Sunday, November 6, 2016

Breathing ...

It was every new mother’s nightmare.  The nurses were holding my newborn baby girl just outside of my field of vision. 

I was lying on the operating table with a large blue drape separating me from all of the baby delivering activities.  On my side of the drape it was just me and the anesthesiologist in a quiet pool of fentanyl, chatting to pass the time.

“Just in case you were worried about it, let me reassure you that you are breathing.  Sometimes people feel like they’re not breathing because they can’t feel their chest rising and falling, and they start to panic.  But as long as you can talk you’re breathing.  And you’re talking, so obviously you’re breathing.  Just in case you were worried about that.”

The odd thing is, I never doubted that I was breathing.  I guess because I wasn’t passing out.  But once the anesthesiologist told me that other people tend to panic, I felt weird for not panicking

Which, as fate would have it, was just the moment when the nurse approached me - holding Audrey just so I couldn’t see her - and said, “Before we let you look at your baby I should tell you that…”

It probably took a half second before she finished her sentence, but in that instant my mind flashed through several worst-case scenarios.

“Your baby was born dead.”

“Your baby doesn’t have eyes.”

“Your baby is a fish.”

So when the nurse actually finally completed her sentence, I was completely relieved.

“I should tell you that your baby has a little cut on her lip.  It must have happened when the doctor pulled her out.”

“Oh!  Can it be fixed?” I asked.

“Yes, she’ll probably just need a stitch.  We’ll have a plastic surgeon look at it later this afternoon.”

And then they brought her to my face and I saw my baby girl for the first time.  She was beautiful.  Even with the tiny cut on her lower lip.

Later that afternoon the phone rang in my room.  “Ms. Gao, this is Nurse Carrie from the nursery.  The plastic surgeon is here and we need to know if you want your baby to have anesthesia before he stitches up her lip.”

“Of course I want her to have anesthesia!” I said.  My poor baby.  Why were we even talking about this?  We can’t ask her to have her lip stitched up without anesthesia!

“Well, think about it,” said the nurse.  “She needs one stitch, so that’s one poke with a needle.  If we give her anesthesia that will also be one poke with a needle.”

One poke with a needle either way.  And if she has anesthesia that will be chemicals in her tiny little body…  If we stitch her up without anesthesia then we can spare her the chemicals…  Buddy wasn’t there and they needed a decision right away. 

Suddenly motherhood seemed so hard.  So many hard decisions to be made.  And no crystal balls anywhere to be found. 

“Alright then, please go ahead and do it without the anesthesia.”  I cried and hoped my baby would forgive me.  Partly for letting her experience so much pain on her first day on earth, and partly for bringing a baby into the world without having first secured a crystal ball.

Today, sixteen years later, Audrey is quite proud of her lip scar.  It’s her only scar – whereas her brother is held together by more stitches than we can count.  On our last trip to the ER in August we tried to count, but lost track somewhere around 15 and the time a friend pushed Grant into a chair that had a screw protruding out of it. 

Audrey’s scar is the way I know she’s mine.  She was most definitely not switched at birth because I saw her in the first few seconds, in the delivery room, and she had that cut.  And now I can see the scar from where that cut was stitched up.  She is mine.  Her scar tells me so.

I got my first stitches on Audrey’s  birthday too.  Mine go across my abdomen, along the C-section incision.  The scar curves upward at the ends like a soft smile, as if my abdomen is forever sighing and smiling and saying, “Yeah, I did that…” 

That eventful day in the fall of 2000 was more than just the day Audrey was born.

It was the day I learned that motherhood is really really hard.

And it was the day I learned that 
even if everyone else panics about something, 
it's okay if I don't.

It was the day I learned to yearn for a crystal ball, 
and the day I realized that even when you need it the most 
it will not materialize.

It was the day I discovered the power of anesthesia.  
And the day I learned that sometimes it’s better to face your pain without it.

It day was the day I learned that Audrey is mine.
And that I am hers.
We have the matching scars to prove it.

But most importantly, it’s the day I learned that 
if you’re talking, you’re breathing.  
If you ever doubt it, just say a few words, 
to yourself if you must, 
and know that you are breathing.  

And that you are okay.


Saturday, October 15, 2016

Scars mean we survived

“A scar means, I survived.”
-                    - Quote from Little Bee, from the book Little Bee by Chris Cleave

A round dot on my upper lip.  I got that when I had the chicken pox when I was about five.

One on my knee.  I was running in a field day race at the middle school in Japan and I fell and skidded into the gravel just after I crossed the finish line.

One that traverses my left forearm.  That was a suspicious mole that my dermatologist biopsied. 

One that crosses my abdomen.  I’m probably most proud of it.  I got it on October 10, 2000, the day I became a mother.  On that day Audrey also got a scar.  When the doctor cut into my abdomen the blade went through my skin and uterus and placenta and penetrated all the way to her sweet little face.  He nicked her right on the edge of her lip and she was born bleeding.  The doctors stitched her up and now the scar is just barely visible but when I look closely I can see it, and I remember the day she and I got our matching scars.    

My scars would fall into a category I have come to think of as “surface scars”.  They’re surface-level scars that were caused by accident or injury or illness, and as soon as the skin healed I was fine again.  The damage healed completely.

This summer while the kids were with Buddy in China I took a class that was held at the Tennessee Prison for Women.  Each Wednesday evening I spent a couple of hours in the prison with my inside classmates and we studied how to affect change through civic engagement. 

But really, I studied them.

