Three Pillars of Male Privilege in America

I believe that many women would agree with the assertion that white male privilege is a significant problem, not only to women but to our society as a whole. As a white male of more than sixty years, I am embarrassed to admit that it took the #MeToo movement of October 2017 to get me to even begin to understand what women have been shouting about for well more than forty of those years. Perhaps it took me so long because I suffer from the not-as-rare-as-it-should-be syndrome myself.

Let me also be clear that what I have to say reflects only the society and culture that I know. I am an American, born and raised mostly in the South. As a result, I can claim no actual knowledge about other cultures, societies, ethnicities, or any other group. However, I believe that what I have discovered will resonate across all of those divisions in some form and to some degree. My hope is that this examination of what I have come to envision as three keys to understand and call out white male privilege will begin a much-needed dialog, both internal to every man and external to our society and its relationships to women.

It’s important to know that I have been working with women who have experienced a broad array of trauma for well more than a decade. For reasons that humble me, and rather confused me until very recently, my work with them has been mostly successful. I have my own theories about the necessity for these women to work with a safe male in order to heal wounds caused by men that are out of the scope of this article. Yet, I want it to be noticed that after all of this work with some quite wounded women, I still did not recognize my own deafness to what women have been telling us all for years.

The problem with American white male privilege is that it is insidious. This article is a beginning to what I hope will be an on-going excavation into why that might be true and what the cost of it is and will be in the future. There are at least three pillars supporting American white male privilege. One way of thinking about how to get to these issues is as though they are archeological digs: in order to find the pillars, you have to dig through a series of compartmentalized and sealed chambers of the male psyche, each accessible only if you dig through the one above.

One core difficulty of addressing American white male privilege is that the trap door to the very first subterranean chamber has not only been bolted and locked, but also has been hidden deep within the male consciousness since the very first breath baby boys take. It is as though the first portal to the top three chambers has been covered over with years of dirt and is difficult to find, even if one is looking for it.

I now believe that women have been pointing at the door under all of that dirt for decades, at least. However, because of the blindness that white male privilege engenders, men simply have not been paying attention. Most men have not understood the frustration their blindness leads to for women. On the whole, men have dismissed that frustration as a kind of fundamental feminine flaw, an emotional upheaval that they could “just deal with” if they wanted to.

Embarrassingly, it took the #MeToo movement pounding on the trap door to get my attention. And it is my bet that many of the male readers of this article are scratching their heads, wondering what the hell I am on about. Well, let me share some of my recent insights, and perhaps they will finally pay attention.

And let me add that if you are a male and thinking to yourself “I already know about this,” consider that you may be part of the problem and not as “evolved” as you think you are.

Pillar One: Men Do Not Understand Women

The very first insight I had at the beginning of this exploration was that men do not understand women, not at all. I thought I did, but clearly, I did not. I can no longer even tell myself that I do in any meaningful way; that, I know, would be lying. It took a lot for me to dig into that fundamental understanding. Yet, it became clear at one point that, if I did not admit that I don’t understand women, I had to admit something worse: that I was a closet sexist. That hit me like a brick.

Some of my earliest memories around sexuality come from my experiences in middle and high schools. I was a sensitive boy, especially sensitive around girls. I clearly remember sitting at lunch at a table, the only boy at a table of girls. They talked openly in front of me about “girl things” as though I was not there. I was virtually invisible and quite uncomfortable. I believe, though, that I was possibly one of the very few non-threatening boys in the school or that would never have happened.

What our current president referred to in the Access Hollywood scandal and dismissed as “locker room talk” is real. I remember becoming physically ill when I heard what other boys said about my female friends, yet I was unable to do anything to stand up for them. Not only was it a dangerous thing to do, but there were also no guidelines or support for doing so.

I remember seeing what I thought of then as gangs of male students moving through the hall literally yelling obscenities about women as a whole. I was embarrassed, intimidated, and angry. But I said nothing for the same reasons that I did not speak up in the locker room.

With these experiences (and more) and my daily current work with women, surely I understand them, right? I mean, they tell me just about everything about their lives and challenges. Yet, as I now see it, almost all of those discussions carefully skirted around the deeper memories and emotions stirred up in them by the #MeToo movement. I work diligently to engender and prove my trustworthiness to my clients from day one. Yet, even so, either they did not trust me to receive what they really wanted to say, or much worse, they were telling me and I completely could not hear them.

It was only when I had the insight that maybe I didn’t understand women as much as I thought I did that I realized the best course of action was to: “Sit down. Shut up. And listen.”

