The Cat’s in the Cradle

My son (who is no longer on Facebook and thus can’t be embarrassed by this anecdote) is not overly-affectionate. As a child, he was a hugger, but by adolescence, a side-armed squeeze of the shoulder was the most I could expect as the Christmas party or hospital visit wound down.

I make this observation not as a criticism, but rather as an acknowledgement that people process emotion differently. Did I miss the little boy who would climb into my lap and wrap his arms around my neck, holding me in his embrace until my heart had re-filled with love? Yes, of course. But I wouldn’t trade him for the insatiably curious, determined, good-hearted young man he has grown into.

That said, about six months ago, after my last serious hospitalization, his hugs began gripping tighter and lasting longer.
Today he came to see me for his final visit before returning to college.

We’re both determined to see one another when he returns for Christmas break at the end of this year–but planned this visit ‘just-in-case.’

He sat down next to me on the bed and wrapped his arm somewhat uneasily around my shoulder. I was so stunned by the unusual gesture that I didn’t know what to do. For a moment, two decades dropped away, and I was certain that–were I to turn and look at him–I would see the churubic face he wore as a toddler instead of the guarded but angularly handsome face that is his now.

His arm on my shoulder made me feel so warm and complete and full of love and I’d just begun to move my hand upward to grasp his when, overcome with the weirdness of it all, he withdrew his arm as I stared at my shoes, too stunned by unfamiliarity to react in a meaningful way.

We talked for a couple hours afterward. It was a good visit. He’s a good man and a good person.

But the whole time I couldn’t help but wonder what it might have been like had I managed to reach up and clasp his hand in time.

You have to act in the moments. They’re all we have.

Never Break the Chain

“Listen to the wind blow, down comes the night
Running in the shadows, damn your love, damn your lies
Break the silence, damn the dark, damn the light

And if you don’t love me now
You will never love me again
I can still hear you saying
You would never break the chain.”

-Fleetwood Mac

So, I was interviewed by hospice yesterday. Two lovely nurses came by and asked questions for about an hour. It was at the behest of my palliative care doctor, with whom I had a video appointment last week. When she had suggested that I be evaluated by hospice, I decided to humor her.

Hospice means you’re imminent–or, if not that, certainly not far from it. If it doesn’t imply a timetable (which, even though hospice people are quick to tell you that it doesn’t, the admittance criteria sort-of suggests that it does) it certainly carries a sort of psychological weight.

“You’re not getting out of this…” it says.

And I’m not. I know that. I am chained to this fate.

But, when your endless-numbered-days bleed from one into the other, and your hours stack indistinguishably upon one another in a macabre, terminal Jenga game, day after day, it’s easy to delude yourself that it will all simply continue, stretched out into a bleak, bland future where you continue to exist, somehow. Your logic and science and medical tests pale in comparison to the undeniable fact that you’re still here, decades after they’d said you’d be dead. It feels as though things can just continue as they are, as they have been.

In short, it’s easy to lie to yourself.

Then, two very lovely nurses come along and brighten your morning with their cheery dispositions and helpful manners and remind you that they’re here to help you die the best way you can, because it is fast-approaching.

And you answer their questions and play along, certain that this is all just a bureaucratic formality–something rushed into being a bit too soon, but which would be rude to interrupt or oppose. You tell yourself that it is insignificant because it will never be approved by The Director, so it is all just a bit of play-acting that we are all going through. Harmless, really. Hospice is for people who are about to die soon. You, obviously, are not about to die soon. Not soon enough to require hospice, anyway. It will never be approved.

As they pack to leave, you exchange parting pleasantries.

“Sorry to have wasted your time.” You say.

The nurses exchange a quick, knowing expression.

“Why would it be a waste of time?” One asks.

“Well, I doubt I meet the criteria.” You’d said.

“Oh, you certainly meet the criteria.” Says the RN in charge. “We’ll take the paperwork back for The Director to look over, but expect to be approved in the next few hours.”

They call you back a few hours after they have left. Your nurse will be there to admit you into the hospice program as soon as is convenient. Will tomorrow be OK?

No. That’s too soon, but you can’t think of a reason why. It’s just too soon.


Oh no. The home health aid who fetches your meals and washes your clothes and runs your errands and helps you shower and takes out your trash, she comes on Tuesday. You can’t start dying on Tuesday. Too much to do.

Wednesday morning?

Your mornings are usually busy. You nap and dream and pretend you haven’t spent the last seven months in the same room. That won’t work.

When can you start dying? Wednesday afternoon? We need to get started. There are forms and paperwork and examinations. There is an opening Wednesday at 1pm. Can you start then?

You assent.

They put it on the schedule. It becomes real and tangible.

Wednesday at 1. The beginning of the end. You make a note on your calendar. For no discernible reason, the Fleetwood Mac song “The Chain” keeps playing in your mind, over and over.

Never break (the) never break (the) never break the chain…”


I won’t post pictures, because I’m firm in my belief that most adult males –especially those whose feet have spent many years in combat boots– have no business exposing their toes to polite society, but trust me when I tell you that my feet are grotesquely swolen.

My left foot is much worse than my right –a dead giveaway of the pulmonary hypertension and the heart failure that goes along with my disease. For years, as soon as doctors or nurses would hear of my emphysema, they would immediately start poking around my feet. I always felt so lucky, so gratified, to be able to respond that I didn’t have any swelling.

I also didn’t have much congestion. I would read horror stories about end-stage emphysema patients who battled constant congestion and obstruction, fighting for every breath –drinking pineapple juice for hours a day in a vain attempt at relief.

