The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Category : Family

Boys and dogs

This is a story about a dog.

Well… I think it is anyway.

It’s been, what, oh about 4 months since Mollie the Bouvier came to live with us.  She was just turning 1 year old, but she neeeed a new home. Even during her first home visit, she seemed to feel the need to keep an eye on the boys. She plunked herself down in front of Sean, and refused to leave when the visit was over. This reaction allowed the owner, who had serious misgivings about giving her up, to let go and be at peace with it.

You’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the picture of Sean and a mirror…

On her first evening with us, when I put Sean in bed, she hopped up in there, too. Sean thought it was great fun. He chuckled a pleased little chuckle, and patted her in his usual way, which is well-intended but not very gentle. She took it as her duty to endure this, and it became a habit.

I suppose none of this has answered the question of why I have a picture of Sean up here in this post

In the mornings, I give Sean his meds, we listen to Raffi, and play peek-a-boo. I talk to him sometimes, other times he jabbers at me. Charlie, the old geezer Bouvier, usually sits with me on Dustan’s bed. We do this until finally Sean drops one foot over the side of the bed – the signal that he’s ready to start considering getting up. It is then that I turn on the shower in the adjoining bathroom, go back in and assist him with standing up and walking to the shower.

A few weeks ago, Mollie started joining us for our morning soirée. Being still puppy-ish, she doesn’t sit still for long though. She hops up on his bed, over to me, back over to him, down the hall to check out arriving grandkids…you get the picture.

And somewhere around the same time, Sean started doing something interesting. He started greeting Mollie every chance he could. He has an odd way of saying “hello”. He lifts up his shirt to show his tummy. I have no idea why, it’s just a thing.

So every time he’d stand up to go to the bathroom, he’d say “hi” to Mollie. And then try to pat her back.

And then he started greeting Charlie.

And then the fish tank.

And well… anything and anyone he could.

And then, one morning, as we came into the bathroom, he looked in the mirror, and by golly, there he was in the mirror. He started saying “hi”, except he didn’t have a shirt on to lift, so he walked over to the mirror, and did something he and I used to do in greeting long ago- he bonked foreheads, with himself.

And he smiled.

And then he laughed, and chattered what I assume was a volley of affirmations to himself.

And just like that, he was out of the shell he had fallen into over the previous months, where poor health and pain had reduced his days to a steady march of surviving from day to day. I’m not saying he was cured. But he – the person named Sean, who despite his limitations lives, laughs and loves in his own inimitable style – that guy was back.

So I don’t know, is this the story of a dog doing what a good dog does, with no idea of how it affects her humans? Or is this the story of a human, doing what a good human does with a little of the right kind of outlet? Is this what humans need – not necessarily to be loved themselves, but to have someone willing to be loved?

Maybe we’ve been thinking about this all wrong. Imagine if every child could find a companion into which to pour his or her capacity for love. Perhaps if we can practice love, we get better at it. It may sound like a dream, but is this how we get kids to stop shooting other kids?

I don’t know if a puppy is the answer to life’s hardest questions. Life’s hardest questions seem to come so fast these days – seems we spend all our time anymore asking, without any time to really answer. The few answers we come up with are hurried, panicked hand-slaps at the dragons we face. Then again, maybe we allow too many questions in, ones we don’t have to answer so badly as the simple ones like, “who can we love today?”

Note I didn’t say, “who’s going to love me?” That’s a good question, something our psyche is all geared up and anxious to answer. But maybe the best way to answer it is to answer a question with a question.

“Who can I Love today?”

Oh look. There’s a mirror. Practice makes perfect.

Falling on our butts in a binary world

Yesterday in the shower, Sean fell. And I had an epiphany.

For those who don’t know, Sean is severely disabled. Besides “profound mental impairment” as the medical charts read, he also developed a severe seizure disorder that really became an issue starting in his early teens. What this means in practical terms now, at age 30, is that he can’t safely stand unattended, and can’t understand why not.

