Thursday, June 21, 2018

On the Path to Humanbecoming

“You’re just like your father,” my mother would say, hundreds, if not thousands, of times, often as a back-handed compliment.

She accused me of “acting like a Communist, drinking from the same glass as others,” even though she accepted Holy Communion from the same cup as others. My father, a card-carrying Social Democrat, imparted his progressive views to me as part of a humanist education. Even though my parents were at odds politically (and, moreover, both politically active), my mother respected my father for his moral and ethical values and actions.

My father was patient (when he wasn’t brimming with the rage that comes from enduring tyranny), a professor who had to thole thousands of pages of poorly written essays which didn’t begin to demonstrate even a basic understanding of the economic theory he so clearly explained, dumbing it down to a level that made his soul quake. There were the exceptions, the scholars who were misled into studying business or finance, who truly understood the underlying value of mastering economic principles and how those principles permeate our greater (or, too often, lesser) existence in an alleged free-market economy and so-called democracy. Fewer were those who embraced Brother Mike’s teaching to better comprehend how unjust life is for the majority of humanity throughout the world. Many of his students weren’t in classrooms. A scholar by spirit and nature, he would lecture to anyone willing to sit and listen. And those who have done so have been captive for hours.

If only my verbosity were layered with Brother Mike’s depth of knowledge and prowess to connect the most sophisticated ideas across disciplines, all rooted in his primary scholarly pursuit: philosophy.

There is so much I didn’t say. So much I did say that I regret. I only hope that the sweeter side of my mother’s sentiment may eke out at an odd moment, elevating me, even for a fleeting second, to the status of “humanbecoming.” He would often say “there are so few human beings,” that to be a “humanbecoming” is an accomplishment in our grossly corrupt and thoughtless society.

We threw an intimate surprise party for my dad’s 70th birthday, where he joked “what do you all know? Am I dying?” Even his most profound and spiritual revelations were peppered with a trademark humor that was lost on some of shuttered mind. He also publicity acknowledged my mom that day as a humanbecoming, which she knew was mighty praise, never doled out carelessly.

At the time, we had no reason to suspect his 80th, 90th, and 100th birthdays would become memorials. Having never swallowed so much as an aspirin, exercising and swimming daily, laboring  every day in the yard, and working as a professor (employed at the time of his death because he had never taken a sick day), Brother Mike’s last physical revealed, in his primary care physician’s words “a man healthier than my 30-year-old patients.”

Diagnostic tests at the time of the physical included a sigmoidoscopy, which the PCP claimed “came back clear.” Just 10 days later, my mother noticed that my father’s extremities were very cold and covered him with blankets as he reclined in his dilapidated chair to read. “Mike,” she insisted, noticing a sudden decline in his vigorous physical activities along with an uncharacteristic loss of appetite. “You have to see a doctor.”

I know I am maligned by some for loathing the area where I grew up, but it had already become a healthcare wasteland, and my “healthier-than-a-30-year-old” father, who never picked up a cigarette and drank only socially, went into surgery the following day to remove “a single tumor from the sigmoid section of his colon.” The former military doctor had been applauded by the insurance-fraud-machine hospital system monopoly in the geographic area, as “precise.” Perhaps the U.S. military taught this surgeon to carefully maneuver a scalpel, but it failed at conveying any need for compassion, empathy or a basic ability to communicate with family and patients. For the record, my father served in two wars for the U.S. Army, and came out as a humanist. This surgeon, who was not approaching humanbecoming, strode into the family waiting room and briskly instructed my mother and I to “go into the private room.”

In that isolation chamber, he gestured for us to sit, and blurted out: “the good news is the surgery went well, and he’s fully conscious. The bad news is the cancer spread to all of his vital organs and he has about six months to live. I have to leave for the long weekend, so one of you has to tell him. Also, tell him he has a colostomy bag.”

As I began to hyperventilate, the surgeon shook his head in disgust and told my mother, “she has to calm down or she’ll faint.” My mother said: “I can’t tell him, and look at her, she obviously can’t do it.” He rolled his eyes and told my mother, “Like I said, I have plans for the long weekend. I’m running late. This is your responsibility.”

“What about my daughter?” my mom asked him.

“As I said, she needs to calm down. I can get someone to get her a chaplain to talk to, but it may take awhile.” Without so much as an attempt at eye contact or a tap on the shoulder, he waltzed out.

I managed to use the phone to call my childhood friend Erica, who somehow interpreted my cry-screams, found a neighbor to watch her then-young children, and disregarded multiple traffic laws to race some 18 miles and hold me.

Erica is one of my dad’s students. Not in a classroom (she and I were undergraduates together at a different school), but during countless hours spent in my parents’ home. “She’s brilliant,” he boasted. His delight was irrepressible when she changed her undergraduate from something called hotel, restaurant, and travel administration, to his primary passion philosophy. No doubt Erica was a humanbecoming in the eyes of Brother Mike.

I hope my mother is right, that I am at least the slightest like my father, save for the (occasional) rage which I fully acknowledge as cultivated on my own. I lack his deep well of expertise across subjects and have fallen so far from scholarship, not only leaving behind graduate degrees despite competing coursework, but failing to read voraciously. I do hope I impart a glimmer of his moral teachings to my son, Michael Alexander, who clearly already has achieved humanbecoming. Like a broken record, I lament every year that the pain of loss stings deeper s he never knew his only grandson or my husband, Mike (Michael Damian), who also would have earned Brother Mike’s designation of humanbecoming.

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