StoryCorps – 10 Years of Tales and Tears

StoryCorps image courtesy of
StoryCorps mobile unit — image courtesy of

If you’re a regular listener of “Morning Edition” on National Public Radio (NPR), then you’ve probably wept and laughed – but mostly wept – after listening to the weekly short segments of oral histories known as StoryCorps.

NPR marked the 10-year anniversary of StoryCorps this past week, featuring daily segments of oral histories NPR had aired in the past, including “where are they now?” updates. It was almost too much to bear.


Because I love StoryCorps, and I hate StoryCorps. Continue reading “StoryCorps – 10 Years of Tales and Tears”

One World Trade Center Heralds a New Epoch

One World Trade Center in New York City
New York City’s One World Trade Center

My first glimpse in three years of Manhattan’s transformed skyline happened about a week and half before the 9/11 anniversary.

I was traveling to New York City from DC, motoring along the New Jersey Turnpike in an express bus where I had a window seat. I noticed Midtown first, but as I scanned south I saw a gleaming new behemoth that dwarfed the Empire State Building. It was One World Trade Center.

My first thought was: yes!

This colossus is the perfect architectural response to the crime of 9/11. It is muscular and massive, but also modern and elegant. I loved it immediately, and felt patriotic pride. Continue reading “One World Trade Center Heralds a New Epoch”

March on Washington 50th Anniversary – What Would Lois Say?

MLK I Have A Dream Speech
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” — MLK 8/28/63

From August 23rd to the 28th, tens of thousands of people descended on Washington, DC, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The nearly week-long festivities culminated on August 28th when President Barack Obama gave a speech on those same steps in front of the Great Emancipator.

Throughout it all, I kept asking myself, what would Lois say? Continue reading “March on Washington 50th Anniversary – What Would Lois Say?”

A Dying Mother and What Matters Most

Yellow_Flowers_(3) -- large yellow flowerMy mother turned 92 this past Sunday, June 16. Two days before that, my family enrolled her in hospice.

That Friday afternoon, I’d arrived at her home in Pennsylvania looking forward to her birthday celebration with almost the entire family. So the news of hospice jarred and surprised. At first.

Then it wasn’t a surprise at all.

My mom had been declining noticeably in recent months. Her weak legs and broken knees stopped carrying her for good in late April; ramps were installed in her house and her transport chair was used every time to move her from her bed to her chair and wherever else she was willing to go. She’d been slowing down and losing strength.

But that Sunday, we celebrated Mom’s 92nd birthday in style. She rose to the occasion – she got dressed up, sat in her chair and then in her transport chair for a long time in different parts of the house. She ate dinner with us in the dining room and had cake and ice cream. She was lucid and wisecracking and she enjoyed herself.

Laburnum_anagyroides_yellow_flowers -- in sunlightThere comes a point, in witnessing a parent’s descent into extreme old age, when you dread every illness whether major or minor: is this the one that will lead to death? I’d buried my father in my mind a couple of times when he struggled with illnesses, long before he actually died four years ago at age 93.

I’ve done the same with my mom. She fell a few years ago and broke her shoulder. I thought it could lead to the end. But she recovered. Last fall, she battled bronchitis for months – she thought it was pneumonia and so did I. But she recovered.

Now, however, it appears my mom is battling some kind of infection, and losing. After several tests, we still don’t know what it is.

But it doesn’t matter. Her body is shutting down. According to her long-time internist,  her bone marrow and white blood cell count is so low that, if she has an infection, she can’t fight it off. Putting her in the hospital could lead to a diagnosis, but then what? She is a poor candidate for surgery, plus hospitals can be deadly to those with compromised immune systems.

Instead her doctor talked about keeping her home and “keeping her comfortable,” that euphemism for a looming death knell. Soon after, he recommended hospice. I’m extremely grateful to this wise physician for charting a peaceful demise for my mom.

399px-Little_Yellow_FlowersSo here we are. My family is lucky – for years now, our mother has had an amazing team of caregivers who love her and treat her with the greatest compassion and care.

I plan to visit Mom when I can, including this weekend; I’m only a two-hour drive away.