So, I give him his shower each morning. We start standing up, and then when his back side is clean he sits down for the rest. He usually barely makes it to the sitting down part, but it’s got to be done, so we have things in place to make it easier and faster to get through that first stage. There’s a shower chair. We redesigned the bathroom to an open floor plan. The soap is in a pump so we can get to it one-handed while keeping in contact with Sean with the other.

Well, yesterday I tried something new. To try and stop him from getting water in his mouth, and then aspirating it, I turned everything around. Shower chair under the shower, him with his back to the faucet. But he didn’t like that much. It was out of his routine, and he kept trying to turn around. So finally I said, “fine, turn around then”.

But I didn’t immediately move the chair. I was just reaching for the liquid soap dispenser, and though I could get away with a moment with no chair behind him.

Except the usual soap was replaced by a plain bottle that required two hands. And in that moment where I grabbed it, flipped it, and squirted soap out, Sean decided the time for standing was done. He bounced off the back wall, and because he has little bent-leg strength, hit the floor heavily with his butt.

And so, now, he’s got a big ol’ bruise on his butt. And I feel awful.

While treatment is clear and Sean just needs to heal, I’ve got a few choices, going forward, regarding my sense of responsibility. I could transfer my anger to someone else. Who the heck replaced my one-hand pump dispenser? Eh, it could be that I failed to notice it was empty and someone, not understanding this intricacy of Sean’s process, just grabbed something out of the supply closet. Who knows. I could blame the chair for not being there. You laugh, but I have some experience with panic-induced rage. It seldom is even remotely logical, and I usually just add to the things I need to apologize for later. I could blame Sean for dropping. Nope. Can’t do it.

Which brings me to myself. I let go of him, and he fell. And so do I beat myself up over it, or let myself off the hook?

How about none of those, by themselves?

I’ve been stewing about this for 24 hours now, and in the meanwhile, having engaged on Facebook on a variety of issues of the day, some of the patterns and arguments here have tried to flavor my stew. And I’ve realized that this example bears some similarities to the things we rage about here too.

Very little of what we experience has binary answers of “right” vs “wrong”. That’s not to say there isn’t truth and falsehood, but we humans, being intrinsically bent to evil, seldom experience any sort of pure clarity in our lives. This experience yesterday was, at the last, caused by letting go. And that is something I can do something about. Who put that bottle of soap there? I can search for a guilty party, but yelling about it, while maybe will change them, it will do so in a damaging way – they will be just a bit more defensive, a bit more insecure, and no one operates well under insecurity.

And so it is too with the social issues of The Day that we debate so fiercely. To say, for example that “the conservatives caused all of this” or “the liberals caused all of this” fails to grasp the totality of the problems we discuss. The Cossacks did harm, but they also experienced it. Illegal immigrants, people with guns, powerful businessmen, freaky dreamers, well-meaning do-gooders – all have caused harm, and experienced it. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say all of our explanations and solutions fail to wrap our minds around the totality. And we will always fail to grasp it. Always.

So what do we do instead? There is a philosophy that, curiously enough has been around for a few thousand years. For whatever reason we reject it over and over. We reject the name behind it, because it has been hijacked and appropriated by Charlatans, Tyrants, and Schemers who see its practitioners as easy targets. We reject it because it denies us our perceived right to rage. We reject it because it requires of us to surrender our pride.

But, as I think about all the options to dealing with mistakes, I remember that I only have the option of control for myself. I can not control others directly.

Pride leads me to believe I can control others. It leads me to believe I should. Ultimately it leads me to believe I must, and that, right there, is the pattern of Evil.

The pattern of Good is explained by love. It reminds me that not only can I not control others, that heck, I can’t really even control myself most of the time. I can only love or hate.