The thing was, in most of those stories, their lung function was better than mine.

In emphysema patients, the number you’re most concerned with is the Forced Expiratory Volume, or FEV1. It’s a measurement of how much air you can clear from your lungs in a given amount of seconds. Contrary to popular belief, emphysema isn’t about not being able to get oxygen in, rather it’s about not being able to breathe air out and clear the CO2 that builds up. Your lungs are like a balloon that you can’t empty, and thus can’t fill with new, oxygenated air.

Your ability to clear your lungs is measured as an expected value, based on what the average healthy person of your age would be able to do.

For the last 10 years, my FEV1 has never been higher than 23%. I am currently around 14%. You can basically think of that as my lungs function at 14% of what they should, for my age.

But most patients –and doctors– shorten all of that until the FEV1 simply means “lung function”, regardless of age, so that people just compare their raw FEV1 number as if it were a hard metric of what you could expect

For years I would measure myself against others who had my disease based solely on FEV1. I was at 23%. Someone else was at 30%, but dealing with never-ending congestion and hypertension. I dealt with neither. I concluded that, like the Israelites in Egypt, I had somehow been passed over. I heard horror stories about what this disease was from people whose FEV1 numbers were far better than my own, and falsely concluded that I had been spared.

What I failed to take into account was age.

Most emphysema sufferers are elderly. The FEV is adjusted for age. Their 30% was not at all applicable to my 23%. Most 40-year-olds do not have emphysema. I was a statistical outlier.

I thought I had skipped out on the hypertension and the congestion and the burning, ripping pain of it all. But I hadn’t. It just hadn’t happened yet.

And now it has.

My left foot is so much bigger than my right. Every time I inhale it sounds like drawing chalk across a slate. When I cough I sound like a seal barking. I had deluded myself that I was immune to it all, but in the last six months, every month brings a new, cruel reminder that –not only will I not beat this– but that I am fast running out of time.

So I hope I get some stories written down before I go. I hope there is something meaningful left behind. I hope that, when it all comes to a head, and then passes like a summer storm, that there will be something left of me that was worthwhile.

I hope I will have left something that justifies all this suffering; some potentially profound beauty that outweighs all this tragedy.

But even if there isn’t–even if I leave nothing of substance, and am never remembered beyond the memorial service– I hope that those of you who have known me have been touched enough by my existence that you have found some happy interaction, or token, or memory, that is precious enough that you will have judged my life worthwhile.

And if not, at least let it be said that I never wore sandals in public.

Miracle Baby

I was born at about 10:30 P.M. on January 21st, 1973 –less than 24 hours before the United States Supreme Court handed down their landmark decision on the case of Roe vs. Wade.

I was three months premature, weighed just over three pounds, and was less than a foot long. I’d been a breech baby –meaning I was born feet-first– and the umbilical cord had been wrapped around my neck, cutting off my oxygen supply for quite some time. The doctors told my parents that I had very little chance at survival, and cautioned that if I did, I would certainly be special needs, severely brain damaged, and would require life-long care. To make matters worse, a feeding tube was incorrectly inserted into my lung instead of my stomach, so for the first few weeks of my young life I battled pneumonia.

My parents ignored the doctor’s dire predictions and prognoses and fought to make sure that I got the best care available to me in St Louis, Missouri in 1973.

And I pulled through.

I was the second of my mother’s children to do so.

My older sister, born in June of ’71, was also three months premature, just under three pounds, and faced similar health challenges. She also pulled through.

Not long after we were born, my parents moved several hours south to a little town called Poplar Bluff, near the Missouri/Arkansas border, around where they had both grown up and where they had been married. There, my mother found a church whose congregation couldn’t seem to get enough of the story of her miracle babies.

My sister and I were enrolled in the Christian school that our church ran, and soon all of the teachers knew our story. I don’t really remember a time that we weren’t held up as an example of God’s love and mercy. Teachers would tell my story to other kids in class while I squirmed uncomfortably at my desk. My sister and I would be called before church congregations and school assemblies to have people laud us and prophesy over over us and speak in tongues and exclaim about the big plans God had in store for us, and enumerate all the reasons he’d saved us.

In the late 70’s and very early 80’s, I don’t recall this ever being more than run-of-the-mill evangelism –“Come look at the Miracle Babies, saved by the Lord of Hosts!”– but something began to happen in the mid-80’s, after Reagan’s second term: abortion became a very big deal in the Evangelical church, and our story came to represent something very different to people, and they weren’t shy about telling me so.

I remember being used as an object lesson in front of a class.

“The doctors told Brian’s mom that he couldn’t survive and that he’d be handicapped if he did. What if Brian’s mom had listened to the doctors? What if the doctors had let Brian die? How would that have made you feel, Brian? I bet you’re glad your mom and dad didn’t listen to the doctors, aren’t you? Doctors don’t know more than God. He can save anyone, even when doctors say He can’t!”

By the time I reached adolescence, I’d heard some variation on that speech at least half a dozen times, and I resented it bitterly. I resented how they presumed to know me, and my life, and my family, and how I felt, but I didn’t dare let the resentment show. It seemed blasphemous and sacrilegious to feel the way I did, so I kept it inside, but I felt it just the same.

“What would I have cared?” I always thought. I didn’t remember being in my mother’s womb; didn’t remember being born; didn’t remember being in an incubator; didn’t remember a choking umbilical cord or a misplaced feeding tube. I didn’t remember any of it. Had I died before any of it happened, I wouldn’t have remembered any of that either. They were all just stories from before my time; stories that felt unconnected to me, as remote as Noah’s Flood or Solomon’s Temple. I just felt fake and false and used, the same way I used to feel during the praise and worship service when they would tell me to raise my hands and praise God.

