You Want to Read This Book: Raising White Kids

On a recent Saturday night, one of my young friends and two of his classmates met up with the local police, who found a small amount of marijuana and some pills in the car. The two white students went home with a warning, and a seventeen year old boy I’m deeply fond of spent two nights in jail until he saw the judge on Monday morning.

The disparity in the “justice” they received continues to rankle. I hear, over and over in my mind, his smart, savvy mother saying how helpless she felt through all of this.

I also find myself wondering often what the two white students were thinking as their African-American classmate disappeared with the police. They drove his car home and parked it in front of his parents’ home. They didn’t ring the bell, or explain where their friend was. Back at school, they let him take the school’s discipline without volunteering the information that they were involved, too.

Did they think there was nothing they could do?

Were they already socialized to expect different kinds of justice, based on skin color?

Did they lack the words to explain, to comfort, or to stand with their friend?

Did they think it wasn’t their problem?

Dr. Jennifer Harvey’s thoughtful book Raising White Kids offers us hopeful and helpful tools for the white kids who will be involved in situations like this. If we’re longing for a better world, we need better tools, and Dr. Harvey has them.

As parents of white children, we have all kinds of power to help them navigate a racially unjust world, and to give them the tools to address injustice and racism when they see it. “Nonracism,” Harvey reminds us, “is not the same as antiracism.” Celebrating diversity ignores the layers of systematic privilege that come to people who are white.

We know that we have to talk to kids about sexuality, and we find ways to do it with wisdom, or awkwardness, or humor, or fear and trembling, but we do it. Harvey’s book gives us similar tools to wade into discussions about race and culture. As with talking to kids about sex, we have to keep having different conversations at different ages. We have to be prepared to address the stereotypes kids bring home from the culture around us. We want to share our values as we help kids develop their own principles. The same guidelines apply in conversations about race. Ignoring the topic isn’t going to help, and Harvey offers sample conversations for kids at different ages.

Harvey wisely points out that it’s not enough to be in favor of diversity, and it’s not even enough to convey a passion for equality and justice. Our culture is so saturated with racism (and other ills) that we, as parents, pastors, teachers and neighbors need to give kids the tools to see and then address the racism they will inevitably encounter. We can give kids, she says, a sense of purpose and capacity, “a vision of the kind of world they want to live in and a sense that their behavior and actions can help create that world.”

Because whiteness is the default in our society, we may think we don’t need to teach kids about being white. Race-conscious parenting, Harvey says, involves layers of teaching about what white skin can mean in our culture, along with not elevating or shaming anyone. It also involves teaching kids not to see anyone as the fulfillment of a stereotype, neither as a victim or just a recipient of discrimination. “Healthy white children,” Harvey says, “have been nurtured over time to be comfortable in their own skin…but also function well and appropriately in racially diverse environments. They are children who neither ignore…the racial identities of others but who also do not make assumptions about people based on their race. They are children who feel equipped and have strong moral commitments to interrupt and challenge racism when they witness it…” And if we can teach it to kids, perhaps we can learn it ourselves, too!

This kind of emotional and social health grows from conversations we keep having with kids, and Harvey notes that when we stay engaged in this process, “we teach our children to do the same. We’re not trying to hand them all the answers about racism…we’re modeling for them what persistence through difficult ideas and challenging encounters looks like.”

You can read the book’s Introduction here.

Harvey is both realistic and hopeful, and the insights she offers can be taken in bite-sized pieces, or in an all-you-can-eat buffet. I appreciate the concreteness of her examples, and her sense that this is a lifelong process in our parenting. Her book is a valuable resource for parents, educators, neighbors and churches. Get it! Give it to people!

The publisher gave me a free review copy, plus a copy to give away. If you’d like to have a copy, leave me a message below, and I’ll choose someone at random.

#WhitePrivilege

The January ritual of fortunate people: returning gifts.  This week, I blitzed through the mall, emptying my bag and throwing myself on the mercy of kind store clerks.  (Of course, I didn’t return what you gave me.)

Each and every time, they exchanged my lovingly given but not-quite-right gift for a store credit.  Nary a receipt in sight, but tags still on.  Only once did I even have to show my drivers license.