And the next step is where it gets real sticky. I am reminded that this is where the realization that if my goal is to be a good person, that in some way I must rely on a Strength greater than my own. That Strength allows me to forgive, because it forgives me. Note I don’t say “excuse”. I am forgiven. And if there is any payment required for that, it is that I accept being forgiven, and practice it towards others. Lives come, lives go, sometimes tragically. Love takes time, it creeps in through your practice, and bleeds like life-blood into the people around you. Sometimes it takes generations to re-establish itself. But my only role, the only skill I have in it, is to accept and pass on that hidden Higher Strength.

Kissing Cups

The kitchen sink burbled in its evening state
A mountain of work at an hour this late.
A halfhearted swish at a half-dirty plate.
Betrayed my wish to be in bed with my Mate.

Alack and alas, but try as I might,
Wishing away this malodorous blight,
Merely prolonged this languorous plight
The woman I loved rested gently tonight,
She shouldn’t awaken to this grungy sight.

So standing and scrubbing away at these dishes
And meditating on nuzzly kisses
I found in my work a redemption that glistens
In the reflection of thoughts of time with my missus

Thoughtfully pondered and carefully packed,
Our cups went together like a pair of knickknacks.
Side by side in the dishwashing rack
Cuddled together like love maniacs.

And now that you know the story of loving
When housework and chores are continually tugging
When weariness takes all the strength from your hugging
Just make sure your cups are still touching.

Window Recordings

We here at the Family Compound have had a running joke for years.  Raising kids – especially Special Needs kids – you get many, many opportunities to say things that…well, let’s just say it isn’t always easy to formulate eloquent expressions.  Or graceful expressions.  Or logical, or reasonable, or quite frankly even coherent expressions.

And it is precisely the instant after those expressions when you become weirdly aware, hyper-aware if you will, of every open window in the house, and of the presence of neighbors or passers-by near that lurking security hole: the dreaded Open Window.

And so the running joke is that we hope aloud to others present that no one is running a recorder outside the Open Window.

Window Recordings.

That (so far) mythical extortion tool that would be devastatingly hilarious were these heat-of-the-moment exclamations to get out for public consumption.

“DUSTAN!  PUT PANTS ON BEFORE YOU COME TO THE TABLE!”  Instantly I check to make sure the windows in the room are closed.  I recover from the shock brought about by events necessitating this outburst and lower my voice.

“Dustan, me lad”, I intone in a vague pirately brogue, “Where be your skivvies?”

I always get better results with the pirate brogue.  Or at least a smile.  He reacts badly to loud noises.  But well…I just wasn’t prepared for that.

“Sean!  LET GO OF THE DOG’S LIPS!”

Charlie the Dog has the patience of a saint with Sean, but I sense an impending flood of calls to 5 government agencies including animal control, all originating from a 200 yard radius of Ground Zero.

“TAKE THE WAFFLES OUT OF YOUR BROTHER’S PULL-UP!”

 

The specter of Cold-War recording devices dangling under the eaves dance  in my imagination like box shaped goblins.  These are difficult things to explain out of context.

My children have embraced this traditions well.  They sometimes send me messages when the grandchildren get sideways, laughing about their own “Window Recordings”.

“FOR THE LAST TIME, SKITTLES ARE NOT AMMO FOR YOUR NOSTRIL GUN!”

Followed soon with “NO!  YOU MAY NOT HOLD YOUR NOSE AND BLOW AIR OUT YOUR EARS!  YOU’LL BLOW YOUR EYEBALLS OUT!”

Short silence.

“NO, THAT IS NOT COOL!”

And they report to me how they suddenly had this zen-like awareness of all nature within a square mile of their location.  Every creature that stopped at the noise, every living ear that bent to understand what was happening inside that house.  They could sense all of them, listening.  The Whole of Nature wanted to see a little boy attempt to blow his eyeballs out just to propel a skittle at his little brother.

All of Nature.  Keenly listening.

