June 29, 2017

Baby Rockin' 101

Every week, someone spouts an excited variance of, “I didn’t know you could volunteer to rock babies. Didn’t even know that was a thing. Can I do it?”

Why, yes, you can, and in a minute, I’ll tell you how. But first, I want to tell you why.

Marvel Lanagan was Mare’s friend, and so she was mine too. Marvel and I bonded over giggles and a deep love of other people's babies. Neither of us had children, yet both of us loved them.

Marvel volunteered once a week in the nursery of St. David’s Medical Center in Austin, and she would share stories of how wonderful it was to rock babies.

“Oh, I didn’t know you could volunteer to rock babies. Didn’t even know that was a thing. I want to do that!” I often said.

“You should,” she often replied with a wide smile. “You’d be good at it.”

I never did.

One day at work, Marvel, at age 45, collapsed in her cubicle. Her heart suddenly stopped. A coworker found her, EMS was called, and she was resuscitated, but she’d been without oxygen too long.

Marvel died nine days after doctors removed all life support.

I remember grieving deeply. I remember not wanting to train for an upcoming triathlon. I remember crying at work. And I thought of the babies. Who’ll rock the babies now? I couldn’t do it.

Years later, after much introspection via a 12-week program called The Artist’s Way, I wrote down a bunch of bucket list items. “Baby rocking” was high on the list. So I began researching how to make that happen. Here’s what I did.
 
This isn't me. Photographs are not allowed at St. David's
due to HIPPA patient confidentiality rules.

Intro to Baby Rockin'

1.     Choose a hospital.
I knew St. David’s had a baby rocking program, and there was a hospital 10 minutes away from my house. So I searched the hospital’s website and clicked on its Volunteering page. Turns out there’s A LOT of ways to volunteer. I had no idea. St. David’s has Community, College, and Teen Summer volunteer programs.

2.     Choose a program.
Don’t let your eyes glaze over when you click on Volunteer Opportunities. At St. David’s, a person can volunteer for everything from the gift shop and information desk to the emergency room. You must be at least 25 years old to volunteer as a NICU rocker, but check out the official job description: “Provides compassionate nurture to NICU infants by rocking and holding eligible patients.” Sweet!

3.     Apply online.
St. David’s has an easy, year-round online application process. Very convenient.

4.     Interview.
After I filed my online application, a Volunteer Services staff member sent me an e-mail to set up an interview. I sat in a small office with two women who asked me all kinds of questions. I knew they were trying to gauge whether I was a baby stalker nut. (I’m glad they realized I wasn’t.) It was a great conversation. We talked about the typical interview topics (“What’s your greatest strength/weakness?”) and then they got to the point: "Why do I want to rock babies?"

I told them about Marvel.

5.     Undergo a drug screening and thorough background check.
Wouldn’t you want to know that the person rocking your baby isn’t a baby rocker stalker nut? Me too. So St. David’s takes a while to do a diligent screening, including carefully checking all character references. I had no problem waiting. It actually made me feel good that the hospital went to such great lengths to ensure that all volunteers are the people they say they are, and that their patients are safe.

6.     Attend volunteer orientation.
The next month, I attended the all-hospital volunteer orientation held in the evening in a large conference room at the hospital. I got a free sandwich and LOTS of interesting information. I learned about facility policies and procedures, HIPPA patient confidentiality rules, and that Code Adam means someone is trying to run off with a baby and that I should immediately guard the nearest exit. (The black belt in me knew I could do this without a problem. Come at me, bro'!)
 
At the end of orientation, we took a test and then signed final documents in a thick agreement packet.

7.     Get your flu shot, and prove that all your immunizations are up to date.
I couldn’t find my childhood immunization records. Could you? No worries. There's now a cool blood test that can detect whether you have the chicken pox, measles, and mumps immunizations in your system. Ah, the wonders of science! (FYI: The flu shot is non-negotiable. You either get it or you don't volunteer. St. David's is serious about not spreading viruses and infections.)

