Letting go of the living

During the last six years, I have been forced to confront the collapsing health of my family. Not by coincidence, my reflections on these changes and death itself led me to writers like Viktor Frankl and branches of thinking such as Existentialism and the Greek and Roman school of philosophy known as Stoicism.

The Stoic philosophers from ancient Greece and Rome provide a roadmap that remains remarkably relevant today. The most famous ancient stoics—Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius—did not focus on abstractions. Rather, they wrote about the most pressing realities of life and issues of what define us and how we live each day.

At this point in my own life’s journey, I found comfort in old ideas that embraced questions about death. As Seneca wrote, “A man cannot live well if he knows not how to die well.” Stoic ideas helped me think about how all of us can prepare ourselves for misfortune and navigate through the worst possible events, in order to confront what inevitably lies ahead.

My journey, with my family, was now one confronting inevitable loss. This chapter of my life story, with my family, will perhaps soon end in the death of the remaining two members of my nuclear family—my mother and sister.

Losing my Mom

My father died in 1985, when I was 20, and I can scarcely remember him as a person. He was an alcoholic and unimportant in my life. I unfortunately lost my mother more than six years ago, but this loss is ongoing.

In 2013, she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The illness has been especially cruel to her husband, my stepfather, who saw his intimate partner and best friend of 30 years slowly lose her mental abilities and her ability to function as an independent adult. I have observed her slow decay, mostly during short visits and on phone calls that always got worse with each week, month, and then year.

My mother changed from being someone with a razor-sharp mind and who loved crosswords to a woman who could no longer remember the names or even faces of her neighbors and family.

On this last trip to St. Louis in September 2019, we were alone. I asked her, “Who am I?” She gave me a long look with that blank stare, created by the destruction of her neurons and the accumulation of amyloid plaques in her brain. She replied with my stepfather’s name. I said, “No, mom, it’s your son, Rudy.” She didn’t reply. She then asked me a question she had asked half a dozen times earlier in the last 15 minutes.

I have spent these last six years flying back and forth from Seattle and then Portland to her home in the St. Louis area. My trips were motivated by personal concern for her and her husband caregiver and a sense of duty to help as her son.

I have shed tears. I have felt anguish. I have gnashed my teeth. I have cursed scores of times to myself as I walked alone after work, daylight or dark. I have felt powerless. I have felt my desires for my own dreams bend and be extinguished, just so I could be there for her, albeit from afar.

When I read about my friends’ lives, involving travel or a life where the future is filled with promise, I compare it to my stepdad’s world. His involves non-stop and constant care for my mom.

I have, in the end, simply abandoned thoughts of vacation and time alone that don’t involve flying halfway across the continent, so I can spend time with her. On past trips we have held hands and took walks. We could even squeeze in visits to the St. Louis Art Museum and Missouri Botanical Garden. Even those stopped on my last trip.

On this trip, like the ones before, she asked me questions she had asked dozens of times before: Where do you live? Why do you live n Portland? Why won’t you live here? Do you have a girlfriend?

My mom often chastised me, saying, that’s too far away, you should be closer, even when she has no idea who I am or that she even had a son.

Losing my Sister

During these last six years, and for at least a decade earlier, I have also watched my sister slowly spiral out of control.

She has battled addiction, obesity, mental health issues, a long spell of homelessness, and finally the collapse of her body. Her obesity finally made it nearly impossible for her to walk. After living on the mean streets of St. Louis for months, and then in an unsanitary drug house in a very unsafe St. Louis neighborhood, she rebounded with the help of my mom and stepdad. My sister found a low-paying but stable job with Missouri’s welfare office.

Yet each visit, from 2000 on, turned into a portrait in loss. By the last time I saw her in January 2019, just before she had a heart-attack, she was out of her job, living in squalid conditions alone, and having no contact with anyone or any person except a former drug addict neighbor in a poor south St. Louis suburb.

Each time I came, her apartment looked dirtier and more cluttered and chaotic. I am choosing not to share the details. They are too depressing and also private.