“What if I don’t feel like it?” I’d asked my mother. “What if I feel like a hypocrite doing it?”

“That’s why they call it the ‘Sacrifice of Praise’.” She’d said. “You should do it to honor God, even if you don’t want to.”

But, after a time, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it anymore. My mother would elbow me, glare at me, pull me to my feet by my collar, mouth at me silently but menacingly “Raise. Your. Hands.”

But my arms stayed down.

Once, when I was in the 7th Grade, we boys at the church school who belonged to the Evangelical version of the Boy Scouts (called the “Royal Rangers”) were supposed to go on a weekend campout. The school had made us bring all of our luggage and bags and place it in a central area in the auditorium before our first class. I told the other boys that they did it so that they could search our bags, but no one believed me.

By lunch we were being called into the principle’s office to account for the contraband they had found. Some boys had brought cigarettes or dip, others had brought copies of Playboy, almost all of us has brought weaponry of the kind you could buy at flea markets in the mid-80’s: throwing stars, survival knives like Rambo used, brass knuckles and the like.

I had a pair of homemade nunchucks (that would have disintegrated with a hearty swing), a butterfly knife, and two cassette tapes: Face Value by Phil Collins and The Four Tops Greatest Hits. By the time I had been ushered into the principal’s office to answer for my crimes, they’d already seen (by their standards) much worse: Mötley Crüe and Van Halen and Metallica and throwing knives and cans of Skoal and decks of Marlboros. They were bewildered by the fact that Satan had gotten such a foothold in their school, and were suspicious of everything.

“What’s this?” My youth group leader asked, holding up the Four Tops cassette case.

“The Four Tops.” I said.

“But what is it really?” He said.

“It’s the Four Tops.” I insisted.

“Why would you bring The Four Tops?”

“Because I like The Four Tops!”

It took me twenty minutes to convince them I was just into Motown. It took me twenty more to convince them we boys weren’t planning some ninja-death-battle in the woods, but were rather just boys who thought all that stuff was cool and wanted to show each other our gear. In the end, they confiscated it all, even my Four Tops tape (secular music was forbidden at my school), and sent us on our camping trip, where we smoked grape vines and stayed up all night running and tumbling through fields so filled with lightning bugs that we’d smash dozens against our clothes every time we’d lie down in the long grass, leaving luminous green smears of color across our clothes. . 

The Monday after, there had been a school assembly in the church auditorium. We were told that Satan had been working hard to corrupt us, and had been leading us astray. Every child in the school, from K-12 (admittedly only a few hundred kids) was told that they needed to come forward to the stage and rededicate their lives to Christ, to indemnify themselves against Satan’s slings and arrows and the pernicious influence of the secular world that had invaded our school.

One by one, the children filed forward, formed orderly ranks, and turned around to look out on those still seated. The school leaders pleaded and harangued and cajoled those of us who didn’t immediately spring to our feet. The sense of coercion was so thick it stuck to my clothes, like those squashed fireflies, and it galled me. In the end, only three of us were left: myself, my best friend Eric, who was neither a Royal Ranger or a member of the church (his parents were Lutheran), and my friend Dionne (the only Black girl in school, whose parents were A.M.E. and so also did not attend the church). The principal begged and cajoled and insulted, but we stayed put. Eventually they sent us downstairs so that they could pray for the kids who actually wanted to be saved.

I remember my older sister –my Miracle Twin– looking so sad and distraught and disbelieving. Her eyes were begging me to come forward and bend the knee. But I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t in me. 

They called my mother to tell her I’d rejected Jesus Christ.

She was crying when she picked me up from school and didn’t stop the whole long way home.

By my freshman year, I’d had enough of Christian school, and I begged my dad to let me go to the public high school, despite its reputation for violence, booze, sex, and drugs –all things I was, frankly, very interested in. My mother hated the idea, but eventually caved to the pressure, so, in 1987 I enrolled in Poplar Bluff High School.

No one knew I was a miracle baby there. No one prayed over me, or prophesied over me, or spoke in strange tongues while grasping my scalp with hot, sweaty palms. I was just a weird kid who liked Phil Collins and Motown when everyone else liked Def Leppard and the Beastie Boys, and I found that was easier to live with. My mom wasn’t ready to let me leave the church, however –at least not as long as I lived under her roof. So I struggled through thrice-weekly services –once on Wednesday, twice on Sunday– for a couple of years.

I wasn’t rejecting God at that point, but rather organized religion. Or, at least, organized Evangelical religion. I had went with my friend Eric’s family to their Lutheran church on several occasions, and whereas my church could feel hot and slightly on the edge of madness, like a fever dream, his church felt cool and solid, like old marble. No one was telling me to raise my hands or speak in tongues. More importantly, no one was telling me that rock-n-roll was Satanic, or that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms  was going to eventually invade both my parents’ home and my church, or that United Nations troops were going to one day force me to choose between denying God or being shot in the head in front of my family.

Those scenarios were trotted out constantly in the mid-80’s at my church, and I accepted more than a few of them as fact. I had no doubt that the ATF would one day bust through the front doors of our church, forcing us to give up our guns and deny our faith. If it didn’t happen there, it would happen at my parents’ house. I used to spend hours imagining battle plans –which rifles I would grab from my dad’s gun rack; which positions I would take up; which windows I would shoot from. The message from my church was clear: you had better be prepared to die for your faith, because the choice between that and eternal damnation was coming, and soon. 