Guys, let me tell you that women are telling you exactly what you need to know about them. You are just not listening. As long as you think that you already know about them, you are wrong and you are adding to the problem, no matter how sensitive you think you are.

“You’re not talking about me, right?”
“I’ve always loved and protected women!”
“How can you not see what all I am doing for women?”
“How can you say that I don’t understand you? Haven’t I proven myself?”

If these are your words, you are part of the problem. That is an expression of a masculine language intended—subtly for certain—to deflect and shut down further dialog, not open it. Try this instead: Sit down. Shut up. And listen.

Put your ego and sense of bruised self-importance aside and really listen to what women say. Don’t take it personally and don’t try to defend yourself. Know that is a dead giveaway as to your own lack of understanding and your own white male privilege.

Once you do that and prove that you are really interested in hearing them, you will find that women will begin to talk to you about what is important. Once you do that and let them know you are giving up on the idea that you know anything and are willing (at last) to listen, you will likely hear the words, “Thank you.”

Only then can a real dialog and understanding begin.

Here is one more thing to know: Women don’t understand men, either. However, I have come to believe that 1) they know that, and 2) they understand men better than men understand women. Why? For safety. It is axiomatic in the animal world that weaker animals need to be smarter than the stronger ones—the prey needs to know more about the predator than the reverse. There is more about this later, but it is certainly relevant to know at this point, as well.

Pillar Two: Boys And Girls Are Socialized Differently

Among the first things that you will come to realize when you begin to listen to women is that girls and boys are socialized completely differently. The effects of that difference in socialization are profound. Both men and women grow up within two separate silos of socialization. Though we think they are the same, they are not.

Babies are color-coded at birth: boys are blue; girls are pink. This actually does not seem as true about babies born in the 2000s as it was for most of my childhood and adult life, including having two sons of my own. But this color-coding has absolutely contributed to the confusion around socialization of children and the effects on us as adults.

Color-coding has helped generations know how to deal with babies. The question, “Is it a boy or a girl?” is easily answered by what color clothing they wear. I instantly know whether I’m dealing with a “little man” or a “little girl.” (Notice the subtlety of the difference.)

The fundamental question, though, is why does it matter whether the baby is a boy or girl? The answer is so that we will know which socialization program we need to switch to in order to properly interact with the child. It would not do to treat a “little man” the same as a “little girl.”

My partner and I were walking back from the local store recently when we passed a young man sitting on the step of their front porch, watching his child play on the sidewalk. As we passed by, the child fell forward on the concrete and began to cry. The father did not move but instead said, “You’re OK. Come on. Get up and come over here. Let me take a look.” Until that point, I really could not tell whether the child was a boy or girl. Once he said that though, the gender of the child was clear. It was a boy.

Imagine the same scenario, but instead, the father rushed over to the crying child, helped her up, gave her a big hug. The differences in socialization are not even subtle when you begin to look for them.

These differences in socialization continue into every single aspect of the rearing of a child: schools, neighborhoods, churches, playgrounds, family constellations… on and on. Within the silo, it is almost impossible for the child to tell what is going on for the most part. Occasionally, one child will say of her sibling (usually the girl):

“Why does he get to go hunting, and I don’t?”
“Why do I have to wear a dress, and he doesn’t?”
“Why can’t I play dodgeball, and he can?”
“Why can’t I go out with my friends, and he can?”

Universal answer: “Because he is a boy, and you are a girl.” This is clearly the most frustrating response possible, often leading to fights, slammed doors, screaming, running away, and other “aberrant” behaviors.

Dad says, “What’s that all about?” Mom answers with a shrug, “She’s a girl. That’s just how girls are.”

Granted that these are very broad generalities. I would argue, however, that the boy tends to win in these situations; and the girl loses. Here lie some of the very deep roots of white male privilege, nurtured by the male recipient of white male privilege from his own father, and supported by the mother who, in this case, appears to have surrendered the field. Most likely, her mother did, as well.

Extending this imaginary case further, you might find the mother talking with her daughter later. What might she say? It is probably best to leave that answer to the women because I have no way of knowing. I don’t have any experience within that silo. I can only make assumptions, which by the way, is another deep root of white male privilege. If we do not know, we tend to create stories, and those stories reinforce what we already believe.

But go ahead and try it. What do you believe they talked about? Whatever it is you think, it is a story you made up from your own beliefs. That is actually pretty important. You need to know the stories you tell yourself about life in the other silo.

Gender and Gender Identity

Certainly, some children fall outside of the established gender silos. One of the hard truths about the binary view of gender, in addition to the toll it takes on the socialization of children, is the toll that it takes on people who do not identify with their assigned gender roles. When a Tomboy looks in the mirror as puberty overtakes her and sees her body change, she can feel, and often does feel, betrayed by it—betrayed by her own body.

