Soon, the masks come off

Masks are coming off soon, when previously many jurisdictions had required them in many indoor settings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Many want this. Many who also know about the term “endemicity” would also like to believe we have “immunity” and can get back to “normal.”

In Portland, Oregon’s Sellwood neighborhood, the masks are coming off already, indoors and outdoors, at most eating establishments.

Hey, as a person who yearns for social contact like millions of others, I would like to go back to that now-crowded, maskless wine bar in Sellwood near my home too. Personally, I won’t do that any time soon.

The reason is, the underlying SARS-CoV-2 virus and its mutations will remain prevalent and potentially a real public health concern, based on what current science tell us. But I’m not saying this. Professor Aris Katzourakis, of the Department of Zoology, at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, made this point in the Jan. 24, 2022 issue of Nature.

Rudy Owens, wearing two masks, on a flight in June 2021 from Seattle to St. Louis.

In his essay, “COVID-19: endemic doesn’t mean harmless,” published just before the Omicron surge began to fall in many countries, Katzourakis wrote: “There is a widespread, rosy misconception that viruses evolve over time to become more benign. This is not the case: there is no predestined evolutionary outcome for a virus to become more benign, especially ones, such as SARS-CoV-2, in which most transmission happens before the virus causes severe disease.”

Katzourakis, and other public health and scientific experts, are not rooting for one outcome or the other. They are just using science to provide an informed opinion, hopefully to keep people healthy. And if some people keep wearing masks, that is fine with me. I will likely be one of them. That is a decision we all will still be able to make, for reasons that make good scientific and health sense.

Global health icon Dr. Paul Farmer touched a generation of public health practitioners

Dr. Paul Farmer speaks at the University of Washington School of Public Health in 2018. Photo is courtesy of the University of Washington; story here.

World-renown global health advocate, Dr. Paul Farmer, died in his sleep in Rwanda, leading to an outpouring of both sadness and praise from many health and public health practitioners in the United States and around the world. At the time of his sudden death, Farmer was working in the central African nation at the medical school he co-founded with the Rwanda’s former minister of health, Dr. Agnes Binagwaho.

Farmer, a medical doctor and anthropologist with advanced degrees from Harvard, co-founded of the Boston-based Partners in Health (PIH). The group confirmed his death on Twitter today, Feb. 21, 2022. ABC News reported PIH had confirmed Farmer died from an acute cardiac event that happened during his sleep.

Despite his prestigious graduate pedigree and also having attended Duke University as an undergraduate, he eschewed the path of traditional power and influence that his elite training afforded him. He had his eyes set on the world, where many lacked access to basic health care. According to Duke University, Farmer sought to “strengthen public health systems in order to provide quality health care in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.” By the time of his untimely death, he had established a wide following after having spent decades of his life working on addressing global health inequities, in Haiti, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. 

It is fair to say Farmer influenced nearly a generation of health and public health practitioners in the United States who have an interest in global health and health inequities. Those singing his praises today range from policy hawks like Samantha Power, to Hollywood celebrities, to former President Bill Clinton, as well as scores of public-health minded doctors who shared comments on Twitter, expressing sadness at the news of Farmer’s passing.

Farmer left a mark with his peers and colleagues globally who shared his passion to fix the same root issues driving and underlying global health inequities. The day after Farmer’s death is filled with diversity of persons who work in those fields sharing personal comments explaining why Farmer mattered in this collective effort. One former colleague, Dr. Sriram Shamasunder, met Farmer as a university student and was inspired to join in the work Farmer was doing. “He conveyed with his words, the irresistibility of social medicine, where health workers aim to address the root causes of disease in its social and economic context,” wrote Shamasunder in an essay published by National Public Radio just after Farmer’s demise. “This work is where necessity, urgency, and joy become bound together.”

Nearly every graduate student I met at the University of Washington School of Public Health (UW SPH) when I got my degree there (2010-‘12, as an older student) shared tales describing that their interest in working in international health was influenced by Farmer’s thinking and writing. He also visited my alma matter to speak about his work. That praise felt very close to hagiography, which can also hide any famous person’s flaws and blind spots. Those who know better of making saints from mere mortals can easily describe this type of myth-making as “white saviorism.” That is real too, regardless of Farmer’s accomplishments.

Tracy Kidder’s famous book about him, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World,  is the one book that came up in many conversations among UW SPH grad students. Here are some works by Farmer that provide some insights to his influential thinking, which are not uniquely his and also are shared by many doing similar work. I have not read it, but clearly the book has what can best be called a “dedicated following.” One cannot deny that Farmer was tireless in communicating the change he worked on, in the mud and in the field.

A good profile of him can be found in a New Yorker piece from 2000 that is circulating among those in global health who are lamenting this loss. The myth-making portrait by Kidder in her book about Farmer is based on a Haitian proverb: the Haitian proverb “Beyond mountains there are mountains”—as you solve one problem, another problem presents itself, and you go on and try to solve that too. That is a good metaphor to living life, ready to engage and never losing your purpose why you do what you do.

Remember, mankind is our business

Nearly every year I catch a live or filmed version of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

With COVID-19 still a threat globally and the Omicron variant still the dominant strain in Oregon and the country, I will forego my normal Christmastime pilgrimage to the theater for a live show. I will miss it, because at these live shows of this timeless story, I am in the company of theatergoers who share in the many profoundly humanistic themes of this masterwork of literature.