Finally, in July 2019, she called for first responders who discovered her collapsed on her apartment floor, unable to walk. She had deep and open pressure ulcers and was immediately taken the emergency room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. From there the hospital managers and social workers placed her in skilled nursing facility in the city that accepted Medicaid eligible patients. She moved into the facility that month and has been bedbound and no longer able to walk.

Her new home is a facility for indigent patients, all eligible for Medicaid-paid care. The population is a mix of mostly older African Americans and fewer whites. When I visited in September 2019, more than half appeared bedbound. Patients with mental illnesses wandered the halls, without interference from staff. The front door was coded, and no one but staff could get out without the punch key.

To me, it felt like a madhouse from the Victorian era, with staff unconcerned with the patient wards in their care or visitors from the streets who could walk in the facility without even signing in.

No staff member required me to present my ID or sign in. So I could wander the facility without interference, startled that no one cared who I was. In one of the community rooms, I saw silent, elderly, and sick patients gaze blankly at their television. Others sat in the courtyard, silent and hunched over. Still others in their rooms lay silent, with their televisions blaring reality shows and their faces staring blankly at the blue light. I imagined this was like hundreds of others similar facilities nationwide.

My sister looked like she had aged 10 years. She had lost one of her front top teeth. She had a bad rash and dirty, unkempt hair. She remained unable to walk.

The hardest part of my trip was visiting my sister’s cluttered, dirty apartment that had long gone to hell. Amid the clutter that littered each room, I found evidence of her past life. I located her diaries she had kept from the time she was in her 20s, still with dreams of living a good life, even as it was slowly going sideways from her substance-abuse problems. I found her jewelry she made as a hobby for years, as her mobility began to decline and her world closed in on her.

I spent about two hours finding all of her legal documents and her writings. That was my plan from the start. I put those in a pink plastic tub and filled another with her nicest dresses, pants, and shirts, even though I knew she likely would never wear them again.

We had a falling out when I refused to help her rent a storage locker to put her stuff. She cried, feeling betrayed. I knew from all I had seen she would not leave this place or another. She still believed she could walk again and live on her own with her public assistance.

On my last morning in St. Louis, I visited her room again. Her roommate, who is in her 30s and likely had a mental health disorder, was there. I held my sister’s hand and said I was happy I had come to see her. She looked at me, and said, “I love you.” I responded the way I always had in the past, with a smile.

I then left her room and found one of the young, African-American nurses dressed in purple scrubs. She smiled, punched the code, and the door opened. I walked out into the fresh-smelling fall morning and the sunshine on a beautiful St. Louis day. It was time to catch my flight and leave behind this warehouse for the infirmed.

Why We Embrace Traditions of Denial and Sacrifice

Tonight is Ash Wednesday. It is an important date on the traditional Catholic and Protestant church calendar. It marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period before Easter. The period mirrors the reported 40 days Jesus of Nazareth spent  fasting in the desert.

Observant Christians mark the season attending Ash Wednesday services. There, they will have a cross marked on their head with the ashes made from palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. The marking of an ashen cross on the forehead is often accompanied with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Catholics will practice fasting, repentance, and abstaining from some foods, like meat. Protestants, like the Lutherans I grew up with, would focus on self-denial or charity work. Most Christians are supposed to contemplate on the coming of Easter and its meaning.

Tonight I attended my first Ash Wednesday service in more than 35 years. I needed the quiet time, in a quiet place, with quiet and thoughtful people, to contemplate my life and sacrifices that some people I know are making for others.

The sermon by the Rector at the Episcopal Church I attended focused on the importance of not running from our grief and contemplating on the world’s problems and the individual’s relation with God. Though I am not a true believer in any faith, I found these words comforting, and I had a few tears because of all that is happening with those close to me.

For those of us who have far more than we need, the idea of purposefully sacrificing something and denying one’s self pleasure seems incongruous. What would you do if you had to give up your smart phone? Your email account? Your morning coffee? What about something more radical, like running water or medicine?

