Sunday, May 20, 2018

If Now Now, Then When? Part 2

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?" -   Hillel the Elder

This was the question I asked after the Sandy Hook massacre. If 20 small children – practically babies and six adults could be shot down by an active shooter who was mentally unstable but was able to get access to his mother’s guns – shouldn’t we do something about gun control?  If the innocent faces of those children were not enough for a grieving nation to act with a Democratic President and Congress, then when would be the right time? 

It seemed like a slam dunk to get guns out of the hands of the wrong people-to
get stronger background checks – to limit the age that a person could get a gun.  But even as that Christmas in 2012 seemed less merry because there were now 20 more angels in heaven but not on earth to open their presents and six less adults to offer holiday cheer as we as a nation failed again to pass any real gun control measures.  The pull of the NRA was just too great and their campaign contributions too grand.  The misguided voices of their members too strong to weaken the will and effectively castrate any politician that wanted to stand up to them.  It was a heart-breaking Christmas that year but unimaginable in the grief for the families that would never tuck their babies in a night, never to hear “I love you Mommy and Daddy!”  

Am I laying it on too f*cking thick?!! Goddamn right I am – because I hate these senseless shootings – it makes me shake with anger and yet we keep allowing this happen time and time again.   According to Gun Violence Archive, there have been at least 241 school shootings nationwide since Sandy Hook. In those episodes, 450 people were shot, 149 of whom were killed – these numbers include the Santé Fe and Clayton shootings which occurred on May 18th. 

So, when are we going to wake up and decide that the five million members of the NRA do not speak for the 326 million people who live in the United States?  Moreover, they apparently don’t speak for most gun owners.  According to recent estimates, one in three people are gun owners which puts the total number at about 75 million.  With 5 million members, the NRA represents just 6.6% of gun owners.  Many of those people who have firearms in their house feel that the NRA is way off base.  So why do politicians continue to cow-tow to them? 

In Georgia, our own Lt. Governor Casey Cagle punished Delta Airlines because they were not going to honor the NRA discount anymore after the Parkland shooting.   Cagle’s response was to take away the tax benefits that Delta receives until they reinstated the discount.  This was a brilliant move because Atlanta was on the short list of cities that Amazon would use for their second headquarters.  But since that little stunt as a bow to the NRA and the punishment for not extending the discount – Georgia has probably lost an employer who could bring thousands of jobs to the state.

Sure – they throw money at candidates and gave 21 million to the Trump campaign but it is selling your soul out to stop keeping reasonable gun laws in force like reversing the ban assault weapons which went into effect in 1994 under President Clinton but was reversed under George W. Bush in 2004. More common-sense measures like banning bump stocks which turn semi-automatic weapons to automatic and was used in the Las Vegas shooting last year have withered because of NRA opposition depending on which way the wind blows (initially they did support the ban).  Now Oliver North, that paragon of virtue who in the 1980’s sold illegal weapons to the Iranians and then gave the funds to the
Contras in Nicaragua and is a former FOX commentator is the new NRA President.  He seems perfect because the guy’s reputation for being a scumbag is pretty solidified.

As a mother, I hate that in the back of my mind as I send my 17-year-old to school is the silent prayer that I will see her home safely.  She’s not a police officer or a soldier where something like an attack might be part of a day’s work – she’s a f*cking high school student. She’s going to school with other children and teachers who don’t get paid enough to teach much less get training to take down an active shooter.

I used to work security at a synagogue in Atlanta and with the world being what it is and with a school on the premises – we would discuss active shooter drills.  We even did one with a police officer dressed as a sniper and discussed how to react.  As much as I thought I was prepared when he came into the office with a ski mask – instead of getting out as fast as I could – I cowered under my desk and was marked “dead.”  It taught me a good lesson – don’t under any circumstance get yourself in a place where you can’t get out.  One good video that I have reviewed which is called Run, Hide, Fight and is used by several law enforcement agencies to train people how to try to save themselves in an active shooter situation.  Click here to look at the video.   It gives you some sound advice how to survive something so horrific.