In all of this was a constant anti-abortion drumbeat.

It hadn’t been present –at least, not that I recall– until well after Reagan was elected, but once it started, it didn’t stop. It seemed that every few months there’d be some new special travelling speaker or guest who had a new slideshow or movie that was so horrific that the young kids and those too sensitive were sent out of the auditorium.

That’s when we began to see fetuses recoiling from sharp instruments on film, and hear tales of callous doctors who sliced up babies for fun. This was all a result of the Supreme Court driving God from the public square. They’d had to get rid of prayer in public schools first –the fault of that great Satanic instrument, the atheist Madalyn Murray-O’Hair. Then the Equal Rights Amendment had come along, trying to upend the natural order of things, and had barely been beaten back.

As a result of all of this (along with sexual education and handing out condoms in the public schools) women were wantonly engaging in sex and frivolously using abortion as birth control. Now that there were no longer any consequences for immoral actions –now that you could just go have your inconvenient baby Hoovered out of you on a random Tuesday afternoon– there was no incentive to remain chaste and holy until marriage. America, it seemed to my church, was removing God from every equation, even His most precious and enduring work: the miracle of life.

By the end of Reagan’s second term, my church had been on the receiving end of nearly a decade of propaganda that told them abortion –at that time still largely relegated to the first trimester in most of the country– was simply an excuse for lazy, loose, immoral woman to avoid the consequences of their actions. And they all believed it. I still regularly got asked (not because they thought I was a doubter, but rather in a sort of amazed “can you believe it?” tone): “What if your mom had aborted you? Just think about it!”

But here’s the thing: by the time I was 16, I didn’t believe them. They told wild tales about evil doctors and indifferent women and cynical politicians that made Hitler and Mengele seem like reasonable people. Their slideshows and films always seemed to show the same few horrific-looking procedures. I thought “If this is happening as often as they say, why do they keep using the same films?”

It all began to feel like when they had told me that The Eagles were trying to get me into the Satanic Church by backmasking “Hotel California”, or that the song “Dreamweaver” was about astral projection and a portal to demonic possession –you had to really want to believe it to hear it on the record.

I got sick of it. I just got sick of all of it –the paranoia, the propaganda, the politicization of something that Jesus had always said wasn’t supposed to be political. The Gospel was supposed to be for everyone, reaching out to the whole world, with our eyes on the afterlife, not the transient political squabbles that would isolate us and make us combatants rather than ministers and living witnesses to all.

We were supposed to be set apart from the world, “in the world but not of the world” is what they used to say. While I wouldn’t say that the Evangelical church of the 70’s was apolitical, it did seem to subscribe much more to a “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” approach to civic life. By the late 80’s, feeling attacked from every side, they had abandoned that approach in favor of becoming foot soldiers in the culture war, and I didn’t want to be part of their army. 

Eventually I made a deal with my mom that I only had to go to church once a week.

By the time I was 17 –shortly before I would leave home– I recall my mom and sister coming home from a Sunday morning service, fired up about the horrors of abortion. They wanted to tell me about it all, and tried.

I wasn’t having any.

“I don’t understand how you could be so cruel!” my older sister had said.

I didn’t know how to stand in my mother’s house, next to porcelain figurine of Jesus praying and sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, and tell her it was because I thought our church was lying to them, so I said nothing.

Later, one early November night in 1992, I had been invited to watch the Presidential Election returns come in at my parent’s house. I was largely homeless at the time, couch surfing or sleeping on the streets in the warmer months. I had believed in Bill Clinton’s promise of a domestic Peace Corps program through which I could find a path to college, so he’d earned my vote. My dad was a union man who’d never forgiven Reagan for firing the air traffic controllers and “breaking the back of the unions”, so he too had cast his ballot for Clinton. My mother and older sister, animated largely by an anti-abortion drive at their church, were certain that a Clinton victory would be not only disastrous for the unborn, but might actually usher in the apocalypse, and so had voted for Bush.

As the returns came in and Clinton’s victory became assured, my dad and I became jubilant, laughing and whooping it up in front of the living room TV. When the official announcement came, I looked up at my mother and sister, sitting fifteen feet away at the dining room table.

They were weeping.

When I met my future wife in 1994, we had eventually, while discussing our beliefs one night, turned to the topic of abortion. She had also grown up in an Evangelical church, but one out West that was decidedly less strident and fanatical than my own. She had went to Planned Parenthood in her early teens and gotten on birth control, and seemed mystified as to why girls in my high school hadn’t, not realizing the cultural differences. She didn’t realize that, where I was from, birth control was nearly as bad as abortion –anything that enabled consequence-free sex was. The threat of pregnancy was used to moderate behavior. The threat of pregnancy was the entire point.

But my future wife hadn’t been immune from the traveling anti-abortion roadshow of the Reagan years, either. Those same slide-shows and films had shown up at her church, and she had taken them to heart: abortion was murder, and those women who availed themselves of it were simply irresponsible, or evil, or both. Having grown up outside the Bible Belt, she lacked the fanatical tinge, but the bedrock philosophy was the same: abortion is murder and is primarily used by irresponsible women looking to duck the consequences of their actions..

So, when I told her that night that I, still a believing Christian (if not a practicing one), wasn’t anti-abortion, she was taken aback. How could that be?

Initially, I demurred, saying a thing that was (and still is) popular for men to say: “Well, I don’t have a uterus, so I don’t get to have an opinion. I think it’s up to the woman.” That was a lie, but it lasted until after we got married. Eventually, after a night of drinking, the truth came out: my lack of a uterus notwithstanding, I did, in fact, have an opinion.

