Thursday, December 20, 2012

It Can't Just Be Guns

Americans are a special case in the history of the world for many reasons, not the least of which is our seemingly violent nature and obsession with guns.

The recent shooting in a Connecticut elementary school prompts me to write these words, but it certainly isn't the first time I have thought about gun violence and the impact it has had on me personally.  It is, however, a good moment to talk about the subject, though, because now, with the focus of so many people on the question of what to do about mass shootings we may have an opportunity to effect some kind of change.

The question isn't so much what to do, because I think we all agree that the 'why'(we all know that these shootings are wrong) or the 'what' (we all want to stop these shootings from happening).  The real question, of course, is how.  And, of course, it's more than one question.  I have come up with three.

How can we keep people from killing each other?
How can we keep people from killing each other with guns?
How can we keep people from killing each other with guns en masse?

Friday, December 14, 2012

What have I got to lose?

As I inched along in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Lamar, the digital clock on the dash ticked relentlessly toward 5:30 and the sight of the long, nearly unbroken string of bright red taillights stretched out endlessly in front of me caused my usual optimism to dim and my sense of purpose began to wane.

Already in the dark thanks to the annual revocation of daylight savings time, a half an hour late and with no hope now of reaching my destination on time, I reluctantly picked up the phone to call Patrick.

I never like to call while I'm driving, but the glacial pace of movement on Lamar hardly seemed dangerous, and I did need to tell him that I hadn't forgotten about him, just about the traffic that would naturally be on the roads at this hour of the day.  How did I forget this?  What was I thinking?  Obviously, I wasn't.

After a few rings, and as I moved forward another ten feet, Patrick answered the phone, breathless as always.  He hadn't run to get the phone though.  Patrick suffers from COPD, a life-threatening pulmonary disease that is slowly robbing him of his breath, killing him in slow, daily degrees.

Although he is the same age as I am--possibly even younger--Patrick is dying.

Because he is dying, Patrick is a Hospice patient, which is how I came to meet him a few months ago.  As both readers may recall, I've been assigned to four or five patients over the past three years since I started volunteering for Hospice Austin, but Patrick is the first with whom I've been able to talk and form a friendship.  This came as a surprise and became a wonderful reward when I found Patrick not only to be conversant, but an interesting and interested fellow as well.

I was asked to visit Patrick initially because something on my Hospice volunteer profile indicates that I have some skills in computing.  Now, both readers will laugh to learn this, knowing as they do that I may be called an expert only if such a label may be applied to someone whose principal knowledge of computers consists of knowing how to turn them on and off.  My only real 'strategy' when it comes to 'troubleshooting' computer 'issues' can be summed up in a single word: 'reboot'.  If that doesn't fix it, I am clueless.

In spite of this reality, I was asked to see if I could help Patrick resolve his computer problems.  I said yes, also in spite of reality, because I thought I might at least be able to tell someone else what those problems were.  I have a friend whose knowledge is both real and considerable in scope, so I asked him to have a look at it with me and the answer was as I feared:  the computer was toast.

In the course of looking over the old machine, Patrick told me why he wanted a computer in the first place.  He was trying to make contact with with long-estranged children.  Circumstances over many years had long conspired to prevent him from restoring his relationship with them. Where snail mail and the telephone had so long failed, however, new hope emerged in the form of the internet, email and social media.  Just as he turned this corner, though, the computer he had also seemed to conspire against him, turning itself into an bulky paperweight.   When I arrived to look it over, I knew what I had to tell him in less than a minute, but struggled with how to tell him it was hopeless.

Hopelessness is not the emotion I wanted to convey to a dying man--or anyone, for that matter--so I elected to stay on the positive side.  I told him there didn't seem to be anything I could do for this machine, but that I would see if I could find him another one.  That was months ago.  I posted a notice on Facebook and asked my friends if they had any leads, but nothing came of it.

At least not until the article in the paper came out.  Then everything changed.  A local computer company actually 'adopted' Patrick and provided him with a brand new machine, and even sent someone over to set it up for him.  I felt fortunate that I didn't have to set it up, and of course Patrick was delighted to finally have a working computer.

The best part of all this is that in spite of the fact that I failed to get him a computer, it didn't matter because our connection was the beginning of a friendship.

As we sat and talked, I also found out that Patrick is a musician.  A guitarist, to be exact.  One of the first things he asked me was if I played an instrument, and he was more than a little disappointed to hear that I am not.  In spite of my severe handicap, Patrick decided that I was still ok.  He proceeded to tell me about his life and love of music.  It's a long story, one that begins with small town bands in rural Appalachia, weaves through Woodstock and half a dozen other famous festivals and makes its way down to Austin, where stints at the Continental Club and other iconic venues were wrapped up in an alcoholic haze that eventually led to the small apartment in South Austin where he lives today.