I was fascinated by their scars.  I realized that their scars were different from mine. 

These women do not have surface scars.  Their scars run deep because they aren’t the result of an injury or an illness or an accident.  They got these scars because someone intentionally and maliciously hurt them.

I call these “deep scars”.  They penetrate far beyond the skin and stab their silvery veins into the heart and soul of the victim.  With time the skin might heal but the injury to the heart remains much longer.  It takes months or years to heal … in fact I’m wondering if it ever does. 

Although I’m sure my professor Christin would give me a passing grade for the class, I would give myself an F.  Because the point of the class was to learn how to achieve change through civic engagement.  Yet at the end of the class, I feel less able to change my environment than I did when I started.

I wish I could change the fact that mothers leave and fathers die, but I can’t.

I wish I could change our broken foster care system, but I can’t.

I wish I could change the fact that some women choose really shitty boyfriends, but I can’t. 

I wish I could change the fact that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, but I can’t.

I feel so helpless about all of that.  And so I sit here and run my finger back and forth, back and forth across the smooth silver scar on my left forearm. 
And it occurs to me that Little Bee was right, scars do mean we survived. 
But that doesn’t mean that we’re okay. 
Or that we ever will be again. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Silent Frog Vigil

“Where’s da fwog?” Charlie asked me.  I reached out to him and he put his chubby hand in mine.  “Da fwog.  Where’s da fwog?”

I looked across the campfire at his mom.  “He can hear the frogs down by the creek and he wants to go find one.” 

“Oh!  Is it okay with you if I take him there?”

“Sure!” Amy said.  This is what family camp is all about.  My children are teenagers but during family camp weekend, I get to take care of a  two-year-old again, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

I’m not sure why Charlie picked me out of the campfire circle as the person who would be able to help him find a frog at the creek but there’s no way I could say no to this kid.  His eyes are like two big chocolate drops and his cheeks are scoops of butterscotch pudding. 

I took his sticky marshmallow hand in mine and we walked towards the creek.  On the way there he stopped to recruit one more frog hunter.  “Where’s da fwog?” he said to Jack, our ministerial intern from Vanderbilt.  “I don’t know,” he replied as he too took Charlie’s hand.

Just down the hill, Jack, Charlie and I paused at the stone bridge that crosses the creek and listened for the frogs.  We could hear one upstream and Charlie led the way to find it. 

A few feet upstream was a flat rock that had space for Charlie and me to sit while we tried to find the frog.  Jack perched a few feet away on a higher lookout rock, also intently trying to find the source of the croaking. 

Every few seconds the frog croaked.  We knew we were close.

In the distance we could hear the rest of the campers singing campfire songs.  The smoke from the fire floated in the air, mixed with the caramel scent of roasted marshmallows and fertile whispers of springtime in Tennessee.  The earth was just waking up after a long winter and far below the surface the roots were stretching in the dark soil, pushing up flowers and the scent of another chance.

Another chance.  Another chance to try.  Another chance to get close.  Another chance to get it right.  Another chance to find what we were looking for.  Another chance. 

Oak trees stretched their arms above us like an embrace.  They held us as we sat in silent frog vigil.  Between the branches we could see full silver clouds above, their underbellies lit up by the light of the full moon. 

As we waited quietly for the frogs Charlie tossed stones into the water and delighted in the splash as each one hit the creek.  The moonlight hovered around his head like a gentle halo, and I was … there.  I was there.  In that moment all I did was be there. 

Okay fine.  I also stressed a bit.  I was stressed because Charlie had chosen me to help him find the frogs and so far we hadn’t seen one.  I wanted to deliver.  I wanted to be a wise adult who could make this cherub’s frog dreams come true.  And I was failing on that front. 

Eventually Charlie’s mom came to find him because the campfire was dying down and it was time for him to go to bed and dream about frogs. 

Maybe I dreamed about frogs too, because when I woke up the next morning I had an obvious revelation. 

Sometimes we can’t see something,
and yet we have found it

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Red Prius and Other Hot Thoughts

Folks it has been a hot summer.  And just when I think it can't get any hotter, I get another breaking news alert on my phone.  More awful news.  Another outburst.  More violence.  More daughters and sons taken away from their families. 

I sort of hate looking at my phone lately.  Because I'm afraid of what breaking news alert is coming next.

The heat of this summer has brought some things to the surface for me.  Most notably, I've had to face the reality that I have biases.  Here's an example.

The other day I was sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway when a red Prius pulled onto the shoulder and moved past all the other cars.  I thought to myself, "They must be having some sort of emergency.  Maybe they're rushing to the hospital.  There must be a good reason."

Why was I giving this car the benefit of the doubt?  Usually when a car usurps the shoulder like that I curse them under my breath.  I assume they're selfish, self-centered, an all-around jerk.  So why in this case did I assume there was an emergency of some sort?

Because it was a Prius.  I have a positive bias towards Prius drivers.  I believe that they are environmentally aware, selfless, kind and humble people.  Because they chose a car that's more energy efficient than stylish.  No offense, Prius drivers.  Because the whole point here is that you made that trade-off.  You chose a car that looks like a lunch box because saving the planet is more important to you.

And thus, if you pull onto the shoulder in a traffic jam, I assume you had a good reason.

So there you go.  I have a positive bias for Prius drivers.

As biases go, that one isn't so bad.  It's a positive bias.  And it's more humorous than harmful.  Naturally, I have a lot more biases where that one came from.  And they're not all positive.  It's not hard to write about my Prius bias.  It would be a lot harder to write about some of my other biases.  But I think it's important, as the asphalt melts in the heat of this summer, to admit that I have biases.

