Quiet Desperation

“Most men live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”  –Henry David Thoreau

     I was still young, maybe even still in high school, when I read the lines from Henry David Thoreau about living “lives of quiet desperation.”  I had no idea what those words really meant, or maybe I just never gave it much thought until a week ago.

      On Sunday, April 21, I went to visit my mother in the nursing home as usual when she suddenly began to have a seizure.  I was alone in the room with her.  I grabbed her with one hand and reached for the call bell with the other, also yelling out, “Help!  Seizure!”

     The nurses came running, the rapid response team was called, and I fled to the hallway.  This was her third seizure with no known cause and so far no treatment.  Since that moment, I have seen again and again in my head those terrifying moments when my mother began her seizure.

     An  hour later I sat at the foot of her bed watching her breathe.  That was the moment I felt a sense of quiet desperation.  The room was still, my mother not yet speaking or moving.  Her roommate, who had not been in the room at the time, wheeled herself into the room not knowing what had happened.   She had never seen my mother in bed during the day, never seen her with oxygen on her, and never seen such panic on my face.  I explained to her what had happened.  She sat quietly for a moment and asked what she should look for in case she had another seizure during the night.  I told her not to worry, the nurses would take care of it, and she should just take care of herself and try to sleep.  She replied, “But she’s my friend.”  The two of them, both with dementia and health issues, had become close friends in the past few months.  She was present in the room when my mother had her second seizure and had called for help then.  She stayed in the room for the next few hours as we sat there and watched my mother slowly return to normal.

     Fear has taken up permanent residence in my heart as my ninety-year-old mother deals with one health crisis after another.  She has had several TIAs and one major stroke, a minor heart attack, the lost function of one of her kidneys, four fractures in her back that occurred after her first seizure, uterine cancer treated with radiation, constant urinary tract infections, and sudden asthma attacks, probably due to the radiation, all within a year and a half.   Four hours after this seizure, she was back to normal, talking, moving, even laughing.

    Her resolve amazes me.  Last week a social worker intern came to her with a questionnaire about being in the nursing home.  She was honest about not liking it, especially not liking the food, but liking the staff and activities.  He asked her if she ever felt like she wanted to die.  She said, “Yes, sometimes I do.  But I try not to because I don’t want to leave my daughter.  I love her so.”

     Desperation isn’t always frantic action like we might suppose.  Sometimes it is quiet, not really peaceful or calm, but that blend of quiet and desperate all in one moment that Thoreau wrote about.  The path my mother is on is one I won’t be on with her at the end, but every day I get to spend with her may just be her final gift to me.

A Valentine’s Day Promise

“Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.”  —Aristotle

A Valentine’s Day Promise

February begins with a cold wind and icy roads, but then we remember that February is supposed to be a month of love with Valentine’s Day occurring in the middle of an otherwise dreary month.

The best lesson about love I ever learned was taught to me by my parents.  They were never overtly demonstrative in their love, but they didn’t have to be.  Love between them was clear in the way my mother cared for my father and the way my father gave to my mother every request he possibly could.  At the end of the work day my father would come into the kitchen where my mother was preparing dinner and sit in a chair near her.  She would pour him a drink, and they would talk about their day.  I never intruded into these moments, realizing without being told that these were their special moments.  My father loved my mother’s cooking and baking.  She loved his paintings.  They were a team.

I remember the one time I saw a physical demonstration of their love.  I walked unknowingly into the dining room where my parents were embracing during a quiet moment in their otherwise busy day.  I turned around quickly, hoping they did not see me there.  I don’t remember seeing them hug like this at any other time, but I knew those moments were always private ones.

Valentine’s Day was a time my father never forgot how much he loved my mother.  Every year he bought her roses and a box of candy.  The last February of my father’s life, my husband and I flew down to Florida where my parents lived to help bring my father home.  He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and we wanted to help my mother take care of him.   Valentine’s Day occurred during the week we were there.   In the morning of that day, my father called me over to where he was lying in his recliner and handed me some money.

“Buy your mother a dozen red roses and a box of candy,” he whispered to me so she couldn’t hear.  He was unable to walk much at that point, and I knew he could not do it himself.

“I will,” I whispered back.

“And,” he added, “could you make sure she has flowers and candy every year on Valentine’s Day?”

“Yes,” I said, fighting back tears.  “I promise you.”