I used to think that, with the right attitude and a good reason, you could return anything, any time.

Now I think it’s just one more example of white privilege, plus economic privilege. Having things I don’t actually need, plus the ability to get to the mall, plus the ability to step into a store and not be regarded with suspicion are all layers of my unmerited good fortune.

We all have bigger and better battles to fight, but this was one more reminder of how cushioned my life is…and how much I like it that way.

My office co-workers reminded me recently that my car’s brake light bulb was out.  “Oh, yeah,” I remembered.  “I have to get that fixed.”  But I had the luxury of not rushing to do it.  I drove around for a couple of weeks before the repair place could fit me in, with no trouble.  The first time my daughter, who’s black, borrowed the car, she got stopped a mile from home.  Grateful to be with her, I was torn between letting her dig around in her purse for the registration (good lesson) and handing over my copy to get away as quickly as possible (mama terror.)

I am confident that I miss so many places of my own privilege, but I’ll be thinking about them as I use these gift cards, praying to be much more attentive.

 

 

Cracked

Visiting my daughter, The Teenager, recently, I notice she has a new travel mug, which seems to be…not so new. It has deep cracks in the plastic, fanning out from the lid. “Oh, I bought it at the thrift store,” she tells me. Looking at it, I feel divided between pain and pride.

The Teenager lives with her aunt and cousin these days, looking for a fresh start after depression stole two years of high school, and rearranged her life.

As her friends were applying to colleges, and celebrating their acceptance letters, she felt like there was nothing left for her in our little town. Every success reminded her how far she was behind the typical schedule. It’s hard to understand, at seventeen, that life has lots of paths.  Few happy people have hit every scheduled milestone.

Now, in a new city, she manages her own life, with wise advice from her aunt. She rides the bus to class and work, manages the small amount of money we put in her bank account and organizes her own days. She’s shed my daily, anxious reminders to take her medication.

The travel mug shows me how she’s figuring out how to make her life work.  It’s also an image of her story – cracked by depression, and still functional. Her years of high school are lost, but she has a new sensitivity to how fortunate her life has been.

The cracked reminds her that she’s resourceful, clever at managing her own life, a feeling I want her to always have. You can live on that feeling for a long time.

Keeping silent about the mug, I think about how cracked my own life is, too.

Like everyone, I have places of disappointment and loss. Failures pile up along with the wrinkles. Time goes by too fast. I sometimes think that if I were a better mother, my daughter wouldn’t be struggling. I feel sad about the things that I have lost, too – the chance to take prom pictures, be at the senior banquet and graduation. I miss the sweet feeling of success as a parent. I miss the parents I’ve known since kindergarten, but when I see them, I don’t know what to say to them.

My cracks reveal other truths.

Now, I finally glimpse the pain of parents who have kids with special needs, where there is never any typical path. I know what it’s like to lie awake worrying about a child, a sorrow I avoided for a long time. I see that the success grown out of bleak places is even more precious than anything expected.

The secondhand mug is a lesson in honoring the cracks. There is only our one “wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver says, and the wild and precious joys we wring out of the broken places.

My Mother’s Daughter

Sitting on the sofa, watching Hillary Clinton speak, my daughter is an arm’s length away, but I’m too embarrassed to look at her. The minute Clinton started speaking, I started to cry.  A few tears, and then more, and then the neckline of my shirt is soaked.

After a while, I stop trying to hide it.

She is used to my tears – at other people’s stories, on happy days, even the Clydesdales and the puppy.

Listening to Hillary speak, I realize – surprised — that I never expected to see this day in my lifetime.  I never expected to see a woman with a real chance at becoming President. Voting in the Michigan primary was my first opportunity to vote for a woman on the line marked “President of the United States.”

Clinton said she came to this moment “as my mother’s daughter, and as my daughter’s mother.”  It strikes me that we all do.

Her words echo in my head, and I finally look at my own daughter, who is listening intently, but without surprise.  She did expect this.  She never doubted that it would happen.  I think back to the night that Barack Obama was elected.  That night, I woke her up, and made her get out of bed to come and watch him on television.