I'm not sure what to do next.  I wish someone could tell me how to get rid of my biases.  But clearly as a society we have not figured that one out yet.  And I'm not sure it's even possible to get rid of our biases.  Maybe the best we can do it acknowledge that we have them.

My name is Melanie and I am biased.

I'm telling you this summer just keeps getting hotter and hotter.

Many of the scary and awful events of this summer have happened in crowded places.  Shopping centers, festivals, restaurants, airports, public protests, parks, celebrations.  I wonder if you are like me.  I wonder if, for a brief moment, you considered not going to public gatherings this summer.  You might feel like you are vulnerable when you are in a crowd.

You might feel like you are at risk when you are gathered together with others in community.

In reality, the opposite is true.

We are at risk if we allow ourselves to withdraw.

We might feel safer if we isolate ourselves but the truth is, as the mercury rises this summer of 2016, we need each more than ever before.

The only way I'm going to survive these sweltering weeks is huddled together with my community.  I need to gather with my people at the altar, at the table, at the bar, in the classroom, on the jogging trail, in the waiting room, in the conference room, on the porch, at the gate.  As as the water and the wine and the coffee flow, I need to sink deeper and deeper into relationship with my family and my friends.

And even here, on the pages of my blog, I need to gather together with you, the beautiful people who come here to read.  Whether we have met personally or not, when you take the time to read my thoughts, we are in community.

And I need you.  We need each other.

This summer of 2016, as the tempers flare and the bullets fly, we need each other more than ever.  Let's please not allow the fear and the horror of this sweltering season to tear us apart from each other.  Let's remember that the only thing that's going to save us all is if we can come together in community.

And I don't just mean easy community.  Easy community comes with people who see things the way you do.  People who grew up in an environment similar to yours.  People who are going to vote for the same person as you in November.  That kind of community is easy.

But folks we also need hard community.  We need to sit with people we don't agree with.  People we don't understand.  And we need to look deep into each other and listen and in the end we may not agree but we need to be able to hear each other.

That is the only way we will get through the fire of this summer together.  Together.  In community. 

We need each other.

I am not going to let go of you.

Please don't let go of me.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

It All Started With This Pot of Soup

"Do you need help?"  

I could hear a voice but there was so much smoke in the house I couldn't tell who was talking.  I waved my arm through the air and saw a murky figure.  It was a man standing in my living room at midnight.  A man I had never seen before.

"I was studying and I heard your smoke alarm, and I looked over at your house and saw the smoke coming out the back door so I thought I'd come over and ... are you okay?"

"No, I guess I'm not okay," I coughed.  "Have we met yet?  I'm Melanie."  I waved more smoke away and shook his hand.

"I'm Adam," he said.

"Well this is a weird way to meet but it's nice to meet you.  I left a pot of soup on the stove when I went to bed and I've turned that off now and put the pot out in the backyard, but now I can't get the smoke alarm to turn off.  I'm trying to get the battery out but I can't.  Do you think you can do this?"  I offered him my screwdriver.

He climbed up on the kitchen chair underneath the smoke detector and pried the battery out it.  He placed the the battery gently on the kitchen counter, then he picked it back up and pointed at the now defunct smoke alarm.  

"You should probably ... put this back in.  Soon.  Like, as soon as the smoke clears."  He placed the battery into my palm and closed my fingers around it.

I coughed and smiled.  Clearly I was a woman who needed to have a functioning smoke detector at all times.  

"I will," I promised.  And I did.

"Well, it was nice meeting you, even under such odd circumstances," my neighbor said.  

"It was, thanks so much for your help," I said.  "Here, let me give you my cell phone number just in case I can ever help you with anything.  I'd love to return the favor to you some time."  

Although he was my next door neighbor, I didn't see Adam or hear from him again for the next year.  Then he moved out of his duplex, I moved out of mine, and I thought the night I nearly torched my house would be the first and last time I ever heard from him.  

But then my phone rang the other day and I finally got to return that favor.  

It was the county fire chief.  

Adam had applied to be a volunteer fire fighter.  

And he listed me as a reference. 

I gave him my highest recommendation. 


Saturday, March 26, 2016

Yards Full of Stories

 "Mom, you're so WEIRD!  What is it with you and cemeteries?  Your whole family is this way!"

She's right.  I am weird.  I do have a thing with cemeteries.  And my whole family is this way.

It was a freezing Sunday morning in late November.  The kids and I were having a family getaway at Montgomery Bell State Park and on our way to the trail head we passed a beautiful old cemetery.  I pulled the car over.  

That's when my kids began wailing and gnashing their teeth.  "Mom, can't we just go to the trail head?  Why do we have to stop here?"

I could hardly hear them.  I was halfway to the tombstones.

I'm not sure why the Parsons love graveyards so much.  I think it's because we have a deep love for stories, and we know that a graveyard is not just a yard full of graves.  It's also a yard full of stories.  Only with these stories, you don't get the full tale.  All you know is when it began, and when it ended, and maybe you get a few words that came in between. 

Despite their protests, my kids soon left the car and joined me among the headstones.  Soon they were as engrossed as I was.  Grant was calculating the length of each person's life.  Audrey noticed that as you went further back into the cemetery the graves got older and harder to read.  In a far corner of the cemetery she tried to decipher characters on a blackened, moss-covered headstone.

