Friday, July 28, 2006

Thoughts on People who are no longer with us

Where Are They

Someone else woke up dead. His name was Ed. He was a neighbor of my wife, we haven’t been married very long so she has friends and neighbors I do not know. I guess that ‘woke up dead’ is inaccurate since he did not, in fact, wake up. He died in his sleep. His wife found him dead in the morning. I would have met him for the first time Saturday but that is not likely to happen. People die, I know that, it is just that when vital lively people, people who were depended on by others, genuinely nice people die unexpectedly it seems to leave a hollow spot behind. It makes me wonder where they went.

It started with Tom Bostian, he was a law school classmate, he had a heart rhythm problem called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. Tom got married right out of law school. He had a wife and a little boy. He was a nice person. He was a good tennis player, I never could return his serve, and he rode a motorcycle. He drove me home once when I needed it. He had a quick wit and, for no reason I could discern, a certain lack of confidence. Somehow he got himself on the TV show jeopardy. He did not win, but it was fun for us to see our friend on TV. Every once in a while his WPW would cause his heart to beat very rapidly. It always calmed down again, except that once it did not and he died. He was not 30 years old. He was Bostian, he was my friend, and then he was dead. Where did he go.

The order may be wrong but my next memory here is Pam Hall Rabil. She married my friend Mark Rabil just after law school. They had 2 girls. She was cute as a law student. She was beautiful as a wife and mother. I stayed in their house once the night before a biathlon. I brought her roses as a thank you. Then she got breast cancer and died. I got a phone call. I do not know where she went.

There are too many other people in this list to mention them all. Cancer got John Hunter. David Underwood, many years ago, and Gil Murdock, just recently, got taken by heart attacks at the gym. Lively, vital personalities depended on by their friends and families. They all seemed too powerful to be just gone. Where did they go?

While Tom Bostian was the first person I knew whose death seemed very out of place, or time, it was Tom Fowler that really got me thinking, where is he. His parents owned a house on Lake Shore Drive in Chapel Hill. Mike Williams, Mark Rabil, Reid Russell and I shared the house with him. Fowler, as we all called him, was so alive. We ran together a lot in school. Reid organized a fall hike that Fowler would attend until a botched knee surgery limited his range. Fowler wrote a lot, his family got his book, Carolina Journeys, published. At his peak he seemed to carry the North Carolina Bar Journal. One day he did not wake up. They said he was in his usual sleeping position, just not breathing. We do not know what killed him. Where did a mind like that go.

I think about this a lot at night. For a while after Fowler died it was hard to go to sleep. Sometimes I think if I can just get my mind open enough I will hear him. I won’t though. He is gone just like my first dog and all the other people who have died. It is nice to remember them. I guess that is one way I can keep them alive. So don’t worry Bostian, don’t worry Fowler, I won’t forget any of you.

A Message to Max on his Birthday.

Max’s First Day

On March 7, 1987 I was painting trim in the nursery. Our first child was due in 6 weeks or so and we wanted to be ready. My wife waddled into the nursery with a towel stuck between her legs.

“My Water Just Broke” she said.

She seemed pleased. Pregnancy is no fun. It was early but our first child was going to come out. We called Dr. Tidwell and he told us to head in to the hospital. He would meet us there later.

Max’s mother was a longtime hospital employee so we knew we would be well taken care of. We saw our coach from childbirth class. Her comment was, “You guys are early.” We got the paperwork done and checked into one of those birthing rooms they use these days. I spent the night in a big chair.

The next morning, March 8, 1987, stared slowly. A little breakfast and a visit with Dr. Tidwell. Nothing was happening so they started a pitocin drip. This is an IV drug designed to bring on labor. It worked. Max’s mother began having contractions on a regular basis. The anesthesiologist came in to talk to us. He put a small tube into Max’s mother’s spine to block the pain, We settled in to wait for Max.

5:oo or so PM on March 8, 1987 things began to speed up. We had a nurse with us all the time monitoring the baby. Contractions came closer together. At one point I got a lesson in why we were at the hospital. Every contraction puts pressure on the baby. That is the point, to squeeze the baby out. This child’s heart rate began dropping with each contraction. One time it stayed too low. Before I knew it the room was full of nurses opening doors, pulling equipment out. They were getting ready for an emergency C-section. Our nurse was watching the monitor. She kept saying “”Come on Baby, come on baby” kind of softly. Then she let out a big sigh, the heart rate was climbing again. Just as quickly as they had come the nurses put everything away and were gone.

