Lost Souls

Sister Mary Margaret, my eighth grade home room teacher, asked me to stay behind at lunch as she had something important to ask me.  I walked up to her desk after the other students had left for the playground.  She fixed me with her steely gray eyes and said, “Are you going to go to Archbishop Carroll High School?  I see that you haven’t enrolled yet.”  She tapped a list of names.

“No, my family can’t afford to send me.  I’m going to Fairmont East.”

“You could get a job,” she said apparently unaware that fourteen year old boys were not allowed to work in the state of Ohio and that the tuition at Carroll, comparable to state university fees, could not be earned part time at minimum wage.

“Mom wants me to focus on my studies.  No jobs…She and my Dad and sister all transferred to public schools after eighth grade,” I said.

“You’ll drift away from the faith,” she told me.  “Your soul will be lost.”

“My parents and sister are still Catholics,” I pointed out.

“Your soul will be lost,” she solemnly repeated.

I studied the flakes of dandruff that accumulated daily in shallow drifts on the shoulders of her dark habit and tried to find something to say.  One possibility, telling her that hell seemed preferable to an eternity spent with the likes of her, tempted me.  My instinct for self-preservation kicked in and I said, “I’m not going to Carroll.”

She squinted at me and a blush of red deepened on her cheeks.  She had been angry when she called me aside, and now my bluntness had made her angrier.  I didn’t care.  I knew that I’d be free from her and my parochial school in a few weeks.

My parents sent me to a public school for ninth grade and signed me up for CCD, a Monday night program at church that taught religious education to kids who had endangered their souls by attending public schools.  The classes were segregated by gender but undivided by age.  Few boys were older than I, but many were two years younger.  Their hopes of salvation had begun to fade even earlier than mine.

Our classes were taught by fathers from the parish, and few had training in education and theology.  The lessons faltered whenever questions beyond a Dad’s level of knowledge had to be suppressed and pushed aside.  Our instructors droned out a rehash of the doctrines drilled into us in lower grades.  These tenets could be reduced to the following:  Do what Mother Church tells you without question and get a free pass to heaven.

One night after class I ran into a guy I hadn’t seen in a few years.  His name was Ben, and he used to team up with a dim-witted giant who did his bidding.  Ben enjoyed picking fights and bullying boys larger than he was.  If they defended themselves or returned his insults he unleashed his bodyguard on them.  I once saw Matthew B., a rawboned kid with lethal elbows who played center on our basketball team, get beaten to the ground by Ben’s stooge. Ben looked on and smiled wistfully as if enjoying the beauty of a moment that would fade all too soon.

I passed by Ben as he sat slumped on the cement floor of the corridor leading to the exit.  I didn’t say a word to him.  He whispered, “Hey, pussy!”  I looked over my shoulder, not knowing at whom he had directed his insult, and saw him staring at me with sad, tired eyes.  I kept going, and he called after me, “Aren’t you going to come back and beat me up?”  He laughed as I pushed open the door and walked outside.

Years later my mother wrote that my sister’s youngest boy, Chris, had penned an essay that had been published in the parish newspaper.  He had attended the same parochial school as I, and apparently gotten the same warning when a nun found out that he also planned to go to Fairmont East.  I read a clipping of his article that Mom had included in the letter, and Chris’ words were a desperate plea for help as he entered into a world of non-Catholics conspiring to steal his salvation.  I thought, “Holy shit, boy.  They really got to you.”

Ten years passed and I attended Chris’ wedding.  Both he, his bride, and his bride’s family were former Catholics.  The wedding ceremony acknowledged the possibility of spiritual bonds in marriage, but there were no Bible readings.  The officiant was the mayor of a suburb of Cleveland.  I learned that the bride’s family were staunch agnostics and had removed their children from a parish school after a conflict of some sort.  I thought, “Good for them.”