"This one is so hard to read... I can just barely make out the words..." she said.

"Wow, this one over here must be even older.  You can hardly tell there are words on it at all," I said.

By this point Grant had joined us as we crouched close to the oldest, blackest stone in the cemetery.  "That's not a tombstone," he said.  "It's just a black rock, isn't it?"

"Nope, I'm pretty sure that's a tombstone," I said.  "See, you can kind of feel the indentations."

"You're right," Audrey said.  "I wonder what it says.  What do you think it says?" she asked.

"I wonder," I said.  "You know if we had brought the right supplies, like chalk and paper, we could do a chalk rubbing.  You hold the paper over the stone and rub the chalk over it and it lets you see what's carved in the stone."

"Do you think a pen and paper would work?" Audrey asked.

"I doubt it," I said.  "We don't have chalk or crayons in the car, do we?"

"We might," Grant answered.

We all know that "might" is an understatement.  It's likely.  Because my car always has a layer of ... something ... in the floorboards.  Apple cores, empty water bottles, shin guards, make up brushes, books, permission slips, training manuals, flip flops, half-eaten granola bars, spoons, allergy tablets...

My epitaph will say, "She had something rolling around in her floorboard." 

"I'll go see what I can find," I said.  "Meanwhile you guys see if you can make anything out here."

I searched the car, hoping to find chalk or crayons and white paper.  The closest thing I could find was a composition notebook and two pencils.  I was pretty sure this wouldn't work but I wanted to give it a try.

Back at the gravestone, I tore out a piece of paper from the composition book and held it across the front of the stone while Audrey ran the pencil over it, back and forth.  At first it just looked like gray and white bumps and I was afraid we were going to have to admit failure.

But Audrey continued to swipe the pencil over and over, across the paper.  Hypnotized, Grant and I hardly breathed as we watched Audrey's hand swing back and forth.  We were like teenagers at a sleepover huddled around a ouija board, testing to see if a message would emerge from the mystical game, listening for the slightest indication that something was there, skeptical and yet at the same time naively hopeful.

And after about a minute, one very clear line appeared on the paper.

"Wait a second, what is that?  Is that a line?  It is!  Is that part of a letter?  Keep doing that!  There's another line!  Is it an H?  Is that an H?  Or an N?  It's an M!  It's an M!  Grant, do you see that?  It's an M!"

Never have three people been so excited to see an M.

A raspy voice from the dead that had not spoken in centuries was choking out sound once again.

M.  M.  I am M. 

I continued to hold the paper fast and Grant and Audrey took turns swiping the pencil across it, exploring to the left and to the right of our M to find the rest of the name.


His name was Liam M.J.

He was born in 1825.  He died in 1913.

We could feel a series of smaller indentations further down on the stone.  We thought this must be Liam M.J.'s epitaph.  We moved our paper over it and began to swipe the pencil.  These letters were harder to read since they were smaller.  Then, like an ancient telegraph coming over a rusty wire, the letters rose slowly from the rock.

"God.  God ... made?  God ... gives?  Oh!  God gave.  God gave.  It says God gave!"

"He ... He ... He took."

"God gave.  He took.  Aw!"

"He ... will ... He will what?  ...  He will ... what? ...  He will restore!"

"It says, "God gave.  He took.  He will restore.'"

"Wow!  Is there one more line?  There is!  What does it say?"

"He ... He what? ... He dwells?  ...  He ... doth?  ...  He doeth!  That's old English.  He doeth ... all ... He doeth all ... He doeth all things ... He doeth all things ...  He doeth all things well!"

The three of us stepped back for a moment.  We stood in the golden sunlight, in the middle of an ancient cemetery and recited Liam M.J.'s epitaph together.

"God gave.  He took.  He will restore.  He doeth all things well."

And then there was just wind.  And leaves blowing across the graveyard.  We were paralyzed in a trance of reverent amazement.

As we drove to the trail head each child was looking out the window, perhaps thinking about Liam M.J. and wondering what his life had been like.

I was feeling a profound happiness.

I was happy to know that the Parsons' love of cemeteries was a dominant trait, and that mine had been solidly transferred to the next generation.

And I was happy about our encounter with Liam M.J.  He had had a message for us that morning, and we had listened closely and heard him.

Actually I guess Liam M.J. had two messages for us that day.

The first one was obvious.   

God gave.  He took.  He will restore.  

He doeth all things well.

I believe that.  He does do all things well.  He does.  He does.  And I am grateful.

The second message was more subtle, and it was for my children. 

Yes, your mother is weird.  

She has a thing for cemeteries.

Her whole family is that way.

And aren't you glad?

Friday, March 11, 2016

Crazy Sh*t that Happened at The White House

1. I was invited.

Let’s just start off with this.  The fact that I was invited to the White House for the September 25 State Dinner for Chinese President Xi and his wife Madame Peng is just incredible.  

Check out the guest list here and you will see of course President Obama and Michelle Obama, President Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan.  You will also see:
Mark Zuckerberg
Tim Cook
Misty Copeland
Sonia Sotomayor
Larry Ellison
Joe Biden
Lee Daniels
Marc Benioff
Madeleine Albright
John Kerry

And buried deep in that list you see this:

 Ms. Christi Parsons, Correspondent, Los Angeles Times

    Ms. Melanie Gao

My sister is not only a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, she was also President of the White House Correspondents’ Association last year.  She’s sort of a big deal in Washington.  When she got invited to the State Dinner she forwarded me the invite.  “Are you interested?  See below!” she said. 