There are too many scenes and themes to call out that speak to our common humanity, particularly this time of year, when we are asked to think of others less fortunate.

Patrick Stewart plays Ebenezer Scrooge in my favorite adaptation of A Christmas Carol, from 1999.

One of my favorites scenes is when the ghost of Jacob Marley visits the still hard-nosed and taciturn Ebenezer Scrooge to give him a chance to save his soul, while he is among the living. The ghostly apparition of his former friend and business partner warns of the three spirits who will visit him on Christmas Eve.

Marley’s ghost also reminds Scrooge of our purpose in life, to be of service to others.

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

The chills that one feels at a sprit giving us a chance for redemption never grow old for me. For me, this scene is among the best ever written telling us that we do in life, day in and day out, matters. The encourage, speaking with the grim knowledge of death and the afterworld, reminds us all why our work matters in the here and now.

So with that holiday message, remember the importance of our “real business” in life, particularly this time of year.

I choose to be the lion, not the lamb

This week, I found myself locking horns with two intractable systems that are among the least accountable and most unbending in the United States. One is a nursing home in St. Louis, Missouri, that cares for a family member of mine, which in its operation is not that different than the more than 15,000 licensed facilities nationally. The other is a medical clinic in metro Portland, Oregon, where I visited a doctor for a visit in September this year. Each represents a part of the much larger systems of for-profit healthcare and nursing home care, and their structure and management are likely representative of their thousands of counterparts throughout the country.

Sociologist Max Weber was the first to describe how modern bureaucracies function, often immorally, and to explain the historical emergence of bureaucratic institutions.

Both of these institutions that provide medical and health services are, theoretically, there to serve others and provide services that are essential and also something most persons see as “morally good.” These two facilities are not related in any way. Yet both are much alike in how they function as bureaucracies that are mostly intractable in their actions and inflexible when asked to be accountable. 

In my long decades now of dealing with bureaucratic systems, I have learned important lessons. The most important of those lessons is to never accept “no,” which is the reflex response of organizations that do not take ownership for their actions that can cause harm and can be morally wrong. 

spent decades of my life fighting a large bureaucracy in Michigan, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which denied me my original birth records for nearly three decades, even after I had met my birth mother who signed a consent form in 1989 that should have forced the agency to give me my original birth certificate. It took a court battle to secure my birth certificate’s release in 2016. The long dance I had with that ossified bureaucracy provided wisdom I continue to use in how I do my work professionally today in a large government agency and how I deal with other bureaucracies that intentionally choose to do wrong as opposed to good. In nearly every sense, being an adoptee denied basic legal rights was my advanced training how I respond to immoral, inflexible systems and institutions to this day.

Fighting in the trenches with the nursing home system

For nearly two years I have had to engage in long-distance advocacy for my family member who is permanently bedbound in a Medicaid-funded nursing home in St. Louis. These efforts mostly focus on getting the staff there to provide legally mandated, competent care, which is lacking. The facility is privately run, but receives federal reimbursement in the life-saving help for my family member. However, it continues to fall short in many ways, such as how it informed family members of COVID-19 outbreaks, the offering of required services such as oral health care, and most recently in not offering seasonal influenza vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine boosters. Both are recommended for these settings and for patients like my family member. My family member has not received either of these shots, but should have already by early November.

I continue to work with the Missouri Ombudsman Program, which has no regulatory power over these places. It mostly has moral authority to embarrass the nursing homes and nudge them to providing what is mandated already by law. I did that again this week, when I found the facility caring for my family member had failed to offer either of these potentially life-saving shots to my family member. 

When I called the nursing home facility, I could not get a straight answer if and when the shots would be provided. I was transferred four times. No person gave their full name. A woman said I should call back the director, who now refuses to respond to my communications. The last person I spoke to told me, in true bureaucratic fashion:

The nursing home where my family member lives is no different than thousands of others licensed in the United States.
  • They were “just in zoom meeting” that morning to plan for vaccinations—a remarkable coincidence of timing.
  • They claimed the pharmacy has not been provided materials. This was not explained further, and often there are partnerships that come into nursing homes.
  • They could not provide any timeline about when either boosters or the flu vaccine could be provided.
  • They refused to answer my questions if they had planned for routine seasonal influenza vaccinations, which for decades has been is a standard healthcare activity in for all nursing homes and long-term care facilities in this country.

I do not think my efforts solved this problem. I doubt the root issue of poor care is solvable. But I was determined to do my best and just ask them to do their job and care for their residents that they have legal, professional, and moral responsibilities to fulfill as a licensed care facility in the state of Missouri. I also relayed my concerns in writing to the Ombudsman representative, who said they would send a representative to that facility to see how my family was doing and if these vaccines would be administered.

The black box of medical billing, the hallmark of the for-profit U.S. healthcare system

This week, I continued in my efforts to get answers to questions I posed to a medical clinic in Portland to explain why it charged me a high cost for a procedure that could have been charged less than half the final amount. My call marked the third time I asked this medical clinic to explain why a visit involving a conversation with a doctor and the analysis of a test result was charged more than $500, when it could have been as low as just over $230 or up to $600 or more. The black box hiding this information is hidden to all patients, as it is for many charges for medical care in the United State. My efforts with all providers is to get them to tell me the cost in advance, and when they fail to do that—which is nearly always—I ask for breakdown how a consumer can learn how a charge is made. 

