Thursday, September 11, 2008

9/11: Do Good, Avoid Harm--In Memoriam

My memories of September 11, 2001, will forever be intertwined with the death of my mother on September 15 the same week. September 11 was Tuesday. The 15th was Saturday.

And I certainly mean no disrespect to the thousands who died on the 11th, and their families, by remembering the week as I do. It’s just that when a huge tragedy intersects with a personal loss, the two become part of a single memory in one’s heart.

About the 11th, I have—as almost everyone who recalls that day will have—sharp memories. The clear blue skies as we drove to work, when the first plane was already careening into the first building, though we knew nothing of that at the time.

The faculty who came to my office (I was academic dean at Philander Smith College in Little Rock at the time), frightened, uncertain what to do, when the news broke. To my shame, I actually thought they were joking when they told me the twin towers had been hit by a plane and that the Pentagon was on fire.

The sudden recognition that this was no joke, and my own fright: why are they coming to me, when I have no more clue than they do about what to do? The prayer assembly that ensued, which made the drama so much worse for some of us unused to such piety, since some students wailed, shouted, spoke in tongues, fell out with religious emotion.

And the week of endless arrangements to try to assist students whose lives had been directly touched by the tragedy, who had family involved, who knew someone in the towers, who were traumatized (as I was, as we all were) simply by the images on the t.v. screen, the planes crashing into the buildings, people jumping out of windows, women with purses streaming along, the collapse of the towers. I went to bed night after night as though plugged into an electric charger, unable to exorcise those pictures from my head, unable to sleep, rigid with shock.

The president of Philander Smith at the time, Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed, was a good Methodist who rose to this occasion admirably by taking to heart John Wesley’s dictum that we must live in such a way that we do all the good we can, by all the means we can, in all the ways we can, in all the places we can, at all the times we can, to all the people we can, as long as ever we can. She mandated that my office set up counseling-support groups for students comprised of faculty and staff with experience in this area.

I spent much of the week coordinating those arrangements and participating in a group. Many students were, indeed, traumatized, and it was good that the president anticipated their needs—a demonstration of what being a faith-based community should be all about in practice and not merely in proclamation.

At this time, my mother was in a care facility suffering from advanced dementia. She had not known me for several years. Her oldest sister, a maiden aunt I loved dearly, who exemplified selfless love within our family, was also in a nursing home, severely impaired physically by a series of strokes, though mentally sharp.

I spent much of each week when I wasn’t working going from nursing home to nursing home, checking on my mother and aunt, seeing to their comfort and needs. I was, as we say in the South, frazzled. My work has always received full attention, such that I take it home, work long into the night and before office hours in the morning, as well as on weekends and holidays. Not a virtue but a vice, since life is more than work.

But my parents taught me a strong work ethic, and I have worked always in church-based colleges with a strong work ethic, where many folks are also adroit at playing the I-work-harder-than-you game. I noticed this game early on in each church-based school at which I have worked: some folks would show up early in the day and again as office hours ended, to spend time in their offices after hours, to make it appear that they were working harder than those who are continuously in their office from the time the workday begins until it ends.

I knew the game. I knew that the game players kept tabs on those of us who left when the workday ended, and reported this, as though it were an indicator we were sloughing off. I believed that anyone with sense and integrity who received such a report would see how false it was, and the malice motivating it. I protected myself against such games the best way I knew how, by working and not pretending to work, trusting that my record and output would demonstrate my hard work in an environment of faith-based game-playing.

By Friday of the week of September 11, I was exhausted—emotionally, physically, mentally. Since we expected my aunt to die soon, my mother’s youngest sister, Steve, and I had attended a seminar on the 11th designed to help family members make the transition of a loved one to hospice care.

So when the nurse from my mother’s gerontologist’s office called on Friday evening to say that my mother had a slight fever, I did not go to the nursing home to check on her. I asked the nurse if the fever were serious. She said it wasn’t: it was slight. She was calling because they had a rule that they must call whenever a patient was running fever.