This evening, the Torch has been passed to yet another generation.  My wee granddaughter walks past me, glances over, and suddenly screeches, “Grandpa!  YOU’RE SITTING ON MY BUTTERFLY!”  And then she regained her composure, came over calmly, tapped my already attentive awareness and said in the most polite voice you’ll ever hear from a 5-year old, “Grandpa,  your butt is on my butterfly!” choking back a snerk of embarrassed amusement at what she had to say.

The circle is complete.  The tradition is set.  I basked in familial unity, contemplating the togetherness of shared laughter at ourselves.  I’ve learned to throw the windows open and sing out with the joyful abandon of a Jester’s Herald.

Maybe…just perhaps, that’s exactly what I am.

The Ten Commandments, as seen by a dog

I was thinking about New Year’s Resolutions today.  As far as promises go, I decided to keep it down to something I can actually follow through on.  I was sitting with my dog while this thinking was going on, and I thought about a saying I’ve heard.  I think it’s going to be my Resolution:

Wag more.  Bark less.Charlie

That’s it.  But of course, I didn’t stop thinking there.  I jotted down some other resolutions, and started to be aware of an emerging, vaguely familiar pattern to what I was writing.  It turns out there is a Universal Truth to some of the rules I learned as a child.

The Ten Canine Commandments.

  1. Figure out who the master of the house is. This where your love goes first and foremost, and also where your Snacks come from.
  2. Don’t follow anyone but the master unless he tells you to. And make sure and let it be known you’re not happy about it if you have to follow someone else.  “Hang-dog” is your legacy.  Use it.
  3. If you’re going to act like a guard dog by day, don’t go stealing chickens by night. Blood on your fur in the morning eats away at your credibility.
  4. Take a nap when the pack takes a nap.  Yes, even if you still haven’t caught the red laser dot.  In fact, especially if you haven’t caught the red laser dot, because someone is just screwing with your head.
    1. Lay down in places you won’t be stepped on.
    2. Find a lap if you can.
    3. Be happy when nap time starts.  Be happy when nap time ends.
    4. It’s best when the whole pack naps together.
  5. Make your pack proud.  Make your breed proud.  Leave people who’ve never met dogs before thinking dogs are awesome.
  6. Let the squeaky part of the squeaky toy live just a little longer.
    1. On second thought…nah, ripping its gizzard out is like a rodeo event. Eight seconds is plenty long.
  7. Food is Love – but only when it comes in little exquisite tidbits and a “who’s a good boy?”.  Otherwise, it’s just that stuff that keeps you alive despite all the odds.
  8. Take what is given you, leave what is not. Consider carefully whether something is worth owning, because once you pee on it, you own it.
  9. If someone asks, “Who did this!?”, do not cower, even though you believe with every fibre of your being that you should.  Do not blame the cat, nor the baby.  Stand by what you’ve done with pride – tail and tongue wagging and panting.  It might not stop them from being angry at the moment, but it will bring you special social media fame and snacks.
  10. Everything on the other side of the fence is interesting, and wants to be explored.  Just wait to explore it until you hear the clink of the leash release.
Addendums:
  1. “Do you want to go for a walk” is not actually a question
  2. Chase the cats that think you’re going to chase them. They probably deserve what’s coming to them.

The Stupid Dog

Charlie

At 7am, demanding the door

with the restless snuffles and scratch on the floor

bleary and weary I dress for the chore

of letting the dog go out to explore

At 9am with the dew on the grass

showers of dirt from the garden fly past

unseen vermin, escape way too fast

the dog’s disappointed, and I stand aghast

At 12 in the midday, sun overhead

rusted squeak of the mailbox being fed

reason enough to wake up the dead

with an outburst of snarling, terror and dread

In the heat of the day, the late afternoon.

dinner is served, or should be real soon.

sooner is better, depends on for whom

paws on the counter foretell certain doom

Evening rests dreamy in the family hut

food is all eaten, the kitchen is shut.

tortuous, repast rumbles the gut

stench in the room – it comes from the mutt.