Every year since my father’s death, I have gone to my mother’s apartment with a bouquet of roses and a box of chocolates.  This is the first year I will be bringing her roses and candy in the nursing home.  I will tell her this year as I have every year that they are from Daddy.  This year she may not understand why I say this to her.  She has had dreams of him recently.  In one dream he is there with her but then walks out of the room without her.   In another dream she sees him but then can’t find him again.  I don’t know what that means.  I’d like to think that he is watching over her until it is time for her to join him and my sister.

I know my mother still loves my father and he still loves her.  Their love was so strong that nothing would ever end it, not even death.  I long for love like that, but I think it doesn’t come to everyone.  Maybe that is why it is so special.

At some point in the next few years, I will have to bury my mother in the cemetery plot next to my father.  Every year since my father died, my mother has gone with me to put flowers on his grave or plant petunias and geraniums in the urn near his stone.  She won’t be able to go with me anymore.  But I can still bring her roses and candy from my father this Valentine’s Day, and I can still think about love, their love, and what a gift to was to me to see love like theirs.  And I will always remember how they were in that moment in the dining room, that private moment that I witnessed, my mother and my father in a tight embrace that taught me so much about love.

The End of the World or the Beginning?

“Don’t be afraid your life will end; be afraid it will never begin.”—Grace Hansen

The End of the World or the Beginning?

Friday, December 21, 2012 is predicted to be the end of the world.  Suppose instead it was the beginning of a new, more compassionate, less violent one?  Suppose tomorrow is the day we begin to change the world.  We can do any or all of the following:

Decide to do a random act of kindness every day instead of stopping at 20 (or 26) because of Newtown.

Decide to visit someone in a nursing home, take them a gift, and give them a hug.

Decide to tell the politicians to set aside their arrogance and became conciliatory for the good of the country.

Decide to offer a helping hand and support every day to someone suffering through cancer treatment or coping with a devastating illness.

Decide to rescue an animal about to be euthanized or donate money for their food and care.

Decide to smile at the grumpy sales clerk, assuming she is tired and overworked.

Decide not to get angry at an aggressive driver

Decide to become educated  about mental illness, autism, and Asperger’s so misconceptions can be avoided and needed help can be found.

Decide to look once more at the faces of the innocent children murdered in Newtown and fight for gun control legislation.

Decide not to go the gun shop and stock up on assault weapons before they can be banned.

Decide to give up buying one more Christmas gift that no one really needs and instead donate to a favorite charity.

Decide to hug our children and grandchildren just a little tighter and vow to do it more often, especially at those times when we are most exasperated with them.

Decide to pray every day for a more peaceful world so we can send our children to school and see them again at the end of the day.

Decide to do whatever works best for us to make a change in the world.

May this new year be one of love and compassion for everyone.

The Faces that Haunt and Inspire Us

“When the power of love overcomes the love of  power, the world will know peace.” –Anonymous

The Faces that Haunt and Inspire us

I taught school for twenty-five years, and throughout the years, teaching certainly went through a number of changes, but today teachers, already underpaid with increasing expectations from parents, face a threat we never expected to have to deal with.

When I first began teaching, I only had to be concerned with developing curriculum and handling demanding parents and colleagues who really did not welcome me into their school.  I lasted two years before my husband was transferred, and I was happy to leave.

I eventually settled into teaching in Catholic schools, and even though I still faced some of the same issues, new ones emerged every year.  I saw way too much bullying.  I watched carefully over the loners, the ones without friends who sat alone in the cafeteria or looked for ways to avoid going to lunch, hiding out in the bathrooms or pretending to study in an empty classroom.  One year a boy in my class, a newcomer to the school, committed suicide.  He had been bullied at his previous school, but finding a new school was not the answer.  Somewhere along the line the system failed him.  One year while teaching summer school, I read the journal of a high school boy who seemed excessively angry at the man who was his guardian, the one person determined to help him.  I turned his journals in to the principal who copied a few pages and told me they were aware of his problems.  A few weeks after summer school ended, he killed his guardian and ended up in prison.  Once again the system failed.

In recent years increasing security measures were taken in the school where I taught.  Teachers, students, staff, and visitors had to be buzzed in, and because the school had a separate building that housed the gymnasium, students came and went between buildings all day.  While one student could buzz the door open, really anyone could join in at that point.  We had drills.  We had plywood covers for the glass windows in our doors.  The numbers of our classrooms were posted facing the outside of our windows so the police could locate the problem with an intruder.  We had plenty of emergency measures, but if someone with an assault weapon wanted to enter the school and shoot us all, he could.

