Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Christmas of Tears

A lot of folks joke about "homemade" presents, but I'm a big fan. If I had the time and didn’t wallow in procrastination, I would be able to make all my Christmas gifts each year. This year I unfortunately made nothing - but the kind of gifts I received this year can’t be bought. And, coincidentally, they all involved the word “Daddy.”

My sister, bless her soul, has been spending countless hours working on our family genealogy on our father’s side. Unlike our mother with her close family, Daddy (who died at age 64 in 1980) presented us with only one memorable relative - his mother, who died when we were adolescents, so we didn’t know her that well. Our dad, as I’ve posted before, was one of a kind. His experiences in life gave him a social conscious that became his passion and directed his choices. In his life, he did everything from touring in a bell ringer group to being a clerk in the army to being a choir director for decades. What led up to this remarkable man’s life? Who are the people and what are the events that shaped his mind? My sister, using Daddy’s journals and detailed records, went on a fascinating journey, starting in 1747 when Thomas Tiffin was born “somewhere in North Carolina.” Every once in a while she would send me e-mails of various facts she had learned, and I had often wished I had them compiled in a chronological story format to enjoy. She gave me that this Christmas in a book she created, including family history up to our current kids and grandkids, with scanned photos ancient and new. She did all the work and I (and future generations) get to reap the benefits. What a gift! What a treasure! I cried, of course.

Then my daughter and her husband worked tirelessly to transfer our silent home movies (from the ‘50s through the ‘70s that my father took) from VHS to a digital format, burned onto DVDs. She gave them to me with a poignant letter about how watching every minute of these hours of family history affected her, how she realized she had been born into a family that loved each other, and loved her. She said she cried many times during the process. She cried tears of joy that she had been born into such an environment, and she cried tears of sadness that my Daddy, her grandfather, died a month before she turned 2 years old, and she described the heartbreak of never knowing him - and that this gift of home movies was basically his gift to her almost 30 years after he left this earth. I got a double gift - the gift of my precious home movies in a format that assures their continued existence, and the gift that my daughter had such an emotional reaction realizing how blessed our family has been. She wrote, “It was surreal to see my parents get married, my pregnant mother walk around, and to see Papa stroke my baby back and Paw-Paw tickle my baby feet...I can only hope that one day my girls will remember their childhood and family as fondly.” She cried when she presented it to me, and I cried when I received it.

Finally (besides giving me comfy gloves and slippers that I needed desperately) my son and his wife presented me with the ultimate homemade gift when they told us recently that Sarah was pregnant with their first child which will be born this summer! More tears of happiness from me - and I still can hardly believe that my “baby” is going to be a daddy, and that around July 2010, I will get to hold our third beloved grandchild.

I cried a lot this Christmas season. I was blessed to see the march of time from 1747, through my father’s exceptional life, through the growing-up years of my sister and me, then through making preparations to welcome a new baby to the family and beyond. I got to travel through memories of the past and hopes and dreams of things to come. I found it highly appropriate that this Christmas, I felt a little like Scrooge and his whirlwind journey through time.

All the money in the world could not buy the “homemade” gifts I received this Christmas of 2009!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Two years and counting

I used to love Cokes. Occasionally I’d drink Dr. Pepper, Sprite, or even Pepsi, but Coke was my lifeline. I’d guess I used to drink at least a bottle or two a day. Since I have always hated coffee, Coke provided that caffeine for me.

I write about Cokes in the past tense because as of yesterday, December 20, 2009, I have been without a Coke for 2 years. It doesn’t sound like much, considering Ed has been sober for 25 years, but it’s a big thing for me. This time in 2007, I just finally decided that Cokes had no redeeming value (hey, even ice cream has calcium!) and no telling what the high-fructose was doing to me, so I quit cold-turkey.

Standing here in 2009 and looking back, I can’t believe I managed to do it. I understand one of the difficulties in giving up cigarettes, because I now have to drink something else with fast food, with pizza, first thing in the morning, and all the other times Coke was by my side.

The older I get, the more excited I become when I do something or overcome something that I just knew I couldn’t do or overcome. You’d think by age 55 I would know more of myself and my capabilities, but I’m constantly learning. Of course, I have a ton of bad habits and personal weaknesses to work on - but to say that in December 2009 I’ve been without Cokes for 2 years? That brings a smile to my face!

I think I’ll celebrate - with a Coke! (Just kidding!)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A lesson in lenses

Part of the advice given to the newbie medical transcriptionist from the experienced transcriptionist is usually, “You don’t know what you don’t know until you know more and realize what you don’t know.”