Yeah.  I was interested. 

I knew that I was one of the least significant invitees that evening and I could not have cared less.  I was excited just to be in the same room with all those powerful and beautiful people.  I fully expected to be seated in the back of the dining room, right next to the kitchen, and I was fine with that.  In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that I had been seated in some sort of overflow room and I would have even been fine with that too. 

That’s why #5 on this list was especially surprising. 

2. We took an uber to the White House.

I wasn’t sure how we would get to the White House that evening but for some reason I imagined the President sends a limo for you.  Or perhaps a black Suburban with bullet-proof glass.  

It turns out he does not.  

You have to figure out transportation on your own and my sister and I called an uber to take us there. 

It was a Prius. 

3. I got sniffed down by a German Shepherd even though I was wearing an evening gown.

It takes four stops to get into the White House for a State Dinner.

At the first stop they checked our IDs.

At the second stop they checked our invitations and made sure our names were on the guest list.  I guess they wanted to avoid a replay of this.

At the third stop we got sniffed down by a German Shepherd but the way they did it was fascinating.  They asked me to stand on a metal platform.  On my right was a giant fan.  On my left was a metal grate and behind the grate was a secret service officer with a dog.  The fan was blowing my scent over to the dog, who was able to sniff me down without ever actually touching me or my designer dress.  Amazing. 

Finally, they ran our purses through an X-ray and we walked through a metal detector. 

At last, we were cleared to enter the White House itself.

As Christi and I approached the White House doors, an older man was approaching in a wheelchair.  We slowed down to allow him space to get in the door in front of us.  He stood up from the chair and walked into the White House as if he had been there a thousand times before. 

Which, apparently, he had.

“Oh my god.  That’s Henry Kissinger,” Christi whispered to me. 

We walked into the White House behind Henry Kissinger. 

The Parsons sisters. 

    From Alabama. 

        From the farm house on Hargrove Road. 

                    Those girls, the Parsons sisters. 

    Walked into the White House behind Henry Kissinger. 

Crazy sh*t.  I am telling you. 

4.  Going through a receiving line with the Obamas is like going through a car wash.

2015 was an amazing and blessed year for me - I got to meet the Obamas not just once but twice.  So I feel like I’ve got a body of experience to work from here.  Christi advised me not to try to start a conversation with them, just let them do all the talking.  She told me not to initiate a hug or a kiss or anything like that, I should let them initiate all the greetings. 

This was my first attempt at a receiving line with the Obamas, in April 2015 at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:

And this was the State Dinner in September 2015:

I think there’s a marked improvement, don’t you? 

It’s because I figured out how to approach the receiving line.  Just put it in neutral and take your foot off the brake.  Just like in the car wash.  The Obamas will start a sweet and charming conversation with you, and when it’s time for you to move along, an extremely polite uniformed military officer behind you will press on your elbow until you move along.  It’s actually the easiest thing in the world.

The Obamas were always charming and stately and funny and real, all at the same time.  President Obama had met all the sisters back at the WHCA dinner in April, so when just Christi and I showed up at the State Dinner in September, he asked about the other sisters.  That floored me.  He remembered that we have two other sisters.

5. They seated me next to the Number Two in the Chinese delegation.

When we entered the dining room Christi and I weaved our way among the tables to find our place cards, which had been hand written by White House Chief Calligrapher Pat Blair.  My name has never looked as beautiful to me as it did that night, written so delicately on a beautiful ivory card, embossed with a gold White House seal, propped on a solid gold place card holder.   

I introduced myself to the gentleman on my left and asked him to help me pronounce his name.  “Li Zhan Shu”, he said slowly.  “栗战书。  我很高兴认识您。我叫高美玲,” I said.  “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Li.  I’m Gao Meiling.”  I wasn’t planning to use my Chinese name when I introduced myself but it just slipped out.  Even though I hadn’t used that name in years.  He remarked that I spoke Chinese and I told him I had lived in Beijing for six years.  Then we both went on to meet our other table mates.  There were eight of us at the round table. 

A few minutes later President Obama and President Xi made some openings remarks and then the first course was served.  As we were eating, Christi leaned over to me and said softly, “That Chinese man next to you is the Number Two in the Chinese delegation.”   

“What does that mean?” I asked. 

“They rank everyone in the delegation and the guy next to you is the second highest ranking person, just after President Xi himself.  He’s the head of the Communist Party in China.”

I whispered to her softly, “What the hell???  Why did they put me next to him?  I should be next to the kitchen!  Why did they put me next to the second most important person in the freaking delegation???”

“I don’t know but these things are always intentional.  Just stay calm and act normal.  But don’t start a conversation with him.  Wait and see if he starts a conversation with you.  The man on his left is the Director for China Affairs on the National Security Council.  The two of them are supposed to be having a serious conversation.  If Mr. Li gets tired of that conversation, he might turn to you to talk and if he does, you can talk with him.  But don’t keep him from talking with the National Security Council guy.” 

I stirred my mushroom soup and wondered who in the world thought it was a good idea to seat me next to the Number Two in the delegation.  And I wondered why no one had given me a heads up.  In my world, we would give people a heads up about that sort of thing. 

But we were most definitely not in my world here.  

For most of the dinner Mr. Li did talk with the National Security Council advisor on his left.  But around dessert, their conversation died down and Mr. Li sat quietly for a moment and ate his dessert - lemon curd with buttermilk custard sauce. 

Don’t start a conversation with him.  Don’t start a conversation with him.”  Christi’s words echoed in my head. 