My call a month ago was never returned, and once again I talked to a billing representative lasting nearly 15 minutes. I was not rude, but I was firm and unflinching asking for the company to explain how it determined a cost of service. The replies were:

  • Sir, I don’t understand your question (said three times after I kept repeating my request).
  • The insurance has paid for this. Your balance is zero. That really means, what is your problem, leave it alone, and the system is broke and let’s not try to fix it with this issue.
  • You’ll have to speak with our manager. I am not able to answer your questions. It could be because it was a new office visit.

I was then transferred to a manager’s voicemail. I left my third message and await a call that may or may not ever happen.

When I have made such calls in the past, I have been “accidentally” canceled as a patient for future visits. Mostly I have been told that the team reviewed the notes and that the medical charges are correct and not being changed. 

Why fight battles that may never win the conflict?

The choice we face against intractable systems is never easy, and that choice is informed by lived experience. I prefer to be the lion, not the lamb.

As I contemplate my skirmishes with bureaucracy this week, in that enormous world of health care and nursing home care, I again had to confront myself and my goals. So why do what I do? When I look in the mirror, I see the person I was when I was younger, as an adoptee denied my legal rights, and told by every institution and person around me I was never going to get what I was legally mandated to own and have as a human. I see someone who had to learn, through trial and painful error, a path forward. 

So again, why? The answer is simple: Because even small efforts matter and because when harm happens, to millions of patients or nursing home residents, it is clearly immoral and wrong. These engagements also help focus my mindset and my practice that is needed for dealing with unaccountable bureaucratic systems. 

In those engagements, the lambs are usually skewered and the lion will always stand strong, even if the victory means losing that battle. I choose to be the lion.

The most expensive and fortunate car mishap of my life

A little more than a year ago, I experienced the most expensive car problem of my life. The final bill added up to more than $6,000, including towing charges.

Let’s not forget the several hundred more dollars in car rental fees and being without my car for nearly two weeks when I needed it for my job commuting 100 miles a day to and from my home to work.

The event happened in a blink of an eye, on one of the hottest days of the years, as I was about 15 miles into the return leg of my 50-mile commute back from my job in Salem, Oregon, to my home in Portland.

I never saw it coming. I just happened, though in retrospect, I long knew it would.

Hurtling down the highway at 65 mph in about 95 F heat in the late afternoon, the engine in my slightly aging Subaru Forester literally blew out.

The failure arrived without warning as I saw my dashboard gauges tell me the engine had failed. I quickly checked my surroundings and luckily found myself in a spot without vehicles or reckless semis around me. I coasted calmly to a stop on a safe spot on the Interstate 5 shoulder, next to a farm field and a tree.

In my mind I immediately recognized the unfolding event as a test my character and ability to handle bad luck even before I had put on the parking brake.

How would I choose to respond, I found myself thinking? Would I yell and curse? No. In fact, I immediately realized this was a profoundly fortunate moment.

Amor fati: embacing your fate

I was uninjured, and this happened at a safe place instead of a dangerous one. My car, an inanimate thing, was reparable. I was alive. I realized this could have happened anywhere at many more dangerous locations, and I could have been severely harmed. I smiled.

As for the car, I had no idea what had happened to the engine. The radiator was shot, but I didn’t know how badly the engine block may have been warped. Indeed, the mechanic later told me the block was destroyed, and I faced a decision to scrap the car for parts or install a new engine.

I got a tow after waiting more than an hour from a junkyard tow driver who proved highly knowledgeable about subjects we could freely discuss only as one can with a complete stranger in a strange place. The next day I got my second tow to a shop, where I faced the costly repair decisions.

Within 48 hours I had rented a car for a week, made the decision to replace my engine block, and worked out a plan with my manager to work at home. It was not really as serious as one might have thought it could be.

Ultimately, my life didn’t fall apart despite really bad luck, if you want to call it that.

The experience showed me the joy of not commuting a few days in a row. It confirmed I could not keep doing the job I was doing. In fact, the whole incident confirmed what I knew would happen, that my car would fail doing something that could not be sustained professionally and for my personal health. The job had to go or my health would.

Now, a year later, I have quit that job, I work at home, and I drive the car about once a week. I think it was a clear message from the heavens what to do.

Most importantly, I confirmed a lesson I long knew, as only experience can teach. I again found that bad luck could be the greatest of teachers.

Without bad luck, we can be foolishly tricked into deceiving ourselves that good luck is more desirable. In fact, good luck and the absence of bad luck can easily delude a person into lazy complacency  and being unready for when things change. And they always do. There is always a change in the wind, and those who deal with change have dealt with its fickle nature before. Luckily, I was ready and will not forget the lessons I learned last summer.

And so a year passes

A year has passed since my mom died from Alzheimer’s disease. It’s an illness that will crush and humble most mere mortals, and even the brave and the strong.

I had been awaiting for this day, contemplating its meaning as it got closer and then arrived.

The markers of time the past year have been unlike anything I can remember.

