The Enigma of Departure

Most of the time, when you part company with someone, you fully expect to see them again the next time.

It’s just part of how human interaction works. The expectation of continuity allows so many of our institutions, from family to employment to government, to function.

And yet sometimes, there is a high probability that you could be saying your last goodbye. Managing that is not easy.

My mother is 88 years old this year. She had a stroke over four years ago that has left her disabled and dependent. She lives in a retirement home of her own choosing in California. Each time I visit, saying goodbye requires that I both believe I will see her again and know that I may not.

My father turned 90 years old in January. Obviously, he is in his twilight years. I haven’t seen him in person in four years, for a variety of reasons including, of course, the global pandemic. But we talk frequently on the phone. Each time I say goodbye, I hope we will speak again in a few days but also wonder if I have said all that I feel I need to say to him.

My sons are both adults and mostly independent. They come and go as it suits them. All it would take is some careless driving or an undiagnosed health condition to make that casual wave as they go out the door be the last time we see each other.

My wife was in a hospital in Baltimore, struggling to recover from a serious health emergency during the first half of this year. I was visiting her almost every day. But each time I left for the day, I carried with me the possibility that she might not make it until the next day. If I knew for sure that she was dying, I would not go home. But the doctors and nurses assured me that she’d be there when I returned. I had to trust them. And I know myself enough to know that if I try to get by with my reserve of energy at zero, I won’t survive either. That helps nobody.

So the goodbyes are loaded with silent meaning and unspoken hopes and fears. There is no other way it can be. I cast all my bets on there being a tomorrow with my wife, my children, my father, my mother. And then spin the wheel.

Giorgio de Chirico painting artwork

Eating Dinner in La Mesa

It had been a couple years since my mother was confined to a nursing home due to a stroke.

I was visiting her, as I had been off and on. With her in San Diego and me in Maryland, the visits had to be planned and scheduled based on when I could get time off and when I could get decent air fare.

University Blvd. in La Mesa, California, just down the street from my adequate hotel.

After a long day of being with Mom, I was ready for some time to myself. I decided to have dinner at the relatively new farm-to-table restaurant in La Mesa. Mom had taken me there just before her stroke, so I knew she would have approved.

It was an easy walk from my two-star hotel up La Mesa Boulevard to the restaurant. The place was busy, so I opted to eat at the bar. The bar there has both  indoor and  outdoor seating, and the outdoor stools were less crowded. This being the San Diego area, the dry air was brisk but not unpleasantly cold. I didn’t mind.

It was just me for dinner. I had been working all day to keep Mom engaged and to understand her way of communicating post-stroke, which isn’t easy. I was ready for just letting myself enjoy the moment.

I ordered a margarita for starters, something I usually order in California but hadn’t yet this trip. The bartender was competent but, to be frank, inattentive. She seemed preoccupied by something — perhaps just focusing on her job. But her customers seemed to be an afterthought.

The inattentive barkeep eventually took my dinner order — the vegetable risotto that I’d had when I ate there with Mom. It’s very good and one of the least expensive options on the menu.

I also ordered a glass of red wine to go with it. The margarita was doing it’s thing, but I really thought the wine would be a nice addition to the meal.

When the meal arrived, I enjoyed it while listening to the local news program on the bar TV and observing the bartender and the two women chatting across from me. The risotto steamed in the cool evening air. It was just what I needed.

Except that I could have used a bit more. I could have used some companionable conversation from the bartender, or a fellow diner. It is unsettling to be a paying patron at a restaurant, eating alone, without anyone really taking notice.

I mean really noticing. I can understand a fellow patron not being all that interested in engaging. But the bartender’s job is to tend the bar, yes? Tend to the customers who have arrived at the end of God knows what kind of day for a drink and a meal. Some consideration would be appreciated. Maybe I just didn’t look like the type. Who knows?

Everyone is dealing with something. Bartenders are no different, it seems.

I finished my meal more drunk than I had intended. But the twilight walk back to the motel was pleasant and uneventful. Past the local social services office, past the mini-mall with the Mexican joint and the nail salon. Back to the barely adequate hotel that nonetheless feels safe and peaceful at night.

I got a good night’s sleep.

Do You Have the Password?

I don’t know when this started happening — maybe it’s been happening all along and I just didn’t notice until recently — but Americans have code words and pass phrases that are intended to signal one’s political beliefs. It was when I was visiting my aged mother in California that I finally understood what was going on.

My mother lives in a retirement community where the residents are mostly White people who are politically conservative and go to church regularly (“Christian” in some circles).

My mom introduced me to some of her neighbors and the usual questions were asked of me: Where do you live? Do you have children? What do you do for a living?

At some point in the conversation, one of them asked me whether I thought there was too much regulation in this country. Keep in mind that I read and interpret federal and state regulations for a living, so I thought that they were legitimately asking my professional opinion on the topic.

So I said “It depends — California is a highly regulated state.” I was about to ask whether there was some regulation that they had in mind that they thought was a step too far, but this person dropped the topic entirely and the subject was changed.

In the moment, I found this curious. But later I realized what had happened: I had not passed the test.

If I had said “Yes, there is too much regulation” then I would have been accepted as one of them. Since I didn’t do that — since I wanted to actually talk about the topic instead of using it to signal my belief system — they realized I was not one of them and they didn’t therefore want to have anything more to do with me (“Christians,” remember).

In other words, “too much regulation” is a shibboleth.

A shibboleth is a password used to test someone’s identity. If the question is answered correctly or incorrectly, or if the right code words are used or not used, then identity confirmed! No more discussion required. No need to spend anyone’s time probing further into why people have the views they do. If you’re not part of the clan, then you’re no longer interesting or safe.