And I face this – the challenge of the most stressful of times, the saddest of times, when losing a parent is hard no matter what, and all of the other stresses in your life are at once magnified and trivialized.

Throughout, it’s important to remember what matters most:

  • Being present – As long as my mom is still with us, in spirit with thoughts and prayers, and in body when I can — sitting with her, holding her hand, looking into her hazel eyes with love.
  • Mourning the loss – It’s not a choice, I know. But my father’s death taught me that the process of recognition and remembrance are important and therapeutic and not to be done passively. It’s hard, and may be even harder with my mom.
  • Yellow_flowers -- two flowersCelebrating the life – My family is too traditional to call a funeral a “celebration of life” like some families do. But celebrate we will, in the grand Irish Catholic tradition – by getting sloppy drunk and telling stories of our mom’s great wit while laughing and crying through it all. Irish-style wakes are the best.
  • Accepting the love and support of others – This can be surprisingly hard. But it’s important to embrace the outpouring from others. I look forward to seeing relatives and friends of my mom, and of all of us, at her services. Death brings people together.
  • Taking care of yourself – Grief takes a toll, so you need your rest. You go ahead and have that cry in the middle of the grocery store. Then throw a treat in the shopping cart. You schedule a spa treatment. You take a trip. You remind yourself: Your dead parents will want you to go on and live well and be happy.
  • Feeling the love that stays with you forever – This is the greatest gift of life, the greatest gift of all.

It’s one hell of a to-do list, but I’ll give it my best.

How Conflict Revealed a Father’s Love

320px-Happy_Fathers_Day--pink flowerAs Father’s Day approaches, I’m reminded of the turning point in my relationship with my late father toward the end of his life.

He and I were in the middle of a fight one night, the one and only serious fight we’d ever had, when he paid me the highest compliment he ever gave me:

“There are many things I admire about you, Kate, but your politics is not one of them.”

We were fighting about the Iraq War; it was 2004, I think, and I was visiting my parents on the east coast while I was living in Arizona. My dad was always a staunch Republican, and I was the lone Democrat at that time in our large family. The post-9/11 world had pushed our politics farther apart – he had grown more conservative, and I, more liberal. He was also in his upper 80s by then.

So you might wonder: what was I doing picking a political fight with someone as old as my dad?

But maybe you didn’t know my dad. He was a highly intelligent, charismatic, alpha male right up to the final weeks of his life when he died at age 93. A successful businessman, he was disciplined and tough although he had a sweet and silly side, too.

He was used to winning, and you didn’t debate him lightly even in his old age.

Until that fight, though, we had always been able to discuss politics in a civil, even light-hearted and teasing way, agreeing to disagree. We did so regularly for as long as I could remember. It was a big part of our relationship.

But no more, after that night. The fight had turned dark and accusatory, with recriminations like “you’re wrong” and “no, you’re wrong!” being traded. The kind of hopeless, bitter face-off we’d never stooped to before. But it reflected the times, when our country was in turmoil.

Luckily, no one else had witnessed it. My father and I were off by ourselves, out of earshot of other family members. To my dad’s credit, he was the one who defused it and backed down, refusing to discuss the war further.

I was shaken by our fight, but I also remember being surprised to hear him say he admired me, for “many” things.

He’d never told me that before.

Maybe you’re wondering what those things were. I still do. I never asked and he never said. I was too upset to ever bring it up, after knowing our relationship had changed in a fundamental way.

We never discussed politics again. My dad died five years later.

Sadly, I know too many stories of strained family relationships and friendships – including broken friendships – as a result of our country’s increasingly polarizing politics.

You may have similar stories of your own.

As a society, we remain bitterly divided, and I don’t know how or when it will end. I’ve learned to avoid political debates with people I care about whose opinions differ from mine. I still look back on that fight with my dad with sadness.

But mostly now, I choose to focus on the two positive things that came out of our fight.

1) My father’s compliment. There are many things I admire about you, Kate…

It doesn’t matter what they were. It was mainly a reminder of how supportive my dad was of me throughout my life, despite our differences. Whatever I wanted to do, he said I could do it. He never tried to discourage me, or make me feel like I couldn’t be the best at what I wanted to pursue. He always had faith in me.