That night, I sat on the same couch, crying the same tears of wonder and amazement.  “You’re seeing history, honey,” I told her, and she watched politely for a while.  “Can I go back to bed,” she finally asked.  Raised in a different, still imperfect world, she never doubted that night’s promise, either.

After she went to bed that night, I called my mother-in-law, born and raised in Selma, Alabama.  She never misses an opportunity to vote, although arthritis usually keeps her from going to the polls in person.  That time, she set aside the absentee ballot and took the bus to vote.  That time, she put up with the pain of standing in line.  That time, she wanted the pleasure of voting in person.

I think of my own mother, and how much she would have loved watching this.  She took me to hear Shirley Chisholm speak when she ran for President, and told me I was seeing hisory then.  I think of her friend Polly, who automatically said “women,” correcting everyone who said “girls” or “ladies,” until we got it.  That generation of women became able teachers and the secretaries who ran the whole office without credit, because those were the doors open to them. But they lived with a sharp, edgy longing born from never using all of their talents.

That’s why Hillary Clinton feels familiar to us, even in this new moment.

We are accustomed to competent women – of all political persuasions – who have done much more than they get credit for, who have been called “shrill” and “pushy” and “bossy,” who have had to balance their talents with the egos around them.

There is both a startling new-ness and a deep familiarity to this.

For all of the mothers and grandmothers who paved the way for this, who accustomed us to competent women, abundant gratitude.

For all of the girls and young women who are completely unsurprised by this, here’s to you.  Thanks for understanding our tears.

 

Pool Party

 

Image via Lands  End.

Image via Lands End.

 

 

After reading news of the pool party in Texas, I sit on my bed and talk to my daughter. She lies across the foot of the bed, listening.

“I think you already know, honey, that if the police encounter you and your friends, they’ll treat you differently because of your skin color.”

“Yes,” she says, and my heart begins to break again.

Part of my job as a mother is to teach her not to take for granted the privileges I have as a white, educated, middle-aged woman who looks harmless. As a teenager, as a person of color, the world sees her differently. I have taught her to speak her mind, and now I am afraid I haven’t taught her enough about keeping quiet.

There are lessons we all learn as women.

When she started to go out with friends, I had to teach her how to respond to street harassment. When she began to study at a coffee shop, we talked about how to deal with unwanted attention, with people who stand too close or who won’t leave you alone.

There are lessons about being a person of color.

Now we talk again about how to navigate an encounter with the police. This is a conversation African-American parents have been having for years, but I am new to it. Privilege has shielded me in a way that will never happen for my daughter.

In my mind is the picture of a white man, a police officer, sitting on a teenage girl in a bathing suit. As a mother, as a woman, the image makes me want to throw up. The disrespect for her body and her teenage sense of self leaves me both enraged and in tears.

“If they tell you to stop, or to sit, follow instructions,” my husband tells her. “Do exactly what they tell you to do. And don’t be mouthy.”

“When people start yelling, no one can think clearly. Nothing good happens when the yelling begins,” I add, trying to help her survive any moment of chaos between police officers and teenagers.

“But,” I hear myself say, “in the beginning, if you think you can get away, run and don’t look back.” The advice surprises me. Recent events have taught me what African-American parents have known for a long time – skin color will trump everything else. I no longer have confidence that a police officer will see my daughter as an honor student, an employee of the library, a girl with a generous heart. My job is to nurture that in her, and other young people, even in a world that can’t always see it. My job is also to keep her alive, in a world that’s hard on young people of color, and I fear that I don’t know enough to teach her. I fear for the spirits of people who have to learn to be quiet, sit down, obey orders. I fear for us all, when this is acceptable to us.

Gold Star

gold star flag           Soon after my brother’s death, I start working as a hospice chaplain, and meet Don, an old-fashioned gentleman with a deep Catholic faith. He’s hard of hearing, grouchy, forgetful at times, and sharp when he wants to be. It’s hard to tell what he’s taking in, and not. He’s so modest that he asks our home health aide to give him a shower with his underwear on.

I visit him at his senior residence, arriving as he finishes lunch so I won’t interrupt the afternoon nap that follows lunch. Asking his permission, I pull up a chair and sit at the table, keeping him company as he finishes eating the meat, potatoes and gray vegetable. “What did you have for lunch?” I ask him one day.

