow her up a staircase, and before I could put my foot on the 3rd or 4th step, she turned around and asked, “We’re going to the GLBA room. Is that OK?”
I shrugged, “Sure!”
“Do you know that GLBA stands for?”
“Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Alliance. Is it still OK?”

I don’t remember my exact feeling except shock. We walked into a room filled with old chairs and a sofa. She verbally greeted a few people and introduced me. I sat and ate my pizza, as my mind began to swirl. I’m a modern girl, right? I can handle this, right? How could I have missed it? The short hair, boyish gait, masculine clothes, construction major . . . . . . . . .(wait, that one was SO not fair!). I had never connected her to the gay community. I sat and ate my pizza in silence, as my mind raced.

We left the building, and walked to class together after eating. I remember passing people she knew, and they said “Hello”. In my mind, she greeted half the campus, and they all knew she was gay, and they all thought I was her lover!!!!! In reality, I’m sure she only greeted 1 or 2 people. But I had become paranoid. She explained that she was in a serious relationship and was trying to buy a house. I was relieved to know she wasn’t interested in me.

I wish I could say I became closer to her or it didn’t affect me. But it did bother me. Deeply. I was raised Christian. Homosexuals were . . . . .different from us. I struggled for a few weeks with this issue. I had never known anyone openly gay. How did I feel about gay people? Finally, I concluded that it wasn’t the fact that her “lifestyle” offended my faith, it was about the perception others had of me. It was all about me.

I avoided her for about 2 weeks. I came to class just in the nick of time and sat away from her. I left immediately after class, clamoring for the door before she got there and racing away. I was afraid to be seen with her. I was afraid of what others would think. I was, essentially, rejecting her friendship over a technicality. She had opened up to me, and I had rejected her. I felt badly, knowing I was being a huge bitch. I felt guilty. I felt confused. I had already been questioning my religious beliefs before she came along. (College does that to ya!) And suddenly I was rethinking my views on homosexuals—actually, I was defining my own views instead of adopting anyone else’s.

Finally, I remember realizing, “I know I am not gay, and God knows I am not gay, and she knows I am not gay. That’s all that matters. Everyone else is just judging.” Those brief sentences powered their way through my brain over and over again, breaking down those fears.

I walked into physics one day, and sat next to her. I felt horrible, knowing I had no right to be her friend. I didn’t deserve her friendship. She looked at me and simply asked, “ Are you better now?”
“Yeah, I’m fine now.”

And we picked up where we left off, never discussing my absence. She knew I had struggled, and she gave me time to do so. She showed me amazing grace. I remember many discussions in the following months about her family, the dysfunction, the abuse, the intense rejection. Many of my views on homosexuality were formed from the honesty of that friendship.

After that semester, I never saw her again. I believe she flunked out of school, as she feared she would. I can’t even remember her name. But I will never forget her friendship. The lessons I learned about friendship. selfishness, and acceptance will follow me forever.

Friday, February 6, 2009


A wave of depression covers me like a lead blanket. I am trapped under it, and stopped trying to free myself. At times like this, love isn't enough. I don't know what is. I keep going, but not without resentment. I know eventually the blanket will lift a little, the pressure will ease a little. But that is hardly solace for me right now. I'm angry, and I want more than a little less pressure. I want the whole damn thing to disappear.

I was working sudoku tonight, and it dawned on me why I like puzzles so much: it's the only time my mind is so focused that I just . . . . .stop . . . . . .feeling. I focus so much on the puzzle at hand, that I forget about my existence.

I thought I had overcome some of this curse, and returning to it with such force makes me more depresssed. More shaken. More disappointed in myself and in God. I watched my dad this evening as he sat in silence--anxious, heavy hearted. I remembered him telling me once that he has battled depression for years. I was shocked, but now I see the outward signs that I used to ignore. He doesn't mask his mental battles as well as he used to. I realized how much both of my parents have struggled silently within themselves, donning a great facade for the world to see. And so, I look around and don't see much hope for my dark cloud to dissipate. If this man of God, this faithful follower, this great witness that I call my father cannot shake the curse, then how can I?

I am tired of praying about it. I'm tired of . . . . . . . hoping. Surely God has more for me than this. I don't remember being given any choices about my personality, my body, my skills, my future, before I was born. This is NOT the life I would have chosen for myself.