Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Burying Children

On September the 12th, my sweet, dear brother died at the age of 58 from cancer.  His death follows about 5 weeks after my father died which followed 3 weeks after all of the family worried sick about me.

My family is brokenhearted.
  There is an under current of sadness always moving just beneath the surface while we get along with day-to-day chores.  My mother is strong and at the same time devastated from having lost her son so soon after losing her husband of almost 62 years.

Losing both my father and brother close together has been really difficult for me as well…but at the same time I am thankful that I have had my family intact because most of the people with whom we work have not had that luxury.

I am 61 years old and am fortunate, blessed.  Until seven weeks ago I had both parents and my two brothers.  My husband and all the children are alive and healthy.

This is not true for most Nicaraguans.  Here are a few examples:

Doña Conchita has lost children, her husband, and a grandchild.

Rogelio in his early 50s, just a few weeks ago buried his mother.  Last Christmas he buried his father. Since we have known him, he has also buried four of his brothers.

Also in the last month, Pedro at a similar age buried his brother.  Two years ago he buried his son.  

People comfort Mama by saying “No parent should out-live their children.”  I agree.  I cannot imagine burying one of ours, yet, parents do outlive their children all over the world.
Almost 10 million children worldwide die before age 5 die each year from preventable and treatable diseases.   This number does not include children who die from accidents, abuse, wars, armed conflicts, guns, or non-treatable diseases like cancer.   
All these children had mamas and daddies who had to bury their little ones. 
Watching my brother waste away at such a rapid rate, I realized once again that life is precarious for all of us…especially the world’s poor.  I also reclaimed that life is precious…extremely precious…and with that knowledge comes the responsibility to treasure life and, as much as possible, try to prevent more parents having to bury their children.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

When Learning Difficulties Lead to Beauty

Bobby with his granddaughter, Kadence
 My brother died soon after my father.  I missed my father’s memorial service and in my grief shared a bit about him in this blog.  I was there with my brother, Bobby, when he died on the 12th of September, but once again I ask that you please bear with me as I share a bit of who Bobby was.

My dear brother was a gentle, sweet-natured man.  He was an artist*, a loving husband, father, son, and brother.  He had deep faith although he had little to do with institutional religion. He lived his life and ran his little jewelry shop honestly and ethically.
As a boy he was unruly, unpredictable and a nightmare for teachers.  He went to elementary school in an area and a time when learning disabilities were not acknowledged due to ignorance in the educational community and due to his teachers**, most of whom just wanted to do their class and go home.  He had some horrible teachers.  His second grade teacher physically and verbally abused him.

At the age of 21 years after leaving high school and training to be a jeweler, Bobby learned he was dyslexic.  What a relief it was for him to learn he was not stupid as many of his teachers and classmates thought and instilled in him!

Having a child with ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity) and remembering Bobby’s childhood, I am convinced that along with the dyslexia he also had ADHD.  He had a hard time focusing unless whatever he was doing was something he loved then he hyper-focused…like his jewelry. 
As a teen living with learning disabilities and low self-esteem, Bobby started drinking, smoking, and using drugs.  The alcohol and his drugs of choice lead me to think that like many teens with ADHD, Bobby chose to self-medicate.

Eight years ago, Bobby went through rehab and was sober until he died…but he was never successful at battling cigarettes.  He died from cancer that started in his mouth.

Bobby in his shop
Bobby’s learning problems led to beauty.  Many dyslexics have great capacity of creativity and he did.  The pieces he made were exquisite. Many people with ADHD are impulsive, sometimes they don’t make the wisest decisions but sometimes they are the most generous and the kindest.  Bobby was that…sweet and kind.

In the Nicaraguan public schools, knowledge of and accommodations for learning disabilities are almost on the same level as they were when Bobby was a child.   Teachers likely do not understand.  If by miracle the teacher is able to identify a learning disability, they certainly don’t have the resources or the time to accommodate these special children.  All of this leads to children suffering like Bobby did.

Bobby with his family.
Pat, our clinic counselor, helps some of these children in Nueva Vida.  Learning disabilities, if identified, are left to the therapists.  Pat works with our doctors to get them medications if appropriate.  She does therapy with them.  She helps to rebuild their self-esteem.  She also helps them and their parents learn coping mechanisms, but the need is great.