We live in a world where many don’t have these luxuries, and yet we who have them are even afraid to consider life without them. So let those thoughts stay with you as we head into this period of Lent. It is one of many religious traditions that demands sacrifice. There is a good reason to practice this to think of others and not ourselves.

Back to where it all began

In early June, I visited Michigan, my birth state. I made a four-day whirlwind visit to promote my new book and advocate for changes to Michigan’s outdated adoption laws that deny Michigan-born adoptees their original birth records.

Crittenton General Hospital in Detroit, taken in 1930 (from the National Florence Crittenton Mission).

During the two days I was in the Detroit and Ann Arbor area, I finally returned to the place of my birth: Crittenton General Hospital, the epicenter of adoption in Michigan for decades.

The building is now torn down. In its place is a large, boxy utilitarian set of buildings housing the Detroit Jobs Center and a nursing home, all surrounded by a gated steel fence. There is no plaque mentioning the hospital, how long it operated, and who it served. The surrounding area, just west of the John Lodge Freeway and at the intersections of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Tuxedo Street, is severely distressed.

Decay was visible everywhere near the old Crittenton General Hospital site, off of Rose Parks Boulevard.

Multiple houses a half a block from the old hospital site were in various states of collapsing. On Rosa Parks, by the rear entrance to the jobs center, a two-story apartment was slowly falling down—and no doubt would be destroyed one day or, sadly, torched by an arsonist.

The former Crittenton Maternity Home on Woodrow Wilson is now the home of Cass Community Social Services. The former home used to house single mothers before they gave birth next door at the former Crittenton General Hospital, from the the 1950s through the 1970s.

The former Crittenton Maternity Home, in a three-story brick building next to the old hospital site, is still standing. It is now run by Cass Community Social Services. I saw a young and I’m sure poor mother with her child entering the building. I realized how the story of single mothers continues today, but with different issues and without the full-throated promotion of adoption by nearly all major groups involved in social work and the care of children. I took some photos of the home and then went to the hospital site.

I took out my sign that I had quickly made in my car using a fat Sharpie. It simply said: “I was born here.”

I took multiple pictures, on a hot, muggy, and sunny day, but I could not manage a smile. I could not make light of my origins at this place, where so many mothers said goodbye, forever, to their children. It is not a happy story.

Rudy Owens at the site of the former Crittenton General Hospital, where he was born and relinquished into foster care in the mid-1960s, and then adopted at five and a half weeks after his birth.

Despite my stern appearance, I felt a sense of elation to have finally returned to my place of origin. It felt like closure. I accomplished what I set out to do decades earlier, for myself and on behalf of other adoptees denied knowledge of who they were and where they came from.

This time, I had controlled the story. This time, I was telling that to the world with my newly published book and public conversations that had been connecting with readers. This time, I owned the moment, unlike the one when I arrived as a nearly underweight baby, heading into the U.S. adoption system in Michigan and a new family.

And no one, not the state of Michigan or the groups who determined my life because of my status as an illegitimate child, could ever take that from me.

Yeah, it was worth it. That selfie and throwaway sign were my Trajan’s Column, as glorious as anything ever built by a conquering Roman emperor. The adoptee hero, as I frequently describe all adoptees searching for their past, had returned victorious to Rome (Detroit), even if there were no crowds throwing garlands upon me and no one to write poetry celebrating that victory. I had written that story already

Train Station Lessons: Don’t Be the One Left in the Rain

Train stations are magical places. They are portals where we literally jump off to new destinations. They allow people with different lives and destinies to intersect. They are big. They are public. They are filled with promise, confusion, and noise. They can also be places of tragedy and sadness.

I have had many memorable train station moments in my life, in India, Singapore, Malaysia, Egypt, Thailand, the USA, Canada, Japan, and throughout Europe. I have almost been robbed, lost my money, found friends, and often sat around for hours waiting to escape a few terrible places and even countries.

Sam and Rick leave Paris without Ilsa, who just moments earlier had broken Rick’s heart with her farewell letter. And, yes, it has to be raining for such a scene.