(Remember that my experience is primarily with women. I can assume that this experience is the same for boys, yet I do not know for certain. I leave that for them to express, or those who have more experience with boys. However, the work I have done with a few young men strongly suggests this is true for them also.)

The sense of confusion, rejection, and isolation of children who fall outside of the established social gender norms appears earlier than most people realize. The deep-seated feeling that the child does not belong anywhere often persists well into teenage and adulthood years, especially if the child does not find adequate support and assistance.

In the current American social system, being outside of established norms is never a good situation. These established institutions, including the silos of socialization, are long-standing and will be very slow to change. Yet, knowing about them is highly valuable to creating change in the American white male privilege system.

Pillar Three: It’s In The Language

In December 2018, I posted on my Facebook wall a video regarding a study sponsored by two advertising agencies of men touching women in a Brazilian nightclub where 86% of women in the country reported being touched without consent. I was not as interested in the study (which was basically not at all scientific, intended only to raise awareness), rather in the responses the article might bring up and the discussion around them. I was not disappointed, and there were a few surprises.

The study involved a dress to be worn by women that had sensors embedded in the cloth. The study was designed to measure where the women were touched and how many times in a bar setting. The dress recorded up to 40 gropes per hour. Perhaps predictably, the majority of the touches were on the back, arms, wrist, neck, waist, and hips. When they showed the study results to the men, they expressed surprise.

The comments on my feed were enlightening in regard to how one might determine whether touch was appropriate or acceptable. My favorite guideline was:

“Imagine you’re in a maximum security correctional facility, in a room of big beefy inmates with no guards around. What kind of touching would you be uncomfortable receiving from any of them?

“Let that guide you. If you wouldn’t want to be behind bars with a guy touching you that way, then don’t do it to her unless you know her and know that you have explicit permission to do it.”

There was a predictable discussion with comments from men indicating that women should be aware of how they are dressing and where they are going. After all, some asked what women should expect when they go to a bar? Other women indicated that they didn’t go to bars for just that reason. These are both expressions of and a cost of white male privilege, which the study reflected also exists in Brazil, as well as America.

Of course, women should be able to dress however they want and go wherever they wish without being treated inappropriately or made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Apparently, though, many men who responded did not agree, and some women had simply given up.

Still, that is not what got my attention.

There were a couple of discussions between men that expressed some form of the defensive comments referenced in Pillar One that are sure signs they are not listening to women. Another was, to my eye, a somewhat benign exchange about how NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming) might consider the issue. But then there was this from a woman:

“You got some dudes on here that don’t know how to not sound like a predator.

“That’s all I’m going to say here, but, seriously, some of them need to check their level of defensiveness as an indicator of possible predatory tendencies in thinking and speaking (likely behaving, too)—even if, or should I say, ESPECIALLY if, they are currently unaware (ostensibly) of these tendencies.”

Here is the key observation again: “…that don’t know how not to sound like a predator.”

Suddenly, I realized that underneath the social silos, supporting the separation of girls and boys, is language. Boys and girls are taught two different languages: boys, a predatory language; girls, a submissive one. Take a look at these statements that I regularly hear female clients speak about hearing as they grew up:

Don’t make waves.
Don’t be too much.
Be nice.
You’re so sweet! or Be sweet!
What would They think?
Give ____ a hug.

Then imagine saying those same things to a boy, instead of what men generally heard growing up:

Be strong.
Stand up for yourself!
You can do it! You’re a winner!
Get up and get it done!
You can do anything you want.

The situation is that these kinds of messages, these fundamental differences in language, are constantly and consistently reinforced throughout the children’s rearing. They simply do not know any better, other than when girls begin to notice the differences. Yet, girls, as well as women, are mostly not heard, which is another reason that such privilege is so pervasive and insidious in the white male culture of America.

Healing Begins With Men

The only way to address American white male privilege, and to begin to heal the wounding it has caused, is for men to wake up and make some internal changes. I heard over and over again that the only effective force for change is men who recognize and stand up against privilege. “No one listens to women,” has been a constant and true statement throughout this entire excavation.

That men actually do begin the work is the only way white male privilege can be addressed in America—the only way to stop the constant demeaning, diminution, and outright threats that women face on a daily basis. Period. That’s it. If men do not come to the defense and aid of the women that we say we love, we are all closeted sexist liars.

If you are in, here is what you do:

Stop talking. Stop defending. Really listen.

