I could hear the thud of its footsteps in my head and even feel the blast of warm breath but I did not know its power. I was in my office on a Friday afternoon when the phone rang. On the other side of the phone was a desperate social worker needing my help. She relayed a story that was all too familiar to me. The hospital was doing their routine Friday purge of patients especially for those who did not have insurance. Her client was about to be released even though he was in the last stages of AIDS and could not take care of himself. She wanted to know if we would take him in. At that time we did not have a clinic or medical staff available on the weekends to take care of someone with major presenting medical issues. If we took him in it would be the other residents who would have to take care of him. Residents usually did take care of each other but that was after a connection had been made by living together for a few weeks. They and I felt it was unfair for them to have to look after someone they did not know. They too were sick. Plus I was not sure how much assistance this particular man would need.
I declined and told her that the hospital should keep him for the weekend. I then could have some medical staff and residents at the ready to help him with his problems if he was well enough to do such things as to go to the bathroom and feed himself. A heavy sigh came over the phone. “The hospital will not keep him,” she said. I said of course they will if he is not well enough or has nowhere to go. She almost laughed at me on the other end, “The eight hundred pound gorilla does what it wants and if you get in its way it will crush you. And I am not going to be crushed.” I was nonplussed. It was Friday I had a date that night and now I could see I was going to be challenged to make it. I returned her laugh, “Well let me go to the hospital and see if I can avoid being crushed by the eight hundred gorilla.”
When I arrived at his room the nurses were glad to see me. They explained he refused to get out of bed and get ready to leave. I looked at his wasted body laying in the bed. ‘He does not look very healthy to me. Can he dress himself?’, I asked. He can but he will not. I nodded. “If you do not mind let me talk to him in private.” The nurses left us alone. He looked up at me from the bed and said, “If you help me get dressed I will go; they are not going to keep me,” he said with resignation in his voice. I said well let me get some basic information from you and then we will see what needs to be done.
As I interviewed him he winced whenever he moved. But to be honest he hardly moved. At the end of the interview I asked if I could help him sit up. He said yes. After I struggled to have him sit up on the side of the bed within ten seconds he had collapsed back in the bed. He was in no condition to be released. When the nurses came back they had looks of delightful anticipation which collapsed in almost horror when I told him I could not take him today but if they would hold him for the weekend I would gladly take him on Monday. I was hoping a weekend more in the hospital and he would be stronger but also Monday I would have all of our staff and we could between the six of us make it work. The nurse looked at me in disbelief and said, “You do not understand, the doctor has already signed his release.” I looked at her not amused, “But he is not capable of taking care of himself and he has nowhere to go.” That statement caused a stir I did not want or expect. They dashed out of the room in a panic. I was challenging the system. Now the law, ethics, and money stream were in my favor but not the bureaucracy.
So for the next two hours I merely sat and when asked said I could not take him. Nurses literally cried at my unreasonableness. They knew they could not take him to the curb and simply dump him now. They would have to have a solution I felt comfortable with. So they brought up physical therapists who literally picked up the poor man one on each side and showed me how he could “walk”. I sat down and said we did not have two people strong enough to help him walk. The physical therapist said they already signed paperwork that said he could be released. I said much to my later chagrin that he could not feed himself. They lifted the poor man up in the bed. One held him in place and one placed a cup in his hand and helped him direct it to his mouth. They looked at me as if to say see we told you he could feed himself. I sat down. Next they placed me on the phone with the attending doctor. Now as you may know doctors are the gods of the hospital (well maybe demigods, the board members are the real gods). The doctor asked me what the problem was? I explained why I could not take him. The doctor scoffed at me and said I signed him out believe me he can go. I incredulously asked, “Have you seen him?” It is here the doctor mad an error without thinking he told the truth, “No I have not. I have read his charts and he is able to be released.” You could tell after he said that he had not seen him he was through with me. “Look here.” he declared. “I have signed his release forms and I cannot take that back. He has to be released.” I said ‘why not’. He declared me unreasonable and hung up. I sat back down. Fifteen minutes later I found myself being directed to the office of the head of the hospital’s social work department and also the co-chair of the AIDS coalition.
When I knocked on her door she without looking up told me to sit down. Even though we knew each other she was very formal. ‘Look Michael you have everyone upset. You need to solve this problem.’ I told her I did not have the resources to solve the problem. But I was noticing I was tired of the pounding of the eight hundred pound gorilla and the breath was coming down strongly on my neck. “ You cannot simply say no. You have to offer a solution.’ I said the simplest was to let him stay and I will be here first thing Monday morning. She replied, “We cannot do that, we have already released him.” I sighed in frustration, ‘I have nothing I can offer today.’ She reminded me that my non-profit was dependent on the various organizations in town and I was not building good relationships with this attitude of mine. I sat.
After another fifteen minutes of cajoling me. She sighed in disgust, “I will tell you what I can do.” She presented this plan to me. He would be released but they would rent a hotel room for him, provide transportation to the hotel, for the next three days, and would have a nurse come by twice a day and would provide him with three meals a day. I looked at her bewildered; they would do all of that just so they could release him. Even though I felt a little dirty about the whole situation I agreed.
I called my boss who I had already alerted I thought I was about to cause a shit storm and let him know I had indeed caused a shit storm. I missed my date and because I had forgot in all the ordeal to call and warn her until later that night our non-existent relationship was over. I went by the hotel room every day to see him. He missed his ride to Phoenix Place, our group home for Persons Living With AIDS, to see me on Monday and showed up drunk on Tuesday.
Even though a review of the case with the senior staff found I had done the right thing, the ‘shit storm’ I had caused threatened a major breach with the hospital. We were in the formal stages of signing an agreement to open a clinic with several respite beds for the homeless and needed the hospital’s buy-in. So I had to make a formal apology or supposedly the whole deal would fall through. The clinic came into being.
