Saturday, August 26, 2006

My Mom's Better Than Your Mom

How do you even begin to express your gratitude for your mother? I mean, she gave birth to you, which I've heard is somewhat unpleasant. (I wouldn't know, personally. My memory is hazy because of all the drugs. Sweet, sweet drugs.) And then she changed your diapers (this I know more about, because the drugs have worn off, you see), taught you to read, drove you to all your square dance recitals and chess tournaments, and baked you those special cookies you like so much. And that's YOUR mom. That doesn’t even begin to cover the greatness of MY MOM. And as we all know, My Mom's Better Than Your Mom.

Here's how:

My mom is unfailingly generous. Don't ever tell her that you like something that belongs to her, because she'll try to give it to you. And don’t look hungry, cause she’ll feed you. And you’d better bundle up, cause if you look cold she’ll give you her coat. She’s constantly finding ways to share what she has with others. Growing up, I often saw her writing a supportive note, putting together a gift basket, or offering to help someone who needed it. One instance during my sassy adolescence still stands out. A less-active member of our ward had passed away, and my Mom was involved in the funeral preparations. At the family’s request Mom set about gathering a set of scriptures and a scripture case bury with the deceased. When I saw the trouble she was going to I snidely commented, “What’s the point in burying scriptures with him? If he didn’t even have a set of his own they couldn’t have been that important to him.” She replied, “It’s what his family wants, and we can do it. Why not comfort and help in any way we can?” That has always been her attitude, and I’m trying to learn from her example.

My mom is an incredible cook. Her orange rolls are the stuff of legend. We've had them every Christmas for as long as I can remember. They are so gooey and delicious and reminiscent of home that once off at college, certain siblings have been known to make them at Thanksgiving. And Easter. And Labor Day. And rainy Thursdays in June. (Or was that just me?)

My mom lets us know she’s thinking about us, even when we’re far away. Before we moved I sorted through the boxes and boxes of letters accumulated in my closet. There were dozens of cards from Mom. She’s better than anyone else I know at consistently sending birthday cards, holiday greetings and thank you notes.

My mom puts everyone else’s comfort before her own. A few Christmases back Mom and Dad gave up their comfortable bed and slept on the front porch (!) so there’d be more room inside for all the kids and grandkids. More recently, they purchased a home with half a dozen bedrooms (even though all the kids are now adults) just to make sure there is always room for everyone. And you know what? Half the time, when the crowd is in town, they still end up giving up their own room to sleep on the hide-a-way bed.

My mom teaches life’s most important lesson in just the right way. Like when my third-grade reading group read a story called “The Middle Muddle,” which outlined the dreadfulness of being a middle child. Finally I knew why my life was so horrible! I was a middle child! I filed my new knowledge away until the next injustice, and then loudly proclaimed “I have the hardest life because I’m the middle child.” Kindly, my mom reminded me that in our family there are seven middle children. Many times since—usually when I’m tempted to think “my life is the hardest because …”—I’ve remembered that encounter. A little perspective goes a long way.

Later in fifth grade, I learned another crucial lesson. Vickie was one of the few children lower on the social totem pole than I was, and so I teased her with the fury only an underling can muster. Remembering my cruelty still embarrasses me today. And then one day, my mom came in to school on an errand. I was horrified to see Vickie, the object of my cruelty, approach my mother and tell on me. I spent the rest of the afternoon fretting about my punishment. Would I be grounded? Spanked? Forced to eat Brussels sprouts? Despite my anxiety, a few days passed without a word on the subject from Mom. I thought I was in the clear, and snottily told Vickie that I didn’t even get in trouble. Later that evening, Mom smoothly worked in to conversation the principles of kindness—to treat others kindly even if we aren’t treated kindly ourselves. There was no yelling, spanking, grounding, or punishment of any kind. But she still taught a powerful lesson.

My mom is a natural. When I became a mother myself my appreciation for her as a mother only grew. She brought me and Sam home from the hospital after Sam was born. While I sat on the couch with my little sleeping bundle wondering “now what?” she knew just what to do: The Laundry. And the dishes.And the meal preparation. And the ordering me to bed. Once as I sat on the couch she said, “You look tired.” I asked how she could tell (since “tired” is the default look for new mommies after the drugs have worn off) and she said it was the way I moved my eyes. I remember thinking that was funny. How can you read someone’s stamina from the way they move their eyes? But now I get it, because looking at Sam’s eyes always tips me off that it’s nap time. A mom just knows. My mom does, anyway.

My mom throws great parties. I turned sixteen just a month or two after moving to Arkansas. I’d left lots of good friends behind in New York, and I felt a little isolated spending what I considered to be such a monumental milestone without them. I wanted to skip school that day, to enjoy a celebratory mope or something. But Mom wouldn’t let me. You see, she had many secret preparations, and couldn’t have me hanging around all day. Later that evening, after a long and nondescript day at school, my sister came up to my room to tell me “there are some people downstairs to see you.” I went downstairs to discover a roomful of people from our new ward ready to yell “happy birthday.” My mom was in the kitchen, grinning as she pulled a frosted angel food cake out of the plate cupboard. A German chocolate cake emerged from the spice cupboard, and suddenly the room was full of snacks and friends and fun. Sneaky Mom. I was completely surprised. Even now as I remember that party I tear up a little bit. She went to so much trouble just to make me feel special.