Day-weary humans, devoted pup

retire for the evening, he’s not allowed up

left on the floor, the ostracized cub

licks hand anyway, ignoring the snub

4am comes, drenched in nightmare’s sweat

demons come haunting the battle-scarred Vet

canine nuzzles the face beset

 muzzle lies heavy on the heart upset

hand stroking fur till comfort forgets.

hand stroking fur till love forgets

hand stroking fur, companions forget

hand stroking fur till mourning forgets

hand stroking fur, morning forgets.

Let It Shine

I rode alone, a Solitary rider, pushing a small sphere of light across the darkened landscape. I count the elements of night riding amongst my closest friends. The storms, the languorous moonlit sky , the chattering twinkle of starlight, we have ridden together many times.

But tonight, as I passed through the mouths of coastal valleys that reach inland like fingers, and the hills and ridges between, I could sense something important afoot, something much larger than the usual intimate setting. The clouds drift in a fractured, broken floe, holding together like pieces of a stained glass window. Their only color is a somber pale gray-blue of moonlight weeping through the broken sky. It forms jagged halos around the clouds, bathing the landscape .

The fields, that should have been brilliant with the festival of tonight’s full moon, lie alert, waiting, listening. This is not a night to talk, nor revel. Nor was it a languorous moon, casting a lazy respite from a busy day. This night, the council of all the land and sky attend to its own affair, all the smaller beings of the night – accustomed to being in itself with the moonlight in attendance, leave off their nocturnal intimacy of individual doings, and hearken to the celestial council.

The closest clouds only barely veiled the majesty of this night’s Queen. The nearness of the clouds made the moon’s light feel a little too close for the grave matters being weighed. But it was not the queen’s majesty that was the center of attention. It was the matter of a light, that had gone out too soon.

Some lamps, extinguished, are easily replaced or relit. But some shine in small but irreplaceable ways, in places that would destroy the average lamp and keeper. These are kindled by troubles, mistakes, and sometimes bear the soot of hell itself. They burn in a dank wilderness most would not go into, and many could not. Their service is not for the highway traveler, nor the seafarer. Nor does it announce a destination. It is a scarred, dim, smoldering outpost, mere yards from hell, the first ember guiding the unluckiest souls back towards home. The keeper of that light know little of highways, but everything of the twisting badlands beyond.

And now, this night’s council was set, a loss unexpected, a lamp had gone out too soon. Such a small lamp, but giving a critical service. It’s loss grieving all of nature. It’s replacement unknown.

This little light wasn’t a pretty one, unless you were a traveler lost in the dankest of swamps. But it’s keeper let it shine anyway.

This light wasn’t bright, but in that deep a darkness, he let it shine anyway, a salvation to those lost, even as he himself struggled

This light struggled to stay lit. He let it shine anyway.

If you have a light, Let it shine.
Let it shine.
Let it shine.

 

My Mother did not give birth to me

My Mother
did not give birth to me.
She arrived 18 months late for my birth.

She did not carry my developing body around in front of her – to the grocery store, to the park, the library, to work.  To the bathroom, to bed.  She did not lie in pain on the edge of a chair, waiting for me to get out.

 I did not drain her body of nourishment.

We did not share that battle of gestation together, that epic struggle that bonds mother and son together, that makes a mother nurturing, or fiercer than any living being when the need arises.  No, all that stuff was already in her.

She was sent when I needed her, when the one who had gone through all that could not continue. She took on a battle with no shield.  With no sword.  She took on the world for me.

She took on me.

There are easy things to love, and easy ways to do it.  Its fragrance is light and delicate, like the delicate garden flowers.

And then there is the love whose scent is of courage.

It takes courage to be someone’s mother, when you have not given birth to him.  It takes the deepest bravery to look inside, and find the very best of yourself, and give that to your child – when he is not your child.