2) My father’s decision to defuse the fight. This was unusual, and it took me a long time to appreciate its significance. When things got hot between us, he suddenly calmed and said: “We can’t talk about this anymore.”

He chose to make peace instead of to “win” the fight.


Because even in conflict, my dad never lost sight of what was the most important thing between us.


6 Things to Remember on Memorial Day

Memorial Day has got to be the most schizophrenic, mixed-message holiday in America.

319px-Summerfest_2008_fireworks_7096Most people will focus on the holiday parts of the holiday: enjoying a three-day weekend, fireworks, barbecue, the start of summer… fun!

Many will travel. This year, AAA predicts that 34.8 million people will travel farther than 50 miles from home over the holiday weekend.

Many will shop. Countless retailers offer holiday sales, and like other major holidays (talking about you, Halloween and Christmas!), Memorial Day sales start ever earlier, this year as early as March.

There’s a lot to look forward to.

But it’s a holiday originally conceived to remember.

According to this 2009 CNN article: “Federal Memorial Day, established in 1888, allowed Civil War veterans, many of whom were drawing a government paycheck, to honor their fallen comrades without being docked a day’s pay.”

Here are six more things to remember about Memorial Day.

1) Memorial Day’s origins are rooted in the devastation of the Civil War.

Battle_of_GettysburgThe Civil War was our bloodiest war, with approximately 620,000 soldiers killed either in battle or of disease – equal to about one in four soldiers or 2% of the population.

Communities were forced to confront death like never before. As many as two dozen different cities and towns claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day beginning in the mid-1860s.

But it was Waterloo, NY, that earned Congress’s official designation as Memorial Day’s birthplace. Waterloo began its annual day of remembrance on May 5, 1866, when businesses closed and the graves of dead soldiers were decorated.

2) For years, Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day, in recognition of the custom of decorating soldiers’ graves.

Civil War gravesDecoration Day was declared on May 30, 1868 by General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former soldiers and sailors. The terms Decoration Day and Memorial Day were interchanged for years as a remembrance for Civil War dead.

After the United States was drawn into World War I, what became known more often as Memorial Day was broadened to include Americans killed in service to country in all of our nation’s wars.

Federal law finally declared “Memorial Day” the official name of the holiday in 1967.

3) Decorating military graves remains important today. 

Here in northern Virginia, on every Thursday before Memorial Day, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment of the Army place American flags at each of the over 260,000 graves at Arlington National Cemetery. Throughout the weekend, members of the regiment even patrol around the clock to make sure every flag stays aloft.

Thousands gather at the cemetery on Monday to watch the President or Vice President make remarks and lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

4) There is a moment of silence at 3pm local time on Memorial Day.

moment of silenceA law was passed in 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance Act, to reinforce the meaning of Memorial Day. The law asks Americans to “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.'”

5) We are still at war.

Americans are still sacrificing their lives in Afghanistan and elsewhere as we continue to fight the global war on terror. The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan will officially end, however, in late 2014. Also, President Obama gave a significant speech yesterday arguing for an end to perpetual war in the post-9/11 era. You can read the full text of the speech here, or a good nonpartisan analysis here.

6) Veterans and military families need help.

Those Americans who survive war too often struggle disproportionately when they come home. Nearly one in seven homeless adults were veterans as of December 2011. 12.5% of veterans aged 18-34 were living in poverty in 2010, and the unemployment rate of veterans aged 18-24 still stands at over 20%.

disabled veterans playing basketballOn this Memorial Day, consider donating to non-profits that support veterans and their families, or, you can send a simple note of remembrance or thanks. Here are just three of the many well-governed non-profits helping veterans:

Operation Homefront – Focused on military families, its website features a “Current Needs” tab that lists specific needs for specific veterans; all cases are verified to ensure legitimacy.

Joining Forces – An initiative of First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, its website offers a clearinghouse of resources for veterans and their families. Its “Get Involved” link can help you find ways to help locally.

The National Gold Star Family Registry – Through this website, you can honor a “fallen hero” without spending a dime. It contains a registry of names of all who died in service to the country since the beginning of WWII. Just register and search the directory.

Have fun on Memorial Day, but also remember what it’s for.