Understand that you fundamentally do not understand. Make that your baseline. When you are talking with women about anything that they think is important, do not assume that you know what they are talking about. Pay attention to them exclusively and practice active listening: ask questions, reflect back what you think you heard and make sure you got it right.

Pay attention to your own language.

Pillar Three postulates that the languages taught to boys and girls is different. I hope that you are properly impressed with how subtle that is. This is not only about what society teaches children. You need to recognize the effects of the programming on your own psyches and worldview. Your thoughts, reactions, and behaviors are fundamentally based on the language you have been taught. And the way to catch and change that programming is to pay attention to your own words.

One strategy for catching yourself is by listening to other men and doing your best to disambiguate what they are saying and the stories they are telling themselves. You can bet that you are doing the same.

Be brave. Take action.

I was outside working in the lawn not too long ago when I heard a young man walking down the street and talking loudly on the phone to his male friend. I mean very loudly. The words his friend was apparently using about his girlfriend—and women in general—was disgustingly sexist. I was shocked and surprised, and he was gone before I could get my wits together. Once out of sight, it was too late; and frankly, I was afraid to speak up, even if I had the chance. I still regret that.

Make space for women to be heard.

In general, women are not heard. They are talked-over, their opinions are negated or minimized, or they are simply ignored. On more than one occasion I have been told that a woman made suggestions several times that were simply not regarded as valuable. That is until a man made the same suggestion and got credit for the idea.

When you really start to listen, you will find that women bring a lot to any discussion. They think differently and they see things differently. That kind of out-of-the-box thinking is extremely valuable in understanding how to be more creative. And they should get credit for that!

From now on, do not let other men demean or denigrate women. Stand up for them at every opportunity. This is what it takes to be an ally, and women want (and need) allies in their cause to be treated, if not equally, at least decently.

Learn about institutionalized sexual harassment and abuse.

Take courses and workshops if you need to in order to better inform yourself about the topic. These courses are not only about sexual abuse, but also the structures that make it possible to exist. You will learn a great deal that you don’t know, including what you do not know about how white male privilege shows up in your own psyche. You will see that it does.

Suggest (or insist) that your employers and other organizations in which you participate sponsor such training for its staff and members, as well.

Spread the word.

Guys, we are all in this together. Talk to your male friends about this issue. Recruit them as allies or at least deal with their misogyny when you see it. Call them out, too. If they don’t like it, then you might consider changing friends.

Here is a simple thing to do. Men tend to talk over or interrupt women when they are speaking. When you see that happen, set an example. Let everyone know that you want to hear what she says, to let her finish. It is really difficult for people in a group to ignore you, as a man, indicating your interest in hearing the woman out. That is a very clear statement and example for other men in the group.

This is important. By paying attention and taking on this challenge, men working with women can begin to chip away at the current dysfunction of our social systems. It is going to be a longer-term struggle and not quick or easy at all. Yet the cost of doing nothing needs to be ranked as completely unacceptable, which it is.

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Elder Parents Journey: Tender Moments

There are ten thousand things I would rather be doing than what I am doing right now. Looking through literally hundreds of personal files and photographs is both interesting and heart-rending. The most poignant from today was a birthday card my mom gave my dad in 2013.

It reads: “To my Husband. We’ve shared so much since we were married – our plans, our work, our fun, and every day I’ve found new reasons to love you… Even the challenges we’ve faced have made me realize how strong our relationship is, and how much happiness you’ve brought to my life. And I want you to know I’ll only love you more as the years go by.” She added, “Our love will be ‘eternally’.” Jo”

Then, in 2014 she added the note “I still love you.” And in a weakening hand in 2015, “Sweeter as the years go by!!!! Love u more.” In 2016 she added, “Nothing has changed except I love you even more! No other person in this world could have been as good to me as you have!!! We will be together FOREVER (Thank the Lord). Yours, Jo.”

I have no idea what to do with that card. Perhaps it would bring them joy; perhaps pain. So, like so many other things, I leave it in the envelope on his desk and wait for guidance.

Today my dad said that he had no idea how much my mom depended on him. She looks for him whenever she awakens from her frequent naps, and if he is not there she goes to find him. She is his constant companion, and he hers.

He does his best to keep her as strong and healthy as possible. He encourages her to eat when she is not particularly hungry, to drink more fluids, to walk even though he cannot yet walk with her. He keeps his eye on her to make sure she is safe and doesn’t fall, even though it is he in most danger of falling.

