Saturday, January 1, 2011

Death and Taxes

If someone were to ask me what was the one ability he or she would have to possess in order to be successful at my job it would not be any of the following: Patience (the commonly assumed requirement to handle such special little boys and girls), courage, determination, love (oh no, you have to work at that one ), knowledge, a commanding personality, or a little insanity (yeah, you can't be a completely normal person to want to do this to yourself 7 hours a day, 5 days a week).

The answer, at least as far as I'm concerned, is FLEXIBILITY. Definition: The ability to shrug, kick back your heels, and say "What the hey!" when half your class is absent, when the lesson plan you prepared meticulously for math blows to pieces, when a crisis prevents you from even teaching math, when you get kicked by an unwilling student during standardized testing, or when you are greeted with expletives. If any of these circumstances would easily blow your fuse, you're probably not going to last too long in the profession. On the other hand, if you are able to acknowledge that they occasionally add spice, variety, and even laughter to your life, you may be just the person for the job.

Though there are certain aspects of my life with which I have a hard time relinquishing control, I have to say that the flexibile nature I've acquired on the job has bled nicely into my personal life. Rather than cause conflict by asserting my personal desires over others', I concede and try to "go with the flow" when it's not worth the fight. It takes a lot of pressure off of me and I take joy in seeing others get their wishes met even if it's something as simple as a friend getting to pick the place we eat dinner.

Some circumstances, however, require a lot more flexibility and a lot less choice as to whether or not I'm going to practice it. The last part of 2010 truly brought my inborn teacher skills to the test.

In August, after a great reunion trip to the Bahamas with my best friend who has moved out of state, I decided I was going to visit her in Portland over winter break. Knowing that the December weather in Oregon is typically pretty cruddy, I thought I'd be short changing myself if I didn't throw some sunshine in there. Back in March, My Uncle Tim, from California, had been wonderful enough to come out to Chicago and surprise my mom for her 60th birthday, so I thought I would return the favor and take him up on his always-standing offer to go visit his family in San Diego while already on the left coast. I booked the trip for the second week of winter break and Uncle Tim, always the planner, jumped into action with an itinerary to maximize my experience.

Then, at the beginning of October, my family was blindsided with some staggering news. Uncle Tim was diagnosed with a massive frontal lobe brain tumor. The tumor was quickly removed but it had spread rapidly through his brain and, even with top-notch chemo, radiation, and infusion treatment, the prognosis was grim.

While the first few weeks were uncertain, Uncle Tim bounced back quickly from his surgery. With the love and support of family, friends, the congregation of his church (where he serves as worship pastor), and his hope in the Lord, he immediately assumed a rosey and determined outlook on the future. His first round of chemo was scheduled so that by the time I arrived in San Diego, it would be complete. And Uncle Tim--always the planner, always the determined host--declared that we would try to follow through with our plans (such as a trip to Palm Springs) as planned.

I was not quite as optimistic that things would pan out exactly as planned, but ever the flexible one, I resolved that I would be completely happy checking into my own hotel and sitting on the beach basking in some rays all by myself for 3 days.

The second unexpected came at the end of November. My Grandma had not been well mentally for some time now, but a sudden stroke shut her body down completely causing her to reject food or drink. She passed peacefully the day after Thanksgiving and her memorial service was held at the beginning of December. My Uncle Tim, determined to be at her services, flew straight from chemo treatment to see us all. He was tired, undoubtedly, and could only stay a short time before he had to return for his church services, but it was a blessing to see him an additional time in the month. He was smiling, good humored, and so full of energy that I believed perhaps we COULD manage to fulfill our previous plans made a lifetime ago.

Two weeks after that, a third tragedy struck. My Uncle Larry, who had suffered some years with a neural condition, had a seizure, stroke, and heart attack in quick succession, cutting off oxygen to his organs. He passed less than a week before Christmas and memorial services were planned for the week I was to fly out to the coast. There was no question my Uncle Tim was going to fly to Nashville from San Diego to be apart of the services, but that meant he was leaving the day I was coming in to his hometown.