Collectively we have lived through a global pandemic, which was just taking off right after I flew home. The United States’ imperfect democracy nearly collapsed under the continued assault by Donald Trump and his fascist enablers. Wildfires engulfed my state, and I worked through that for weeks as part of the state’s response. Now I find myself working on the state’s pandemic response, never slowing down.

I am relieved my mother is no longer suffering, nor her husband (my stepfather).

I feel like I have changed too. Luckily my solace has been the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

At the ceremony of life for my late mom, on Feb. 11, 2020, the church choir and musicians performed Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (from Cantata 147).

It was if Bach was speaking to my heart across time and space and said: Peace had come. Her journey had ended. All would be fine. I listened again to this piece over the weekend, and it brought great comfort. Bach’s music has let me say farewell.

Reminiscing on my violent, alcoholic father

It has been more than 35 years since my adoptive father died of health complications that followed years of destructive behavior and a losing battle with alcoholism.

Though he has long been buried in a cemetery plot in the Cleveland suburb of Rocky River, Ohio, next to his father and mother, his impact on my life and my family lived on long after he passed away.

Even today, I frequently am forced to confront my long-buried memories of this often violent yet aextremely intelligent man who was an ordained Lutheran minister.

A shot taken with my adoptive father and sister in our home.

For the last seven years, when my adoptive mom was on her long and difficult journey with Alzheimer’s disease, my adoptive father’s memory frequently came up in our conversations. When I visited her in her home in University City, Missouri, flying out from my home cities of Seattle and then Portland, we spent endless hours talking about the past and her memories that grew dimmer over time. She could recall snippets of her past life and share them with me. She frequently repeated ideas or hazy recollections. She repeated two things more than any other during these seven years.

First, she told me, I have the greatest husband in the whole world. She was referencing her current husband and full-time caregiver, my stepfather, who cared for right up until her final day. Second, she told me, my first husband used to beat me. That was a reference to my adoptive father and her first husband, from the summer of 1958 through their divorce in the summer of 1973. During that time they lived in Detroit, moved briefly to Boston in late 1965 and 1966, and then moved to the metro St. Louis area, where my mom lived out the rest of her life.

My adoptive parents in front of their west Detroit home, likely in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

When my mom’s memory was sharper in the early years of her Alzheimer’s, she repeated constantly how often my adoptive father would hit her. She said the doctors told her the violence could have contributed to her awful and prolonged brain-wasting disease. I can still remember those incidents as if they happened hours ago. I too can never forget them.

I would always reply during these countless recollections that, yes, mom, your husband—my stepfather—was the best husband in the world. I would say nothing about her comments on her years of domestic abuse at the hands of my adoptive father—her former husband. These conversations continued until the second-to-last time I saw her alive, in September 2019.

In the end, my adoptive mom had two distinct memories, one of violence and one of love, which she likely had little control over because of her deteriorated state from Alzheimer’s.

Making Sense of my Adoptive Father

Though my life with my adoptive father in a nuclear family lasted eight years, I spent another five more visiting him, first in the St. Louis area and then in the Huntington, West Virginia and Chesapeake, Ohio metro area, where he resettled after the divorce.

Those trips with my adoptive sister to stay with him several times a year, as part of the divorce custodial settlement, were as bad if not worse than the times when we lived as a family under one roof.

I tried to reconstruct those years from memory starting about five years ago, as I began to write my memoir as an adoptee. I remember the day I wrote out the first outline to my memoir on a hot July day on a river beach. I then started with a chapter exploring my childhood and younger years with my adoptive father.

I wrote that chapter first. It proved to the hardest one to do because I had to dredge up memories that were neatly buried.

I also needed to revisit the places of my childhood and youth, in Huntington and Chesapeake, letting me remember things I had forgotten, perhaps as a way to carry on with life. I took a road trip there in September 2015.

My adoptive father lived for several years in this house, owned by the next door Lutheran church, where her served as a minister in the 1970s.

I published an essay on that trip on one of my blogs. I wrote about my childhood trips to see him: “I had no choice in the matter. I had to go there. I had to visit my father. It was bad to awful, and sometimes downright terrible. But when you are young, you are flexible and stronger than you think. You actually can do impossible things, and still come out at the end of the tunnel with a smile. I did. Despite the odds, I really did.”

When I finished the revised text to my memoir in late 2017, I left my first chapter on my adoptive father out. That decision came easily. I decided it was too personal about a relation that shaped my life. No one else would understand that journey but me. By that time in my life, into my fifth decade, I also realized I had become more like the generations who preceded me, who were reserved, not someone who wanted to “tell all.”

I also had come to a deeper realization about living life and finding meaning. I was able to see my unpleasant times with my adoptive father through a completely different perspective, shaped by my life and the knowledge I had gained from life.

Rudy Owens’ memoir on his experience as an adoptee and on the U.S. adoption system.

I described my later life’s wisdom in the introduction to my book, which I published in May 2018: “My adoptive father, a Lutheran minister, was abusive and an alcoholic. He had a serious drinking problem before I was even placed in his and my adoptive family’s middle-class, two-story brick home in metro Detroit. He treated my adoptive mother, my adoptive sister, and me very poorly. At times, when he was drunk, he could have killed my sister and me on more than a dozen occasions—when he would drive us in a total stupor. My adoptive family’s struggles were not pleasant, but they are also things no one could have predicted, and their meaning and purpose may still not even be clear to me. However, the way I confronted these challenges was uniquely my own, and I own how I addressed my reality and the conditions of my life. No one else is responsible for that.”