“您吃的好吗?“ I asked him.  “Are you enjoying your dinner?”

Dammit.  Why do I always do that?  The only guidance I had for the whole entire evening was to not start a conversation with the guy to my left.  And I started a conversation with him.

But he was gracious and sweet about it.  He said he was enjoying his dinner and then we chatted about Beijing.  It turns out his house is not too far from where we lived in Beijing, and we knew a lot of the same places.  I asked if it was okay to ask about his family and he said it was, so he told me about his children and I told him about mine.  And then dinner was over and it was time to move into another hall for a musical performance.

Which was more crazy sh*t.

6. The musical performance was not what you would expect.

Okay, let’s talk about what you would expect.  It’s a post-dinner musical performance.  It’s a delegation from China. 

A private cello concert from Yo-Yo Ma, right? 

Or maybe a performance from Misty Copeland, the first African-American dancer to be promoted to principal at the American Ballet Theatre. 

Nope.  It was Ne-Yo.  Yes, that Ne-Yo.  Hip-hop star Ne-Yo.  Agent Deveroux in the film “Sharknado 3” Ne-Yo.

He sang three songs - the last one was the one we all know.

I knew my rent was gonna be late about a week ago
I worked my a$$ off but I still can’t pay it though.
But I’ve got just enough to get up in this club,
and have me a good time,
before my time is up.

I kid you not.  This is how we entertained the Chinese delegation.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Ne-Yo as much as the next person.  But to entertain a delegation from China…?  It made about as much sense as seating me next to Li Zhan Shu. 

I do want to insert here that I have a problem with the lyrics of that song, and I’ve lectured my kids a few times about what to do if you can’t pay your rent.

You make a partial payment with whatever money you do have, make a commitment to pay the rest by a certain date, and then stay in and watch Netflix that night.

Which granted, is not a song anyone would buy. 

7. Only the stars had their phones out.

Apparently it is not diplomatically correct to tweet pictures of yourself at a State Dinner.  None of the political or business figures ever had their phones out.  Not even Apple CEO Tim Cook.

But the celebrities were constantly taking pictures and posting them. 

I sat next to Lee Daniels’ mom at the performance and she was lovely.  She introduced her son as “Lee” and at first I thought he was vision-impaired because he was wearing sunglasses indoors.  At night. 

Then I realized he was just famous. 

Incidentally, he’s the director of a movie I loved very much -  “The Butler.”  It takes place in the White House in the 1960s.  And I sat next to Lee, the director of that movie.  In the White House. 

Crazy sh*t.  I am telling you. 

8. They took away the place card holders before dessert.

Do you remember I mentioned the solid gold place holders for our name cards?  Just before dessert was served the waitress came around and took them all up. 

Christi told me that if they don’t do that, some people will steal them. 

America, please.

9. As the clock struck 11:00, it was over.

The musical performance wrapped up promptly at 11:00 and our enchanted evening at the White House was over.  Our exit from the presidential residence was unceremonious.  One minute we were in the regal glow of that historic mansion and 30 seconds later we were standing on a street corner in DC, waiting for the pedestrian light to turn white so we could cross with all the other normal and regular citizens.

How can everything be so magical one minute, and the next minute you’re standing on a cement curb, waiting for a street light to change? 

It was like we dreamed the whole thing. 

But I know I wasn’t dreaming because the next morning I woke up and found this picture on my iPhone:

Yeah, that's Ne-Yo.  

He's winking at me.  

We had a good time before our time was up, didn't we Ne-Yo?

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Here, Now, and Everything In Between (Our 2015 Family Portrait)

 This was the first picture Alec took of us.

This picture was take about five minutes later.

Just a few minutes transpired between those two pictures.  But a lot happened.

In the first picture we're just starting our family portrait session, this year under the light of the full moon, as suggested by my genius friend Alec Miller.  Alec asked Grant to put his arm around me and hold on to Audrey's arm behind me.

You might think that simple act of holding on to his sister's arm behind me would not cause a fight.  

But shortly after Grant began "holding" Audrey's arm behind me, Audrey began crying, "Mom he's tugging on my arm!  It really hurts!  Tell him to stop it!"

This went on and on on and on until finally I asked Alec for a time out.

He pretended to check the settings on his equipment while I tried to moderate the latest Gao family melee.  It was a hard one to referee because I had so little information.

I don't know what had been happening behind my back, whether Grant was holding Audrey's arm or tugging on it.

I don't know how much tugging it takes before you experience actual physical pain.

I don't know if that's a good reason to scream.

I don't know what good mothers do in situations like this.

All I can do is tell you what I did.

"Guys, come on.  Alec is here and the moon is out and this is our chance to take some nice family pictures.  But they're not going to look good if you keep up all this fussing.  Please just, stop it."

"But he was tugging on my arm!"

"I was not tugging on her arm!  She's lying!"

"Mom, he always does this to you!  He thinks if he can yell louder than me then you'll believe him!"

At this point I seriously considered calling the photo shoot off.  I hate it when they bicker like this, and I hate how completely unequipped I am to deal with it.

"I don't even care what happened.  Just please, stop it.  Just stop it, both of you.  Just stop it.  Please.  Let's take some pictures.  Please.  Just stop it."

An angry silence seemed to drift down out of the sky itself.  It covered us like the moonlight and although it didn't give us peace, it did give us quiet.  I told Alec we were ready to resume.  That's when he took the second picture.  In it, you can tell there is a lot on our minds.