The things she looked inside for were yet unknown.  The love she committed to required experience she did not have.  And yet, she stepped in, and called me her own.  She gave me everything she had.  She somehow gave me more than everything she had.

She loved and endured this wild boy who could not stop.
She loved me all the way through that awful, petulant day when I tantrumed, “You’re not my real mom!”
She guided me, prayed for me, taught me how to BE.
She loved me enough to let me BE, eventually, what I grew up to be.

My mother did not give birth to me.

She arrived when God sent her, right on time.

Queen of the Realm

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My wife has been gone this last month and a half, on a mission of mercy to Nevada – tending the last days of one of her relatives there.  I had been left to run the house as best as I could.  As it turned out, I wasn’t quite as good as it as I had dreamed I might be.  Nor was I as good at being home without her as I thought I might be.  the house seemed less a home, and more a place to stay in her absence.  The day of the conclusion of her mission came, and this last week I and the family that had stayed with me went down to join her and now, last night, we all returned home,  Unexpectedly one of the Daughters and family also came for a visit.  We all arrived about an hour apart.
The house has stood completely empty for a week, and the Queen has been absent for a month.  This house of ours, is an old, 1930s era Colonial at the end of a quiet street in a quiet town.  It sat cold and moody in the absence of the family within it.  One week ago today, I had turned down the thermostat, locked the doors, and tiptoed away to let it sleep for the duration of our absence.  Now, a week of winter weather later, it sat in wooden hibernation, nothing more than a carefully arranged stack of old, dried lumber.
 I was actually the last one in the house.  an hour ahead of me, daughter and son-in-law had arrived with two or our grandchildren.  with instructions in hand, they had travelled all day themselves, and arrived, turned on the furnace, and set about unloading the car, making kids comfortable, and straightening up a bit.  Next in a half hour later was our college daughter, along with our youngest son and cousin.  More luggage, more joy of meeting, and a fire was lit in the wood stove.  Lastly, my wife and I arrived with another son.  My wife went in ahead while I assisted our son in.
As I entered this old, freshly reoccupied house, the relative importance of everything stood in clear relief.  The furnace was churning out hot air and warming the bones of the house slowly, but it was still cold.  The pulse of this house beat to the rhythm of the people.  Each person doing something – some more usefully than others.  But there, at the core of the commotion of arrival and settling in, was my wife directing the traffic, getting things put away, put right, food for the youngest being planned and prepared, the important little things being minded – with the skill of a queen.  I stood for a moment in the front entry, watching and listening.  I realized with the clarity of a Salvation that indeed, she was a Queen in her realm, and that she, more than anything, was the lifeblood of this home, that Essence that had been missing for too long.
Welcome home.  I am the King of this house.  Thank you for being the Queen of our home.

The Tragic Demise of an Innocent Trout

I still remember the way my little brother looked at me with sad, melancholy eyes the first time we went fishing. The stoic, shocked stare at what I had done haunts me like malevolent demon of shame.

 It was a fine, hot summer weekend, the sort that you can’t really get away from in Southern California, unless you flee to the beach or the mountains. We were a camping family, so we headed for the mountains. We weren’t rich folk, my dad was still a medical student, but we still took the time to get out, and were well prepared with tent, sleeping bags, and a mother who could conjure a good meal out of almost anything. On this fateful trip, we had left the house with dreams of going a big adventure further into the mountains. Upon arriving at our favorite site, though, we found it full. The adventure was spoilt! Being intrepid adventurers, my parents decided we would simply find another campground. We worked our way back down the mountainside full campground by full campground until we found ourselves at a small fishing campground, with a large puddle filled with hapless farm-raised fish, circling the puddle, awaiting their foregone fate. Normally we were above this kind of pandering commercialism, but we had left the house to camp, and by golly we were gonna spend the weekend out camping if it killed us.