Things progressed as they were supposed to and soon I was watching Dr. Tidwell get a huge set of forceps ready to pull the baby out. It was a boy. We would name him Max. We were not done yet. He was having a little breathing difficulty. The hospital people called it retracting. The nurses wrapped him up and a Dr. from the neonatal intensive care unit took Max away. The Dr. wasn’t worried. Neither was Max. It seemed everyone knew this was a minor issue. Dr Tidwell finished up his work and went on to the next patient. I was going to go home and get some sleep but first I had to go check on Max. We had some clothes for the new baby and his mother gave me some socks to put on him.

I found him in an intensive care unit for babies. He was born at 7:55 pm. He weighed 6 lbs, 11 ounces. He was lying on his back under a clear plastic bowl. They were giving him extra oxygen. His breathing had stabilized. The nurse was pleased I had brought socks for him. Max was looking around, checking out the world. I put my hand on his chest and talked to him for a little bit. I blew some air under his oxygen hood so he would remember who I was. Maxwell Garrison Ballenger was in the world and it was a good thing.

And it still is.
Happy Birthday Max

My Date With a Deer

My Dad asked me to publish this one.

My Date with a Deer

It was early spring in Charlotte. The last frost was still ahead of us but you could never tell by the air today. The wild dogwoods were beginning to bloom. On a day like this even a 48 year old man could feel invincible. The road, as far as I could tell, would go on forever. This was a day to be outside.

“You know,” I said to my father as we walked up the 7th hole, “the outfits these motorcycle people wear work great. As long as you do not run into anything solid you just slide.” Bruce was not impressed. “Don’t fall off your motorcycle,” was all he had to say about that. I had no idea how soon I would get to test my theory.

Later that day, sitting at home I got a call.

“Let’s go ride.” Terry said on the phone. I had no idea where but I like riding.

“Come on over.” I said, “I’ll be ready.”

I rolled my VTX 1800R out of the garage. A little Honda polish and a micro fiber cloth would shine it up just right. Terry arrived shortly and we were off, headed to a state park within easy riding distance.

“It will be light when we get there.” He said with a big grin. “and it will not be cold coming home.”

With that we were off. An hour or so later we were driving up the twisty road to the top of Morrow Mountain. He had underestimated the time somewhat. It was 6:55 PM and darkening fast as we climbed the hill. The park closed at 7:00 PM. I know this because the Ranger told us so. He was very pleasant as I find all law enforcement people to be. He just wanted to go home and we were the last people in his park. We hustled down and stopped at the gate to reach into our saddlebags and put on more clothes. Terry had missed the temperature a bit. A brief discussion ensued leading to an easy choice. That big restaurant with the full parking lot back a mile or two on NC 24-27 was our goal.

The road out to 24-27 was wide, with easy turns. It was also very dark. Terry had led the whole way up so it was my turn to be in front. I hit 55 just as the speed limit did and I was accelerating from there around an easy right hand uphill turn. The road looked oddly shadowed for a moment, then my lights saw the deer. There were several of them, the largest in the center of the road. As an adult human being I tend to think in words. Words were too slow for this moment. As fast as you can say ‘shadow-deer-thud.’ That was it. I hit the deer that fast. My brain could see him and his buddies. I can count six of them in the image that remains in my head. I remember the colors of their hides and the reflections in their eyes. My brain saw the deer in the middle trot a little to the right, farther into my path. Deer do not know that you are following the road. He probably thought he was moving out of the way. He was wrong. I hit him, shadow-deer-thud, that fast and I was down; tumbling and sliding.

I have no idea how long this next part took. I have fallen skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, mountain boarding, water skiing and just running. There was nothing in my past anything like this meeting with the pavement. I think I tumbled a bit. I slid a bit. I ended up on my back. I am sure I did at least one rotation sideways before I stopped. Somewhere around the tumbling part the bike left me and slid on its own. Measuring from the start of the skid to the end of the bike’s travel the next day showed that it went 62 yards from point of impact to its resting place. I would have been happy that I had stopped moving had I not hurt so badly.

My back and left side felt like they had been beaten by a rubber truncheon in some foreign prison. I imagined only torture could reproduce that level of pain. All I could do was yell. I think I was more animal than human at this point. Every exhale was an unfocused yell. The kind of yell the Olympic weight lifters do when they pick up the big weights. I do not know how long I sat in the road and yelled like that. When you hurt that bad time doesn’t matter much. I really did not care that it might not hurt later. It just hurt too much at that moment to do anything else. I yelled, and yelled, and yelled.

There was another part of my brain at work here. Even as I yelled incoherently like an animal who has just been slammed into the pavement at something over 55 miles per hour I was thinking. Did my toes wiggle inside my boots? Yes! Did my hands work? Yes! Terry approached me from the left and asked me if I was bleeding. “Yes,” I said. Then slowly, ever so slowly, the pain began to subside. I came back to humanity.