Dad isn’t supposed to stand without someone to support him. The stroke affected the stability of his left knee and he loses his balance if his weight shifts back to his heels. However, as I left them this evening, he stood up carefully from his wheelchair, wobbled just a bit, and took my hand with a firm grip to say, “Thank you for everything you are doing for us.”

I signed out and made it to my truck.


Follow the story from the beginning. Previous posts:
Elder Parents: The Journey Begins
Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans
Elder Parents Journey: Heart of the House
Elder Parents Journey: Meeting House
Elder Parents Journey: Spirit of the Land

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Elder Parents Journey: Spirit of the Land

My father always had a connection with his land and property that could be called shamanic, though he would never use or approve of that term. One of the key characteristics of shamanic practice is that it is rooted in the Earth and implies a relationship with the “spirits of the land.” For that reason and many others, shamanic practitioners can be called caretakers of the land.

HouseBackYardMy parents lived in many places in their years together. In each one, my father always enhanced the look and feel of the landscape and took good care of the buildings. He almost always constructed some structure–a shed, storage, or workshop sometimes complete with a couch and air conditioning.

He remained alert for needed repairs and took care of them right away. When they decided to sell (a choice that is always up to be changed), my father said that the only thing of importance he knew of that needed to be done was to repair a strip of joint paper that had come loose in a corner of the garage. It was about two feet long.

I spoke with the next door neighbor while visiting last weekend. Dan had previously expressed interest in possibly buying the house when my parents put it on the market. Because he had asked, I told him that they may be close to deciding to sell, though for reasons of the VA assistance application and possibly Medicaid funding it would be quite a while. He remarked about how well dad had taken care of the place.

One time a family that had walked the neighborhood for more than 20 years told Dan that the house did not seem to have changed since the first time they saw it. The only difference they noticed was the improvements my father made.

Such care and improvements were always couched in the language of value. It made no sense to my father to let his property fall apart and decrease its value over time. He sees a property in terms of its investment value… or so he says. I also see that he is proud of what he has done, and I believe that he loves the places that he has lived in, regardless of what he expresses about property value.

Perhaps “property value” is his best expression of caring for the Spirit of the land. Yet, I know that his feeling for it goes deeper than what he admits. He just doesn’t have acceptable words for it.

Of course, this is my view, a view of a shamanic practitioner in this contemporary social context. And from that worldview, I believe we — all humans — have a deep, thousands-of-years-old relationship to the Spirits of the land, whether we understand or even acknowledge it.

Humans have had a deep connection with the land and nature for well more than 100,000 years. Is it reasonable to believe that our current separation from them by concrete, asphalt, and steel can erase that animistic core? I think not. I cannot even imagine how our species can completely sever that most precious relationship.

My father has what we all have: an innate shamanic connection to the land. It may show up for many in various disguises and descriptions over time. Still, I do not believe that we can survive without it any more than we can water and air.

I can easily envision an alternate future in which my father meets the many Spirits of all of the places that he has lived. And in that vision, I see him accept their gratitude.


Hotel_Ella_300Follow the story from the beginning. Previous posts:
Elder Parents: The Journey Begins
Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans
Elder Parents Journey: Heart of the House
Elder Parents Journey: Meeting House

Posted in End of Life, General, Society, Spirituality | 2 Comments

Elder Parents Journey: Meeting House

I returned to the house on Thursday, less than a week later. While there was plenty to attend to, the primary point of this visit was to complete the interaction with the house begun the week before. I was not looking forward to it. Delivering unpleasant news is never enjoyable.

That evening, I found a candle, placed it on a table in the living room, and brought in my drum, rattles, and the medicine bag that I always carry in my truck. I sat for a while, gathering my thoughts and focusing on my intention to open an ongoing dialog with House. When I was ready, I rattled the perimeter of the room, all of the windows, and the furniture. Then, I offered an invitation to House and all other inhabitants to join me. I had unpleasant news to share.

I stood in the middle of the room and waited silently. House did not take very long to join me. When it felt present—and perhaps some other ghosts, as well—I spoke my full name aloud and announced myself as the son of Curtis and Jo Starnes by their full names. I spoke my grandparents’ names as well, in order to establish my place in their lineages.

Then, I revealed the sad news aloud. My parents would not be returning. They have a new, safe home to live in now, though it was not by their choice. I felt my heart cringe to hear the words out loud. I sat and began to play my drum.

I reminded House about the last evening they had slept in their room. I reminded it that it had witnessed my father falling in the garage and against the wall earlier that evening. Then, later in the night, House had witnessed him falling and being unable to get up from the floor. I showed the images of flashing lights, and the ambulance as it arrived. I had not seen this, but I did my best to tap into the memory of House.