I talked to Chris a few years later and mentioned his article in the parish newspaper and his later conversion to agnosticism.  “What happened?” I asked him.  He smiled and said that he had been dating a girl at the time he wrote his essay who was a bit hysterical about religious matters.  She had influenced him, but when he started to attend a public school his fears vanished.  He said, “The people at Fairmont East were so much nicer to me.”  I felt pride as I smiled back at my confident, free-thinking nephew.  According to the nuns Chris had lost his soul, but he appeared to be doing quite well without it.

 

We Are Immortal (whether we want to be or not)

My basic and surely flawed understanding of Buddhism is the following:  all of existence has its source in emptiness.  Emptiness is a field of potential energy and form, and the universe and everything in it (throughout time) is an interaction between being and nonbeing.  Things show up out of nothingness and then they disappear into nothingness as other things show up.

We humans are an energy signal that takes on the form of a body on this earthly plane from time to time.  Coming here involves suffering because of ego attachment to our bodies, our possessions, to our desires.  Once we truly see that we are just a flux in a field of energy and that there is no “Me” in any special sense, we are freed.  Our energy signal changes, or ceases to exist, and we are no longer required to return to this planet in the form of men and women.  Our individual pulse of being is subsumed into the great field of emptiness.

I have never found this comforting.  I am still attached to Me.  I’m not sure I’m ready to let my identity go, erase my existence, and return to nothingness.  I can’t get to the point where I tell the kids as we sit before a cozy fire on a wintry evening with cups of hot chocolate in hand that my sincere desire is to find a way to permanently annihilate Me, and that I fondly wish that my wife, son and daughter, their future spouses and my grandchildren will escape the wheel of karma once and for all and just let bygones be good and gone.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic and have trouble accepting Christianity’s story of faith, that if I believe in the right things and follow the right rules my eternal life has already been set up for me.  The priests sometimes seemed like insurance agents advising that I had nothing to worry about as long as I stuck closely to the terms of my heaven sent policy…So where do I go if I’ve evolved into a reluctant agnostic who finds Buddhism a little too chilly?

I just came across a few thoughts from Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor (161-180 AD), that I  found helpful:

Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.

Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change things which are and to make new things like them.  For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.  —The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The first part reminds me of Buddhism, but the last line gives me a different perspective.  In a sense we are nothing but the extensions of everything that has come before, and our presence, influence and actions will collectively lead to everything that will be in the future.  I, as an individual, am the product of an act of procreation that occurred in May,  1958.  I’m also the result of tectonic plate movements, volcanic eruptions, meteor strikes, the evolutionary whims of primates, and the specific teaching of the Catholic Church that prevented my father from using a condom on a romantic evening in spring.  I’m not a special case, obviously, but I wouldn’t exist in my current form if the Big Bang hadn’t banged, the stars hadn’t formed when and where they formed, and if the gravitational constant of the universe was another number.

Our influence on the future, on the other hand, while not immediately significant in any measurable way, will still continue after our deaths.  We will collectively make the years that follow us better or worse whether we like it or not.  We are immortal in that whatever comes next will spring forth from the spent husks of our lives.

My kindness will lead to other kindnesses, and my short temper will lead to new offenses and hurt feelings.  My faults, virtues, weaknesses and strengths will continue to echo forward after I cease to exist whether I like it or not.  We are all connected in a web of influence and consequence that extends in all directions for all time.

This immortality business can seem like a burden, a huge responsibility.  I’m human and highly fallible.  I’m not always going to play nice.  My best hope for a decent legacy, for the future of my immortality in this realm, is to bat for a fairly high average.  The goal is to be decent, helpful and loving more often than I am selfish, vindictive and cold-hearted.

And the stakes are high even if there isn’t a Big Man In The Sky hiding behind the Crab Nebulae (or the outer rim of the multi-universe) busy keeping track of my sins and thinking up punishments with which to torture me for eternity. Even if there is no God out there to look after me and to care about my existence, I will still matter.  I, you and we will all matter now and forever in that we are the source “of that which will be.”