One of the things that has bothered me when I hear about these shootings is that there didn’t seem to be a plan much past putting the school on lockdown.   The kids are being trained to hide under their desks which as I found out made me a sitting duck.   The teachers need to be trained if they cannot safely get the kids out of the classroom to a safe space, how to block the door and arm themselves with mace or scissors and fight like hell to keep the perpetrator out. It’s not something that might come naturally but just like a fire drill – once you practice it a few times – it becomes second nature.  In the Virginia Tech shooting, the students who blocked the doors had the highest survival rate.  Even something as simple as a door wedge can keep someone from entering a room and save lives.

It’s a given that our national law makers will probably make a good show of saying we need responsible gun laws and how this should never happen again until sadly it happens again.   Perhaps over the summer, schools can do for themselves what lawmakers won’t do – address the problem head on and have a strategic plan.   In the confusion of the shooting in Parkland and other shootings, first responders wasted valuable time trying to find the perpetrator.   Why not install active shooter sensors that can detect gunfire and pinpoint where the perpetrator is during the shooting spree?  These systems can also alert the teachers and principals where the shooter is so they can plan escapes accordingly in real time.  

My prayer is that the schools in the Atlanta area as well as all across this nation end the school year without any more shootings.  But in the tragic aftermath of these shootings, we need to work together to find a solution.  Yes, better mental health services would help.  But as our President tried to weakly defend his stance at the NRA convention with false stats about stabbings in Europe, it’s not just about mental health – it’s the ease in which people in this country can get a gun either legally or by taking a parent’s or friends firearm. My daughter Amber and I took part in March for our Lives and it was a very powerful event.   There were all types of people and all ages – from toddlers to people in their 80’s and it was amazing that it was over 20,000 people in the streets of downtown Atlanta.  What struck me was that there were so few anti-protesters in favor of gun rights –  I saw two people.  I really think that going into the mid-terms – momentum is on our side.    What I observed is that for these new voters GOP = NRA and it might spell trouble for Republicans who don’t take a tougher stand on the NRA. 

It should be obvious that banning bump stocks, automatic and semi-automatic would lower these casualties – but sometimes obvious does not win and paranoia can make any reasonable argument seem like an enemy’s dictate.  Maybe mandatory smart guns would stop kids from are taking their parents’ weapons and turning them on schoolmates -maybe not - but it’s worth a try. Something needs to be done besides “our thoughts and prayers” because prayer without action means nothing.

But as I asked five and a half years ago after Sandy Hook, are we going look our collective paranoia in the face and decide to limit who can get guns?   How do we end this madness or are we just going to continue with the status quo until every city has an incident.   How do we look our children in the face and say “Yes, this is a safe place to live” when our innocents are being coldly struck down. We need to change the conversation and offer concrete solutions that can be acted on.  If not now, then when?

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Journey

The news finally broke that Barbara Bush had passed away.  It was not surprising – the press had reported days earlier that she had decided to forgo any more medical intervention and live out her last days on her own terms in her own home.  Even up to a few hours before the announcement there were stories that she was still talking as best she could to well wishers and sipping bourbon waiting for her own inevitable journey.  The news stations already had her obituary reeled cued up – just as I’m sure they have her husband’s ready to go as well when the time comes. 

I started to cry when I heard.  I had always liked her even if I did not agree with her family’s politics.   More than that, it stung because my own mother had passed at age 90 barely six months ago.  I had the sad knowledge of the preparation but knew that everyone who needed to be there was, even if George H. might not have been able to comprehend what was going on. 
I understood how important that last birthday was for both her and George – how it must feel to know that it would be your last one.  

My mother requested a special birthday for her 90th  and we obliged.  All my brothers and sisters were there – all five of us along with grandchildren and great-grand children who called my mother “G-G” for Great Grandmother.   She ate slowly as Parkinson’s had taken its toll over the last seven years.  Her caregivers were there to wish her well.  As best as we could guess – she knew people were there and she had a great time.  This was the second time in 16 years since my father’s funeral that all five Cody kids had been together.  The time before that had been at my mother’s 89th birthday – another milestone to celebrate.

For years now at Christmas, I made a point of getting our home-movies transferred to a
digital format and putting it on DVD so my mother could watch the memories she had chronicled so lovingly.  I sat with her after both her 89th and 90th birthday and we watched the home movies but with songs that I had dropped in like the Jackson 5’s I Want You Back or Johnny Cashes’ I Walk the Line since back then there was no audio to capture.  We stayed up late – past midnight when my kids had gone to bed – to watch my mother’s younger visage pushing strollers as a new mother of a young daughter and a toddler son.  We watched later as my mother and dad were in a financial position to go to Puerto Rico and  Mexico leaving their young brood in the capable hands of our maid Etta.  Going on vacation without your kids?  Unheard of in this age of helicopter parents and yet my parents were married almost 50 years until death did literally do them part when my father passed away in 2002 just a day after his 81st birthday and months shy of their half century milestone.  There must be something to not being around your kids 24-7 and just being a couple to insure your marriage's longevity.

