Simple Gaze Reveals Power, Beauty of Love

(Buffalo News, December 2011)

On Friday afternoon we received the call: our sister-in-law had no more than two days to live. At fifty-three years of age she had been battling an aggressive form of cancer for a number of years now, but there was nothing more that could be done. My wife and I immediately packed our bags and set off for Virginia, as did other members of her geographically scattered family. After two hours of sleep we all rose early and headed to the hospital. Only four visitors were allowed in the room at the same time, so it took the better part of that morning and afternoon before all of us were able to visit with her, to say good-bye and begin the process of closure – or so we thought. As my wife and I sat in that room, emotions raw, in the midst of tubes, electronic equipment and sounds, the ultimate value and sacredness of life collapsed into brief but transcendent gazes between our sister-in-law and her husband of thirty-one years. But how can a simple gaze contain the very meaning of life?

Every so often, in the midst of our struggle to make conversation without losing control of our emotions, this husband and wife would turn their eyes upon each other, and it was as if the rest of us in the room ceased to exist. From a few feet apart they would stare into each other’s eyes for perhaps ten seconds, and there was silence: a mysterious, awe-inspiring silence which only she was permitted to break. Whatever their past successes and failures, whatever their social status, these too were silenced. Even the electronic sounds seemed to disappear. In those moments each of us realized, in our own way, that we were witnessing something beyond words, beyond emotions, indeed, beyond time and place. In the stillness of their bodies and the longing of their eyes, we ourselves were unexpectedly pulled into and shared – ever so slightly – in the ecstasy and pain of their love. We were paralyzed, wanting to look away but unable to do so. It was as if we could sense their embracing, no, enfolding of each other beyond the limitations of their physical bodies. The love they shared was one, and they were one.

What a gift to us! During those moments we ourselves were raptured out of time and place and status, so that we were aware only of love’s transcendent presence. In the wake of impending death, the ecstasy and pain of their love laid bare the value and potential beauty of each human life. It is a beauty that will not be found in physical attractiveness, wealth, power, status, or learning. It can only be given to us, and we can only give it to others, that is, the unsurpassable beauty and embrace of LOVE. How I wished in those seconds that I had the power to stop time. How I continue to wish that what was silently present between them could be shared with all – as spouses, parents, children, siblings, friends. How I hope that I remember those gazes and their transcendent lesson and put it more fully into effect in my own life.

I am deeply indebted to my sister- and brother-in-law. For in their ecstatic and painful gazes I gained new insight into what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. I refuse to believe that there can be good-byes for such love.

Dad’s Vulnerable Heart Welcomes Loving Words

(Buffalo News, June 2012)

My wife picks up the phone and greets my son calling from Charlotte. “Yes, he’s right here. Why? What do you need to speak with him about? Is there something wrong?” As she presses her interrogation I smile at her and gesture with my hand to give me the phone. She reluctantly hands it over to me and I greet my son. “Hi, Dad. Katie and I are going to play chess. Do you know what color the queen takes?” As I answer his question anguish turns into relief for my wife, while I laugh at her.

Several years earlier, when he informed us that he was moving to Charlotte to apply for a teaching position, my wife went into a semi-grieving mode. I applauded his initiative and courage, and eventually helped him pack the car. On the evening he left our home, my wife and I stood there watching until he turned the corner and went out of sight. She had tears in her eyes, mine were dry. Two years later my daughter was married. I gave a brief speech at the reception which moved many to laughter as well as tears; my eyes remained dry. The next day my wife and I drove her and her new husband to the airport. They too were leaving for Charlotte. Tears for my wife; yep, dry eyes for me.

As Father’s Day approaches, this seemingly stoic man is once again anticipating the cards I will receive from my children. For in addition to the generic words printed on purchased cards, my three children have always written down their own thoughts about me as their father. I cherish those words because in them I am told how much I am appreciated and loved. As with every man or woman, I need to be needed, and I need to be loved. Even though I do not express it in the same way that my wife and most women do, a manner and ease of communication which I admire, it does not follow that I do not feel as deeply. You see, every time one of my children calls, fear immediately grips my heart too. When my oldest son pulled out of the driveway for Charlotte, it took all I had not to let those tears flow. When I spoke at my daughter’s wedding my voice cracked several times – something only my wife noticed. And I was grieving until she moved back to WNY that following December – the greatest Christmas gift I ever received.

Why am I, and why do so many men appear much more reserved in expressing our needs and emotions than women? I am sure that it has something to do with our society. It is probably also connected with the left-brain right-brain difference between the genders. It may even be associated with evolution, that is, with the need to suppress emotions, like fear, when confronting a perceived threat. And because the giving and receiving of love is such a basic human need – along with food, clothing and shelter – when any circumstance jeopardizes that exchanging of love I am rendered vulnerable and move to meet the threat to my own well-being by controlling the expression of my emotions. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, I only know that the emotions, originating in the abiding need I have to love and to be loved in return by my children and my own father, are present and strong, appearances to the contrary. So it is not about the cards or the gifts on Fathers Day that matter, but about the love they supply for a father’s vulnerable heart.