I have no idea what will happen to me after I die.  My sister and grandfather appeared to me in dreams shortly after their deaths and gave me messages of reassurance.  They told me that they are all right, much better than all right.  But they didn’t order me to follow one creed or explain what it’s like on the other side. (I doubt if that’s communicable.)  So I’m left to stumble along as best I can without really knowing if there is a point to being an honorable human being.  Kindness and decency may have nothing to do with my eventual destination, if there is one.  But I do hope that my legacy in this world is mostly positive as it’s going to last for a long, long time.

 

 

 

Snapshots: donating a kidney circa 1984

My brother is in intensive care. He was admitted to Miami Valley Hospital early this morning suffering from shortness of breath and severe fatigue. His skin was yellowish gray. He is diagnosed with kidney failure and a staph infection in his blood.

The next day Tony’s urologist allows us to stay in the room while he hooks his new patient up for a dialysis treatment. Muthiah lifts the sheet and takes a needle connected to a clear, plastic hose connected to a complicated machine and inserts it into Tony’s groin. Tony winces in pain from the stick; blood starts to flow into the hose. Muthiah leads us, my father and mother and sister and I into the corridor and tells us about Tony’s condition in detail. He can get by for a while on dialysis, but Muthiah proposes a kidney transplant as the best option for long term survival. He asks us to consider being tested for tissue compatibility. We are all somewhat stunned by the doctor’s speech. And while the doctor doesn’t direct any attention to me more than the others, I know in my gut that I am the best candidate.

I’m in my apartment overlooking Irving Ave. staring out the window. It’s a gray day in late February and I’ve just gotten off the phone having received the news that I’ve been waiting for for two months. The date of the surgery has finally been set, and I’ve got a couple of weeks to get things squared away at home and at work. I’ve been preparing for this moment ever since the test results came back in December telling us that Tony and I are nearly perfect matches. I’m surprised, however by a chill, numbing sensation that is spreading from the center of my chest outward. The phone call brought with it a premonition that I would die on the operating table, and the fear that I’m feeling is different from the hot flush of wavering dread I usually get when facing a physical threat. This kind of fear feels cold and heavy, and it eventually settles deep in my guts where I know it will stay until this whole thing is over.

I’m sitting in a hospital bed in a double room on a floor of Miami Valley Hospital dedicated to kidney cases and pre-op patients waiting for abdominal surgery. My roommate was taken in for gall bladder surgery earlier in the day, and I watched as he prayed intently with his minister to prepare himself for whatever eventuality his operation would bring. I am an agnostic, but find myself envying the man his faith. I have been beset throughout the day by Catholic priests of the unctuous variety who have decided to pray over me (at my mother’s behest) without my consent. I feel that I’m doing them a favor by listening to them drone on and on. A former army chaplain wanders into my room that evening after supper and he is looking at a list. He has just visited my brother in a room across the hall, and he is confused by my last name. He thinks that I’m another kidney patient, and can’t believe that two members of the same family are suffering from the same malady at the same time. He laughs when I set him straight. He speaks to me in a straight forward manner for a few minutes and says a simple prayer. I am comforted.