8.     Pick a day and time to volunteer.
In the NICU, volunteers are required to commit to a year of service for at least three hours a week. I’ve been rocking babies every Wednesday night, 6 p.m.-9 p.m., for almost two years and have no plans to stop any time soon.

9.     Attend training session in your department.
On a Friday afternoon in early December 2015, I started my journey by learning the importance of scrubbing thoroughly before entering the unit (protocol calls for washing your hands for 20 seconds; that's equal to singing Happy Birthday twice). St. David's is serious about halting the introduction and spread of infection. They even have little plastic filers to help scoop out dirt under my fingernails.

Next to washing my hands, the other important thing to remember was to always pull on surgical gloves before touching a baby. After that, I got coached on how to cradle a baby’s head to ensure good airflow and how to maneuver around wire connections. In no time the nurse trainer asked if I was ready to hold one. I suddenly got scared. (My mind was screaming, "Don't break the baby! Don't break the baby!") I gulped, sat in a rocking chair, and she handed me my first patient. Rocking that baby was such a blast. I was so proud of myself!

My trainer was so nice, and she gave me small yet important tips such as, "Some premature babies have imbalance issues, so don’t rock so fast."

My great nephew, Landon, was born in Corpus Christi that same Friday. He had fluid in his lungs, so he spent some time in the NICU.  My niece was frantic. But I learned that Friday that some babies go to the NICU for this kind of stuff all the time. It's common and temporary. Their lungs just need a little help learning how to breathe on their own. My niece was relieved when I told her that she didn’t have to be afraid. All those tubes and wires connected to her little boy were for good reason, and everything would be alright.

10.Rock on!

I hope this blog post helped answer some basic questions about volunteering as a baby rocker in your area. If your local hospital doesn't have a rocker program, show them this blog post and ask to start one!

If you have any other questions, shoot me an e-mail at TaoTexas@gmail.com, or check out your local hospital’s website under Volunteer Opportunities.

Happy Rockin’!

June 2, 2017

Maybe

The other night during my baby rocking shift in the NICU, I saw that J. was awake, so I pulled on the standard purple latex gloves, leaned over the bedframe, and started talking to him.

J. has a mass on his head, and he’s most likely blind. Nurses aren’t sure whether he can hear. J. has been in the NICU for months now, and he needs stimulation. So I just decided to talk to him for a while, whether he could hear or not.

He's a sweet boy. Patient. Curious. Sometimes scared about things he obviously doesn't understand. I found that rubbing his belly while talking to him works to calm his spirit. (Maybe he feels the vibration of my voice. Maybe it's my imagination.)

I slowly and softly rubbed his belly while I told him my version of an old Zen story of the farmer and his horse.
 

“There once was a farmer who had a horse. One night there was a terrible storm, and the lightning scared the horse so much he busted out of the corral. The next day the farmer realized his horse was gone.

“His neighbor said, ‘Now you don’t have a horse to plow the fields. That’s terrible!’

“And the farmer said, ‘Maybe.’

“Two days later the horse came back with two mares. They all trotted right into the corral.

“And the farmer’s neighbor said, ‘That’s terrific!’

“And the farmer said, ‘Maybe.’

“The next day, the farmer’s only son put a saddle on one of the mares to tame her, but when he climbed on, she bucked wildly. She threw him down on the ground so hard that he broke his leg.

“And the farmer’s neighbor said, ‘That’s awful!’

“And the farmer said, ‘Maybe.’

“Days later, a war broke out, and the emperor sent a group to the area to draft young men for his army. Well, the farmer's son had a broken leg. He couldn’t serve, so they left.

“And the farmer’s neighbor said, ‘That’s terrific!’

“And the farmer said, ‘Maybe.’ ”

By now, J. was peacefully sucking on his binkie. His eyelids had started a now-familiar, slow, downward droop. He was falling asleep. And so I left him with my moral of the story.

“J., maybe you’re blind. Maybe you’re deaf. Whether these are bad things depends on perspective. There is likely a gift in you that none of us recognize. So you hang in there. You grow into the man you’re supposed to be, because your story hasn’t been written yet. And even if it had, maybe—just maybe—the ending will change into something completely different.”