Desire to Help Others Unleashes Inner Strength

(Buffalo News, March 2013)

Spring break, Ormond Beach -Florida. It’s a beautiful, but windy afternoon as a crowd gathers on the beach to watch a man who is drowning. Among the crowd is a woman standing with her young child; she is on the verge of fainting. A moment earlier her husband had been dozing beside her on a blanket. It was she who had awakened him and pointed to the screaming little girl out in the water. At first everything seemed to be OK. Her husband, a police officer, had reached the girl and was carrying her back towards the shore. But they suddenly disappeared in a large wave only to emerge further from the shore. The man began to swim while the little girl in his arms recommenced her screaming. As the waves poured over them and they were carried further and further from the shore, the man quickly tired. In an instant two things struck this would-be rescuer: the realization that he lacked the strength to swim any further with the little girl, and fear that he was about to die. As a police officer I had feared for my life before, but this was the first time that I feared imminent death. Neither my terrified wife nor the burgeoning crowd could perceive what next transpired within me. All they saw was yet another wave sweep over us; I disappeared while the little girl surfed towards the shore.

In the moment prior to this last wave, the larger world had ceased to exist in my mind. I was no longer conscious of other persons or things or events. There was no past, no future. There was only myself – “I am” – and tragic death in the form of water pulling me under. Exhausted, seized by the fear of death and governed by a natural instinct to survive, I recalled seeing a small “boogie board” strapped to the little girl’s wrist when I first reached her. That board might keep me afloat. I looked for it; there it was. But as if in a dream, the little girl’s screams popped into my consciousness. What should I do? That board could never support both of us. One of us would have a chance to live, while the other would almost certainly die. Thoughts raced through my mind. I have done my best to save her; why was no one coming to save me? I have a wife and three children. Only a moment ago I was sleeping on the shore. This can’t be happening! Although recognizing the risk involved, I never seriously considered that I might actually die when I entered the water to help her. This circumstance, this tragedy for at least one of us, this choice I had to make – now – was not my fault. With utter exhaustion in my body, terror in my mind, pain in my heart for my family, and pity for the little girl, I made my choice. Grabbing the board I placed the little girl on it, telling her to “hold on.” Looking over my shoulder I waited for the next evil wave, and just before being swept under, I pushed the board towards shore.

After struggling to the surface once again, I looked for the girl to no avail. After perhaps no more than one more minute of resuming my struggle with watery death, my body and mind gave up; I stopped swimming. There was no more fear of death; all I had to do was let the water pull me down and my suffering would end. But I also realized that my wife and son were watching. The last thing I could do for them was to let them see me die trying to get to them. What physical pain ensued as I swam diagonal to the shore in their direction, awaiting death’s final pull! As I discovered later that evening, it was because of my choice to do one final thing for them that I got to the edge and escaped the clutches of that undertow.

It is a very personal and risky thing to share one’s inner most thoughts, emotions and fears with others. But after 15 years I realize that the lesson I learned would seem hollow without them: it may occur that by making choices in behalf of the life of others we unexpectedly discover the strength within that saves our own.

Career As Police Officer Brings Great Satisfaction

(Buffalo News, June 2013)

As my wife and I prepare to celebrate my youngest child’s upcoming graduation from the police academy, I find myself musing about what insights this retired, second generation police officer can offer to him? My thoughts quickly pass over the positives of the job such as a good salary and benefits, the distinctive symbols and tools of authority – the badge, uniform, and gun – or the ability to exercise authority and control over others, even physically when necessary. And I need not address the obvious negatives such as working holidays, poor sleep and eating habits, and dangerous encounters and circumstances. He is already aware of such things. No, I find myself reflecting upon something far more subtle, and much more significant. How will becoming a police officer impact him as a person? And what in this new career will afford him the greatest sense of satisfaction and success?

The moment you are sworn in as a police officer you are placed into a unique relationship with your community and its citizens. From that point forward the community will depend upon and place their trust in your honesty, reliability, justice and care for their well-being. Their dependence and trust means that they will also hold you to a higher standard than the typical citizen holds others to, in fact, than they may hold themselves to. The uniform and badge you wear will function as symbols declaring to all that you can be depended upon and that you willingly accept that higher standard. As one who has sworn to care for those in need you will be called upon to serve people in every way you can imagine, from changing a flat tire, to putting your life on the line to protect them.

You will experience moments of great excitement as well as boredom and monotony, periods of elation and despair, and times when you will be esteemed or disparaged. You will most certainly be subjected to every psychological state of mind and emotion a person can be subjected to, often during a single shift. But you will keep it all in. Why? Because you need to maintain control of yourself so that you can help those in your community in their moment of need. They will not see you go home and hug your spouse and children because your life had been put in danger, or because you had to break bad news to a family, or because you had to intervene in a domestic in which a wife had been physically abused and terror-filled children were crying. So you hug them to sooth the intense fear and hurt and rage you are feeling but cannot tell them about. As a police officer you will bury these emotions for the good of everyone else, especially your own family. Is it any wonder, consequently, that police officers have one of the highest stress, alcoholism and divorce rates of all careers, and, typically, a much shorter life-span than average? Why are we surprised that the habitual need to bury their emotions causes so many officers to become cynical, stoic and dissatisfied with their vocations?

So if being a police officer has such pain and risks, why become one? Because I have found that being a police officer can also make you a more caring person and provide you with the kind of deep and abiding satisfaction that few careers can – that of knowing that you protect, seek justice for and otherwise do what you can to look after those who are vulnerable and in need. “To Serve and Protect” – it can be an ennobling vocation, that’s why.