When I think of trains, I always think of the great train scene, set in Paris on a rainy June 1940 evening, as two protagonists get ready to flee the advancing Nazis. One is Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, and the other is his best friend Sam, played by Dooley Wilson. The film is the Warner Bros. 1942 classic Casablanca.

Come on, you know the short scene. Sam shares the note from Rick’s lover, Ilsa, who is not seen in this sequence, but played by Ingrid Bergman. In her letter, she bids Rick what she thinks is her final farewell.

Rick is devastated and watches the words melt away on the sheet in the downpour and his heart breaks apart right at that very moment. The scene ends with Rick tossing the toxic rejection missive aside, as he and Sam steam away, fleeing for what we know will be North Africa and eventually the film’s namesake, Casablanca.

Ilsa’s goodbye letter to Rick in the 1942 Warner Bros. film Casablanca.

I thought about that memorable scene yesterday, when I found myself at Union Station in Portland.

It was raining. It also was colder than expected. I had dashed down to give a gift to a friend who was leaving town with a lot on her mind. The whole scene brought back a memory from about two years earlier, when another woman I knew had come to Portland, in the midst of a personal crisis, and I had dropped her at the station on a very rainy late fall day. I had listened to her story as well, and a few tears.

I will leave out other scenes from my first Union Station episode, but it was a terrible day for the person I was with. My job, whether I wanted it or not, was to help her out and then to be forgotten. I was disposable in some ways. The event yesterday was not quite on that scale, but it had eerie echoes from the one before.

I laughed at myself walking away from Union Station after I bid my friend farewell. So was I just the sap, getting caught in the rain, like Bogie, whose love interest left him for another man without saying goodbye in person? In both cases I was not the love interest, but I was barely a secondary character in the film unfolding for these two leads in their complicated lives.

Clearly there are elements of an archetypal modern story at play when man and woman cross fates in railway stations: The man, feeling sappy and sorry for himself. The woman, crying over another man. The station as the stage, where the drama unfolds. And of course the beating rain, soaking the characters to their skin.

On some days, you have to be Bogie’s Blaine, and stop thinking about yourself. That is OK. I have no regrets. It is fine to play the part of a tragic but complex character.

But having lived this scene, I advise any future Ricks who are left behind, avoid the habit of being the one who leaves the station alone, drenched by rain and feeling nothing but regret. There are much better ways to end your stories. And don’t wait until the bad guys like the Nazis are practically knocking at the city gates. Leave town a lot earlier.

Note: Use of images from the film Casablanca are solely for the purposes of comment and criticism.

‘The Art of War’: the essential text for any U.S. adoptee

Sun Tzu, the brilliant Chinese strategist, reportedly born in 554 BC, should be studied and read by every adoptee in the United States who is denied equal treatment under the law and their original birth records. His classic treatise, The Art of War, remains one of the most frequently studied, quoted, and referenced tools in human civilization for anyone who engages in advocacy and, yes, war.

Everything is there for the adoptee or birth parent seeking his/her records and past and for advocacy groups seeking reform and justice from a system that denies basic justice and equality to millions.

For adoptees who are plagued by insecurity, doubt, and depression about the injustice of discriminatory state adoption laws and historic and unspoken prejudice against illegitimately born people like adoptees, I first recommend drawing from your wisdom and discipline you have gained from your experience. Finding wisdom in books will be meaningless unless you can first put that knowledge into a perspective you have lived yourself.

So Why Sun Tzu and an Ancient Text?

My tweet to adoptees on preparing for long campaigns for equal rights: read Sun Tzu.

Most adoptees will learn that their path to wisdom and later action will eventually require discipline, awareness of one’s adversaries, and adapting successfully from tough experience. Luckily, Sun Tzu provides one of the easiest to access toolkits to guide you as you embark on your journey that only you can make.

If your mind is open to new ideas, Sun Tzu’s timeless observations and tactics allow anyone to become an irresistible force. As Sun Tzu says, “Being unconquerable lies with yourself.”