I'm looking off to the side, not smiling.  I'm thinking about the squabble that had just happened.  I was thinking about how often my children argue, and how often I get dragged down into it.  And how much I hate all of that.

I was also frustrated with myself for not being able to settle their arguments better.  That argument ended badly.  We didn't agree on anything, we just decided to keep moving forward.  We had not signed a peace treaty, instead we had merely negotiated a temporary ceasefire.  We had drawn the 38th parallel down the middle of us, and went back to our photo session.

In that second picture you'll see that even my soul sister the moon is allowing herself a celestial scowl.

I asked Audrey what she was thinking in that picture.  She told me, and then quickly added, "Don't put that in your blog."

She knows me well, my firstborn.  She knows me well. 

Grant says he can't remember what he was thinking, but he thinks it had something to do with extraterrestrial life.  As Alec was setting up his equipment, he and Grant had been talking about SETI and the possibility that we are not alone in this universe.  It was perhaps the first time Grant had considered that there is other life out there among the stars, and he was intensely curious.

"Oh no, now I don't know what to do with my life," he lamented as we took that second picture.  He was talking to me although, as you can tell from the picture, his back was to me.  "I've always thought I wanted to be an archaeologist but now I think I want to look for life in outer space." 

Still soaked in the milky moonlight silence, I wasn't able to articulate a response at the moment.  But this is what went through my head. 

Do both, my son.  Do both.  Dig into the earth to discover our past, and reach into the universe to find our future.  I know that you have the power to achieve both of those things in one lifetime.  I held you in my body while God forged you out of steel and holy thunder, and I know that you have the power to do both.

It has been said that all of us have a solar personality and a lunar one.  Our solar personality is the one we present to the world.   It is the one we want people to see.  The way we want to be known.

The epitaph,

the stage name,

the filter we apply before posting. 

Our lunar personality is who we truly are.  It is what we do when we think no one is looking.

The Freudian slip,

the facial tick,

the fearful walk through the dark parking lot when only a lonely security camera was there to observe us.

And if that's true, I guess these moon portraits are who my kids and I really are.

We are war and we are peace, and we are a frosty stalemate.

We are a smile in the sunlight, and we are a scowl in the twilight.

A loving shoulder to lean on, and the iron-vise grip on your arm that makes you scream.

We are the past, buried deep within the earth underneath centuries of ash and dust.  And we are the future, floating somewhere far beyond our reach, in a place we haven't even thought to look yet.

I guess in the end, we are here.  

And we are now.  

And we are everything in between.   

I love us this way. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Lodi, Jerusalem and the Land of Cotton

I don't know what my dad's last words were.  And that bothers me.

My dad was alone when he fell down the stairs on Thursday, December 17.  It took four to six hours before a neighbor came by and knocked on the door.  The neighbor called my mom, who was with me in Nashville, and asked if she had any idea why my dad wouldn't be answering the door.  She asked him to get the spare key and let himself in to check on Dad.  That's when he found my dad on the landing, underneath a University of Alabama football flag. 

Because I don't know what my dad's last words were, I keep trying to make them up in my head. 

We think my dad's last conversation was with the neighbor, Gary.  Gary had promised to bake a pizza that afternoon and bring a piece to Dad.  Dad had asked him to make it "juicy and spicy," which means a lot of sauce.  It was hard for my dad to eat pizza unless it had a lot of sauce and was soft.  He did have dentures but he didn't like wearing them, so instead he relegated himself to foods that were easy to chew.  Like juicy and spicy pizza. 

Not long ago we were having dinner together and I noticed my dad didn't have his dentures in.  "Dad, why aren't you wearing your dentures?" I asked him.  "Oh, I only need them when I'm eating!" he answered cheerfully. 

The beauty in that conversation is all that is unsaid.  But my dad I both knew exactly what was left out of that conversation.  Here's what was left out.

"But Dad, you are eating."

"I know Druse, but the truth is, I don't like wearing my dentures." 

And that thing about him not liking to wear his dentures?  That is probably the essence of my dad.  My dad did what he wanted.  All throughout his life, and especially in his later years, he did what he wanted.  He didn't care what society or good manners would dictate.  In fact, he frequently cautioned us girls not to allow ourselves to become "civilized into a stupor." 

"Civilized into a stupor" meant doing what society told you to do even if it made no sense or brought no real benefit.  Things like coming to a full stop at stop signs, and flossing, and taking your Christmas lights down in January.
My dad had a strong urge to resist societal pressure.  In fact, the more that was applied, the more he would resist.  I don't fully understand this aspect of my dad, even though it seems I inherited it.

My mom is the opposite of my dad in this regard.  My mom does what she should most of the time.

Do you know what happens when two people like that raise children together?  The children turn out pretty balanced, I think.  My sisters and I do what we should most of the time, and we do what we want some of the time.  And for the most part, we do okay. 

When Gary said he would be back in the afternoon with a juicy and spicy pizza, he says my dad said, "Hoo wee!"  I can hear my dad saying that.  It was an expression of anticipation and joy.  My dad's later years were filled with joy and little things. 

He got a lot of joy out of doing the word jumble in the newspaper every morning.  When we got to the house the morning after my dad died, his body had already been taken away to the funeral home.  If you didn't look at the stairs, it looked like my dad had stepped out for a minute.  The newspaper was on the dining room table, opened up to the word jumble page.  He had scribbled words and letters in the margins of the paper as he tried to solve the jumbles that final morning.  He hadn't finished solving what was to be his final jumble.  His reading glasses were just at the edge of the paper.  Like he had just stepped away.