I replayed my own very clear visual memories of first seeing him in the hospital. I remembered the scramble for their next home when the decision was made to discharge him to skilled nursing days later. He would not be able to return home for recovery.

I then remembered them both in the skilled nursing facility, the quarantine from a virus that my mom carried unsuspected. It was a difficult time for them; they rarely left their hospital-like room for four weeks, since another infection broke out in their wing.

In 21 days, the Medicare payments ran out and dad was to be discharged from skilled nursing at the end of the week. We had 3 days to find new accommodations and 10 days to move them. We were lucky. A small two-bedroom apartment in a well-respected elder care home was available. They moved in on the 15th of February. I said to House that they would not be returning.

As I continued to drum, I told House that I would be coming there fairly often to begin to clear things up that were left undone. I needed a safe place to rest while doing so, and that I needed to clear out the office that I knew had become its heart. I expressed that I understood, but it was my parents’ desire that I do it rather than a stranger they might hire.

I then asked what House wanted from me in return. What could I do to make the transition easier? I received a very specific image of how to shift the spirit of House away from the office: an altar made of the photographs posted on dad’s computer desk. That seemed perfect, and I said aloud, “I can do that.”

After a while, I played the call-back and returned to ordinary reality. I blew out the candle, put away my tools, and went to sit outside for a brief while. All was done the best I could do it. The next day, I would build the altar.

It was a rough night. I did not sleep well at all. I could not tell whether it was allergies or a cold, but I hardly slept. When I would fall asleep, I would awaken unable to breathe through my nose at all, even when trying to sleep sitting upright. Sometime during the early morning, I wondered whether the house was angry and trying to drive me out. I certainly felt like leaving but didn’t have the energy. However, later, I wondered whether I had actually tapped into House’s shock and grief over the news.

I surrendered trying to sleep as gray dawn crept into the room. I had some coffee, a boiled egg, and dry toast, then made my way to the living room to rearrange the furniture for the altar. Once I removed the photos from dad’s desk, I arranged them similarly to how he had put them on the face of the doors of the armoire desk.

Although the furniture arrangement did not feel right, I was done with the altar for the day. Then, I turned my attention to the office itself. All day, I held a running dialog with House, sometimes aloud and other times with my inner voice and ears. I asked for its help to make some decisions about what to keep and what to discard when it seemed right. After all, at this time, House might know my father better than I. By the end of the morning, we had cleared several bags of trash and made many trips to the recycling bin.

I did go visit later in the afternoon, though I missed the facility’s executive director that I wanted to have a chat with. I was exhausted and it showed. I left after just a short while to run errands and go to the house, ate some soup, and called it a day.

I awoke the following morning, Saturday, clear-headed. The allergy medications recommended by my sister to manage symptoms seemed to have worked. I woke early, determined to get back to work. I again rearranged the furniture into a new configuration that I thought of when I woke up. The new arrangement was perfect; I thanked House for the inspiration. The altar was placed against an empty wall in the living room at the end of the hall to the office, and could clearly be seen from there.

In the office, I uncovered years of letters, cards, and memorabilia that House and I determined my father would have thought to be “of no current value.” My energy was waning, though, as I was still struggling against the effects of the allergies or cold. By late afternoon, it was clear that I would not return to the apartment that day. I called my dad at 4:00 pm to let him know. He was asleep and thought it was 4:00 am. It was an understandable mistake. The sky was darkened by the heavy clouds of an impending storm. I reminded him that supper was at 5:00 and that he and mom needed to hurry to get ready.

That night I found a way to plug my laptop into the oversized monitor in the living room. House and its ghosts and I watched a World War II documentary (dad is a veteran) and another more contemporary movie from my saved movies list. It was a great break.

I awoke on Sunday to the sounds of distant thunder and rain. I finally felt more myself again. House felt much more peaceful, as well. I made it a leisurely morning and even sat for a while on the covered back patio to watch the gentle rainfall.

I packed up in the early afternoon and went to the apartment. I found the executive director in her office, so we got a chance to chat. I picked up some papers for the VA application and headed to the apartment where I found my parents in their wheelchairs, putting away laundry, so I helped. That done, I settled into the small couch for a chat.

My sister joined us after a while and the four of us had a fairly rare opportunity to visit with little of importance to discuss and decide. And then, my father brought up that he thought that with a little more physical therapy and practice they could go back home. The topic always comes up, and it always hurts my heart. That, my sister and I and everyone else knows, is impossible.