The Impact of Living through Domestic Violence Never Goes Away

As I continue to reflect on my life, I remain honest that the impacts of my adoptive father’s actions never fully disappeared. I see that most clearly when I read and learn about how domestic violence impacted others in their youth and their eventual journeys in life.

Patrick Stewart in his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard on the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series and film franchise.

I only recently learned that the fine British actor Patrick Stewart, known to the world as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series, also grew up in a home marred by domestic violence. I had always felt something raw when watching Stewart’s performances, as Picard, as Ebenezer Scrooge in his version of A Christmas Carol, and his lesser and earlier roles in films like Excalibur. He always had bursts of rage that felt like a smothering volcano, but controlled just barely.

By accident this month, I found his essay published in November 2009, in The Guardian (Patrick Stewart: the legacy of domestic violence). In it, he laid bare what he and his mother experienced at the rough hands of his World War II hero and domestic-abuser father. He wrote in the bluntest of terms how his father badly beat his mother, especially when he was drunk. He described the terror of living under the shadow of a violent person, who put their lives at risk.

“Violence is a choice a man makes and he alone is responsible for it,” Stewart wrote. “No one came to help. No adult stepped in and took charge. I needed someone else to take over and tell me everything was going to be all right and that it wasn’t my fault. I wanted the anger to go away and, while it stayed, I felt responsible. The sense of guilt and loneliness provoked by domestic violence is tainting—and lasting.”

Everything Stewart described echoed eerily what I had written in 2016, without ever reading Stewart’s essay, penned six years earlier.

In the section of my book I deleted, I wrote: “In those frequent drunken conditions, the ordinary looking man could transform into frightening malevolence, and you never quite knew how he would erupt. The well-worn expression walking on eggshells is actually a perfect match for what my mom, sister, and I faced for years around him.”

I also described the ravaging effects of alcohol, which I internalize to this day, as a survival mechanism. “In those intoxicated moments, my father’s ordinary appearance would be transformed by alcohol. His speech would slur. His left eye would slant behind his glasses. It was the mark an alcoholic I learned to spot instantaneously in others the rest of my life—one of the weird outcomes of growing up around someone with this affliction. To this day I can spot a problem drinkers with Spiderman-like quickness, usually in the first five seconds of meeting them. And my self-defense response kicks into a state of hyper readiness, just in case.”

On some days, like ones I have had this month, I revisit my life’s decisions that still leave sorrow, including my decisions to live a life that eschewed anything resembling domestic normality and middle-class happiness. I still associate these with my adoptive family and father.

Like all of us, we have to confront ourselves and decisions. There are days it is hard, when I might see families that appear “normal,” and I can observe a father who acts compassionately around others without toxic masculinity or the effects of alcohol. On those off days, these apparently normal activities allow me to play “what if” games in my mind.

In the end, I let those thoughts go, because I own this path and my thoughts entirely.

In the chapter I cut from my memoir, I concluded with a meditation on restorative justice. I described how embracing forgiveness means letting go of the power the offense and the offender over a person. It means no longer letting the offender and their actions control you anymore. Without this act of healing, the wound can fester and can control one’s actions indefinitely.

Like Stewart, I cannot entirely let go of the memories of a violent man who failed as a father. But I have found a path to becoming a better person and the person I wanted to be. I never followed in my adoptive father’s footsteps. For that I take credit. I accomplished more than I knew I ever would.

A Chance Meeting with Ike

Every one of us has a mother, and that can bring together strangers. (Sculpture in front of the St. Louis Art Museum, taken three weeks before my mother died in early February 2020.)

In mid-February, I flew across the country from Portland to St. Louis. My trip came suddenly, but not as a surprise. After more than seven years of battling Alzheimer’s my mother finally passed away.

My plan was to write a eulogy on the long flight I would have from Seattle to St. Louis, the second leg of my journey. My tale was meant to focus on young woman, who was raised in a scrappy New Jersey town just outside of New York City.

That’s what I thought at least.

I ended up writing two stories. One I published after I returned. The other I put aside. It was a story I never intended to have, but had to be told. I finally am telling it now, at the end of May 2020, in the middle of a pandemic and protests occurring nationally in the United State against racial injustice and much, much more.

Perhaps by fate, I think my mom decided to play a funny trick on me on the way for me say goodbye. The experience allowed me to recall her wisdom and share it with a stranger.

On that trip, a stranger crossed my path. However, it was up to me to do something with this opportunity and make sense of it. My mom’s passing gave me a window.

Wakanda PatchOn the escalator coming out of the Airport shuttle tram at SeaTac, Seattle’s international airport, I spotted a large African-American man in a red and black checkered shirt. He must have weighed 225 pounds. He stood about 6’2” and had a massive chest and arms for linebacker.

I didn’t really think about him until I spotted two items pinned to his backpack.

One said, “Wakanda is not a shithole country.” The other was a medallion with the Latin words “Memento Mori,” or remember that death comes to all. During the period of the Roman Empire, the phrase would be whispered in a mighty Roman emperor’s ears by a slave as he entered Rome. It reminded a mighty emperor of his mortality and that he, the mightiest person in the world, faced the same ultimate fate as slave behind him.