“L.O.K,” he tells me.

“L.O.K – what’s that?”

“Lord Only Knows.” I laugh out loud, which makes him smile. He always offers me dessert, which I decline, and coffee, which I drink to be sociable.

Don’s daughter Rose has award winning patience, and the same warm smile I see in pictures of her mother. The approaching loss of her father brings up other losses. “I was sitting on my couch in front of the fireplace, sipping a glass of wine, last Christmas Eve,” she tells me, “and there was a knock on my door.”

The newspaper stories about the war and roadside bombs come to brutal life as I listen to her tell about her son’s death in the war. The Christmas Eve knock on the door comes from two men in uniform, the sight every military family dreads. Her son Mike had been killed on Christmas Eve in Iraq. The family stumbles through a funeral mass here, and then a memorial service held by his unit, out of state. “I feel like we buried that child so many times,” she says. “At the end I was so tired.”

Her story of his sudden, violent death recalls my brother’s death, and I feel a silent connection with her story. My dad asks me one night, “Isn’t it hard to visit other people when David’s death is on your mind?” No. Yes. It’s all I know how to do, I tell him.   Once your heart cracks open, you have an unwanted kinship with every other broken-hearted person. Once grief makes you gasp for breath, you recognize the other air-starved people around you. It’s strangely relaxing to be with other broken people.

As the chaplain, it’s my job to hear their stories, not their job to listen to me. I’m careful not to share my own loss, not to chime in, not to shout excitedly “I know exactly what you mean.”   But we belong to the same club.

Don stays with us for two years, declining slowly and bouncing back, and then slipping again. Finally, the last descent begins. One day at lunch, he tells me that he has to get to the shop to finish some things. “Let’s go,” he says, urgently. “Can you take me?” he asks, and I know that the end is coming. Talk about finishing something, or traveling somewhere, signals the soul’s final work.

I come every afternoon to see him. When I walk up the driveway and see the car with the “Gold Star Family” license plate, the distinction given to families who lose someone in combat, I know that Rose is here, too. The afternoons become a sabbath, as we sit by his bed and talk about her dad. In the dim peace of the room, she tells me about his political career, his stubborn personality, his passion for coffee, which he drank day and night. The first household task she ever learned was making coffee.

And, again, she tells me again about her son. Sitting in the peace of the room, the story comes with different details this time. Mike was married briefly, and it didn’t work out. Because of the timing of the divorce, when Mike dies, the Army calls the young ex-wife first. Her dad, drunk, makes a rambling, expletive-filled call to Rose and her husband. Her husband picks up the phone and can’t understand anything except that Mike is dead. Rose runs upstairs to the computer and frantically, crazily hits the buttons, searching for the emergency number the Army gave them. She finds it and is screaming her questions into the phone when she looks out the window. A white sedan turns the corner onto their street and moves slowly up the block, as if looking for a house number. She watches the car driving through the snow until it stops in front of her house, and two men get out and come toward the porch.

Pausing in the story, she looks at me in the dark room and asks “Are you crying?”

“I am,” I admit.

“You’re sweet to cry at my story,” she tells me.

Oddly, I feel jealous. Her son’s death in the war seems more meaningful than my brother’s random death. And yet, grief is grief. Her story is my story, although I don’t tell her that. The death of her dad will eventually be the death of mine. The terrible absence of her son is also the aching absence of my brother.

I realize that the only meaning in someone’s death is the meaning we give it. How we live after the death, making a path forward. We mark the way with dates and ceremonies so no one is forgotten, when remembering is the only gift left to give.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hurdle the Dead

“I think the kids will enjoy this,” says the delightful mom who’s picking out the cross country team sweatshirts. “What do you think?”

She’s right – the kids are going to love it. They’ll think it’s hilarious, and I know I would, too, if I were them.  The design is funny, but I gasp when I see it.hurdle the dead

Vanquish the weak. Hurdle the dead. Arrive triumphant.

The first glimpse carries me back to the school next door to my church.