By the time I’d gotten married in 1995, I’d known more than a few women who’d had abortions –most of them while we were in high school, where contraceptives and sex education were seen as tantamount as a license to engage in immoral sexual behavior…as if teenagers needed one.

I’d also known girls in high school and shortly after who had decided to have the baby.

While I didn’t know any women who expressed regret at having the child –even those who’d been kicked out of their parent’s homes and subsequently from high school– it was undeniable that those women who’d either chosen or been forced to give birth had had exponentially harder lives than those who’d had abortions and went on to college and careers. Neither were the children they bore having spectacular lives –most of the mothers, lacking a high school diploma, were on at least one form of public assistance. The children they bore grew up grubby and wanting, in substandard housing, often hungry, their poverty radiating off them like a bad fever. Regretfully, more than a few of the kids were neglected (if not outright abused) and the mothers often substance abusers of one sort or another.

Where other people saw the blessing of a new life, I saw only the ruined old ones, now mired in generational poverty and abuse. If God were so concerned with making sure these children came into the world, perhaps He should do for more them once they got here, I opined.

My wife was shocked. She called me callous.

“So it’s OK to murder babies because they’re inconvenient?” She asked.

And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it?

If you believe abortion is murder, there simply is no justification for it, if you don’t, then there is no moral argument against it.

I didn’t.

I just kept going back to being a miracle baby and an object lesson, held up to justify other’s beliefs and lend credence to their crusade. Like Mark Twain, I felt I had been dead for billions of years before I was born, and hadn’t suffered the slightest inconvenience from it. Cries of murder just felt hysterical and false and disconnected from the harsh realities I’d seen of unplanned pregnancy, forced birth, and nuanced choices.

But religion hates nuance.

When does life begin? That seems to be the question it all rests on for many. People go back and forth, offering their evidence and justifications, and competing Bible verses, and scientific studies, and passages from biology text books.

The new Republican talking point seems to be that the science is settled. Life begins at fertilization. Their tone is authoritative and dismissive, “What defines life if not that moment?” they ask. To deny it is simply twisted amoral logic; a disingenuous attempt to warp a common sense and inconvenient fact to fit a murderous and Satanic agenda.

But it isn’t settled. Because no one can even say what life is. Doctors certainly can’t define it. Don’t believe me?

Ask any doctor what the medical definition of death is.

There isn’t one.

In some circumstances it’s when the heart stops beating, in others it’s when brain activity ends, in still others it is defined as a lack of respiratory activity. If you look up the medical definition, it will tell you that, broadly, death occurs when life ceases, but will also admit that there is no consensus on the definition of life. If you think I’m playing cute and splitting hairs over semantics, consider this: the definition of what constitutes death is not even legally consistent across all states –each state is left to define it on their own, and they do. What constitutes legally dead in Maryland is not the same as what constitutes legally dead in North Carolina or Texas or Michigan.

We cannot define when life ends because we cannot define what “life” means, and if we can’t define what it is or when it ends, then we certainly can’t define when it begins to any legal or medical standard. If you think that is bean-counting nonsense –a bit of philosophical navel-gazing– then I remind you that people’s lives, livelihoods, and very freedoms now rest on being able to have both concrete legal and medical definitions of what life is and when it starts and ends.

And we don’t have any of that.

All we have are an array of medical opinions and ongoing research which is still trying to better define these things, but if you think there is a medical or scientific definition of life and when it begins, you have been deceived, for there is no such thing.

So where does that leave us?

For many people, it leaves them with their beliefs –what they’ve been taught is true– but not much evidence.

For the religious (and even those who don’t consider themselves so) it comes down to the soul. Many Christians will tell you that, at the moment of conception, God inserts your immortal soul into the fertilized egg –a soul he has known for all of eternity, its lack of consciousness notwithstanding. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” they quote. For Christians, this is really the point. They will trot out those rare, gruesome abortion films of fetuses recoiling from instruments for the emotional shock value and for their usefulness as propaganda, but the fact is, the physical body, to Christians, is nothing more than a temporary vehicle for the soul. It’s an earthly vessel for the real you, nothing more.

If God kills your newborn infant a few minutes after birth, that’s OK, because He transports the soul directly to his side (in most Protestant sects, anyway). Abortion is basically you stamping the soul “Return to Sender” and thumbing your nose at His plan. It isn’t that it’s a murder of a physical body, it’s that you are usurping God’s authority.

In other Christian traditions, the soul is damned until it is either baptized or christened, so to have an abortion is to needlessly damn a soul to hell that might otherwise have been saved. You’ll rarely hear this much in the public square, because it gets heartless pretty quickly when you start telling women who’ve had miscarriages or lost babies shortly after birth that their children are burning in hell thanks to Original Sin, and that’s a big public relations problem. That said, the belief is widespread among many Catholics and some really fundamentalist Protestant denominations.

So, if you believe in a soul (as surely more than 90% of Americans do), it’s not hard to make the leap that abortion is at least immoral, if not murder –if you believe that life begins at conception.

There are, of course, other religions (Judaism, for instance) that believe life begins at live birth, and it is at that point –at the first breath– that the body is imbued with a soul, but they have largely been left out of the debate.

And what of those of us who don’t believe in a soul?

There is, after all, no medical or scientific evidence for one. You can’t point to it on a scan or a graph; can’t measure it with any test; can’t weigh it or test it for defects or disease. What scientific or medical basis do we have to believe there is one? None at all.

And if there is no soul, what does that change about the argument?