Bobby & his son visiting a volcano in Nicaragua.
Children with learning disabilities are difficult in class and often at home, but they are also a gift to society.  They are frequently the artists, the impulsive givers, and the ones who can think outside the box.  Bobby was that and so much more and I miss him.
*For those of who have visited the CDCA in Nicaragua the lions sitting out front of the house have all their legs because when Bobby visited us, he sculpted one missing leg.

**Bobby’s daughter, Gloria, became a high school teacher and has won two years in a row the best teacher award.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Laughter is a Survival Tool

In the last two months being away from Nicaragua and living through some tough times, I have learned a great deal.  One is the need for laughter, not the smiling-through-the-pain-and-sorrow…no, true laughter.

I have a pet peeve that has come from working with the poor and hosting volunteers from the U.S.  The peeve is when occasionally the volunteers comment, “These people are poor, but they are so happy.”  Many will follow that comment with “It must be their simple life and the fact that they are not as stressed as the over-booked lives we live.”

These comments show an utter lack of understanding of stress.  After working with the poor for over 30 years, I can only just begin to understand how stressful the lives of the poor are as they struggle day-in and day-out to survive.  Their stress is magnified by dangers that threaten their very existence.

Also I know volunteers often can’t see in the short time here the deeper feelings that surround them…they often miss the pain of parents when they come to the clinic with sick children because, from the outside, the poor do “appear” happy because there is frequently lots of laughter.  

I quickly learned after being in the hospital, there is just so much “yucky” feeling one can stand and not go insane.  Mike, my wonderful partner, has always been able to make me laugh…and so can all the children.  It is a gift they inherited from their father.  Though I had to hold my belly to keep from hurting, laughter released the needed endorphins in me.

Three weeks after leaving the hospital, my father died and I could not travel to go home.  Nora, a good friend and long-time volunteer, flew from North Carolina to be with me.  I would cry and she and Mike gave me hugs, but they also made sure to make me laugh. 

Less than two weeks after Daddy died, we learned that my brother, Bobby, was diagnosed with cancer that has invaded his whole body.

Tiff, who we are staying with the most, comes home from work, puts on the news and then follows it with comedies.  We often will sit around and tell stories of many years ago that makes me laugh and laugh.  Coury and Cassie come comes to check on me and more laughter ensues. People call and I laugh.  

Am I happy?  I often look happy.  BUT I’m often still sore and tired from surgery.  I grieve deeply for my father.  I worry about the CDCA and Community with us being away for so long.  And my heart is utterly breaking for my brother.

I’ve known that laughter has gotten us as far working with the poor in the States and in Nicaragua, but now laughter seems even more critical.  I know that if I did not have people around me to make me laugh, to laugh with me and – in truth – oftentimes at me, I would curl up and stop.  

The poor cannot stop, so they find humor in the sadness, in the hurt, in the dark, dark places.  Laughter is a survival tool.  Laughter has the power to open light in the soul.  It is also a gift, a grand glorious gift to be spread the world over.  -Kathleen

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

I Knew Y'all Had My Back

Having to go into the hospital -- unplanned, in a country where we no longer live, during a time when we were only going to be gone from Nicaragua for just a week -- I have learned the value…the immense value of support.
W/Cassie and Coury in role as Che...we saw the last show!

I am convinced that my healing has been greatly influenced by the support I have received here.  When I went into the hospital, we were in Sacramento to see our son, Coury, on stage.  Cassie, Coury’s girlfriend and our long-time friend through volunteering in Nicaragua, was working the ER as a resident.  Our son Daniel was with us as I was admitted in ER.  Later that night, Coury and our daughter Jessica joined the Murdock/Woodard circus in the ER with Mama.

Throughout the hospital lucha (struggle), Cassie helped me and Mike understand what all the doctors were saying, what the tests showed, and how serious it was.  Coury, Jessica, and our son Tiff kept Mike company and sane during my days in the ICU while I was mostly oblivious to my environment – thank you, morphine!  

Jessica informed “the world” of my trials and progress so that friends and family would know what was happening with me, which meant Mike did not have to field as many calls. It also meant that many, many people sent well wishes via email and prayed for us.

There were times I thought I was going to die and I knew that Daniel was going home to Nicaragua and would be support for Joseph, the youngest of the family and who had not come to California.  I knew the kids would support each other and Mike.  I knew that the community at home would carry on and support each other and that we had good people in Nicaragua that would help.  I knew this for certain.