It sits across the parking lot, and when I first start work, I walk over to say hello. Our security guard watches me intently as I make my way to the door and they buzz me in. The principal and I talk, and then he offers me a tour. The classrooms, the charts on the wall and the computer lab all look like every other school. The emphasis on college – everywhere – is different. College banners and posters hang in all the halls, and in the cafeteria. The only days off from school uniforms are the days when kids can wear college shirts. Where I live, in my leafy suburb, college is in the air, like oxygen. Kids breathe it in from birth. Here, it’s up to the school. Along with information, they’re teaching a vision of the future.

As we walk through the halls, past rows of pristine school lockers, I see one covered with layer after layer of paper. Lined notebook paper, with messages in black pen. Colored paper, with drawings. The papers cover every inch of the locker’s surface, and overlap onto the other lockers on each side. I stop and ask the principal about it.

“That’s the girl who was killed,” he says, as if I’ll know. I look at him quizzically, and then the story comes back to me. It was just more Detroit bad news, remote until now. Kade’jah Davis, killed when someone came to her home and fired shots through the door.  The police believe that her mother had a disagreement with someone about a cell phone, and they came back to have the last word with a gun.  http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2014/01/08/detroit-man-gets-26-52-years-in-girls-slaying-over-cell-phone/

“I let the students post messages to her on her locker,” the principal tells me. Once they were up, it was impossible to take them down, a daily reminder of violence and fragility. I wonder what it’s like for the students to be so aware of the limitations of adults to protect them. The banners in the hallways, the urging of the teachers, and the emphasis of the academics all say “college,” all day long. The locker is a silent witness to another reality.

A few days later I return to the school for their memorial service for Kade’jah.

The CEO introduces me to her mother, Ms. Talton, who seems stunned by grief, remote and spacey, as if she’s visiting from someplace else. Planet Grief? I know that place. Her blouse is dramatically low cut, revealing a tattoo in honor of her daughter that covers her chest. From the neckline down to her bra, and from collarbone to collarbone, the tattoo artist has drawn her daughter’s name in gothic script. Under the elegant, ruffled blouse, her body is another witness to grief, a living tombstone.

At the memorial service, the school secretary sings in a voice so high and clear that the school cafeteria is instantly transformed into a sacred space. The students do a hip-hop dance and sing along with a CD on a boom box.

When the service is over, the teachers and students go outside to plant a tree in Kade’jah’s honor, and I talk to her mother for a moment. Her other children come up, asking her a question, and I get a glimpse of their life with a mother so distracted by grief.

For the family, this is personal tragedy that loops on and on. For the kids in the school, it’s a daily reminder that their teachers’ message competes against another kind of future. They already know that people will shoot you over a phone – what will make the other vision just as strong?

I look around and see that many of them are wearing t-shirts with Kade’jah’s picture. All of them are slightly different, made at different times. Some have the date of her death, and R.I.P.. Some have a school picture, and others have snapshots of her smiling, sitting at a table, or with friends. Some show her in her school uniform and others in casual clothes. I realize that I’m seeing one of the rituals of grief in the city. Now that I know how to look, I see the shirts advertised everywhere – R.I.P. shirts, or Rest in Peace Shirts. Or, sometimes, more formally, “custom memorial shirts.” Free design help. Twenty-hour hour turnaround.

No one here is hurdling the dead. They carry her with them, wherever they go

Dear JP Morgan Chase,

JP-Morgan-Chase-1[1]Dear JP Morgan Chase –

Big news this week, that you’re coming to Detroit to invest a hundred million dollars.

Any money looks good right now, so people are excited.

I know, I know, some people think it’s a PR stunt, after the mortgage mess.

Other people see you laying the groundwork to make big profits, when the city privatizes services, just like with Chicago and the parking meters. 

Here’s my worry.

I heard one of your executives explain that you’ll be sending people here for a month at a time to work on Detroit’s issues.

All good ideas are appreciated, but I wonder how much they can know about Detroit in a month.  Maybe if they spend all day walking around the city, talking to people, they can get an idea.  Or will it all be meetings and computer models?