In my case, I embraced many of these strategies to overcome the country’s discriminatory adoption system and achieve a measure of justice and wisdom, which I describe in my book on my adoption experience. Sun Tzu correctly notes, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”

(I first published a copy of this essay on the website for my memoir.)

Reflecting on becoming a surfer

One of who I call the Seaside A-Team catches a tough wave at Seaside, Oregon on a relatively calm day at he Oregon Coast in late September 2017.

A year ago last weekend, I became an Oregon surfer. I now feel confident enough to be in the lineup with every other surfer who shares my passion.

It is a feeling of accomplishment. I started from nothing and had to “wipe out” my way to my new-found status literally hundreds of times. Yes, I had to fail repeatedly before I became competent to feel welcome in the ocean and among the community of surfers globally. I admit I am still slow and clumsy getting upright. I will never be great.

Beginning Surfing Later in Life

In September 2016, I bought a beginner board, the right wet suit, and other gear, and I began the long journey of mastering the art and sport of surfing by travelling from Portland to nearly all surfing spots on the Oregon Coast and even California and Washington.

The journey far exceeded all of my expectations.

I learned how to understand surf forecasting and paid close attention to the storm systems in the Pacific Ocean that control the weather from Alaska all the way down to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. I met people who shared my passion for the ocean and this highly alluring sport. Many of them have lived and surfed all over the world and country, and we all speak the language of surfing. Some are visitors, and others are residents who now call Oregon home. We all come together in the water, waiting for the wave, patiently sitting on our boards and scanning out for the next set rolling in.

I have learned how to read waves and practice the craft of positioning myself at the right place at the right time. In Oregon’s tough, stormy waters, this involves punching through feisty breaks that pound you as you try to reach to lineup in the water, where the waves give you that window of opportunity to tap their energy and capture moments of transcendence.

I have surfed during snowfalls and blinding rainstorms.

I have seen sea otters, harbor seals, humpback whales, and signs warning me of great white sharks that are common in these waters.

I have made new friends who love to wake up at crazy morning hours and meet at the ocean, just to capture the magic of the ocean in the morning, as the smell of saltwater fills your nostrils and the sound of the wares creates a feeling of calm in morning’s first light.

I have also learned how to ride waves during this time. When I started, I could barely get any. Now, when I go out, I can catch sometimes 20 or 30 rides, if the conditions are perfect or near perfect. Even on bad days, I am mastering the art of riding our very common cheeky waves. These can be fun.

Rudy Owens after a summer surf at Seaside Cove, on the Oregon Coast.

It Was Worth It

This past weekend, on Sept. 22, 2017, I rode perhaps one of the best waves of my life. I started in the lineup at Seaside, near the rocky shore, and grabbed a quiet overhead that took me almost 100 yards to the beach, riding its face and seeing the translucent water carry me on a pulse of energy. My grin grew wider with every second I was steering my nine-foot Stewart longboard. This ride repeated a nearly identical ride I had a week earlier, at the exact same spot.

Now, a year into this journey, I capture each outing with a surf diary, describing the ocean color and smells, currents, sets, wave patterns, colorful characters, my memorable experiences with wildlife and aquatic life, and my memories of the day. As a lifelong writer and journal writer, I can say this is perhaps the funnest journal I have ever kept.

(Author’s note: An earlier version of this essay was first published on Sept. 17, 2017, on my photo blog called What Beautiful Light.)

Maintaining Balance in Life: A Daily Practice

(Click on both photos to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Balance is an important element in finding purpose and meaning, and perhaps pleasure—but that is not as important for me. In my case, working on big things, in my daily practice with everyone I meet and myself, and in my life’s trajectory, give me the ability to keep things upright and tall, when it seems like life can just topple things down. Also, you can always re-stack things when they tumble. Life teaches this lesson all of the time, and we should embed this memory into our subconscious, as our reservoir of strength.

The stack on the right of the color image above fell the day I took this. It was restored shortly after by someone, and so was balance.