I have two granddaughters, ages 7 and 3, and I cannot imagine the horrors of an intruder in their schools.  Teachers are heroic, today being called upon to deal with so much more than educating young minds.  I want to keep them all safe, but I can’t.

It should be obvious to us all now that we have to ban assault weapons and improve the way we deal with mental illness.  But we can’t let go of one universal truth:  good overcomes evil.   This was a recurring theme in the literature I taught my students.   Out of the Newtown tragedy has come an enormous good:  humanity coming together in grief and outrage, compassion and hope.  We can send cards.  We can send teddy bears.  But most of all we can change our world.  We can commit to 20 (or 26) acts of kindness, not just one day but every day.   That’s not hard.  If you scan through the Facebook postings of the acts of kindness that have already occurred, you can see what good has already come out of this tragedy.

I hope we will not forget the faces of the children who have been murdered as hard as it is to look at them.  The face of Emilie in particular followed by the faces of nineteen others brings me to tears every time I see them. Their sweetness, their innocence, their potential haunts me, but if we forget them like we have done in the past with other crime victims, then evil will win.  We cannot let that happen.  The good in us must overcome evil.  Every one of us must do something.  We have to fight for gun control.  We have to help children who early on show signs of mental illness, or those who are bullied, or those who feel alone and unloved.  We can do that and we must.

“What Must I Do”?

“God know my situation.
I am but one,
but I am one.
I cannot do everything,
but I can do something.”

Bishop Barbara Clementine Harris



The fog hovered over the dark water where the two rivers converged,
hugging the banks and obscuring what was real, creating illusions
We walked hand in hand through the mist, the future far ahead of us.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  *   *

In the middle of the dance floor
with his arms around me tight,
I thought I caught a glimpse of you
in the fading evening light.

You were there so close to me.
I’d know you anywhere,
those eyes I loved so long ago,
that shock of light brown hair.

I remember how we danced one night,
the way your hand held mine.
I remember walks on darkened streets
through rain in soft spring time.

We were so young those years ago,
so happy and so free.
But then one quiet night in May
you walked away from me.

I don’t know why you’re here tonight,
how you found your way to me.
Could it be just an illusion,
some reluctant memory?

I have loved you every moment
since the day that we first met.
I wish I were dancing with you tonight
instead of with regret.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The fog cleared as daylight came.  The river bank was deserted,
illusion now what’s real. 




“Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower; We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.”

—-William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”



I thought of you today,
something I don’t do very often anymore.
I thought of beginnings and endings,
starting and finishing,
knowing and not knowing,
happiness and abandonment.

As I grew up I came to know good things and bad.
I came to know happy days and overwhelming grief,
but when I think of you,
I remember only the innocence of youth,
the pure joy of discovery that often comes
before loss.

I learned how to fill emptiness with others.
Still there are those days and nights
when moments come that remind me of you.
It might be just the lyrics of a song
or a laugh that sounds like yours
or the way a smile lights up a face.

I may briefly have a memory of your hand holding mine
walking in the rain along the river bank,
and for just a little while I’m sad again
that some of the most wonderful things in life are fleeting
while the most sorrowful moments are long-lasting.

Dichotomy–like the rainbow in the midst of the rain.

© Barbara Flass 2012

The Glass Animals





The Glass Animals

When I hold my daughter in my arms and kiss her goodnight,
when I finally turn away from the fragile ten-year-old child
now folding herself into a curve preparing for sleep,
my eyes light on the shelf near her bed
and I face the glass animals.

Framed in a pine box and resting in front of mirrors,
they line up, double imaged and very precious.
The grey china cat and the brown collie dog,
miniature replicas of beloved pets now gone,
the tiny white mouse and the colt and the donkey,
gifts through generations and found treasures,
all face the now-sleeping child on the bed.

They are no longer the same as they once were.
Some have been broken and mended carefully
and loved more because they were not then perfect.
Injury and accidents have only strengthened their fragility.
I cannot put my fragile child high on a shelf
like a glass animal and protect her from hurt and pain.
I know that life will sometimes cause her to fall and break
and then I will need to do much mending.
My child too will be more precious to me
with every crack and chip.

If only love could shelter what is precious from all harm,
maybe we wouldn’t need high shelves
for beloved glass animals and tubes of glue for mending.

© Barbara Flass 1980

Images Collectible-Glass.com