I guess, in a nutshell, that's what's really so great about my mom. With nine kids, it would be easy for us to get lost in the crowd. But that doesn't happen because Mom knows just how to make each one of us feel special. (And your mom doesn't do that. Your mom doesn't even like me. But lucky for me, mine does.) Thanks, Mom.

I love you Mom! Happy Birthday!

Friday, August 18, 2006


On my way into the hospital from the parking lot this morning I passed a couple and their daughter who had paused outside the door for a cigarette (right next to the "no smoking" sign). They followed me through the doors and the daughter asked, "can we take the stairs?" The dad said, "No! Are you crazy?" and they waited for the elevator.

I chuckled a bit.

But then I went to this morning's Grand Rounds and learned about mental development in children. The speaker gave examples to support his view of relationships and the social environment in early brain development. He talked about tiny children throwing chairs at preschool teachers, depressed toddlers, and how 21% of small children met the criteria for a psychiatric disorder in one large study. It was amazing and heart-breaking.

This morning has reminded me of the importance of being a parent. I can work as an activist to support good child-friendly policy, and I can work as a doctor to heal wounds and help kids develop, but I can never do so much good as when I hold my son tight and let him know that I love him and always will. I'm his daddy. Nobody else can be, not the church, not the government, not the doctor, and not the school.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


Fourteen lines can't tell
All the colored ways and whys
I love my Haiku.

I have a sister named Haiku.* Interesting and beautiful name, isn't it? It really suits her, too; she's just about the most beautiful and interesting person I know. And I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Just ask the guy who stalked her around her parking lot last week hoping to get her phone number. Or the guy who, after learning her name said "Wow. You don't hear that every day."

"Well, I do." Haiku replied.

Or the elementary school students whose science fair projects Haiku judged a few years back. One young girl was so awed that when she saw Haiku evaluating a friend's project she exclaimed, "Lucky! You get the pretty judge!"

Or Sam, who calls her every day on his fold out calculator (or a cell phone, if he can get his hands on one).

People can't help but like her. She's beautiful and interesting and fun. She's so fun, in fact, that sometimes I forget how smart she is. And then she does something like cut her pancakes into shapes to illustrate to my nieces and nephews the mechanics of a chemical reaction. I'm overawed not just at how well she knows her stuff (and she does), but at how she explains her complex areas of study with such accessibility (and tastiness). We're all so proud of her. I think at one time or another I've heard every member of my family brag about "my daughter/sister, who recently completed her PhD at Mayo," or "my daughter/sister, the future Nobel laureate."

The thing is, I'm not sure what she'll win the Nobel Prize for. Curing cancer is a possibility, of course. And she's a great writer too. But I could also see her winning a prize for peace. She's compassionate and kind and endlessly forgiving. I know because throughout our childhood and adolescence I treated her horribly. I was mean and selfish and spiteful. I refused her any tagalong privileges, and did everything I could to distance myself from her. I'm embarrassed to admit that it wasn't until I was in high school that I gave her an ounce of respect. But she held no grudges. When I finally grew up enough to be friends, she was ready. At the time, I didn't notice the transition, but by senior year, I was tagging along with her. I joined her quizbowl team. I followed her into the yearbook/school paper office for lunch (even though I didn't work on the paper and she did). We spent a lot of time together.

I especially enjoyed our rides to seminary and school. Riding in Pam, (the family's burnt-puke- colored Pinto wagon), was always an adventure. But driving it was even more exciting. Between stalling at stop signs and random (but essential) parts falling off, we often arrived at school a little later than we intended. One morning in particular stands out. As we pulled into the parking lot, we noticed the school grounds seemed uncharacteristically empty. We wondered aloud where everyone was, and casually walked into the school. Unhurried, we stopped to chat at my locker. Only when the bell rang a few moments later did we realize why the grounds and hall were deserted: we were late. First period had started while we gabbed.

Better late than never, we headed off for our respective destinations: me to European History, her to English. When my teacher asked why I was late, I told her. She thought it was sweet that Haiku and I were such good friends that we could get lost in conversation. "So sweet I don't have to go to detention?" I asked.

"Not that sweet." She replied.

Haiku's teacher, however, did not notice her tardiness. Still, Haiku came to detention the next morning with me. My European History teacher thought that was sweet too. So did I.

Through the years we've shared so much more than detention. I've been lucky to have Haiku as a roommate, a classmate, a teammate, a partner, and a co-conspiritor. When Haiku lived in Minnesota and I lived in Iowa we'd occasionally get together for weekends. During one of her visits to Iowa City, we happened to catch Julia Child's cooking show on PBS. When the show ended, we were in the mood for more, so we went to the library and checked out a whole stack of "Cooking at Home with Jacques and Julia" videos. We watched and watched. And then we picked out a few dishes that looked yummy, went to the store for ingredients, and made a delicious dinner of porkchops, tomato & avocado salad, and triple chocolate mousse. The food was good, but the best part was how much fun we had watching and cooking together. Coach and I still reminisce about it every time we eat pork chops.

These days geography keeps us from getting together as often as we'd like. I miss Haiku. I miss the foot soak parties and the Sunday Night Denial sessions. I miss the triple chocolate mousse. But even without any of those things, one of the greatest blessings in my life is that near or far, no matter how our lives change, Haiku will always be my sister. And my friend.

Oh, and by the way boys, she's taken.

I love you Haiku! Happy Birthday!

*Names have been changed.