In time, Patrick beat the booze, but so did his health, and when we met, he had very little to call his own.  Thanks to Hospice Austin and Meals on Wheels, his health and dietary needs were being met, but as I spoke with Patrick I sensed his need for companionship and human contact.  He has a number of friends, but it seems we all have a hard time making the time for those in need.  Even I did not visit him as often as I hoped to, finding all sorts of 'reasons' for failing to stop by some weeks, and for this I felt rightfully guilty, especially knowing that I hadn't even succeeded in getting him that computer.

Then, in a moment, everything changed.  Patrick was chosen by the Austin American Statesman to be one of the twelve beneficiaries of their 'Season of Caring' program that runs every holiday season.  A reporter from the paper stopped by to meet Patrick.  He interviewed him and wrote an article about him, detailing his many needs.  Besides the computer, Patrick also needs some new eyeglasses and he desperately wanted a stereo that could enable him to play his records.

In this day of the CD, when even cassette tapes have been abandoned, finding a device to play the old vinyl discs is getting harder and harder.  Oh sure you can get a 'modern' turntable, one that hooks up to a computer via usb, but obviously that is just not what Patrick needed.  He has a collection of hundreds of records, and had no way to play them.

After the article about him appeared in the newspaper, though, dozens of folks stepped up to volunteer to help.  One of those folks said she had an 'old' stereo system that she was willing to donate, so I drove over to her house in Northwest Hills last week to pick it up.  I brought it home and tested it, and it worked like a charm, so I called Patrick and told him I wanted to bring it by this week.

Fast forward, if you will, to that long string of cars on Lamar this week, and you'll see why I was so anxious.  I told Patrick I would be by after work to set it up, and I knew he would be eager to see and hear it.  At 5:30 I called him.  He was delighted to hear from me, not the least bit disappointed to hear that I was running late.  I think dying may one a perspective on lateness that I am as yet unable to fully understand, but my work with folks like Patrick has certainly helped.  I hung up, suddenly not seeing the dense traffic as quite the burden it had been a moment before.

Indeed, it was only a few moments before I arrived at Patrick's apartment to find him up and ready for me.  Though thin and frail, he has a wonderful smile and appreciative demeanor that makes it a pleasure to help him.  I am sure he'd prefer someone who has musical ability as a helper, but he's the kind of gentle soul that would never say that.

In fact, he was thrilled to have me there, especially knowing that I had at long last brought him a way to listen to his record collection.  We spent about half an hour removing his old stereo and speakers, cleaning up the dust underneath and installing the new stereo in its place.  Larger that what he had before, the new system took some re-arranging and required creative placement of the new speakers, but soon we had it all hooked up and ready to go.

I turned it on and the first thing we heard out of the speakers was KUT.  It wasn't even music, but someone talking, so I urged Patrick to go get a record and put it on so we could hear some music.  He happily complied, going straight to an album he'd no doubt had ready for the occasion and bringing to the turntable.  He pulled out a soft cosmetic brush and dusted off the vinyl disc after he carefully placed it on the turntable.  Then with a trembling hand, he lifted the needle and dropped in on the first track.

The album?  Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's debut LP, released in 1969.  The track?  Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.  If you cannot call this song to mind from memory, this whole piece may not mean much to you. But if you can, if you can hear those opening guitar riffs, then you know that this little group of songs is one of the most iconic and moving of its time or any other.  The lyrics are especially appropriate for what Patrick is experiencing, but I'll only quote a couple of lines here.
Listen to me baby
It's my heart that's a suffering
(Help me I'm dying)
It's a dying, that's what I have to lose
I've got an answer
I'm going to fly away
What have I got to lose?

We stood there, a couple of old guys, no more than a foot from these huge speakers, eyes closed with the music palpably moving the air in front of us.  Had we had hair, it would have been blowing backward.  As powerful as the emotion we were feeling was, we needed something to keep us from falling so we reached for each other.  For a long moment, as the music washed over us, we stood there, in a tight embrace, crying softly.  The tears were not for Patrick, they came not out of fear of death or separation, but out of love and for the humanity that binds us all together.

When the moment was over and we pulled apart, Patrick looked and me and said "thank you".  I looked back and told him that that had been one of the most important moments of my life.  He looked a bit surprised.  After all, we have known each other for but the briefest of moments.  How could that be?  He asked with his eyes.

Because, I said, I believe that after all is said and done, nothing in our lives is as important as the connections we make with other people.  I told him that I was as much a recipient of that connection as he was.  Patrick does not know how deeply music affects me, but it's safe to say that it doesn't matter.  For him, music could not be more important, so even if what we were feeling was unspoken, we have a bond that transcends time and space.  I may only have know Patrick for a moment, and in another moment, I will look up and he will be gone.

But this much is certain.  I will never listen to Suite: Judy Blue Eyes again without thinking of Patrick and the moment we shared that evening.  Patrick will forever be a part of me.