J. fought sleep, but sleep was winning, so I pulled off the latex gloves and left his side.

The nursing staff know all the medical jargon and reasons why J. might be in for a challenging life. But I have to remember that medicine—the physical realm—is only part of the picture of this little boy’s life.

Is it a tragedy that he’ll be blind and possibly deaf?
 
As the farmer often said, “Maybe.”

May 24, 2017

Father Figure

Facebook tells me today that I’ve been friends with Ivan Ujueta for four years.

This is a lie.

We’re not friends.

Our sometimes-complicated relationship has always been more than that—for much longer than that. And it’s something for which I’m deeply grateful today.

Kyoshi Ivan (kyoshi is a title given to karate masters) was a father figure to me during the years in which I had no relationship or contact with my alcoholic father. Kyoshi was my first karate instructor, and I idolized him. He was strong, confident, and generous. As a karate instructor, he was tough, demanding, and inspiring.
 
Kyoshi Ivan Ujueta of the Professional Karate Institute in San Antonio
 
I remember the first time I saw him 25 years ago at a San Antonio mall. I gazed with other onlookers through a glass storefront window while he taught a bunch of karate kids. He had a bald head, a finely trimmed goatee, and arms to rival Popeye. I was mesmerized, and I pretty much stayed that way the entire time I trained with him.

Oh, let's be frank: he scared the crap outta me, too.

There were many days when I was sure I’d die during one of his workouts. He taught jukido (“the gentle, powerful way”), an eclectic blend of half a dozen Japanese, Chinese, and Korean martial arts. I was terrified almost every day on the mat. He made me get over my fear of rolling (I might break my neck), falling (I might break my arm), and sparring (I might die for lack of oxygen).

There were many tests I was sure I’d fail. I never did.

There were times—fewer and thus that much more memorable—when he praised my performance and technique in front of my classmates.
 
He helped me through many dark days of early sobriety. I doubt he realized this. He was so important to me. I wanted to be like him in so many ways. I loved him dearly, as I would my own father.
 
When I moved away two years later to take a job at a newspaper in Austin, I left with mixed emotions. By then, we had grown spiritually close, and then grew spiritually apart, for we held different views. The details are unimportant, for the ultimate outcome is more telling:

When I opened Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute in 2006, he was the first instructor I hosted for a seminar. My students loved him, and some still talk about his dynamic, powerful presence.

Through the years, we have somehow maintained a special relationship. Few may ever really get how much we mean to each other. And that’s O.K. No one else has to understand. A higher power put us together at the same place and the same time for different reasons. We each honored that meeting, and that's all that matters to me.

So, Facebook, thanks for the (erroneous) reminder. Kyoshi and I have been more than friends for more than four years, and today, I’m grateful.

April 27, 2017

A Prayer Letter to a Teen in Pain


Second in a series

The letter below was written to a suicidal teen who's been going through a tough time after a breakup. The name has been changed to protect his identity.

Dear Kyle,

You probably don’t remember me, but I’ve been on the outer circle of your life from the beginning. (I visited you the day you were born, attended your bris, watched a few college football games with you and your mom and dad when you were a toddler, and have kept up with your soccer feats through your mom’s Facebook posts.)

I know you’ve been struggling. I’m sending you massive healing chi and prayers, but sometimes the best prayer is the one in which people share something hard that they’ve gone through in the past in hopes that it might comfort someone else today. You’re my “someone else.” So here goes:

When I was your age, books and academics were my friends. Socially, I was pimple-faced and awkward, scared to become vulnerable enough to have a relationship with anyone. I stayed single for the first half of my life because I was so afraid to open my heart and get it crushed. I was 22 when I had my first relationship. It lasted three months, and after it ended, I plummeted into a deep depression. I slowly regained my footing, but it took seven years for me to gather enough courage to have another relationship. That one lasted a whopping eight months, and it was after that breakup that I hit an emotional and spiritual bottom. (This turned out to be a good thing.)