Again, if these seem to be nitpicking and contrarian questions, I’d remind you again that people’s lives, livelihoods, and freedoms depend on the answers now. The Supreme Court decision, for better or worse, will lead to legislative fights, and medical and legal definitions, and religious accommodations needing to made for different faiths. The future of abortion in America is about to get very messy due to questions like these.

But should it be like that?

Does any of that matter, or is it just a red herring?

I’ve been denied placement on the lung transplant list three times. The qualification process is lengthy, complicated, full of testing and intentional obstacles and hurdles that are meant to disqualify all but the most qualified applicants. People get disqualified for hundreds of different reasons: medical conditions, failing to meet an ideal weight, environmental factors at home (like certain pets, or relatives that smoke), mental health issues, financial issues, substance abuse issues, and myriad other reasons.

In my case, I don’t have what is called “an adequate social support system.” In plain English, this simply means that I don’t live with and/or near enough to qualifying close family or friends. I’m single, my kids are in college, my parents are a couple thousand miles away and have health issues of their own, and none of my friends who are local to me meet the stringent criteria, which is designed to weed out most people: they can’t have work, school, or childcare responsibilities; can’t use nicotine products; must be physically able to lift me; must be able to devote 3-6 months (and sometimes up to 2 years) to my 24 hour care. And I need at least three of these people.

Why such an intentionally high bar to qualify?

Part of it is the fact that it is an incredibly risky, expensive, and resource intensive surgery and rehab, that has pretty poor outcomes (most folks last five years or less after transplant), so they want to make sure they pick the people that have the highest probability for the best outcomes.

But it’s mostly down to supply and demand.

Many, many people need lung transplants (even before COVID) and very few people are organ donors.

Simply put, you cannot be compelled to save someone’s life, even if there is no risk to your life. You can be fully dead, but never lose your bodily autonomy. No matter how desperate the need, your bodily autonomy cannot be compromised, even if that means another person has to die. Even if that other person is an innocent child. Thousands of children die every year due to unavailability of suitable organs for transplant, even though those organs exist and could easily be used for the purpose –they’re just in dead people who chose not to make them available.

If you are a mother whose child is in kidney failure and their life could be saved by you donating them your kidney, you cannot be compelled to do so, even if that means they will be die. Your bodily autonomy cannot be compromised, even to save your child’s life.

Prospective mothers are the only people in our society whose bodily autonomy is not absolute. Only they are compelled to to sacrifice that right at the altar of preserving life.

Why is that?

I was shocked when, a couple years back, Republicans began introducing legislation to ban abortion at the state level that contained no exceptions for rape or incest. Even at the height of the Reagan era, even in Evangelical circles, that position was considered extreme and immoral. For a long time I couldn’t figure out how that position had become so mainstreamed in today’s Republican party, when it was seen as not only extreme, but cruelly so, just a few years ago.

Gradually I began to realize that it was, if not a punishment for, at least a response to the narrative that Democrats had been pushing for abortion-on-demand until the moment of birth, and the increasingly common perception that abortion –no matter when it occurred– was primarily nothing more than birth control for cruelly indifferent women. There was a rising tide of belief among conservatives that abortion was somehow the preferred method of dealing with the pregnancy risk associated with what they perceive as sexual immorality.

“Birth control?” the narrative went, “Who needs that? I can just have an abortion! Easy!”

Never mind that this is ludicrously illogical. Who would eschew relatively cheap and easy birth control in favor of undergoing a costly and often invasive medical procedure? 53% of abortions performed in the US are surgical. Ask yourself, would you elect for surgery over a pill, an implant, or an IUD? And then do it repeatedly, to hear conservative commentators tell it. And hundreds of thousands of women a year doing it, to boot. Of course you wouldn’t. No one would. It simply isn’t happening. What is happening? There is a lack of sex education in many schools, as well as a lack of access to contraception. Even when it is available and properly used, contraceptives fail. Not one of them is 100% effective. Sometimes multiple methods fail at once. Nothing is fool-proof, and we seem intent on keeping people in the dark about reproductive science, sex education, and proper use of contraception.

There are other holes in the narrative as well. Bring up the lack of exceptions for rape or incest and conservatives will be quick to tell you that such cases make up less than 1% of abortions –but point out that third-trimester abortions –the ones they claim evil Democrats are so keen on– make up only 1% of abortions (and that those are always due to fetal defect or due to threat to the health or life of the mother) and they will simply dig in and deflect and get angry and talk about how you can’t believe statistics.

But statistics are the only metric we have, and those compiled by the Guttmacher Institute are cited by both sides as the most reliable figures. Here’s what they say: There were less than a million abortions in the last year I found figures for (2019), in fact, the number of abortions is nearly at the same level as they were before the original 1973 Roe ruling. So, despite the narrative that bloodthirsty Democrats are pushing for more baby murder, abortions are at their lowest level in decades. Of those that do occur, 93% of abortions occur in the first trimester, meaning by 13 weeks. Second trimester abortions (14-20 weeks) make up 6%. The final 1% occur past 21 weeks, and are regulated in 43 states, and have been for decades. None of these 1% are purely elective. That is to say, they only occur when the life of the mother is at risk or the fetus isn’t viable or is afflicted with some catastrophic condition which makes survival unlikely.

No one, and I mean no one, anywhere, is aborting a child in the third trimester simply because they don’t want it anymore or because they changed their mind. Where do you think you’d find a doctor to do such a thing?

The entire narrative about abortion as contraception alternative is false. The narrative about elective abortions until the moment of birth is false. The narrative about callous Democrats being gleefully indifferent to life is false.