Barbara and George H. Bush had been married for 73 years when she passed – the longest married presidential couple in history.  Of course, many of our presidents from the previous centuries did not live to see 73 much less have a marriage that lasted so long – but it’s a tribute to Bushes and my parents that they stuck with each other through thick and thin – no matter what.  Back when they were married – getting a divorce was a stigma and literally for better or worse so you had to figure it out.  That’s what made the Greatest Generation great – the ability to focus and not be distracted by an arrant Tweet or Facebook rant.  I remember seeing Betty White on SNL when she hosted. She thanked all the people on Facebook that had campaigned for her to be on the show and then said, “I’ve seen Facebook and frankly it looks like a big waste of time.”  She got a huge laugh from the very people who put her there.

I loved that Barbara took control of her passing – deciding to go into that good night with a few sips of bourbon and her husband nearby even if he probably didn’t understand what was going on.  He, like my mother, is in the end stages of Parkinson’s.  He’ll ask repeatedly where his wife is and there will be the constant painful explanation that she’s gone.  He will seem to comprehend it and then ask again an hour later with no memory of the explanation.  

These are the rituals that the sons and daughters of elderly parents must endure.  My sister Kathy was a rock the whole time my mother was up in Tallahassee after she was diagnosed.  She was the key caretaker for Mom, coordinating healthcare workers, schedules all while at one point battling stage 3 colon cancer (she is now happily cancer free).  Her dedication to my mother was heroic and she took ownership of Mom’s care.  Most of what the rest of us could do seemed inadequate and the responsibility was overwhelming.  I knew because we had taken care of Max’s dad who had suffered a stroke decades before and moved in with us after Max’s mother Joan died of a brain tumor when we had been married less than two years.  He was under our roof, so we had to get up in the middle of the night and help him to the bathroom, eat, bath and shave.  I knew hard it was to see a strong vibrant woman become someone who depended on the kindness of strangers to help her do life’s bare necessities.  She would ask me and Kathy – “I always exercised and took care of myself – how did this happen?”  We’d listen and tell her no one knew why.

I understood how you had to have the same conversation repeatedly and how you learned to hide your frustration because as much as you want to believe that they might be “out of it” they can sense when your nerves were becoming frayed.  George, Max’s dad, could sense that so I learned to try to hide it as best I could. 

I feel for the Bush family because their force of mother nature is no more, and their father can’t comprehend the loss.   At least my father went when he was still in full control of his faculties – it was quick – he sat in his favorite chair fell asleep and basically didn’t wake up.  My mother found him and called the EMTs but by the time they arrived it was too late.  The last time I saw my dad was over the Christmas holidays that year and the last thing I said to him on the phone was “I love you!” so I was lucky that I had no regrets in that department. 

So when we got the call that Mom might have about 48 hours at best, me we hurried down – praying we would get there in time.  We prayed my brother Steve would get there as well by bus from Miami and he did.  We made sure my mother was never alone and were told to watch for changes in her breathing.  Our 24-hour vigils sometimes included calls to come in and see Mom because we were sure this was it – but for many times that weekend – Mom was not ready to go.   She was not really conscious but I think she heard us.   She smiled when we sang her favorite song – “Almost Heaven – West Virginia,” by John Denver.  It was therapeutic to do a sing-along with a young hospice caretaker who probably saw this all the time but still managed to sing without a hint of sorrow – it was more like rejoicing.   My mother smiled with her eyes closed and even tried to mouth some of the words.  