I was depressed. I cried constantly. I felt like throwing up and fainting several times a day. The grief was overwhelming—almost too much to bear. I lost my job because I couldn’t function. I was sleeping on a friend’s couch because I didn’t have a place to live anymore now that I moved out of my girlfriend’s house. (She wanted to still be friends. But I was in too much pain. I couldn’t be around her.)

One day I was sitting on the edge of my friend’s couch, and I was crying so hard that snot was dribbling down my blouse. I didn’t care. I thought I was going crazy, telling her, “I think I need to go to a hospital.” Before she could respond, the phone rang. And I sat on the couch and cried some more. Then I had a moment of clarity, and I prayed.
 

“God, if I’m going to go crazy, let’s get it over with, because I can’t do this anymore.”
 

You see, I was afraid that if I felt the depth of my pain, that if I LET GO, that I would either go crazy or die, or go crazy and then die because of all the strain crying put on my heart. In the moment, either one was better than keeping the pain inside me. I had finally reached the point of letting go. I was willing to cry myself into insanity, and you know what? I didn’t go crazy. I didn’t die.

My friend interrupted my tears: “It’s for you,” she said, handing me the phone. “Some doctor."

I picked up the telephone and discovered that in a grief haze, I had called a counselor the day before for an appointment.

“It sounds like you’re having a rough time today,” the counselor said. “How’s 3:30?”

I don’t remember calling the counselor, but spiritually, her call for me that day was perfectly timed. I went to that appointment, even though I couldn’t afford to pay, and she allowed me to continue therapy for a few more sessions until I could get on antidepressants that worked for me and get back on my feet. I don’t remember her name, and I don’t even know if she was real. It doesn’t matter. She’ll always be an angel to me.

That was the absolute lowest point of my life, and Life waited until I was in my early 30s to hand me this lesson and this amount of pain to overcome. You’re just 16. So I can only imagine how hard and scary and overwhelming all the pain is for you right now.

Here’s what changed: I had loving people in my life who helped me see my value. Hilda C. was one of them. She challenged me to take myself out to restaurants and NOT bring a book—to just sit there with ME. To practice having a relationship with ME. I gotta admit: This was incredibly uncomfortable. But she helped me see that at the core, there were some things that I didn’t like about myself. Once those realizations surfaced, she helped me work through those things—to find peace with the things I didn’t like by working little by little to change those things. More over, she helped me recognize the things that I LOVE about myself. And today, after many years of practice, I LOVE me in a lot of ways. I even cherish my alone time. I’ve gone to movies, lunches, concerts, and even vacations alone. I decided that I was worthy of love, and that I wasn’t going to wait around for a partner to start living my life and having adventures.

I spent three more years alone, and in that time, I focused on getting my chemistry stabilized. (I still take antidepressants because depression runs in my family; it’s hereditary and it’s not my fault.) I focused my energy on doing things that I loved: martial arts, writing, reading, and service work. I practiced vulnerability with friends who were much safer and less scary than a romantic love interest.

Today I’m happily married to a woman named Marianna. She’s been my partner for almost 20 years. I couldn’t even put together 20 months in a relationship before her. And today I can say that I’m so incredibly grateful that THOSE OTHER RELATIONSHIPS DIDN’T WORK OUT. I had no idea what was waiting for me. When I was in my grief, I felt so lonely and alone. I didn’t think anyone would understand my pain, so I didn’t talk about it. All I could see was what I wanted and couldn’t have, and I didn’t think anyone else would want me.

I was so wrong.

The Universe has a wicked sense of humor. All those failures in relationships weren’t failures at all. They were lessons I needed to learn that would make it possible for me to be with someone like Mare, who was working on her issues, too.
 
Thank goodness for Hilda and my current mentor, Catheran. They taught me how to build higher self-esteem. They taught me that I was a wonderful person all by myself. They taught me how to love myself and treasure my gifts. They taught me that life can be good with or without a girlfriend or boyfriend.