That’s what the statistics say.

But, of course, none of that matters to the anti-abortion movement. Because it’s not about any of that to them –not really. It’s about morality, and their interpretation of what that ought to be for everyone. It’s about control.

How many times have you heard “maybe now they’ll keep their legs closed!” in recent weeks?

I was always struck, even when I was in the church, by how gleeful they were about God’s wrath. After my teenage years rebelling against the church, I had returned in my mid-twenties. At that time, I was spending a lot of time listening to and reading an Evangelical pastor named John Hagee who ran a megachurch in San Antonio. I bought his books and watched his televised sermons.

He’d often thunder about it being “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”, or “Hormone Harry’s with the urge to merge” who wanted to date your daughters, or women he’d call “witches” for not knowing their proper place in the hierarchy of the church, the family, and the society. Of course, abortion was also a favorite target. At the end of these tirades he’d always roar out the same line: “I’m here to tell you that Hell is real, and you’re going!”

The whole congregation –all 22,000 of them– would erupt in cheers and applaud and jump to their feet like Jesus had just kicked a 45-yard field goal.

Even at the time, it struck me as antithetical to the supposed loving nature of the god he was shilling for. But neither was it unfamiliar. The church of my youth was exactly the same. Evangelicals especially seem to luxuriate in the prospect of all the tortures that their god is going to mete out on Judgement Day. The more oppressed they felt by the culture, the more excited they seemed by the prospect of their culture war adversaries spending eternity being eaten by demonic worms in a lake of fire. They were rooting for it.

You see, there’s a bitter sense of jealousy directed at the secular world that doesn’t live under the same restrictions on their lives that Christians suffer under. Secular people are allowed to enjoy this life, filling it with pleasures that Christians would like to indulge in (and often do, secretly, thus feeling guilty and insecure about it), and Christians hate them for it. Christians are supposed to simply endure this life and wait for the pure pleasure of Heaven to enjoy themselves, so they’re resentful of people who indulge themselves in this life, and gleefully await seeing them punished while they themselves are rewarded for their righteous self-denial.

This theme of “consequences for immorality” is a bright thread running through the entire theology of Christianity, and nowhere is it more visible than in the Evangelical church. Not only is it used as a revenge fantasy in which they watch their enemies burn, it is also used as the primary method of controlling the congregation.

The simple truth is that they never stop using the same tactic they used on the student body the Monday I returned from that long-ago camping trip with the Royal Rangers: get right with God or else. Stay dedicated to Jesus or else. Don’t let us catch you slipping.

And pregnancy was the main way they would catch girls and young women slipping. If you don’t have access to effective birth control or abortion, sex outside of marriage becomes a much more dicey proposition. Of course, it doesn’t stop people, but does it deter some of them? Sure it does. And that’s what they want.

It’s simply about being able to control people so that they can force people to behave in ways they they believe are “good” or “proper” or “moral”. Freedom and independence –especially in women– are not valuable traits, and are, in fact, often treated as dangerous, if not outright Satanic.

It isn’t truly about saving lives, it’s about controlling them.

Bodily autonomy –whether it is the freedom not to raise your hands in praise, or not walk forward to rededicate your life to their Lord, or the freedom to decide when and if you want to give birth– is anathema to them because it says, “I won’t be controlled.”

And they can’t stand that.

Not even if you’re a miracle, baby.

In Dreams

I just awoke from a dream. In it, I had been strolling lazily through a crowd of friends and family and strangers. We were all gathered under and around a sort of tin-roofed pavillion, that sat on a concrete pad, in a lovely green park by a river. As I was walking, an instrumental track of Ray Lamontagne’s “Jolene” began to play, and I began to sing. My voice reverberated under the pavilion, and it sounded beautiful –much more beautiful than when I actually used to sing the song.

Soon, people stopped chatting and milling about, and everyone began to listen to me, my voice booming out across the crowd. When I was done, the crowd went wild. People cheered and applauded and patted me on the back. My friend Ruben Gonzales came up and hugged me.

“So good to hear you sing again, brother! I always loved how you did that song!” He said.

“I can still pull it off sometimes!” I replied.

The crowd gathered ’round, and people hugged me, and I felt warm and loved and complete and whole.

Then I woke up, and my heart broke, because dream-Brian is a liar, and he does this to me frequently.

I can’t still do it sometimes, and I’ll never do it again. Neither can I run along the dusty trails of Area J, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, ticking off easy miles on effortless jogs –another common lie he weaves for me in dreams. Nor can I sail boats, or stroll city streets, or cook lavish meals.

Most cruelly, Gloria will never reappear and whisper in my ear that it has all been a bad dream, and that she still loves me –a little fantasy that dream-Brian likes to trot out a few times a month.

I don’t blame the guy. Dreams are the only venue I have to experience normal human activities, and it only makes sense that he would continually return me to the things and people I have loved best. I know he’s not trying to break my heart. But, still, every time I wake up from one of these lovely little lies, it does.

It isn’t the dying that’s hardest, it’s the disability. It’s the loss of identity that occurs from having abilities and activities and relationships stripped ruthlessly away, until there is hardly anything left of yourself, and you are left alone to try and find a meaningful path forward in a life now devoid of meaning.

That’s the hardest part of all of this.

I don’t believe in any sort of heaven or afterlife, but if there is some part of my consciousness that persists, I hope it is in the reality I’ve concocted in my dreams, where I run miles easily, sing songs to rapturous applause, and feel the warm embrace of love once again. That is all the heaven I’ll ever need –a dream from which I don’t have to awake.