With the seminar on hospice in my mind, I asked the nurse if she thought we were nearing a point at which my mother needed hospice care. “Absolutely not,” the nurse said. “She’s strong and stable.”

I went to bed somewhat worried, but with the thought in mind that I would see my mother tomorrow. She did not know when I came or went, in any case. She had no idea who I was.

Early the next morning, I had a call from the nursing home staff member who took most loving care of my mother, a deep-souled, compassionate African-American woman named Stephanie Smith. “Come immediately,” she said.

I asked no questions. Steve and I threw on our clothes and went. During the night, my mother had lapsed into a semi-comatose state. Stephanie had not been scheduled to work that day. Something had nudged her to come to work. It was she who found my mother nearing death.

I had a precious hour or so—I really don’t recall the length of time; time becomes meaningless under these circumstances—with Steve and my mother’s youngest sister to stand beside my mother’s bed as she died. To hold her hand and stroke her forehead. To pray with her and talk to her.

Do all good, by all means, in all ways, in all places, at all times, to all people: Wesley’s saying, with its final reminder that our time for doing good is always limited by the time we have left, unfailingly puts me in mind of something that happened in the first several years I began teaching, at Xavier University in New Orleans.

While I was teaching at Xavier and chairing its theology department, a chaplain, Brother Jim, died suddenly. He had had a stroke in the night, was found beside his bed.

I identified with Jim. Like me, he tended to gain weight. Like me, he went on binge diets and lost significant amounts of weight, only to gain the weight back. Both of us had what my family calls the “red Irish face”—complexions that never allow us to hide embarrassment or stress, since we are, as my father’s sister often said, “flushers.” People even sometimes mistook me for Jim, addressing me as Brother Jim.

Jim’s sudden death hit home. It was one of those reminders that come all too frequently in our lives, of how sudden the going home can be. The moral lesson of this death was underscored for me—and remains vivid in my mind more than twenty years later—because of something a colleague in the theology department, Sr. Mary Ann Stachow, said when Jim was found dead.

“Do good. Avoid harm,” Mary Ann said, quoting Thomas Aquinas and his ultimate formula for how we are to live our moral lives. Do good. Avoid hurting others—anyone. Do good all the time, everywhere, in every way possible, to everyone: do good and avoid harm.

Because life is limited: do good as long as ever you can, since our time for doing good (and avoiding harm) will one day end. It is a facile truism to say that those whose loved ones head off to work on any given day, never to return, will inevitably ask themselves what more might have been said and done—what breaches might have been mended—had one only known when the end would come.

I certainly ask myself that regarding my mother’s death. What if I had put aside my own tiredness on Friday night and gone to the nursing home then, when the call about her fever came? Though she would not have known me or have known that I was there, some part of me wants to think it might have made a difference to her, on the night she began her passage from life to death, for me to be there.

But I didn’t go. And she did die. And I must now live with the thought that perhaps I could have done more. And with the hope that, if another such occasion arises in my life, I will respond more readily than I did that night.

Do good. Avoid harm. Life ends. If there are those whose rights we have trampled on; if there are those to whom and about whom we have lied; if there are those whose lives we’ve disrupted out of malice or jealousy or prejudice: there is time, while we are still living, to set things right.

There is time to ask forgiveness. There is time to mend broken bonds. There is time to accord the justice we have denied. There is time to realize that when we practice to deceive, we weave webs that eventually ensnare us. There is time to recognize that in doing violence to others in the manifold ways in which human beings can assault others, we set in motion spirals of violence that eventually bring the violence back to our own doorsteps.

There is time to recover our mere humanity by acting like a human being again.

It is never too late. Except, of course, when the clock ticks down.

That is, after all, what doing good and avoiding harm means. And I say this as a lesson to myself, hoping that the words I am writing today will write themselves on my heart.