And then my mother joined the conversation, more lucid and clear-eyed than I have seen her be in a while. “I like it here,” she said emphatically. “We should sell the house.” There was not much discussion after that. My mother has always run the home from behind the scenes. So, in that instant, everything changed. After a brief struggle, my father came on board and was soon dictating when to sell and how much needed to be done to make the house ready. In the end, he announced, “I believe we are all on the same page.”

I realized on the drive home that the steadfast, almost possessive bond between House and my parents had clearly shifted. Not only did I feel more welcome, but the loving longtime relationship that bound House to them had been significantly altered. I could almost see both House and my father release their grips. House understood in a way that I don’t believe he ever will.

There is much more to the relationships we have to our homes than is obvious or recognized in our culture. Much more.


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Elder Parents: The Journey Begins
Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans
Elder Parents Journey: Heart of the House

Posted in End of Life, General, Learnings | 4 Comments

Elder Parents Journey: Heart of the House

Houses are built to be containers of joy, safety, and security. That is what they are designed for, what architects intend, and builders infuse in their walls. Houses thrive when their purpose is fulfilled and suffer when it is not.

Every home has a heart. For many, it is the kitchen where food is prepared and the joy of preparation abounds. For others, it is the dining room where the blessings of food are eaten and prayers are offered in gratitude. For others, it might be where the family gathered or the room in which entertainment ruled. Every home has a heart somewhere, and you can feel where that might be.

This house is very empty now, even though most of the furniture still rests exactly where it was when the stroke happened and lives changed. There is no joy anymore, no welcoming presence, no real holding for me. It’s simply a place I go to rest while I am in town to do the business of tying loose ends.

I don’t want to, but I return to my father’s office again to scrutinize his files. Many are yellowed with age, and there are a few onion-skin thin copies dotted with ancient letters from a Navy typewriter probably discarded decades ago. Some of these are important, though fading. I scan them and store them in the Cloud, reflecting on the astonishing reality shift this simple act represents.

A couple of dozen photos adorn the doors of the cabinets above his desk. About half of them are family, the rest I do not recognize. They must be friends. I assume they know about mom’s and dad’s new life.

Again, I feel observed by many ghosts. Those photos have to go.

Then, I realize that this is the heart of the house now. This is where my father spent most of his time while my mother napped. Not the kitchen my mother “divorced” years ago or the dining room they have not used in possibly a year, and certainly not the immense family room with its gigantic, rarely used television. My father’s office has become the heart of this house.

The ghosts all live here now. That is why I work from the dining room and at least partially why I find it difficult to be in that space. There is no room for me.

Suddenly, in a flash, I understand. No one has explained to the house what has happened. It is still waiting for my parents to come home. Very likely, it thinks of me more as an intruder, since I had not visited very often.

In our culture, we tend to think of houses as “things” — something separate, inanimate, and “out there.” However, that is not the case. Houses have their own spirit, their own essence, their own awareness infused in them not only by the builders but also by those who live within them.

The relationships that grow between a house as a home and those whom they protect is important. Some relationships are not good, as when the owners do not take care of the property or building. Yet my parents took very good care of their home for a very long time.

Simply put, this house misses my parents.

I know what I need to do, yet it is not the right time. So, I rise from the desk and cross the room to the doorway, turn off the light. The room turns gray in semi-dusk light. I close the door, rest my hand on it from the hallway for a moment, and say, “Be at peace.”


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Elder Parents: The Journey Begins
Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans

Posted in End of Life, General, Relationship | 5 Comments

Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans

My first job was at a funeral home in the days when ambulances were part of funeral home services before EMS. I know what it was like to respond to heart attacks and strokes and more in the middle of the night.

I know what it was like behind the scenes when the mortician calls for assistance with a body after an autopsy of suicide at 3:00 am. I know what embalming is like, what it entails, the color of it first hand. I’ve stood as an usher outside of viewing rooms and watched over the families as they navigated both the known and foreign waters of final loss, so I know that world of service, as well.

And frankly, I would not change those memories. They are part of who I have become.

So, as I sat with all of those memories in the conference room of another funeral home. Angel, appropriately named, was my guide into another phase of my parents’ passing: the prearrangement they discussed but never got around to. There we were, she and I, delving into what my parents might want as their everlasting statement to a world they will never see.

It’s not about them, of course, but about those left behind. It’s about family and expectations when they could really care less except for whatever their decisions might bring to their children’s children’s children.

Funeral homes are consciously designed, and every aspect of them, from marketing to services provided, are focused on making the important choices easy and comfortable. I have no problem with that. I need that support, that assurance… the affirmation that they have this. It’s one less thing I have to deal with. And so my experience as an employee at the funeral home makes sense. I know that world. My anxious discomfort can joke with Angel, and she gets it.