A young nurse’s aide comes into my room early the next morning and shaves off my pubic hair. She appears to be embarrassed. My penis looks forlorn and ridiculous without its mane and I am embarrassed too. I am hooked up to an IV and a nurse starts a drip of a sedative that is supposed to calm my nerves. My parents and fiance are with me in the room and they look grim and nervous when they think that I’m not looking at them. Another nurse comes into the room just as they begin wheeling me out to the hall. She is the mother of a woman that I had dated for about a year, and although the relationship with her daughter ended acrimoniously, she is here to see me off. I’m touched and comforted by the sincerity of her concern. My gurney is pushed down several branching hallways and my family and fiance are left behind. I am left alone (without any explanation from the orderly who abandoned me) in an old, cluttered room off a deserted corridor that looks like it had once been a laboratory of some kind. Several minutes pass by and the sedative is no longer working. I’m eventually collected by a nurse who wheels me into a cold, white tiled room where I will be given anesthesia. I am told to lie down on a hard metal table that feels like it has been chilled to near freezing. The anesthesiologist walks into the room and discovers something amiss and starts to throw a tantrum. He yells and tosses sheets of paper around, and the nurse standing by my side looks distraught. I’m terrified that this man will be administering drugs to me, but manage to lean over to the nurse and whisper, “This guy is a real asshole.” Her face breaks up for a moment as if she’s trying to suppress a smile. The doctor calms down and walks over to me with the biggest needle I’ve ever seen in his hand. He tells me to lie on my side and curl up in a ball. He injects my spine. The needle stick feels uncomfortable, but not all that painful, and then there’s blackness.

I wake up in a recovery room. The room is full of people lying on gurneys, moaning and crying out in pain. There’s a bag of blood and a bag of plasma on an IV pole by my bed, and I watch the plasma drip, drip, drip down a hose and into my arm. I’m in intense pain. My guts feel as if they’ve been torn up and clumsily sewn back together with strands of barbed wire. A male nurse appears above me and says something to me that I can’t quite follow. My attention is focused instead on my rapidly filling bladder. The pressure from its expansion is causing fresh, new sensations of pain at the base of my guts. I ask for a urinal, but can’t manage to pee. I ask for a catheter because I much prefer to have something shoved up my dick than to continue feeling that my bladder is about to explode. The surgeon, who is somewhere else in the hospital, has to be found and consulted before I can be given relief, and ten or fifteen long minutes pass as I watch the plasma drip and feel my bladder expand. The nurses finally get approval, and when the urine is finally released the relief is so intense that I feel that I’ve died and gone to heaven. I’m still in a lot of pain, but I’m getting somewhat used to it. But then three nurses approach my bed and tell me that it’s time to change the linens. When I roll on my side as ordered my bruised intestines shift inside my abdomen and the pain becomes excruciating. I scream. I’m aware that the scream is making everyone else feel uncomfortable, but while I’m inside that noise and that release of emotion I feel all right. It’s worse when I stop screaming and I hear them tell me to roll on my other side. I know what’s coming.

They leave me alone for a while after the bed has been changed, and the pain returns to normal levels of hellishness. There’s a clock on the wall that’s broken. It is 3:00. It is always 3:00. One could get the impression that one has been condemned to a world where time stands still and suffering never ends. The patients around me are still groaning and crying out, and they appear to corroborate that impression. My fiance Judy and my mother visit me and I vaguely register their looks of concern. They appear to be suffering just as much as I am. A male nurse comes by after they’ve left and asks me if I want a sponge bath. He gives it to me, and the bath turns into a massage, and I’m disturbed by the little smile that creases his lips as his hands work their way over my body. I’m completely helpless and I begin to question his intentions, but the pain and the medications are probably driving me a bit loopy and paranoid. Later on the nurses decide to change my linens once again, and I suspect that they’re rolling me around for some other purpose. My sheets are fresh and clean once more after I’ve given them another round of screaming. A female nurse who looks like an angel leans over my bed and tells me that she admires me for what I’ve done. I think that this is one hell of a way to meet good looking women.

I am taken from post-op late that evening and put into a bed on the same floor where I had previously been. Nurses come into the room and take my vitals every hour or so, and I can’t get much sleep. I’ve been given some morphine and am resting in a warm cocoon of comfort for as long as the dose works its charms. An older nurse, an LPN, comes in around three in the morning and takes my pulse. She rearranges my blankets and pillow and makes me feel much more comfortable. I give her a smile of thanks and she warmly smiles back at me. I fall asleep and the day is finally over.

*My operation went amiss and I almost died on the table. The pain I felt went beyond normal levels because of surgical complications. Surgeries today are done using laparoscopic techniques and are much less traumatic.