Rachel found that out this week. She got glasses. She used to wear glasses for a short period of time as an adolescent, but thinking she didn't really need them, she quit wearing them. She seemed to do fine with school and everything else - graduated from high school and college with excellent grades, went into teaching, etc. Recently, however, she is feeling her “old age” of 31, she says, and she realized she was having trouble reading fine print. She made an ophthalmology appointment and lo and behold, she needed glasses. She told me that she was shocked when, after receiving her new glasses, what a difference it made. The clerk asked her to read a sample of fine print with her glasses, then asked her to read it without the glasses. Rachel was amazed in the difference in clear vision and blurred vision. She didn’t know what she was missing until she saw clearly.

Ed said when he first got glasses as a child, he finally realized the things he had missed seeing. Once he realized what sharp vision was like, he understood what poor vision was like. Until that happened, he assumed he was seeing the same way as everyone else.

Both Ed and Rachel “didn’t know what they didn’t know” until the situation changed and their eyes were opened, so to speak. Assumptions can be a dangerous part of life. Like Ed who assumed his vision was supposed to be that limited, we are often so darn sure of what we think we “know” until something happens to challenge our perspective.

Ed and I have gotten into the habit of doing the crossword puzzle in our daily newspaper. In yesterday’s puzzle, I had one of those words that I absolutely knew fit the clue. The number of letters fit, the middle letter fit, and the whole word was a sure thing. I penciled that word in and tried to work around it. Then I got to a point where I was stuck. Some of the words I was lettering in didn’t make sense. It got to be very frustrating. Finally after a good deal of time, I realized by trial and error that the very word I had put down in the beginning, the sure bet, the word I just knew was the right one, was - of course - wrong. Once I got the right word, everything else fell into place.

You’d think we humans would have become smart enough and wise enough to realize we don’t know everything. One of my favorite movies is “Christmas in Connecticut.” The heroine has been living a life totally incongruent with her real identity. She is a magazine feature writer who writes about her life - and claims to live on a farm in Connecticut, cook divinely, is the perfect homemaker and wife and mother. In real life, however, she lives in an city apartment, is single, has never been to a farm (much less lived on one), and can’t even boil water. The trouble starts when her publisher decides to visit “her farm” for Christmas and despite our heroine's desperate attempts to maintain the farce, keeping up appearances becomes harder and harder until it all blows up. She gets fed up with the mess she has caused by pretending to be something she is not. She says in essence how she is disgusted with herself because she appears to have all the answers, and everybody believes that, but in reality really she is clueless. She got tired of being expected to know everything and having to pretend she did.

Yet we still fight on to preserve our way of thinking, even if our basic assumption is as unworkable as my “sure thing” word in my crossword puzzle. We are so stubborn (or arrogant) sometimes to think we have life down pat, we know more than anyone else, we have nothing to learn, and frequently that stubbornness gets us in tight spots because we refuse to let go. When we start out with a false assumption as our foundation, and build from there, the life we are building always topples in some way and we have to start over. Also, when we are so sure of our thinking and pathway, we are blind to life’s little pleasant surprises when they appear. Whether we are politicians, preachers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, or dishwashers, a sense of humility is always appreciated. Even if you are one of the world’s expert in one thing, I can guarantee you there are thousands of more things you don’t know or understand - the preferred outcome being, of course, that you become wise enough to “know you don’t know.” I don’t think we can even look at the universe and think we know all the answers. Without humility, there can be no awe.

It is true that the longer I am a medical transcriptionist, the more I realize I don’t know about anatomy, body systems, instrument names, medicines, and everything else. And that is, as Martha Steward would say, "a good thing." It shows I am growing in wisdom, I am ready to learn, I never become so rigid that I let self-confidence become arrogance, and I never lose my respect for the complexity and miracle of life itself. Sometimes you see clearly and realize your vision was always flawed before - or you keep insisting you see fine and don't need any changes. Sometimes you figure out substituting one word for another in the crossword puzzle can alter the whole outcome - or you throw the whole paper away in frustration because you can't grasp the possibility that the answers you are so sure of may be wrong. Sometimes you can realize your weakness, swallow your pride and say, "I'm was my fault...please forgive me" - or you can be stubborn and defend your actions to the grave.

These are the choices we have in life. The hymn I sang at my dad's funeral was "Be Thou My Vision." Sometimes a new way of looking at things can make all the difference.