It surprised me that my parents opted for cremation since their fundamentalist religion espouses that they will need their physical bodies when the Messiah returns. It surprised me less when they specified that they did not want a memorial. In my father’s words, “There’s no one left to attend. Everyone is gone.” At 92 years, that’s mostly true.

Still, having no memorial at all leaves out a lot of relationships: children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren at the least, plus people in the church they attended for decades, and others who might want to pay their respects. Thinking in this way reflects more of their feeling of growing isolation with age than true clarity.

Personally, I think that the decision rests with my sister and me. Funerals and memorials are not for the deceased; they are for the living. They are a part of the healing process of grief. Angel spoke about that. Even though I was way ahead of her on the topic, I let her give me her thoughts uninterrupted. There was something in her words that suggested she was working on some of her own sadness.

Working in a funeral home carries its own special weight. Dealing with the emotional expression of shock, pain, and grief are difficult when confronted on a daily basis. Even when not working with families suffering a loss, every aspect of the workplace and work is about death.

When Angel and I finished our discussion, we rose and shook hands. She walked me to the entrance door, and we each returned to our routines and plans.

It was a beautiful day outside. I paused for several minutes to gaze at a jetliner cruising high overhead against a thinly clouded, bright blue sky. And for some reason, I remembered myself as a boy, lying on the grass at the seventh tee of Leon Valley Golf Course as my father teed off. The warmth of the sun on my face was exquisite.


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Elder Parents: The Journey Begins

 

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Elder Parents: The Journey Begins

Having both parents suddenly go into an assisted living facility is stunning. It has put me in a place that I never expected—that WE never expected—and it is difficult in a way that I am not sure people who have never had the experience can understand. None of my father’s planning applies. Not the will nor the trust they let go of several years ago (I believe from bad legal advice) nor the cabinets of papers he meticulously kept. All of that is, in his words, “of no value.”

They have been forcibly scaled down from a 2000 square foot house to less than a 500 square foot apartment. On one side of that sieve is years of furniture and memorabilia, and food and supplies purchased, never to be eaten or used. On the other, a Spartan space of basic comforts and limited potential. Don’t get me wrong. They enjoy their new home. It is safe, comfortable, and supportive. They talk about going home, but they also are coming to know that it is impossible now.

There was one moment when I was working in my father’s office, an hour or so after beginning to dig through years of papers and files, when I just stopped. My mind suddenly went on “Pause” and I looked around this room. Photographs of family and friends, many of whom are now gone, were posted on every wall. Certificates, accolades, and photographs of prominent people he admired.

Office equipment, relics of a long-gone era, stood dusty and unused. File cabinets of paper files stretching back more than 75 years resting in black metal cabinets waited for relevance. The flotsam and jetsam of waves of time were everywhere I looked. Notes that had meaning only for my father lay abandoned on the desk and worktable. Paper clips, rubber bands, pens, random screws, keys to unknown locks… a deputy badge from the time he helped to find a murderer and a pocket watch inscribed “The Greatest Dad.”

But what struck me most was that the room, as the house as a whole, was frozen in time. At one point, my father stood up and walked out of that room. He did not know it, but he would never return. It was a haunting and indescribable feeling: the room frozen in time and waiting for a return that would never happen.

The stroke had advanced slowly. First, it took his balance so that he slumped to the floor at the HEB then asked for help to get to his truck, where he fell again. He thought he was just tired. He didn’t really remember falling against the garage wall while taking the groceries inside, but the helpful neighbor noted it. The stroke made itself known when he fell after going to the bathroom that night, and his words slurred as he asked my mother for help. But her dementia told him that he should go to sleep; he would feel better in the morning.

You see, he was her caretaker. It never occurred to him that the roles might suddenly be reversed.

Someone called 911. My sister and I are not really certain who that was. Dad spent a week in the hospital, and several weeks in skilled nursing rehabilitation, progressing remarkably well. Then, there came the move to assisted living where reality seems to be readjusting over time. The dream to go home, to sit once again at his desk and pore over bank accounts and taxes, and for her to fall asleep in her favorite chair while watching television, is gone.

So, I take his place in this office chair surrounded by ghosts. I think about all of the material goods that have accumulated over the decades: gifts, photographs, memorabilia from times past. And I remember his words as I ask about various items that he might want us to bring: “it is of no value.” I see my mother gesturing that it should be thrown away. There is nothing in this home that they want to take into their new life. Nothing at all.

Posted in End of Life, General, Relationship, Society | 7 Comments