Later that day, I pulled up the recording that we did the night before Danielle was born in 2000 which was a recorded rendition of The Night Before Christmas.  It was my dad, mom, Max and me reading the book and reminiscing with Amber who was four at the time.  It was a joyous time and looking back I was so happy I had captured the sound of that night – we’d have it always.  In fact when my niece and her husband Julio heard it, they couldn’t believe it was her – the voice was so strong and sure – it was the mother I knew.
We got Mom’s arrangements in order the day before she passed and it all seemed to surreal. Maybe it was because you had 12 people sleeping in Mom’s house which could only really sleep 4 people comfortably and we were sleep deprived even though we took shifts throughout the night.  I worried how my kids would do seeing their grandmother pass away and being in the room was optional – I was also not sure about my own reaction.  But even as we knew Mom would pass soon, everyone stayed positive – any squabbles that might have been brewing were brushed aside for the sake of my mother which is what she would have wanted.

On day three, it seemed like Mom still had lessons to teach us and she was not ready to yet.  The Sibs had been in such a good place after her birthday that having us spend another day together might have been part of her plan.  As the afternoon wore on- my niece Beth sat by her bed as Max, the girls and I took a walk.  When we got back – we watched a little of the 4th quarter of the FSU football game which was close but the Noles lost.  My sister Kathy and her husband Sal had gone back to their home to let out the dogs and were about five minutes away.  Beth came out to tell us that Grandma’s breathing had changed and after numerous false alarms this time it seemed like the time had come but Kathy and Sal were not with us.  I prayed she would get back in time.  My mother’s breathing started to falter and still no sign and Kathy and Sal.   Our large group started to filter into the room and I kept an eye out for my kids knowing that they had my blessing not to be there if the spirit did not move them – just being near would be good enough but they stood steadfast with the rest of us. 

I remember the left artery in her neck kept pumping wildly and it seemed rather surreal that she was going.  My mother, my jogging buddy, my mentor, my cheerleader – the person who encouraged me to “write your book,” she was leaving this earth in spirit.  Maybe the mom I’d known had been gone for a while but as she was passing I remembered how warm her hand was as we watched home movies to the beat of “We are Family” by the Pointer Sisters. 

Kathy rushed in and told her to “Go towards the light, Mom!” which I thought was strange because of course that’s where she was going to be with Dad, her older sister Elyse, her baby sister Ruth, her parents, and all her ancestors – they were just waiting on the other side – I was pretty sure if it.   Betty White’s mother once told her, “Death is that great secret and when it’s your time, you’ll finally know the secret.”  It was that pearl of wisdom and oddly enough not a bible verse that gave me comfort.

We called the funeral home to pick Mom up which is another part of the whole funeral business that just seems strange.  While we were waiting, we changed Mom’s clothes, picked out the ones for her to wear for the final journey and we decided to do her make-up.  Not in an over-the-top “Let’s make her look really alive!” way but more as a tribute because my mother would have wanted to feel like she looked nice.  This was another surreal moment as I picked out foundation and eye shadow to put on my mother’s now lifeless face.  I wondered if I would freak out but again this non-sequitur seemed to come and go and my mind somehow grasped it.  It was Sal’s idea to toast Mom before she went into the hearse.  

We all got a drink, for me and Amber who is 21 it was a very light wine cooler while other’s got wine, beer and the younger kids got a soda. We stood around the bed that had been the monument of vigils and toasted my newly deceased mother who was in a new outfit and fresh make-up.  It was very Irish as we told stories about Mom and the funny things she used to do and we laughed together as a family which is what she would have wanted.  My sister Sharon even quipped, “She must have thought – ‘Well the Noles lost again, I might as well go.’” There was laughter but make no mistake there was heartbreak as the reality set in.  The tears flowed in the hours, days, weeks and even months later - which is normal.  Someone who brought you up, nurtured you, hugged you, cheered you on and believed in you when the world didn't was gone - in a better place no longer limited by their physical maladies but gone to you now on this earth plane. The hole in your heart seems gaping but as time goes on it will seem less painful but losses by others can pull it open again. 

The death of another 90 something has triggered these fresh memories – and I feel for the Bush Family – I cry for their loss.  It sucks to lose someone you love but at least she was coherent to the end- making her own decision to die at home like my mother.  That’s a blessing to live 92 years and have the legacy of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.   I’d like to think that no matter what your political affiliation – you can offer sympathy for a family’s loss  and offer empathy.  These are not empathetic times that’s for sure – but if nothing else, a grand woman’s passing should invoke respect, love and the awe of the gift we call life.   No one’s journey is ever the same but each journey is remarkable and recognizing that should bring us closer as human beings no matter which side of the political spectrum you sit on.