Jane with me recovering
After the ICU but still in the hospital, Coury and Jane, another long time friend and volunteer from Nicaragua, would drop in to relieve Mike and support me. 

Jane modeled for me what to do if someone goes into the hospital…how to be an advocate with nurses and doctors, how to get a patient up and walking…she even got me out into the sun.  She brought gifts, magazines and chicken noodle soup…the first food I ate. She read to me and she and Mike made me laugh.  She took days off work to help us in the hospital and later with doctors’ appointments.

Tiff and his housemates took Mike and me into their home for months.  Between Tiff and Coury we have always had a place to stay (Dena, Cassie’s sister, still lends us her bedroom every time we come to their house in Sacramento!), a car to go to and from appointments, food to eat, and all we need.

Blue Zones is a book being talked about here in the States now.  "Blue zones" are areas where people live a vital 10 years longer than the rest of us in the world.  Food, exercise, and reducing stress are all aspects of the communities in the Blue Zones.  But two elements that the book stresses are friendship and knowing that someone has your back
Coury with me outside!

If we had not had all the support from family and friends here and in Nicaragua, I would have been anxious, fretful, stressed out, and felt lost.  Knowing people had Mike’s and my back eased tremendous stress for both of us and let the healing occur unencumbered.

Living as a family… true community…as brothers and sisters…is a good idea…a really good idea.  Not only might we live longer, but we all might live more peacefully.  Let’s do it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

My Daddy Was Himself

On July 29th, my daddy died.  I missed the memorial service and all the stories told about Daddy because I am in California still recuperating from my surgeries…so here are my thoughts on my father…please allow me this luxury.

Daddy was complicated and frequently misunderstood or under-valued. 

So much of Daddy re-defined how lives can be lived.  He was the second child of a father who abandoned him, his mother, and brother in 1932 at the height of the depression.  His mother had a 6th grade education and after a couple of years, she married Rob.  The marriage was more of an oral contract than anything based on love or even mutual respect.  She would clean, share his bed, cook, etc. and Rob would take care of her boys so that she would not ever have to abandon them to an orphanage.

Much of Daddy’s outlook was greatly influenced by that kind of poverty…and is something we see daily with young girls living in poverty and the decisions they make.

Daddy met Mama while he was finishing his time in the military, which was a way out of poverty.  He was a high school dropout and she was a college graduate from a family that valued formal education.  They had a whirlwind courtship and married on 10th of October 1953…nine months later I was born. 

Daddy went back to school and got the then-equivalent of a GED, a Bachelors of Arts, and a Masters of Divinity.  Our family, at his last graduation, included three children.  In hindsight and having a son with ADHD, I think Daddy also had ADHD.  School was not easy for him and with children it took lots of work and patience, but when he decided that he needed to do something (like quit smoking after I was born) he did it. 

He had enormous determination when there was hope for more…I think loving Mama gave him that hope.  He and Mama were married almost 62 years and they loved each other deeply all those years.  

For more than 40 years Daddy was a pastor in two branches of the Presbyterian faith: Presbyterian (U.S.) and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian.  He strongly believed in women being ordained and having equal participation in the church’s leadership.  He strongly believed in civil rights for all.

One of his strongest held tenants of faith was that the Church should be open to all. 
When I was a girl the KKK came into the area where we grew up, Daddy preached against their hate (and lost members who return later while he was still the pastor).  He tore down their propaganda fliers off telephone poles.  He received death threats in the night by phone.  One of the few times I ever saw my daddy cry was when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.

Later, his congregation was the first to integrate in the ARP Church since the Civil War…and it happened with him threatening to resign because “the church was to be open to all...or it was not God’s church.”  He modeled for me what the Church could be…had to be, in order to be faithful.

Daddy and Mama left the U.S. in their 60s to go teach English in the People’s Republic of China.  I think he was happiest there.  He thrived in China teaching graduate students and preparing them to go to the West to study.  The students loved him, as did the university.  In fact, after they left China, they found out  that their portrait had been hung in a hall with local and federal communist leaders…the two Christian teachers from the West.

Daddy was not a pastor of the country club variety.  He was himself…a man who grew up in poverty, who believed in openness, who welcomed all, AND who - late in life - left the known to teach in the unknown.  I learned from him that being yourself was a much happier way to live one’s life - whether it was popular or not - and that taking risks could lead to joy.