They’ll never know Detroit until they meet people like Aralia, a single mother of two perfectly behaved kids who can sit quietly for hours, if they need to.  Their mom has been looking for work for months, and finally found a job in a fast-food restaurant.  Two buses get her there so she can earn a little over minimum wage.  The training is all on the computer, as the employees practice making the sandwiches and layering the ingredients quickly.  When they have it all memorized, they can start work.  I’m not so sure I could manage it.

Once  she visited my office to make a business phone call, and I asked her kids as quietly as I could if there was food at their house.

“Canned food,” her daughter told me.  I gave her and her brother each an apple from my lunch bag, and they ate them down to the tiniest possible core, something I’d never seen a kid do before.  The kids I know assume there will always be another apple.

Your plan for Detroit – will it benefit people like Aralia?

Or people like Geoff, who paid his rent faithfully every month, and spent his weekends fixing up his home because he wanted a better place to live.  Turns out his “landlord” didn’t really own the house, and Geoff got evicted by the actual owners, who were really happy with his hard work, so happy they moved right in.  Who would ever think to check that the landlord was really the owner?

Your plan for Detroit – will it benefit people like Geoff?

Or, Daniel, a young man in the neighborhood of my church, who wants to go to college, and has to pay for it himself.  He’s so desperate for a job that pays well that he recently had his dad drive him to Ohio for a job interview.  What he’s going to do if he gets the job, I’m not sure.  Then he’ll need a car, which will cost more money.

Your plan for Detroit – will it benefit people like Daniel?

Instead of bringing people here for a month, why not employ Detroiters for a month?  They can teach you about the Detroit you’re here to help.

I’ve lived in this area for ten years, and worked in Detroit for five, and I’m just starting to understand the city.  The deep city-suburb divide.  The ancient history that feels like yesterday, with people holding grudges for generations past.  The pride in a city that hustles harder.

You can’t know Detroit until you know the mixture of hope, passion and resignation in countless professors, attorneys, and educators who live in the city and pay what they call “the black tax” to stay here.  Higher auto insurance rates, alarm systems, and private security to patrol the neighborhoods because the police force is stretched too thin to do it.

You can’t know Detroit until you meet both the motivated high school students, heading from the elite high schools to college, and the equally bright kids who have given up, sure that nothing is ever going to be better.

You can’t know Detroit until you talk to the single mother working double shifts as a nursing assistant to keep her kids in dance, music and judo.

So, welcome to town.

But be sure you’re coming to help, not to make more billions off our pain.

Dante the Dog Whisperer

Image via Shutterstock.

Image via Shutterstock.

On the way to work, a dog runs in front of my car on a busy street.  This is not unusual in Detroit.

I can see it running frantically from side to side of the road, trying to get away from the cars.  People slow down, and go carefully around, but it will surely get hit in a minute.  Putting on my flashers, I open the car door and call to the dog, wondering what in the world to do if it comes.  Put her in the car and then what?  A collarless dog, roaming around my office all day?  An unwanted gift for my allergic husband?”

The dog runs around the corner, and I make a u-turn and follow.  A young gentleman in a battered jeep, music thumping, does the same.  Rooting around in my trunk, I find a box of dog biscuits left from a long-ago dog walking job.  Embarrassing, but handy.  I take a handful and offer him the box.  He tosses them toward the dog, slowly, one at a time.  We try to coax the dog toward us.

“I was afraid she was going to get hit,” I tell him.

“Yeah,” he offers, “I saw one car hit her already.”

By now, he has the dog in front of him.  She rolls over hopefully.  As we rub her belly, we can see scrapes and bloody spots.  After we play with her for a while, I ask, “Do you have a collar?”

“No, I’ll just pick her up.”  He does just that, and I walk in front of him to open the door of his car, still running, music still playing.

“Can I take some more of those dog biscuits?” he asks.  “Of course” I tell him, and then say,  “I’m Mary,” extending my hand.  He smiles at me. “Dante,” he says, as he shakes my hand.  We grin at each other, and get back in our cars.

Now as I drive that way, I think about the things I wish I’d asked.  He had nice clothes on – was he going to work, his day now burdened with a bloody dog?  What did he end up doing with her?  What did the elegant calligraphy tattoo on his neck say?  And where did he learn to be so kind?