This is such a hard time for you. I feel your pain. Truly I do. I also know that if I would have hung on to my pain, it would have killed me. I had to let go—as scary as it was to do. I had to believe that there was something better out there for me—something worth living and fighting for: ME.

If you can, Kyle, I urge you to let go, but don’t give up. These are two very different things. Letting go is harder than giving up. Giving up is so final. Letting go takes courage, but is so freeing.

So that’s my story. I hope you get something out of it. And if you’d like to meet for ice cream sometime and talk more, I’ll buy. Please don’t give up hope. Better, happier days are closer to you than you think.

With love and respect,
Cathy

April 24, 2017

13 Things I Wish I'd Said

First in a two-part series

Years ago, I sat next to literary agent Laura Rennert at a writers' conference luncheon in Austin, Texas, and she wouldn’t shut up about an important project she helped bring to the market.

The book was called Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.
 
There’s been a lot of discussion recently on social media about the groundbreaking Netflix series based on Asher’s novel. I haven't seen the series yet, but the book itself was an overwhelmingly shocking and sad read. I finished it not too long after a woman I was mentoring killed herself.
 
I’ve known several people who have committed suicide: among them, my cousin and two women I mentored in a recovery program. There also have been many other colleagues and acquaintances who have “accidentally” overdosed. Statistics tell me that I’m not the only person who has lost someone to suicide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 34,000 people commit suicide each year—about one death every 15 minutes. The WHO predicts that by 2030, depression will pass cancer, stroke, war, and accidents as the world's leading cause of death.

Caitlan, a woman I mentored, talked about suicide all the time. She was in her early 20s and in medical school, and she had already been in a mental hospital several times. She really tried to be happy. I remember her wearing a propeller beanie hat, just to fake it. Unfortunately, she was on a seemingly unending merry-go-round: recovering from depression with new medications, thriving for a while, but then falling again into a deep downward spiral. Caitlan said her parents never wanted to talk about how or why she was suffering. They just wanted her to get better so that she could be a doctor. They saw her potential, not her pain.

I remember sitting outside a coffee shop with her one night when she said again that she wanted to die. Every time she went back to med school, the suicidal thoughts returned.

“Do you even want to be a doctor?” I asked her.

“My parents want me to be a doctor,” she replied.

“But do YOU want to be a doctor?”

“My parents wouldn’t understand,” she said.

I asked her why she didn’t tell her parents that she didn’t want to be a doctor. She couldn’t bring herself to say the words. I few months later, she left a voicemail, saying that she was doing well. A few weeks later, she hanged herself.

I’ll never forget her. She remains a painful reminder to always talk openly about suicide—to go the extra mile to get those crying out for help the treatment they need, and then to keep talking about their feelings and to keep getting them help. Caitlan’s gone, and I didn’t get a second chance to say the things I wish I’d said to her. It’s too late. But maybe it’s not too late for someone in your life. Maybe by me sharing what I wish I’d said, you can say it to someone you love and help them through their rough time.

Here are the 13 things I wish I’d said:

1.     I LOVE YOU.

2.     It’s not your fault that you feel the way you do. You didn't do anything wrong. You're not wrong.

3.      You’re not alone. You need to know that. Other people have and do feel the way you do, and many have gotten help and gotten through tough times.

4.     I can see that you're in pain. If you share your pain with me and others, the pain will likely lessen. Let me help lighten your load.

5.     You can talk as long as you want—about anything—and I’ll listen. I’ll just listen if that’s what you want and need. I won’t try to fix you.

6.     I can tell you’re hurting. I can tell you want help and might not know how to ask for it. Can I make some suggestions of resources that might ease your pain?

7.     You can tell me anything—ANYTHING. You can ask me anything, too. I won't judge you.

8.     It’s O.K. to disappoint your parents. They’ll get over it. Trust me on this.

9.     You’re not bad for having suicidal thoughts. You’re not weak. You’re struggling. There’s a difference.

10. Suicidal ideation, however fleeting, is more common than you might think. (Cite statistics above.)

11. I know that your family has a history of suicide and mental illness. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and you’re not automatically doomed to follow this pattern.

12. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Can we brainstorm for alternatives to suicide?

13. I LOVE YOU, REGARDLESS.

Bringing the topic of suicide out from the shadows is important. When the topic and problem of suicide remains in the dark—remains taboo for open discussion—the person in pain may continue to feel lonely and alone. So go ahead: Talk about it. Get it out. Have you considered suicide in the past? If so, talk about how you felt at that time, what changed, and what life’s like now. Have you lost loved ones to suicide? How did you feel when you couldn’t save them? Talk about that too.

If a loved one or friend is in pain, pull out all the stops. Get the mental health treatment necessary. Tell the person that you love them a zillion times, and then tell them again. Tell them to not be afraid or hesitant to talk about their questions, fears, and pain. Tell them you’ll listen. And then be available to listen.

You may not get a second chance.

March 16, 2017

I Hear You


Last Wednesday night, I sat with Uncle Marvin on his death bed in a nursing home in Llano, Texas. He struggled to breathe. He was dying, and he knew it. He was frustrated, and I knew it.

I haven’t told many people about my experience with my uncle during his last few hours, but because of what happened last night in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of an Austin hospital, I’m telling it now.


Saying goodbye

Uncle Marvin had Stage 4 lung cancer. He was a big man in his younger years: tall, strong, and opinionated. A Vietnam vet. He was the person who sat beside me in my family's dining room as I read a story I wrote called “Clink Clank” about a talking dog. He told me, “Keep it up, kid.” (I was in the third grade then, and I never forgot those words.) Now he was reduced to lying motionless in a nursing home bed, eating pureed meals, and receiving oxygen to help him breathe.

When I sat with him that night, his decline from a few days before was remarkable. He was no longer eating or drinking. He couldn't talk. He didn’t have the energy to move, yet he was still somehow able to communicate his feelings: He was irritable. Frustrated. Powerless. Then suddenly he’d stare out into space at something and take hard breaths.

I knew I had to say goodbye, so I positioned my chair in his line of sight, held his hand, and started talking, just like I do with the babies in the NICU. Sometimes, the most comforting thing you can do for people who might be feeling powerless and afraid is to talk to them.

Because they hear you.

I told him how incredibly grateful I was that he took the time to say those four simple words—“keep it up, kid”—to me, and about how I have kept up the writing, and how I’ll continue to do so. I told him that his disabled brother, Ronnie, would be O.K., and that in no time, Ronnie would be getting speeding tickets for running his motorized wheelchair up and down the nursing home hallways too fast.

Marvin raised one eyebrow.

I knew he heard me. So I continued.

I told him that I’d recently gone out to his house on the outskirts of Llano to check on things, and that though the yard was overgrown, everything looked just fine.

Marvin took a deep breath.

He owned several properties before going into the nursing home but had to sell them off one by one to pay for his care. The nursing home wanted him to sell this homestead too, but he insisted on keeping it in case he got better and could go home.

Everyone knew he wouldn’t return. HE knew he wouldn’t return. But, by golly, he was a stubborn man who wasn’t going to let go of his home because someone said he should. Marvin fought them every step of the way, and in the end, Medicare officials allowed him to keep it.

“You can go back home now whenever you’re ready. It’ll just be in a different realm,” I said. “And, by the way, nice job! They never took that place from you!”

He raised both eyebrows—twice.

For hours, I held his hand and talked about all my childhood memories of him. I thanked him again for his service in Vietnam. And I thanked him for taking care of Ronnie for the past 40 years.

He raised an eyebrow.

I continued to talk, and though I knew Marvin was already halfway in another realm, I sensed that he could hear me perfectly.

He died a few hours after I left his side.


Now, about last night

I have a routine when I rock babies at the NICU. After scrubbing up, I head to the nearest bay to see who needs comforting. There are seven bays, and the lower the bay number, the sicker the babies. Bay 5 is the nearest bay to the entryway, so I usually pop in there first. But not last night.