When I read the Memento Mori medallion, I decided I had to introduce myself. I recently had found myself drawn to Stoic ideas, from ancient Greece and Rome, which are embodied in the words carved on that medallion.

I said, “Hi. I’m Rudy.” He replied simply, “Ike.”

I asked about his backpack decorations. We laughed about Wakanda.

I told him I recognized the Stoic medallion, and he said, yes, it’s sold by Ryan Holiday. Not by coincidence, we both followed and liked Holiday’s blog called The Daily Stoic. Both of us obviously found something in these ideas that connected with us.

I could hear a West African accent in his voice and asked about his background.

Soon I learned Ike originally hailed from Nigeria, the son of political refugee parents. He told me his mother arrived in Boston with just the shirt on her back and four kids while his father rotted in a jail back home.

I then discovered we were on the same flight. He was on a business trip from Seattle to St. Louis.

I told him about my family, being raised in a family of three with a single mom in St. Louis. I said I was flying to St. Louis to attend the funeral of my mother.

Ike commented how important funerals were in Nigeria for the Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa-Fulani ethnic groups. Ike called them festive occasions where the life of a person was remembered as a joyful thing.

Rudy and Ike

Rudy and Ike, connecting over mothers, death, funerals, and remembrance during a chance meeting at SeaTac in mid-February 2020. It is sad knowing we can’t enjoy the friendly embrace of strangers anymore for a long time amid the pandemic.

He said as a child, he wasn’t afraid of death because funerals were always so fun. Only later did he learn of the sadness that also accompanies the loss of a loved one. But first he learned that death was not a thing to fear and that it was a part of life.

Somehow we began to talk about how our mothers raised us and what life skills they taught us. Ike said his mom, and dad, always taught him he had to fight, because nothing in life came without some sort of struggle.

He said they never spoiled him or pampered him or over-parented him. If he was hurt, without requiring a hospital visit, he was expected to overcome his circumstance, because he if wasn’t gravely injured, he would be OK. He said it was the right thing to teach him, and he later understood the importance of this teaching. It helped to make him successful.

I said my mom was the same way. She understood good luck and bad luck. Like everyone, she had her share of both, and maybe in stronger doses that she deserved at times. I said, she could handle a strong wind and not snap. She would bend back. I said she had raised me not to be blown down during storms, even if I wasn’t aware of this when it was happening. Like her, I had to learn on my own to let storms pass and then come back up, stronger. Maybe I was more successful at this than she bargained for.

I also talked about my mom’s battle with Alzheimer’s and how it had given me a chance to learn about things that frighten us all—our mortality and death. By the end of this journey, watching this illness take my mom, I had grown. I had become less afraid of the end that awaits us all (“Memento Mori”). I simply did what I could do for my mom, mostly in a way that worked.

I told him that in the end, my mom always had an ability to see goodness. She could find something good amid something terrible, including her illness. Though she despised it, and would rightly say, “I hate this. I can’t stand this.” She also said one line all the time, right up to the end. “I have the nicest husband in the whole world, “ she would tell me, again, and again, and again, and again. I must have heard this hundreds of times in the past seven years.

It was one of the last things she told me on the phone, the last time we had a conversation during the Thanksgiving 2019 holiday. I remember replying to her the way I always did, with utmost sincerity: “Yeah mom, you do. He’s a great husband.”

I reality, my mom had said this for all 37 years of her marriage. She was speaking a truth about what the second half of her life was like with her best friend and husband.

“I got so lucky,” she might add. “Yes, mom,” I’d reply. “You got real lucky indeed.”

At that moment, in telling Ike my mom’s story, I started to feel my eyes water up and looked away. Here I was, crying to a man I had never met, telling him about the passing of my mother. He gave me a hug. “It’s OK, man. It’s part of the journey of life.”

Ike and I took a selfie and I gave him my card. I don’t know if I will see him again. He lives in Seattle with his wife. He’s not even sure how much time he has, having just had a heart attack on Jan. 18. He told me it was almost a blessing, because it reminded him of how precious life is and how important his wife and health are.

I think my mom would have loved to meet Ike. She could have easily found herself talking to him, like I saw her do countless times before whenever we travelled, or went to the Missouri Botanical Gardens, or the St. Louis Art Museum, or on a holiday. She was always warm and welcoming with strangers, of any race or background—always eager to hear about their lives and talk about their families and especially their kids.

In some ways, I felt my mom somehow played a serendipitous role that crossed my path with Ike’s, and therefore my mom’s story with his mom’s story, and the story all of us have with our mothers and the lessons they teach us, so we can pass them on to others, the way all people do, in the USA, Nigeria, or any other place.

Yes, maybe there was a reason I would be in an airport tram on that very day, at that very hour, at that very second, with an imposing looking man next to me, who just happened to have a reminder that captured the wisdom of a long journey my mom just completed. In some ways I felt that was her reaching from beyond through a stranger letting me it would be OK.

Remember to always get up and welcome a stranger into your life, I think she’d say. It was something her long and abiding Christian faith had given her until the very end.

Remembering and honoring the great Bill Withers

On March 30,  2020 the world lost one of its wisest voices, singer and songwriter Bill Withers.