I would love it if my dad's last words were, "Hoo wee!"  What a way to go out. 

It's also possible though that my dad's last words were words he sang out loud, to no one in particular.  That was a habit of his.  My dad would often sing a line from a song that happened to be running through his head.  It was just one line, a few words perhaps, but it was a very short insight into what was going through his mind in that moment.  One of his favorites was "Oh Lord, I'm stuck in Lodi again!"  Another was, "Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton!"  Then he would pause and say to himself, "Wait a minute!  We are in the land of cotton!" 

So maybe his last words were a line from a song that was running through his head at the moment.  One that he sang a lot in his later years was, "I want to be ready, I want to be ready Lord, I want to be ready Lord, walking in Jerusalem just like John."  I'd love it if those were his last words.  

Incidentally we sang that song at his funeral and I was annoyed that the words in the hymnal were different than the way Dad sang them.  The hymnal says, "I want to be ready to walk in Jerusalem just like John."  My dad had been singing the song wrong all these years. 

Well wait, he wasn't wrong. 

He was singing it the way he wanted to sing it. 

He was not civilized into a stupor. 

Pat Tillman had some of the best last words ever.  Pat was an NFL star who left his professional career and enlisted in the army after 9/11.  

He died in the mountains of Afghanistan at the age of 27 - which was exactly 1/3 of my dad's lifespan.  Exactly. 

It's been reported that Pat was shot by U.S. troops.  On accident, of course.  They call that "friendly" fire but I cannot call it that, just like I cannot say that a homeowner came home and "surprised" a burglar. 

Anyway, Pat's last words were, "I'm Pat f*#ckingTillman!"  Apparently he knew he was being shot at by his own team.

I love everything about those last words.  There's self-worth.  There's courage.  There's dignity.  There's righteous anger. 

I would love it if those had been my dad's last words.  "I'm Joe f*#cking Parsons!"  That would make me so proud if my dad had gone out that way.

But honestly, I know he didn't.  That just is not my dad.  That kind of righteous anger would have been, frankly, too much work for him.

The reality is, I need to accept that I will never know what my dad's last words were. 

I will never know exactly what time he fell down the stairs.

I will never know what caused him to stumble. 

I need to let all of those questions go.

I need to open my hand and take those questions one by one and toss them down the staircase, and let them rest with my dad, somewhere out there. 

Somewhere where there are no traffic stops and no cavities.  Where it is Christmas every day.  A place where my dad and John go for daily walks on the streets of Jerusalem and engage in a lively debate about what the words to the song really are.

Maybe he'll meet Pat Tillman there.  Pat will be swaggering his handsome self down the street and when he sees my dad and John, he'll straighten up his already tall frame and he will howl at my dad, "I'm Pat F*#cking Tillman!" 

And my dad will give him a joyful high five and shout back, "Hoo wee!"  

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Cinderella at my Dad's Graveside

2015 was going so well.  So many wonderful, monumental things happened.

And then the phone rang at 5:30pm on December 17. 

 And my dad was gone.  Just like that.  

I always thought there would be decisions to be made.  About skilled nursing or nursing homes.  
Or medication or treatments.  
Or plugs 
or switches.

But there was no decision to be made.  

I want to say thank you to all of you who sent cards, brought food, sent flowers, called, 
prayed for us, came to the funeral, kept us in your thoughts, messaged us, 
shared memories of my dad.  

I keep a pile of your cards next to my bed.  And before I go to sleep I hold them in my hands and think about how blessed I am.  

Blessed to count you all as my friends.

Blessed to have my sisters and my mother around me as we grieve my dad.

Blessed to have been Joe Parsons' daughter.  

Blessed that I didn't have to make choices on my dad's behalf.  
Because those choices?  
There's never a great one.  
You're just trying to find the least bad among a series of 

Normally at a funeral the family accompanies the casket to the grave and the pastor says a few words and friends come by to give their condolences.  And then the funeral director gives a gentle nod and everyone gets in their cars and leaves, and the cemetery workers then lower the casket into the ground and cover it with dirt.  
The family isn't expected to be there for that part.  
It's painful.

But what I love about my sisters and my mom is that we all wanted to stay and watch as my dad's casket was lowered into his grave and buried.  

So after all the guests had left, we stayed by Dad's grave and waited for the cemetery workers to come and do their part.  

While we waited, my niece Bliss was playing with a sheet of Disney princess stickers.  
I asked Bliss if she would want to put some stickers on Popo's casket and she said yes.  
So we peeled stickers off the sheet and stuck them on the side of the casket.  
Bliss put a sticker of Belle and Cinderella on the casket.  
And several balloon stickers.  
I chose an Ariel sticker, and I spelled out his name "Popo" in silver and white sparkly letters.  
I put those at the end of his coffin where his head was.  

And I guess when I think about it, that was a choice.  
I chose Ariel for my dad.  
And I chose silver and white sparkly letters that spelled out his name.   

I chose what my dad would have chosen.  
Given the choice to have fun or not, my dad would always have fun.
My dad would have loved the idea of us putting stickers on his casket.
He would love that we found an opportunity, amidst all the sadness, to be playful.

But then, 
just when I'm feeling good about stickers on my dad's casket, 
my grief takes over again.  
It reminds me that when you're choosing stickers to put on your dad's casket, it doesn't matter 
if you pick Ariel or Belle or a million balloons.
It's still your dad's casket.