I saw a car out of my right eye. I asked Terry to go hold him up. I discovered that I could scoot my butt along a bit. I moved myself to the side of the road. I told Terry where to find my cell phone. There was no service. The people in the car got out and the driver went looking for a spot where a call to 911 would work. There was a trickle of blood running down my nose. I took off my helmet and looked at the blood inside it. It hurt a lot to sit so I tried to stand. Up and walking over to look at my motorcycle I did not feel as bad.

There are several kinds of pain. The first is the acute pain that demands attention now, sort of like when you put your hand in a fire. Then there is the long term pain that makes you stop moving so you can heal. There must be something from our ancient past that puts a space in between these two. You could call it a get away/survival space. I had time to get away if I needed to. Part of me actually wanted to straighten up my bike to see how badly it was damaged. I thought about looking for the deer. That was the most active I would be for several days. Fortunately the bald headed animal sitting on the road hollering was almost gone and another part of my brain took over. I was not going to move anything. I looked up the road and saw a nice friendly blue flashing light. I was on my way out of there.

I asked Terry to go with the Ranger, who had come to help after hearing about my wreck on his scanner, to take my VTX somewhere safe and I would get it later. Then I let the 911 people do their thing. Tied to a hard wooden backboard with broken ribs and lots of scrapes and bruises might just make the ride to Stanley County Hospital the worst auto trip I have ever taken. I have been in a hospital before. You just let go. Lying on an x-ray machine twisting left and right as I shivered from the cold was ugly. The scraped areas on my hips kept sticking to the mattress. It got me what I needed though. As soon as they were comfortable that I did not have any broken vertebrae my goal was clear. I was going home before someone thought of a reason to give me a night on a plastic mattress.

Things began to speed up to normal pace again. Donna came to the hospital to get me. She made some new friends in the staff people who gave her directions. Terry called Matt to let him know I would not be in Charlotte at 8:30 for our recording session. The nurses wanted to send me back to x-ray to look at my knee. No was an easy answer. The doctor wanted to put stitches in the contusion on my head. I suggested that it might just do fine if he left it alone. Doc was cool with that. I got back on my feet and we went to the front desk to joke with the nurses until they were ready to let me go. 20 minutes after midnight in Albemarle and the Wendy’s drive through was dinner. That night in bed I was very pleased to discover one spot I could lie still where nothing hurt. It had been 6 hours or so since I last experienced such a position.

The leather covering over my helmet was ripped in four places. My jacket has holes in various places but the body armor stayed in place. My gloves are still useable. The pavement sanded my boots to the thickness of a sheet of paper in many places. As for me I can type just fine but any movement that requires stomach muscles just plain hurts. Things as simple as rolling my chair in towards the keyboard yank at the spot on my left side. My ribs will heal but I do not know when. The bright red contusion on my forehead is colorfully balanced by the large strawberries on my left shoulder, right hip and right knee. A shower revealed that everywhere on my body there are new little cuts and scrapes that burned in the hot water. My hands and feet are unscathed. Matt and I drove to the park the next day to pick up my bike. The Honda store is working on an estimate to fix the motorcycle. One of the men in the ambulance went back and got the deer. Is now cut into steaks in his freezer.

This story is not over yet. The suddenness with which your world can change has given us all a little pause. In one shadow-deer-thud second I went from a very much alive man enjoying a day on a motorcycle to an animal hollering in pain. The State Patrol officer in the Emergency Room told me there were three or four deer hits that night in Stanley County. Thinking about how to prevent such an accident let me get over the apparent randomness of the way the road ended for me that night. I will never again ride carefree down a country road in the dark. I am glad that my motorcycle gear worked as I had told my father it would. I will ride again. Not tomorrow, or even this week, but the day will come. When it does I will be a good bit more careful as I remember that God gave me another day. It will be up to me to make the best use of it.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Magic Words

We use words badly. One of hte ways we do this is to attach all sorts of meaning to a word. Here is an article from the NY Times pondering the use of the word genocide.

Rwanda’s Shadow, From Darfur to Congo

GETI, Congo

NGAVA NGOSI did not have much hope for her 3-month-old daughter, Neena. The looted hospital in eastern Congo where she brought her child had no doctors. She had already lost two sons to her country’s brutal civil war, and her daughter’s body was stick-thin, her breath shallow.

As I talked to Ms. Ngosi, I was reminded of an infant in similarly dire condition I had seen a month earlier in Zam Zam, a camp in Darfur, Sudan. Even though the 1-month-old Mukhtar Ahmed was near death from pneumonia, at least the camp had a health center, a doctor and antibiotics.

Last I heard, Mukhtar was recovering at a nearby city hospital. I don’t know if Neena survived. But it seemed unlikely she would.