There are several shibboleths in play right now, in addition to “too much regulation,” that are used to signal one’s conservative politics:

  • political correctness
  • identity politics
  • pro life
  • voter fraud
  • gay agenda
  • affirmative action
  • government handout
  • entitlements
  • all lives matter
  • parents’ rights (or parental rights)

These words and phrases have been almost entirely stripped of any true meaning and have instead become buzzwords and code.

In other words, one cannot use any of these phrases to in good faith talk about the actual underlying issues because their meaning is now tainted by the underlying associations. It is similar to how the swastika used to be just a Hindu design motif. But now any use of the swastika in any context will immediately represent Nazism, Hitler, and the slaughter of millions of Jews.

If you come across any of these words or phrases, beware. An agenda lies beneath whatever the speaker claims to be saying. And it’s not an agenda of inclusion.

And if you want to in good faith use, for instance, “identity” in the same sentence as “politics” then be very careful how you approach that. You may accidentally be signaling that you are a Trump supporter.

It’s interesting to note that the word “shibboleth” comes from a Bible story (Judges 12: 1- 6). The story is that the Gileadites used the word as a pass code to figure out who was from Gilead and which people were Ephraimites, the enemy du jour. The Ephraimites could not pronounce the word correctly and thus were outed as being not from Gilead. Once outed, they were killed. “Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.” (Judges 12:6).

Pretty harsh for a sacred book that allegedly is about the love of God.

And what can be said about conservatives? There once was a concept of “compassionate conservatism.” But as I look around, I don’t see much compassion for those who don’t pass the test. Instead, the wagons are circled, discourse is cut off, and lives are dismissed.

Not very Christian.

For Better or For Worse

Traditionally, wedding vows are along the lines of “I take you to be…blah…blah…for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

Having been through the “or worse” and “in sickness” bits more than once, I can tell you that most people, when they get married, don’t want to deal with that part and don’t expect to deal with that part.

In the hospital.

By that I mean, neither partner envisions themselves to be the “or worse” and deep down does not really want their spouse to go through the pain of having to suffer though the worst part of themselves.

I bring this up now because my wife is in the hospital, and has been for over a month, due to brain hemorrhage related to her chronic health condition. It is an exercise in patience and endurance for both of us. The relief provided by medication and proper health care (her) and an understanding employer (me) is appreciated, but it does little to alter the fundamental terribleness of our situation. 

Of course, people claim to want a spouse who will stick with them through thick and thin. But it’s like insurance. We are in favor of the idea of having it, as long as we never actually need to use it.

In reality, people don’t want that. They don’t want to face the ugliness of it, or the grim reality of it.

Because the spouse who is “in sickness” is not sexy. And the grieving spouse who is trying desperately to hold it together is not sexy. The sights, the smells, the broken body, the seemingly endless bedside vigils.

Absolutely none of it is sexy, believe me (unless you’re into that kind of thing).

Of course, popular culture would have us believe otherwise. We have movies such as Dying Young and Now is Good and While You Were Sleeping, none of which I have seen, but I’m pretty sure they gloss over the reality of what they think they are depicting.

A more realistic take on such things is a book titled Alice & Oliver, by Charles Bock. Read it – I highly recommend it.

So if ever you are tempted to think that a dying lover is somehow more attractive, or the long-suffering spouse or family member is somehow attractive, stop right there. They aren’t, and never can be.

Trust me.

Did You Serve?

Years from now, our children and our children’s children will ask us what it was like to live through the Great Covid-19 Pandemic.

WW2 ration stickers

By that time, it will be written about in history books and the subject of documentary films. It will seem distant and abstract to future generations, in the same way that World War 2 seems distant and abstract to my generation.

It is reasonable to expect questions from these young people as they seek to understand the magnitude of what we have gone through. These will be the same types of questions that my generation would ask someone who lived through World War 2: Did you serve? What was it like? Did you support the war effort? Were there things about life on the home front that were unusual, out of the ordinary? How did you feel about the restrictions and rationing that the government set up?

With the pandemic, the questions will be slightly different but they will be analogous to the questions about World War 2. I have listed a few here:

Questions for the WW2 generation Questions for the Covid-19 generation
Did you serve? Were you a doctor, nurse, or other health care worker directly caring for people sick with and dying from Covid-19?
Did you serve honorably?* Did you as a health care worker support and reinforce the public health measures put in place to slow the spread of the disease?
Did you support the war effort? Did you not flaunt or actively oppose vaccination and face mask requirements? Did you do your part to socially distance and cooperate with public health measures?
What was the home front like? How did it feel to have to wear masks in public almost all the time; quarantine or isolate for days, weeks, or months; have schools move online and events cancelled; and make decisions about the relative risk of what would otherwise be a normal, everyday activity?
Did you lose a friend, loved one or family member? Did you lose a friend, loved one or family member?

Two years into this pandemic, I don’t think it is too early to begin pondering what our legacy will be. How well did we handle this crisis? Did we come together as a nation to fight the threat? If not (and clearly, we have not), why didn’t we? What prevented us from doing so, and what will that mean for any threats, domestic or foreign, that arise in the future?

Sadly, people are beginning (or maybe it’s been going on a long time) to view fellow Americans with suspicion, not unlike, I imagine, the French who collaborated with the Nazis and the French who actively fought against the Nazis. That makes it very hard to remain united as a country.

Will this country of the people, by the people, and for the people survive on this Earth?

I hope so. But in the meantime, there is work to be done.


*People presume that everyone who serves in the military serves honorably. However, the facts are that some people do not, and end up being court martialed and dishonorably discharged. It’s not a comfortable question to ask, but it’s valid. There reportedly are doctors, nurses, paramedics, and others who have refused the vaccine, spread misinformation about ivermectin and other things, and distributed counterfeit vaccine cards. This is not honorable behavior.