Get Up And Do It Anyway

One of the most frustrating things about my disease is how unpredictably variable it is. I never know, day-to-day, how my breathing is going to be. A few weeks ago things were relatively easy and a positive outlook was easy to maintain. I could even summon some optimism about the future. The last week-and-a-half, things have been viciously hard. Walking just a few steps leaves me gasping for long minutes afterward. Something as insignificant as brushing my teeth is absolutely panic-inducing and leaves me trembling. Showering feels like being water-boarded. Even the smallest tasks leave me exhausted. It’s so easy to give in to despair; to want to quit; to want it all to stop; to want all this excruciatingly hard work to be over.

But then I remember all the other times when it was so hard I wanted to give up: that Christmas in a wheelchair, watching cancer take my hospital roommates, one by one, as my body tore itself open like an over-ripe banana; another Christmas in another hospital, staring at the grain of the tile, an inch from my eye, suffocating and certain it was the last thing I’d ever see; another hospital bed and a doctor telling me that if I didn’t start fighting, I was going on a ventilator that night, and probably never coming off.

Dozens of times more, I’ve wanted to give up, because this disease makes everything so goddamn hard. Hard like it’s been the last week-and-a-half.

But I don’t give up. I breath in and out, as best I can, and tell myself to make it to the next second, then the next minute. Minutes build hours, hours build days, and if you put enough days together, things will get better than they are now.

A lot of us –maybe most of us– are going through hard times of one sort or another. None of us know what each new day will bring. If your today is worse than your yesterday, dig in and fight for tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that, until things get better –and things will get better– so don’t quit. Build those seconds into minutes, into hours, into days. Accept that it’s hard. Accept that it’s excruciating. Accept that it’s terrifying.

Then get up and do it anyway.

First One’s Free

‘…Almost every adult I knew smoked. Cartoon characters smoked. To complain about smoking was almost rude, like being a vegetarian.’

The America I grew up in was dusted in ash and studded with cigarette butts. Everyone smoked everywhere, all the time: hospitals, grocery stores, movie theaters, high schools  –and no one thought a thing about it.

By the end of the 1970’s, when I was a boy, the entire country was like an over-flowing ashtray that had been filling up since Prohibition. The public spaces looked like a morning-after coffee table, and people just didn’t give a damn anymore.

They stubbed out cigarettes on shopping cart handles, on grocery store shelves, on the carpeted floors of department stores, on the tabletops at restaurants and bars. Nearly any flat surface was a socially acceptable option when it came to snuffing out your coffin-nail.

Part of it was just the times. America was grubbier then. There was a sort of gray film that coated everything and the whole nation had the feeling of being worn and lived-in, like a building that had seen too many tenants.

It was completely normal to see someone answer a telephone, pick up a pencil, and start writing on the wall as if it were a notepad. People tossed garbage from car windows without a second thought. People poured used motor oil straight on the ground.

It was like we were all just renting the place.

Continue reading First One’s Free

The Comforting Roar of Eternity

Sometimes, usually at night, when the tide comes in, I’ll be sitting here in my living room, windows open, watching the TV and wondering:

“What the hell is that roaring noise?”

Then I remember it’s the Pacific, just over the berm, clawing at the beach, just like it has been for 200 million years –long before any of my kind were around to hear it.

It puts me in my place, this ocean.

So I mute the TV and listen to the closest I’ll ever get to eternity whisper in my ear.

“You don’t matter.” It says. “You are nothing. This is all nothing. None of this means anything. I will be clawing at this beach 200 million years from now, long after your kind are gone.”

There are people I know who would consider this discouraging, or terrifying, or even a form of heresy or blasphemy. But for me? It is a comfort like a mother’s embrace.

“It has all been OK.” It says. “All you’ve worried about, and fretted over, and tortured yourself because of during long nights of doubt? It’s as insignificant as beach sand. It all gets washed away, eventually.”

And some part of me wishes that it weren’t true; that I’d somehow carved something indelible into the time or space that I have occupied –some proof that I’d mattered somehow. But I’ve seen enough of death to know that the ocean isn’t lying.

We fade within two generations, often sooner. We are sparks from a bonfire: beautiful, blazing, unique, and soon forgotten.

But the longer I live here next to this unimaginably ancient sea, I understand that it is OK. It’s OK to be a spark that is born, rises, touches nothing, and fades away. That is the cycle. That is life.

That’s the truth the Pacific knows.

And sometimes, when I mute my TV, it whispers it in my ear.

Drowning On Air

I was twenty-nine years old when the doctor gave me three-to-five years to live. I had a rare genetic illness called Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency that, in it’s worst form, caused early-onset emphysema. I had the worst form. A lung transplant could prolong my life, I was told, but it was a very risky with a mortality rate of around 80%, five years after the operation, and an eventual failure rate of 100%. Not to mention that the lung transplant was far from a cure: with the associated medications, lifestyle changes, a certainty of organ rejection, and still-present disability looming over transplant recipients, it is often described as trading one chronic illness for another.

There was no possible happy ending to my story. One way or another, my illness was going to cut my life short.

It was June, 2002 –over eighteen years ago– that I had to start trying to wrap my head around that fact. My children (now grown college students) were infants. Looking back on my twenty-nine year-old self from the perspective of the forty-seven year-old man I am today, it feels like I was not much more than an infant myself. In the time that has elapsed between then and now, I lived a life and tried to realize some dreams. I had highs and lows, successes and failures, wins and losses that I could not have imagined, sitting there in the doctor’s office, eighteen years ago.

And now it’s all coming to an end.

Continue reading Drowning On Air