In a way, both of their fates were sealed by genocide. One child, Mukhtar, escaped what many people, including President Bush, are calling the world’s newest genocide, in Darfur. Neena, in an indirect but inescapable way, is the victim of an older, deeper wound: the genocide in Rwanda that sparked the grim civil war in Congo that ultimately took more lives than any conflict since World War II. The difference between life and death for both these infants may well have been on which side of the great moral chasm of genocide they stood.

The crisis in Darfur, long neglected, finally burst into the world’s consciousness. Congo remains largely forgotten. It is hard to understand why. Four million people have died in Congo since 1998, half of them children under 5, according to the International Rescue Committee. Though the war in Congo officially ended in 2002, its deadly legacy of violence and decay will kill twice as many people this year as have died in the entire Darfur conflict, which began in 2003.

But such numerical comparisons belie a deeper truth. Darfur holds the world’s gaze because of that magic word, genocide. The word, implying that there are clear criminals and clear victims, has been perhaps the single greatest attention-getter for efforts, however feeble, to end the fighting and organize relief efforts, even though the fighting has lately turned in directions that indicate the situation was never so clear-cut.

The conflict in Congo, by contrast, long ago descended into a free-for-all with many sides. Instead of Darfur’s seeming moral clarity, it offers a mind-numbing collection of combatants known by a jumble of acronyms. And that has been a particularly cruel fate, since the long-lasting war there in fact had its roots in the greatest mass killing since the Holocaust — the unambiguous genocide of 800,000 mostly ethnic Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda in the spring of 1994.

After Rwanda’s civil war ended, Hutus who had carried out the genocide fled into Zaire, as Congo was then known, followed by their Rwandan enemies, bent on revenge. The rest of the world, wracked by guilt because it stood by as Rwanda bled, did not intervene in Rwanda’s Congolese conquests. This fighting touched off the next decade of killing. Rwandan military leaders, with help from Uganda, decided to enrich themselves at Congo’s expense, and rival home-grown militias soon joined the fray.

“A lot of the killings and horrors were in large part overlooked, either deliberately or not,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch for Congo. “The Rwandan genocide was initially why there was limited criticism of Rwanda and Uganda coming in.”

Nearly a decade later, the memory of how little the world did to stop the slaughter has been invoked in efforts to end the newest atrocities, in Darfur.

Darfur seemed to present a clear moral choice. The crisis began in 2003 with a rebellion that sought to end the marginalization of non-Arab tribes by the Arab-dominated government. The Sudanese government’s brutal military response, aided by murderous Arab militias, turned into a campaign that killed more than 200,000 people and drove millions from their homes.

In taking up the cause, many activists and politicians made the conflict into a morality play — a clear example of genocide in which one group, the Arabs, was determined to slaughter another, Africans. The Bush administration, which had already intervened to end the Muslim-led government’s suppression of Christians, describes the killings in Darfur as genocide.

For all its emotional power, this label has done little to reduce the suffering in Darfur, and less to force an international solution. Despite the attention from politicians and celebrities, Darfur relief efforts are chronically short of cash. The peace agreement signed in May is on life support.

Some analysts have always questioned the use of the word genocide in Darfur, because the term may mask the possibility that a deeper tragedy is on the horizon.

Recent events in Sudan have revealed that the longer the Darfur conflict goes on, the more it takes on an awful complexity, for which the notion of genocide may be too dangerously simple. Rival non-Arab militias, supposedly representing the conflict’s victims, have turned on each other with a ferocity rivaling that of the feared Janjaweed Arab militias. Cleavages have opened between the Arab-dominated government and the Arab militias.

The conflict has leaked into Chad, where Darfurian rebels raid refugee camps to kidnap boys to fight and Janjaweed militias attack Chadian villagers. The United Nations warned this month that the crisis may be spreading to the Central African Republic.

The peace agreement between the strongest rebel group and the Sudan government is shaky, and two other rebel groups have refused to sign the deal. The Sudanese government has so far refused to allow United Nations peacekeepers to replace the overmatched African Union force now in place.

So in some ways, the greatest tragedy in Darfur may not be that it could become the next Rwanda.

It is that it could easily become the next Congo.

If what had seemed to be a clear two-sided conflict continues to devolve into violence, the death toll in a messy regional war could easily balloon into millions.

Mukhtar, the little boy I met in Zam Zam, may be a symbol of the grim present in Darfur. But Neena, the dying girl here in Geti, portends what is to come.

On July 30, Congo will hold an election, the first real chance for the people to choose their own leaders since 1965. The world hopes this event will finally draw a line between the tragic past and an unknown future. The journey from mass murder to peace, by way of a gruesome civil war, has been long and deadly.

Darfur may be at just the beginning of that path. For the sake of Mukhtar, and millions like him, the journey had better be swift.