Last night I intuitively changed my routine and headed first to Bay 1.

It’s less common to rock babies in that bay. Most are too sick to be held. Many have a lot of wires and tubes attached to their tiny bodies, and they’re just trying to survive. But I go there anyway to talk to them, hold their tiny hands, hum, and sing off key.

In a room off to the side of the bay, I came up to a little girl who I’d seen many times before, but who was always off limits. A sign posted in the entryway said to be quiet and ask the nurse before touching her. She was very sick and needed her rest.

Last night I walked over to her bedside to see how she was doing and to greet her primary care nurse. The poor little girl was upset because the nurse had just run some assessments. But you didn’t hear her cry. She couldn’t cry; she had a trach tube in her neck. The tube helped her breathe, but she was frustrated.

So I put on the required purple latex gloves and held her hand. At first she didn’t want it and pushed my palm away. (My ving tsun kung fu sifu would be impressed at her pak sau.) So I asked her if I could just sit and talk, and I just held my hand out in case she changed her mind. She seemed to settle.

“I’m Cathy,” I said. “I’ll be your guide tonight.”

She curled the fingers of one hand around my forefinger.

And so I talked: I told her about my four dogs—two with three legs—and my predatory cat. I told her about the hospital and how it was a really safe place for her, and that she could relax and rest here.

“You’ve got the best nurse ever and she’d going to take good care of you.”

She was listening.

“She really likes you,” the nurse said.

“How can you tell?” I asked.

“Her oxygen levels are higher when you talk to her,” she said, pointing to the monitor. “Her heart rate is always pretty low, but it’s great now.”

“Well, I’ll just keep talking then,” I said, turning toward the little girl.

She was dressed in a cute pink elephant onesie. She had a clean diaper and clean bedding. She was warm and safe. Yet she was irritable. Frustrated. Powerless.

Just like Uncle Marvin.

So I told her about him, then suddenly realized that I was sitting by his side exactly a week ago—to the hour.

“If you see a big guy, and he says he knows me, that’s my uncle. Don’t be afraid. He’s here to help you. He’ll watch over you to make sure you’re O.K.”

She raised an eyebrow.

In shock and exhilaration, I continued: “He knows exactly how you feel! It’s so hard to feel like you can’t breathe. He understands.”

She squirmed in a frustrated attempt to say something, her one free hand flying in the air like a bull rider in a rodeo. But she couldn’t make a sound.

So she squirmed some more, moving her eyebrows, ears, and forehead. She was talking to me via facial expressions—so fast that I couldn’t keep up with the conversation.

“I’m listening,” I said. “Tell me all about it.”

Though I didn’t understand what she was saying, I wanted her to feel heard. I wanted her to know someone cared and that someone was listening.

This little girl was a joy to watch. She had a fascinating ability to contract and relax her facial muscles. She was even able to move the skin on her skull forward and backward.

“How do you even do that?” I asked as I tried to mimic her facial expressions. All I could muster was a double raised eyebrow. (I stopped when a nurse walked by, fearing that she might think I was odd.)

What was that little girl trying to say? I don’t know, but after the flurry of activity, she calmed a bit, and her eyes began to slowly close and open until they remained closed and her breathing settled. I stopped talking, holding her hand until she fell asleep. Ten minutes later, I quietly left the room.

I walked away feeling so lucky—fortunate to have sat with my uncle while he was dying and fortunate to sit with this little girl while she was fighting to live. It seemed the perfect example of yin and yang, and it made me realize something profound:

Sometimes you don’t have to necessarily understand everything a person says for them to feel heard. You just need to listen.

February 22, 2017

Bridging the Distance with Family

Last night, I went to kung fu class. It had been a month since I last stepped foot on the floor. Yesterday, I texted my sister Nancy. We had a fight in late December over a stupid Christmas party, she disowned me, and we hadn’t spoken since.

It was quite a shock when I realized that the two were related.

Sometimes I hate kung fu. It brings up so much old shit.