Withers passed away from heart complications at the ripe age of 81, having lived a life that allowed his life’s wisdom to reach the entire world through the power of music and the magic of his soulful voice.

His memorable hits remembered by many include “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” “Use Me,” “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” and of course his timeless original “Lean on Me.” That timeless classic gave him the freedom to walk away from the music business and live a different life after 1980, after making nine studio albums in nine short years. His final hit, before he grew disillusioned with the music industry, was “Just the Two of Us.”

For me, the emotional depths Withers can find with the simplest chords on a guitar in “Hope She’ll Be Happier” is a testament to the power of music to touch someone’s soul.

And like so many, I am now turning to “Lean on Me,” from his second album, Still Bill. It provides an anchor as I search for light amid our global COVID-19 pandemic. The day I learned of his death, I played his masterpiece all night. I wrote to a friend, “Still chills. Decades go by, and it’s all I’ve got. I needed this song today more than ever. It carried me back to my humanity.”

Withers is an American original, shaped by his humble, poor beginnings and the knowledge of lived experience that he channeled into his music that found an audience the world over. “I could have done better, but I did alright,” is how he summed up his musical career, the perfect understatement of a true artist.

Born in 1938, Withers was the youngest of six children. During a 2014 interview, he said his mother actually had 13 kids, and high infant mortality took its toll. His family lived in a coal mining community called Slab Forks, West Virginia, which was literally racially segregated by railroad tracks.

Long after Withers had become successful and stopped performing, he said his early and impoverished years that he had little control over likely exposed him to health issues that caught up with him later. He said as a child, he and his family ate every part of the hog but the holler. That is a classic West Virgnia line.

Despite the inherent racism his family experienced during his formative years, his father became a respected United Mineworkers treasurer while working in the coal mines. His life as a miner, Withers later shared, led to his premature death when Withers turned 13.

Despite these hardships, Withers also saw a type of communal bond that later informed his world view and his songwriting. When interviewed by a West Virginia TV program in 2007 about historic racism in West Virginia, he responded, “When you’re coming out of a coal mine, everyone’s black”.

Withers later lived with his mother and grandmother, the latter became the inspiration for his hit “Grandma’s Hands.”

Withers was determined to leave his poor upbringing in Appalachia and escape the life in the mines that left many men unhealthy in their later years.

He joined the U.S. Navy and learned to become an aviation mechanic. He was discharged and then lived in California, working in factories, including for Ford and Weber Aircraft on assembly lines. Those years as an assembly worker taught him about working together and caring for his fellow worker, he would later tell reporters.

While working he bought a guitar at a pawn shop and taught himself to play, while songwriting. He began to share his tapes and pursue his dream of making it.

In interviews in his later years, after he left the business, he described “Lean on Me” as a product of a small, poor town, where you had to lean on others to get through hard times. He said that song could never have been written by someone from a big city, like London or New York. It’s a song from a smaller place.

When the news broke on Friday of his death, and I dug into his songs, I found there was far more to this man than I ever knew. And the more I knew, the more I realized how profoundly thoughtful he was about life. I realized how much of a Stoic he was, in a classical and advanced sense, and how there are people with whom you share spiritual and philosophical kinship, across time, space, race, and life experience.

One of my favorite lines I heard from his interviews was, ”We all become the composite of the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met.” So true, that.

He talked about the way we speak to others and our decorum come from the basic manners we learned from those who have raised us, regardless of where we’re from or our class. He also spoke about this simple stuff, and what camradarie was like in his home state.

As I mused about his life, I wrote this passage on my Facebook feed, after listening to his wonderful 2014 interview with the radio show Death, Sex, and Money: “If I could go back in time right now, and speak to my 15-year-old and very immature self, I would give myself a recording of this amazing interview with the late Bill Withers about living a meaningful life, how to be a real man as he understood it (without toxic masculine swagger, but with love and compassion), and finding one’s place in the world. This may not be the wisdom others would need, but I probably could have benefited from it. One of the most important male figures in his life was a slightly crippled man named virgil, who was also a hunchback. It was Virgil’s wise words that helped Withers overcome his own disability when he was 30 (a stutter).”

Unlike many singer songwriters, Withers never needed the ego gratification performing on the stage. He described himself as the type of kid who might be in the corner, reading a comic book not the one dancing for attention the moment someone entered the room. You can see that in his performances, where he sits on a stool, closes his eyes, strums his simple chords, and then unleashes the ferocity of his voice that comes from the human soul.

 

Toward the end of his life, he never lost perspective. You could see that in his 2015 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His stage presence conveyed, “Sure, whatever, folks. There’s more important stuff than this stage spectacle. Have a good time. I’m all good.”

In his interviews, Withers also described the difference between music and the music business. Everyone should do music, he emphasized, because of what music brings to the world. He said, when the big fat lady gets up in church and sings from her soul, that’s music, but ain’t nobody gonna pay her a dime.

Amen, indeed.

I will miss you, Bill Withers. We have lost a poet, artist, and force for humanity. I assure you, your wisdom will help all of us through the dark days of ahead:

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Thank you, Bill Withers, for showing us the way.

