Friday, May 28, 2010

Elmer Mallon

My mother’s father was born in 1915.  This picture of him was taken some time in the 1930s.  It’s a hand-tinted black and white print.  And this is him last week: 

A week before this picture was taken he came very close to dying.

-Just think about whether you want to see him again, Alisa said.  I’ll be fine here.

For a few days I called back to the States to get updates on his condition and then I booked a ticket from Hobart to Cleveland with 20 hours advance notice.  I chopped enough kindling to last for a week and I left Alisa to look after Elias and Eric.

Once I was back in the States I spent most of my time in the nursing home, giving a short break to my parents who have been providing end of life care to my mom's parents for years. 

My grandfather was very tired.  But he talked for hours.  I let the conversation build and drift at his pace.  He was very sharp, very much the same person who I've known for my whole life.  I enjoyed the easy companionship of this man who I know as well I possibly could, someone who is mysterious to me in very few ways.

-It’s a good life, he told me.  And I say it is a good life, not it has been a good life.  Even with my troubles in the last few years, it’s a good life.

-And later: I want to live life.  I want to go right up to life and touch it and see it.  And I don’t want these people [at the nursing home] telling me don’t do this and you have to do that.

He told me the hunting stories that I have known all my life, stories that have grown comfortable through repeated retelling, like old leather gloves that have molded to the shape of your hands.  For hours he told me stories about people in our family who I never knew.  One night my sister and I drank beers in his room and he told us stories all the way until eleven o’clock. 

-You can ask me anything you want, he said.  I’ll try to answer you.

The next day I asked his advice about raising children and he told me what he knew.  He told me about the mistakes that he still bitterly regretted, a half century after the fact.

After a week I said goodbye.  When someone is 94 years old you have already gotten used to the idea that their life is nearly over.  So saying goodbye this time was not overwhelming in the 'I'll never see you again' sort of way.  But the chance to stand in the courtyard of the nursing home and hug him and to look in his eyes while he was completely coherent and present and very much still himself was a pleasure that I will remember for a very long time.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What Blokes Know

Gender roles are ascendant among the Pelagic crew.

Alisa, looking a bit gobsmacked (as they say here) by the physiological rigors of first, parturition, and then, lactation, glanced up at me from her nursing station in the front room of our housesit the other day and said, "Oof, I feel like one giant breast."

Meanwhile, I have been spurred by the arrival of son number two, and the continuing, sometimes startling, precociousness of son number one, to think about what it takes to raise boys into balanced, capable, well-adjusted men.

Because, let's face it - if you're not careful (and often enough even if you are), one moment you have a delightful three year old boy, and the next you have a glue-sniffing sixteen year old wastrel on your hands.

So I've been thinking, in a disorganized sort of way, about what sorts of qualities I might try to instill in Elias and (eventually) Eric to help ease their path through teenagerhood, and to make them into the sorts of men that I can be proud of in my dotage.

Here's the first bit of essential male-ness that I came up with to pass along to the little fellows... Men Should Know the Score.  They should know what's going on, in a practical, man-of-the-world sort of way.  Men should be able to buy and sell things, they should have a grasp of how decisions are made in the world, and they should have a sense of how to bend those decisions in their direction.

Alisa is much too subtle and good-humored to ever roll her eyes at this sort of thing.  But she is also of that part of the world that is a bit dubious of anything so broad as "essential male qualities".  When I explained this to her I saw her eyes light up with a poorly-hidden smile that spoke volumes of her opinion about the whole thing.

Elias, meanwhile, is a beginning to identify with the male world.  When I visit on the front verandah with a male friend he comes marching out of the house, hands thrust manfully into his pockets, shoulders swinging in a John Wayne sort of walk, to "hang out with the blokes".

But I'm not sure that he's quite ready to absorb my lessons on desirable male qualities - when he gets over-excited he runs around the house, yelling to Alisa and her mom, "I'm a bloke, so I know what's going on!"

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What Am I Doing Here?

Since Eric happened to be born at eight in the morning, right as the shift in the hospital was changing, there were two midwives at the delivery. But I was the only family member in the delivery room with Alisa. So while the midwives did their professional thing, I took my best stab at playing the role of loved one providing coaching and support.

Like most men of my generation, I took it for granted that I would be involved in the birth of my child. I was proud and happy to be there, and wouldn’t have been anywhere else. But during the final hour, when Alisa was approaching, and then inhabiting, the animal state that saw Eric into the world, it did occur to me how blind I was in the coaching role, with no personal access to Alisa's experience.

Which raises the point of how unusual it really is for male family members (i.e., non-doctors) to be involved in labor. When you consider the full range of birth customs around the world and through time, hasn't it nearly always been a woman’s female family members who helped her during labor? But, viewed through the standards of our time, my presence at the birth was completely unremarkable.  It shows you how malleable human social behavior really is.  And it's also a great example of how much we expect from marriage these days - I am fairly certain that my father's mother and father did not enjoy the degree of empathy (if you will) that would have seen her looking to him for emotional support during labor.

Oz Health

Well, it's true: no Australian has ever set foot on the moon, nor are they showing any signs of getting there soon.

But there are some things this nation does very well, thank you very much.

Eric's birth was our first in-depth interaction with the public health system here.  And we have been very impressed by the care that Alisa and Eric received, in particular by all the "extras".  In the hospital, Alisa got a visit from a physiotherapist to get her started on recovering from the birth, and a lactation consultant came by to fine tune Eric's latch-on.  And after we left the hospital, we received three home visits from nurses and midwives to make sure that everything was going well.  These weren't fly-by visits, either; the first nurse visit lasted two hours.  We didn't pay for these home visits, nor will Alisa pay for her post-partum physiotherapy/exercise classes.  Nor, for that matter, did we pay the hospital for the delivery.  There's no monetary profit generated by any of that stuff.  It's just part of a public health system that is available to all infants and moms in Tasmania.

I'm sure that no one in the US wants to hear about health care policy at this point.  But I will note in passing that the UN lists Australia, with its none-too-healthy general population (fatty diets, lots of smoking and drinking), as number 17 in a worldwide ranking of infant mortality rates, which puts it firmly in the middle of the pack of western nations.  The US, meanwhile, comes in at number 37, right behind New Caledonia, Brunei and Cuba.

So, when I want to play Aussie jingoist, I'll say to all our kith and kin back in North America - "Keep trying, you Yanks!  Someday you can have standards of public health every bit as good as the western world's!"