New arrangements were made for me to stay the night and spend the first full day with my cousin, Tracy's, family. I would end up only staying one full day with Uncle Tim and Aunt Teddy. And that day would be dedicated to traveling to his infusion treatment. For the first time, my teacher's flexibility seemed to fail me because I was not feeling so "go with the flow". Things had changed so drastically from my expectations . I felt I was going to be a burden on Tracy and I feared I would just end up sitting around so much that I might as well have been doing it from the comfort of my own couch. Had I been a bit more selfish and inconsiderate I would have asserted that I was just going to stay out of everyone's way, get my hotel, and have some quiet alone time in order to make the most out of my Cali experience.

I didn't, though. I forced myself into the situation and played Miss Down for Whatever, and I found that my heart actually followed. Even when it downpoured relentlessly that the first whole day in San Diego, I made the best of relaxing time watching a movie and perusing books at Barnes & Noble. After all, it was my time of rest and I aimed to make the best of it.

There was still more unexpected to come, though. My aunt and uncle arrived from Nashville very late that second day, battling through unfavorable flying weather and delay after delay. On only a few hours sleep, they drove me to beautiful La Jolla where my uncle gets his infusion treatments. As I was given the grand tour of the cancer treatment facility my uncle has come to for months now--often on a daily basis--I couldn't help but think how bizarre it was that I spending a day of my vacation in a hospital. Still, I counted myself fortunate to be apart of this experience and thought I'd make the best of the 2 hour waiting process time by touring the grounds in the awesome sunshine. When my aunt and I returned to the infusion room from a run to the cafeteria to check on Uncle Tim, however, we were stunned by the news that someone had carelessly dropped the vial that held the chemical treatment my uncle was supposed to receive. So, that was that. An hour trip designated for this day a complete waste, the infusion schedule completely thrown off because of the long mixing process required to make the cocktail. Though clearly unhappy with this misfortune, my uncle handled it with astounding grace, leaving all the nurses with smiles and "Happy New Years". We continued on to the coast for a delicious lunch and walk along the beach as planned.

During the drive home I had some time to reflect and began to truly grasp how chaotic life had been for me and loved ones around me these past few months. "Not one more thing," I thought to myself. "We couldn't handle one more unexpected and unfortunate thing." But I knew in my heart this was just the weakminded mere human part speaking from me. In my heart I know that it is equally as likely that one of my lesson plans tomorrow will go awry or I will receive more surprising/staggering news about someone in my personal life. So, why do I deny the probability of the latter? My inflexibility is only setting me up for heartbreak, panic, self-pity, and frustration.

This brings to mind the sweet reassurance uttered to Laura Linney's character by her new lover in my favorite movie, "Love Actually", when their romantic night is interrupted by her mentally ill brother: "Life is full of interruptions and complications."

That it is. So what is it in me--this spoiled, middle class, incredibly blessed American girl--that makes me believe that I should be immune to trials and troubles? The fact is that my earthly life offers me no guarantees. Just as I may easily face the fact that one of my students will completely refuse to do the work I have planned, I should be able to face the fact my house may burn down, another tragedy will strike the family, or I will lose my job.

Sort of morbid, isn't it? Well, it's reality. But, you see, hard reality is incredibly cushioned by some guarantees not of my earthly life which I can rely on just as solidly as death and taxes. Living through loss after loss lately--as painful as it was, I couldn't begin to imagine the excruciation of the experience if my family didn't all rest in the one Promise this world can never guarantee. For us, death would be final, and therefore all pain and suffering during life a miserable waste. No amount of practicing the mantra of "C'est la vie" could extinguish the impending sense of doom if we didn't know there was something more.

So, I'm walking into tomorrow with a new willingness for flexibility. "What the hey" if class doesn't go as planned (usually never does on the first day back from Christmas Break) and "what the hey" if my material world falls down around me. I've got a 100% chance on ultimate joy. Life's customer service guaranteed.

Your homework for today. Reflect on the following:

1. What are areas of your life you could stand to be a bit more flexible? Your daily routine? Your say in matters of the home? What things are just not worth holding the reigns on that you could defer to others?

2. Complete this sentence. "If I lost my job tomorrow, came home to find my house burned down, and learned that someone I loved deeply had passed away, at least I would know...."

Class dismissed.

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