Saying goodbye and finding meaning

The writer Robert Green, author of many books on human behavior, shared these words that make me think of Mom. Green wrote: “But despite what you may think, good luck is more dangerous than bad luck. Bad luck teaches valuable lessons in patience, timing, and the need to be prepared for the worst; good luck deludes you … making you think your brilliance will carry you through. Your fortune will inevitably turn, and when it does you will be completely unprepared.”

Mom at the Seattle Wooden Boat Festival, July 2004.

Like all of us, Mom had good and bad luck. Unlike many, she always learned from her misfortune and knew exactly when she finally found the tide turning. And she also knew good luck simply didn’t happen. She worked hard for it.

Mom was a child of the Depression and the daughter of an immigrant, who was fortunate to leave Germany before a much worse misfortune befell her homeland. Those immigrant lessons were passed down to Mom from her mother.

Being a child of that era, it shaped Mom and her generation. She spent her early years in a working class community of New Jersey—something that I think taught her about working hard and knowing that others around you could be less fortunate. She never forgot this her whole life.

Mom also grew up in the shadow of a great city, the epicenter of culture, and finance. The Big Apple’s glow could be a draw to anyone, particularly a woman like my mom who had an abundance of great looks. Those looks, however, never went to her head.

Mom attended Bronxville in NY (Concordia College, Bronxville, today) to pursue professional studies that the sexist workplace of the 1950s offered single women of lesser means. She made lifelong friends there. One became the godmother of one of her children (me). They were called the “Triple Threat.”

Mom, when she would turn heads during her college years in New York.

I don’t know the full story how Mom moved from greater New York to soggy Saginaw, MI in the mid-1950s. My guess is she needed work. When she had to work, she would always “crack on.” I learned this from her early on.

In 1958, she met her first husband. They moved to Detroit. They adopted my sister and I and raised a family. They moved to Boston for a spell in late 1965 and then to Clayton, Missouri, in late 1966. The pair divorced in 1973 and she re-entered the workforce as a teacher, eventually in the St. Louis Public School System and the University City Public Schools system.

She was a lifelong teacher, completing her career in University City Public Schools as a reading specialist. She devoted her professional life to the wellbeing of young people, many of whom were lower income, minority, and had higher needs.

Despite Mom’s great looks, she was remarkably grounded in the world around her, in people, her church, her community, and her family.

She was profoundly spiritual. She didn’t need to tell the world about her faith. It resided in her. She was devoted in the fullest Christian sense to her Christian identity and the congregations she belonged to. She dragged me and my sister to church. She knew better than we did why our nearby Lutheran church would be good for us. She was right. Her faith stayed with her to her last days.

Mom always had style. I never saw my mom look shabby. It’s the style the world saw on the show Mad Men, of women of that era. Mom always carried herself this way.

Mom had style, always

Mom also had an artistic side. Her creative outlets included fixing furniture, making beautiful outfits with her hands by sewing. She could throw herself into project and be unmoved by distractions. The house she purchased together with her second husband became an art gallery. They both loved great art and had impeccable taste.

Mom was very smart—like all her family members. She loved crossword puzzles, which she did for decades. I could never keep up with her when she’d work them out on the kitchen table.

Mom managed the impossible: navigating a divorce, reinventing herself, raising two kids, switching jobs, buying a home on a teacher’s salary without any help. And then, with two kids in tow, she found her lifelong soul mate, who she married in 1983.

Mom may have felt she didn’t see the world, but she did.

With her second husband, they travelled nearly everywhere in the United States and Canada. She even travelled nearly 50 miles up a dirt road outside of Cordova, Alaska, in the pouring rain, just to see a glacier and laugh at how beautiful and crazy that was.

Mom and her second husband lived for a short spell in England, where he had a position for a short term. They also travelled to multiple destinations in Europe together: England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Belgium, Italy, Greece (I believe a couple of times).  They always looked like there were glowing in their holiday pictures. Snap, here we are in Paris. Snap, here we are in in Florence. Snap, here we are in in Rhodes. Wait, here’s Thurso, Scotland and Bruges, Belgium.

Author, Rudy Owens, and Mom, about four months before she finally succombed to Alzheimer’s disease.

She was a great cook. I loved her Christmas stollen and cookies. She taught me this art. She kept learning new recipes and growing with her expanding love of food outside of her St. Louis world.

Through thick and thin, Mom was devoted to my sister and remained generous to her. Mom was always about doing.

Mom was tough. Her friend from college shared some stories about that with me, and I can see that throughout her long life. I call it grit. It’s the virtue I respect the most in people who matter.

I think all that she confronted in life–stuff that might bend or break others–did not push my mom down.

She could weather storms because she always knew something good was ahead.

Mom during one her several moves in the mid-1960s

Mom was right, of course, and her marriage to her second husband was the highlight of her life.

The thing she said the most to me, for the last seven years of her life, when her illness took hold, was, “I have the best husband in the whole world.” I would always say: “I know mom. He’s a great guy.” She was would always laugh and smile. We had this conversation literally hundreds of times. She last said it to me on Thanksgiving Day, on the phone. I said, “Yup, mom. You are a lucky woman.”

Mom was the best friend and loving wife of her second husband for 37 years. She welcomed his family as her own and devoted herself to their shared relations. In the end, her marriage was the enduring happiness and the good luck that came in her life. She earned it and knew how to live it well, only the way those who know the fickleness of fortuna can.

Mom, I salute your memory. Thanks for making us richer.