There is much I don’t remember about this place. The memories of it are vague and fragmented, but one single event stands out as clear to me as if it were yesterday’s news. We had scarcely gotten camp set up before my brother and I realized that the proposition of fishing meant we had the opportunity to kill things with our bare hands, and possibly even eat them. All it took was walking over to the camp office, renting a pole and tackle, and waging war with the Murky Deep of the Puddle. With my dad facilitating, it wasn’t long before we were outfitted as steely-eyed killers. I, being of the ripe age of 8, needed no assistance, and in no time had managed to throw two hooks into the pond. Sadly, the line had not followed. But eventually, I managed to get set up. I found myself a sprig of grass, imagined myself a straw hat, and lay back with the pole dangling into the water for oh, at least 23 seconds. I then realized that clearly, no fish were to be had here, and moved on. For reasons that escaped me, the fish didn’t flock to me as I hopped around the lake, throwing worms into the water and frothing the waters.

My little brother – 4 years younger – was infinitely more patient than I, and sat quietly with the rod set up for him, and while my dad went back to finish with camp. within a few minutes he had caught a fish. This was especially good news to me, as it relieved me of my requirement to actually sit still and fish, and instead went to my little brother’s rescue. My attention span being as short as they come, I had never caught a fish in my life, only read about it. My boyish hunter instincts told me that I was supposed to whack the fish on the head to stun it. I have no clue where I had gotten this idea, but action was required NOW, before this slimy wriggling package got away. Since my brother didn’t seem to know what to do with the monster of a fingerling he had reeled in, I took charge. I whacked that thing on the forehead with God’s Own Official Hammer – the pliers.

It kept wriggling.

I was nothing if not proud of my sense of determination, so I whacked it again. The fish clearly lacked the sense to die properly – it still moved. I popped that poor piscine forehead about 15 times with all the muscle my 8-year old big brother arms could muster. My dad saw the flailing from across the street and came jogging over to see what Sea Demon had attacked us.

What he found was my brother, standing in speechless horror as the first landed fish of his life was slowly being reduced to fertilizer before his young, innocent eyes. I explained, in frustrated tones, that the fish was still wiggling. He had approached the scene thinking that I was assaulting my brother’s fish in some sort of jealous fraternal rage. The realization that my violence was actually an act of brotherly love left him momentarily without a solution to the commotion. The fish hung limply from my determined grip, channeling the mother of all migraines with a dented forehead and still weakly wiggling with reflective determination. 

I stood before my father, and furtively tapped the fish’s forehead one last time trying to make it stop before having to explain to my dad why I could not seem to kill the thing. My brother stood, quietly grappling with the horror of an older brother who meant well. My father stood, trying his best to abide the parenting principle of never laughing at your child openly. In the end, we all failed miserably at our respective tasks.

I’ve had to grapple myself with this question of wanting to be helpful to others, and yet not smack their fish into metaphorical fertilizer. Over the last several years, my wife and I have volunteered to foster children with disabilities. Our own youngest son is disabled, and after years of struggling through the process of figuring him out, connecting with resources, navigating medical and education needs, we had the idea that the experience qualified us to help others. As it turns out, there is nothing that qualifies you ahead of time for those kinds of challenges. What keeps one child safe from himself has kept another child away from independence and freedom. Each child, each set of circumstances, is different from all the others. The only qualifications that have gotten us through the misunderstanding, and the pain of being misunderstood, is an open mind – a willingness to understand the next set of challenges differently than the last, and compassion.

My wife has supplied more compassion to the world than anyone else I have ever personally known. She taught me to care again after the circumstances of military service had left me unable to reach beyond my own self-interest. About the same time, the tragic demise of my brother’s trout – along with the years of endless retelling of the story at family gatherings and the inevitable mirth – finally began to sink in. My brother has forgiven me decades ago, but he still won’t let me touch his stuff. Between my wife’s example, and my brother’s forgiveness, I’ve learned to be cautious of assuming too much when the urge to help someone strikes.

After all, stunning is momentary, but pulverizing lasts forever.