One of the things I love about Detroit is that anything can happen.  Any stranger can make your day – or ruin it.  Life is so fractured that things happen in the gaps.  The cracks of everyday life have endless possibilities for connection.  On the way to work now, I watch for Dante, curious to hear the end of the story.

 

Pauline Saves

Pauline comes down the stairs from her bedroom each morning, wraps her robe around her thin frame, and starts making coffee. At the tippy kitchen table, she reads a worn Bible until it’s ready. Always, the plastic counters gleam in her kitchen. Fortified by the coffee and the Bible, she goes down another flight of steps to the basement, where her son lives.

The basement is Damian’s kingdom, with a huge flat screen tv, always on. The dark wood paneling and big, squashy sofa and chairs seem like a different world from the light, spotless kitchen upstairs. More removed from the world, more manly. Damian is in his twenties, and he seems both younger and older. Younger because he lives at home, where his mother cooks his meals, and watches over his day. Compared to other men his age, with jobs and kids, his life is easy. But the awareness of his illness makes him seem older.

After a lifetime of coddling, Damian is dying now, but Pauline won’t talk about it. Not to me, her hospice chaplain, not to her family, not to our nurse. He has lived a long time with an inherited disease, and she is sure he can keep going. Her life is about caring for him, and Pauline insists that he’ll be fine.

Grief guru Alan Wolfeldt says he doesn’t like the term “denial.” He likes to think of it as “resting.” We’re resting from what’s too hard, too awful, too painful to think about. That feels right. Pauline is resting from the knowledge that she’s about to lose her third son.

Her oldest son carried the family stresses until they became too much for him, and he turned to drugs. He died of an overdose a few years ago. Her second son was killed in a shooting. She doesn’t say much more about it, and I don’t ask, but I know that a mother’s grief is no less or more even when a child makes poor choices.

Her third son seemed safe from all of that, with the illness that kept him at home.

Now she is resting fiercely from the knowledge that Damian is dying.

She sorts it out in her own way. “We don’t need to know why,” she says. “We don’t ask God why things happen. We just trust.”

Her daughter Francie, a mother herself, pulls up in her van between trips to drive her kids home from school and on to football practice. Francie knows how tired her mother is, and she begs her to take a break, but she seems to know it’s impossible. Her mother won’t let go of Damian.

I wonder if Pauline keeps moving to keep her grief away. If she sits down, it all comes back.

I understand because I do the same thing. I can’t seem to sit still, except when I’m at work, hearing someone’s story. I can’t read anymore – it doesn’t hold my attention. No one else’s drama on the page can compare to the drama in my head. I think I must be hard to be around, but no one is brave enough to complain.

My work as a chaplain for this hospice started ten days after my brother took his life.

I wouldn’t recommend this, except that it saved me.

It was already planned, and I was too tired with grief to call and quit. Oddly, going to work with dying people seemed easier than calling a normal person to tell my story.

I had been to orientation, given an employee badge, and shown to my new desk, covered with a big pile of folders, full of people who needed visits. Then I left for an already planned vacation. It didn’t turn out quite the way I’d planned.

I came home from the funeral, and went to work.

Out in the suburbs, I would have gotten lost in my own story. Self-pity would have taken me over. Driving around Detroit, it was hard to feel sorry myself when so many stories were just like mine, or worse.

The mothers of Detroit become my teachers. The woman whose son went out with friends one night, and was beaten up, left with a head injury so severe he can’t work. The mother and sisters who visit the woman in a nursing home bed, unresponsive for six years, after an attack one night. The mothers of men paralyzed in shootings. They feel fortunate, compared to the sorority of women who’ve been to funerals and trials and only have framed pictures of their brothers and sons.

“We don’t need to know why,” they all tell me, in one way or another.

“But I want to know why,” I wail silently in response, but never say out loud. I want to know why. All I want is to know why.

Slowly, the truth of what they’re saying sinks in. Why doesn’t help. There’s no solace there. The truth is still the truth. Grief is still grief.

I never tell them my story, but I wonder if they see it in my eyes. Slowly, my teachers save me, and, in the silence, I hope they hear the power in their stories, too.