As a child who got little attention, Daddy did love to be the center of attention which came easy because he was funny, a GREAT story teller, and he loved to croon old songs.  Our Nicaraguan staff enjoyed the time when he and Mama came to visit.  Daddy would sit in the kitchen and - in English - flirt and tease the women in the kitchen who were cooking for volunteers.  They would come out of the kitchen always laughing. 

Daddy showed me realities in this world that shaped me.  I miss him…and when I leave California to finally go to South Carolina, I dread going into that house and not hearing “Hey!  Baby!  Come give your daddy a kiss.” -Kathleen

Thursday, August 20, 2015

New Co-op Office

In our community we often say, “Until things change, they remain the same.”

Well, something big has changed!

COPROEXNIC has moved out of our office!

COPROEXNIC is the agricultural co-op that works to help Nicaraguan small hold farmers get better prices for their crops through marketing, processing and exporting organic peanuts, sesame, cotton and coffee.  We helped start the co=op and have worked hand in hand with them for a long, long time. Now, after 20 years of sharing office space… 

…first at a folding table on the front porch of our house…later a desk in the entrance of our office…then 4 desks squeezed into a very tiny room in our office……the agricultural co-op has moved out! 

Last week COPROEXNIC rented a house across the street: three rooms, two porches, ample parking space inside for their three vehicles.  

Watching them move was a joy: they were giggly and giddy. They laughed happily while toting off their files and computers across the street. They immediately set up their coffee maker and played host to us when we came over to visit. A week later, they are still thrilled…you can see for yourself and take a tour of their new offices in this video

With Kathleen recovering in the U.S. and Mike there with her, COPROEXNIC is having to learn to get along without Mike: they are working with me, but they are also doing a lot more on their own. This move across the street is a huge step toward independence that all of us – JHC-CDCA and COPROEXNIC alike – have long professed to be working toward, but is often a two steps forward one step back kind of process.  
I’ll be honest: it’s been a hard few months around here, and it’s not getting any easier, so we’re going to take this move as a victory and celebrate it. Celebrate with us…Woo hoo! -- Becca

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Choked Up with Gratitude

I wanted to write about my friend Martha today, but when I sat down at the computer, no words came out.

Right after she died, I had no trouble writing a heartfelt blog post in celebration of her life and committing to fighting the cervical cancer that killed her.

Today, two and a half years after her death, I am seeing Martha just before she died, hollow cheeked and wild-eyed as she said to me over and over again, “Rebe, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.”

I don’t know why Martha’s death is affecting me so much now, but I do know that grief isn’t a linear progression.

Maybe it’s because when Martha died I thought we would all be so glad to have her beautiful voice recorded so that we could listen to her always, but now I can’t bear to listen; the recording isn’t the same, and I know we will never hear her sing to us again.

Maybe it’s because when Martha died I didn’t understand the pain that her daughter Abril would go through for the rest of her life. When I spend time with Abril now, I am amazed at the gorgeous young woman she’s becoming at 13, but my closeness with her also means that I’ve glimpsed the abyss that Abril treads around each day, and I’m beginning to understand that she will always tiptoe around that chasm.

Maybe it’s because when Martha died she was older than me and Abril was so much older than my girls that I thought they’d had a long time together. But this year my daughter Eibhlín and I will be the same age as Abril and Martha were when Martha died. I now see that the time they had together was the blink of an eye, that another year or ten would never be enough time with my daughter.  

Dr. Gulnara Martinez, obstetrician gynecologist
The reason I tried to write about Martha this week is that on Monday a new doctor started at the Nueva Vida Clinic. Dr. Gulnara Martínez is an obstetrician gynecologist. She will be caring for the women of the Nueva Vida community every afternoon, prenatal care for our new mothers program, annual exams, breast exams and PAPs. If any PAPs come back with abnormal results, Gulnara can do cryotherapy, freezing and removing precancerous lesions right there in the Clinic before they even get to a size the human eye can see. By the time Martha even got her PAP results, her cancer had spread to other organs.

Maybe the real reason I can’t talk about Martha today is because my throat is choked by a lump of gratitude for the designated donation we received to hire an ob/gyn for the next five years. Being able to hire Gulnara, to have women’s health care at the clinic every day, means that maybe a daughter in Nueva Vida will be spared having to spend her life tiptoeing around the void where her mother used to be. That is a victory worth talking about. – Becca