I’ve gone months without going to kung fu class. Pattern: I show up, disappear, show up, disappear, show up for class consistently for a few months, and then disappear again. I know that I should go to class, yet I resist. After all, I rationalize, there are after-work errands to run, chores to do at home, news shows to watch and freak out over, and dog poop to pick up in the back yard. I resist. It’s very much a mental block. I love them; it just doesn’t look that way from the outside.

I’ve also gone months without contact with family members. Pattern: I went seven years without talking to my alcoholic father at one point. Today, I call my sisters and father infrequently, rarely visit, and always conveniently schedule events or appointments so that I won’t have to spend too much time with anyone. I can only be with them for short periods of time—and I always need an escape plan in case chaos erupts. Because of the many times I was stuck in the car with my drunk father at the wheel, I also like to travel alone so that I can leave wherever I am whenever I get the urge to bolt. I love them; it just doesn’t look that way from the outside.

Fifty-plus years later on the kung fu floor, the studio is calm, serene, and quiet. I’ve always wanted this kind of serenity. Yet I often feel so vulnerable, I have the urge to run away.

I blame this new realization on Richmond, Va.; my kung fu sisters; and my sigung, Anthony Moy Tung. Every January for three years now, women from Moy Yat family schools from all over the country have come to Richmond, Va., home of Sifu’s sifu, Moy Tung. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision for me to go. Last year, I’d set a goal to go this year. When I showed up to class after a long absence (big surprise), I learned that the three-day workshop was in eight days. I don’t know what came over me, but I bought a plane ticket the next morning.

Now the hard part began: Protecting my space and alone time.

My kung fu sisters agreed to share rooms to save money. I reserved my own room in case I needed to save myself. This may sound crazy. None of these women would harm me, but it was important for me to feel safe. I needed my own place to get away in case... I’m not sure why. I just needed it. I also rented my own car, but offered to drive Simo (the wife of Sifu) and my kung fu sister back and forth from the hotel to the school. Lord, I may have looked calm behind the wheel, but I was mighty uncomfortable. Allowing others in the car was breaking the “but what if I wanna get away” safety rule.

My kung fu nephew takes lineage photographs during a break in the Women's Workshop Weekend in Richmond, Va.
We all trained hard that weekend; I trained harder than ever. Boy, I learned a ton. The other women—from Maine, Colorado, and Michigan, and Texas—were all so generous in sharing their knowledge, and I tried to remain open and soak up as much as I could. It was physically, mentally, and spiritually difficult. My arthritic knees ached constantly, but I kept training, taking breaks as needed. When I wanted to quit—when I didn’t want to get back up—I rose from the bench and played another Siu Nim Tao. Suddenly, I always got a second wind. Yet when the training was over, it was hard for me to do something as simple as go share a meal with everyone—to socialize. And when we all returned to the hotel, I remained protective of my private time—distant, quiet. Yes, my knees hurt, and I was really tired. But it was the intimacy that scared me.

On the final day of the workshop, I was physically tired. You would think that a nice relaxing brunch with Moy Tung’s family and my other kung fu brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles would have been a welcome break. Yet I was uncomfortable. And when the brunch was over and instead of going back to the studio to train we headed to Moy Tung’s apartment for more relaxation and socializing, I was miserable. I couldn’t figure out when we were leaving, and that bothered me. I felt stuck. Trapped. Then, while sitting on the couch watching Moy Tung’s daughter play with my kung fu aunt, I recognized that relaxation is something I don’t do well—in kung fu or relationships. I’m tense. Protective. Distant.

Crap.

On the kung fu floor last night, I wondered why I continually push my kung fu sisters and brothers away. Why do I stay gone so long? The moment I cross the threshold of the school, see the portrait of Moy Yat and play my first Siu Nim Tao, I think, “Ahhhh. Nice.” In that moment, I'm in my martial arts home with my martial arts family.

And that’s when it hit me: I’ve managed for years to avoid going back home to my biological family.

Crap.

Yes, I love and hate kung fu. It brings up so much old shit.