A few weeks later I saw the original referring social worker and she with a smile on her face asked me, “How did the eight hundred pound gorilla work out for you?” I was sure she knew by now everything that had happened. I grimaced. That was the only comeback I had.
Things were not going as I like them on the vacation. My two daughters were always running ahead and leaving me behind. They were unknowingly, in small ways, being rude to me. I had to consider, how do I change their attitudes without preaching to them or being otherwise punitive? Then it came to me: I would rename and reconstruct our relationship. I would no longer be the Father but become the traveling companion. This simple emphasis over the next two days changed everything. You can leave your father to fend for themself but not your travel companion. Who Knew?
It is a new phase: I am no longer the adventure king but one of three adventurers. My children view the father as indestructible and always in control. The fellow traveler may need help or you want to stay closer to them to keep the group together. You even enjoy your fellow traveling companions more. Fathers are such bores; you have heard all their stories before. The traveling companion has interesting insights.
Of course I miss the father even if the daughters do not. He was able to demand and command things. He had ultimate say. He was the master. But he probably needs to be shelved; the children are their own adventure planners. It was pleasing to hear the oldest talk about how she had led a group of eight of her friends on an adventure to Amicalola Falls. Or to watch the other plan an outing for her and her friends to a coffee shop. And even in China they are mapping out the next day’s activities and how to get there and where to eat. The father is not needed as much.
It used to be I could keep up with their every move. Now by five my feet and the rest of my body are ready to stop. They, with the freshness of youth, have a few more things they have yet to do. So I leave them to their own devices so I can go back to the hotel and collapse until dinner time. I will never have their energy again, which is alright. The more frequent resting has made me even more aware of my surroundings. They see more and do more but my seeing is more pronounced and expansive than when I had endless energy and did not stop.
Having less energy makes me more selective on my activities. I spend more time on things I view as important and less on things I could care less about. Of course I have to be careful I do not miss stretching myself because of my selectivity. So I must have activities that make me think differently and act differently.
All of this transition comes as I celebrate yet another birthday. Birthdays do not mean much to me; new aches and pains come and go. Less flexibility is here. I am a step slower, ten percent less energy. But I am more comfortable in my skin and usually only fall prey to passions that I want. This makes life so much easier. When we returned from our trip overseas, my birthday came the next day after the plane trip. My two daughters feted me very well as their mother was still in China for another week. I was their father and they showed me their appreciation. In their handmade birthday card they made me were these words you are the best father and also the best traveling companion we could ask for. Times are changing. They will always need a little fathering but they are preferring a traveling companion on the rest of the journey of life.
Swinging bridges are not my thing but on this vacation they kept occurring. It seems if you want to get to anywhere in Vancouver or Chengdu you have to cross a swinging bridge. A total of five swinging bridges. And yes they were the kind where your feet feel as though they are going to be swept out from under you. But bridges are always hard to cross when there is something valuable on the other side.
If I am not crossing a bridge I am climbing a mountain. They do not understand that in Savannah the highest mound we have has a cluster of red ants underneath it. So we avoid mounds here. But if you want to see the head of a Buddha built into the side of a cliff then climb you must. If you want to see a Buddhist temple then climb you must. Hell if you want to pick tea they have a ‘hill’ you must climb. Then you can see rolling hills of a tea orchard. Picturesque they say. Of course all of this is ultimately good for you. My soul is better and my health is a little more robust.
So the metaphor is no pain no gain. But I have never liked that metaphor. Pain of course comes from exerting yourself in ways to which your body and soul are not accustomed. But I find the pauses from activity are when I feel the most gain. In Chinese painting there is no one perspective with which to look at the painting. There are many ways to look at a Chinese painting. Likewise in their landscaping it is not on the typical western grid but includes few straight paths. Much of traditional Chinese music is atonal meaning it has no central tone to which the music must adhere. The Chinese in their arts do not necessarily have one way in which to hear and see it.
The pain I often feel in China is the many ways to experience one thing. Of course not every famous Buddhist temple is found at the top of a mountain. Not every river is crossed by a swinging bridge. Not every path is the traditional zig zag. Having said that the Chinese pride themselves on their traditions and their traditional ways. This contradiction probably comes from the formal Confucius teachings of customs and ceremonies and the Taoist teachings is about living in harmony with the universe and bending and stretching with the way things come to you. These two great ways of being are evidenced in the Chinese people.
Much of modern American religion is one sided. It is based on the following of traditions and laws. It does not have the flexibility of Taoism to bend with the wind but stands as an oak against the wind. The ability of religion to look from different perspectives is lost. Thus we are quite comfortable with the Joel Osteen and others gospel of wealth. Their teachings do not include pain only gain. Different perspectives leave us for the most part in pain. But the pain leads to a deep gain. We learn to love those who do not think like us. And with this love comes a desire to change, to be not so judgmental and be more open to the other.
Of course all of this is in the teachings of Jesus. But our cultural eyes interpret them differently. We view ourselves as a land of individuals and they as a land of a people. Both perspectives have good and bad to offer. America is being pushed into developing a new perspective with the changing of the guard from white, heterosexual, Christian to something new. The minorities are gaining a bigger voice. And they insist that their perspectives be heard. Our country is going through a lot of pain adjusting to the new reality we find ourselves in. One can only hope that we garner gain from this.
We are not so different. We tend to look at life through the eyes of the individual. They through the eyes of community. These emphases have their good and bad. In the end it is not the traditions that matters but the love of which the tradition is reminding us. In the end it is not the holding onto that matter what but letting the way guide us to wherever that may be that does.