Lauren’s Guardianship (Monday, 9 August 1993) I finally sign my will today, after a long delay due to some delicate problem-solving. My father has been advising Joyce and me to include instructions about Lauren’s guardianship in our wills. Lacking any specified criteria and preferences, he says, the courts would decide where to place her in the event of our deaths. So we started exploring this question and quickly realized just how complex and difficult it was.
In short, Joyce and Lauren and I decided to ask Vins and Bev to be Lauren’s guardians. I’ve known Vinnie since grade school. He was my best friend at Swarthmore High and we’ve kept in pretty close touch since then, through happy times and sad. Bev, his wife, is a wonderfully warm woman. They have two sons, Greg (a couple years older than Lauren) and Stephen (who was born last year). They live is Penn Valley, a suburb of Philadelphia that reminds me of Swarthmore.
So that’s the short account. The full story would take more time and space that seems available to me. But I’ll aim for some middle ground, starting with this lengthy passage from a letter I wrote to Vins and Bev last April, shortly after we returned from our trip to California to celebrate Hope and Caleb’s 50th wedding anniversary.
“It’s taken a while to catch up on all the loose ends around here. I have an inherited disposition (blame it on my father) toward procrastination. Over the past few years I’ve seen more vividly how loose ends tend to accumulate and rob me of my energy. Maybe it’s my age (Dylan’s refrain comes to mind, ‘maybe it’s the weather or something like that’), but my energy has become increasingly precious. Curtailing my tendency to procrastinate has freed up a lot of what had previously been wasted. It’s been, and to a lesser extent continues to be, a hard struggle, which makes the successes all the more satisfying.
“Speaking of aging (and getting toward the point of this letter) we seem to have been dancing with a greater awareness of our mortality lately. Someone shared a book with Joyce that Helen Nearing recently wrote. The final chapter tells of Scott’s death, at age 100, several years ago. He wanted his death to be graceful, so after reaching the century mark he gradually stopped eating. The fast ended with his peaceful death, in his own bed, with Helen at his side.
“Then a neighbor and good friend was called to Michigan. Her mother was dying of emphysema. As the executor of her mother’s living will, and in consultation with the rest of the family and the attending physicians, it was Doro’s responsibility to request that the life support systems be disconnected. It was a poignant moment. Her mother was still in and out of consciousness. But after the medical paraphernalia had been removed and most of the medications discontinued, they were able to take her home, where she regained enough lucidity to spend time with her former husband and her children before lapsing into a final sleep.
“The stories of the two deaths were catalytic. I recalled a dream I had, not long ago, about being on a lake and stopping at the cabin of an elderly widow. Her husband had just died. She showed me his study. Other than one or two pieces of paper–things he’d been working on at the time of his death–everything was in order. He had left few, if any loose ends. Upon awakening, I felt a sudden connection between my on-going wrestling with procrastination and my need to ‘put my affairs in order'; to make all possible arrangements for my eventual demise.
“Others here in the community must have experienced something similar, for attention started turning to wills and living wills, preferences for burial or cremation, questions about viewings and wakes. We also tried to feel our way into this culture’s pervasive pattern of denial concerning death and marveled at how much this denial blinds us to the experiences and wisdom of other cultures, many of which see death as a doorway, an opportunity, something to be prepared for and looked forward to. All of this seems foreign to me (maybe it’s my agnostic upbringing) and yet intriguing.
“Working on my will, though, kept these abstract speculations grounded, so to speak. Most of the will-work was pretty straightforward. My father had sent a model will, along with some comments and suggestions. The one real stumper concerned Lauren. In the unlikely event that Joyce and I should die simultaneously, my father recommended that we name a guardian for her, in order to forestall some judge rendering a decision about her placement without the benefit of knowing her, or us, or our wishes.
“You two were on a short list of people we felt good about asking to consider being Lauren’s guardians. The reason the list is so short is that, somewhat to our surprise, not many of our immediate family or friends meet all the criteria we’re hoping for–someone we’re close to, and who we feel might be willing to open their hearts and home to Lauren in the unlikely but of course possible event of our deaths within the next ten years; someone who has been part of a relatively stable marriage and has had first-hand experience with children of their own (none of my brothers or my sister, for example, have children, Lauren being the only grandchild on either side of the family); someone, too, with common sense and familiarity with financial matters, for in the event of our deaths, Lauren becomes heir to some fairly significant assets from both sides.
“We’ve started to talk with the folks that came to mind–to heart, rather– and this letter is part of that exploration. It would be much easier in person, of course, but I’m not sure when we’ll next be getting up to Philadelphia. So perhaps this letter can be as a feeler or a seed.
“Despite all my talk about wills and wakes, I have no intimations of an untimely death. Quite the contrary, I expect to live on for quite some time. Maybe this has to do with a sense of unfinished business down here. A vision or ‘child’ that still needs our love and attention. But on the other hand, maybe my expectations of living to a ripe old age are simply denial. The cocky stance of a sassy immortal.
“In any case, my affairs won’t be ‘in order’ while this question of a guardian for Lauren remains unresolved. So take it into your hearts and let us know what you find there. Whatever you discover–a sense of rightness, or of reservations, or a need to talk it over with us in person–will be helpful. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to explore it with a few other couples. We hold the belief that whatever is best for everyone involved will make itself known.”
While awaiting a reply from Vins and Bev, we talked with another friend, Jo, about the possibility of she and her husband, Richard, becoming Lauren’s guardians. Jo has known and loved Lauren for many years. They have an especially close and warm relationship. Richard, who we’ve only met once, is a doctor. He’s been attempting, in the face of entrenched resistance from the orthodox medical community, to weave a more holistic approach into his practice. Jo and Richard live in North Carolina and have two sons, both of whom are in college.
We also considered several other couples in the more immediate vicinity. But we kept bumping into significant obstacles. Either their heart connection with Lauren wasn’t strong enough, or the marriage was going through difficult times, or the sudden stress of adding a nine-year-old girl to their family felt as though it would be too great a burden.
We came close to raising the question with Wes and Shara, who lived here at Light Morning several years ago, prior to moving to Roanoke, where Shara got her RN nursing degree. They have a daughter who is slightly younger than Lauren and are expecting a second child in February. Wes and Shara hold many of the quirky, unorthodox values that we’ve been striving to embody the past twenty years, and Shara’s an especially warm and nurturing woman and mother. But they’re in a transitional phase in their lives right now, actively engaged in deciding where to put down roots, where to plant their perennials and make their stand. It didn’t feel appropriate, therefore, to ask them to consider being Lauren’s guardians.
Fortunately, both Vins and Bev and Jo and Richard, after giving our request careful thought, wrote to tell us of their willingness. We were deeply touched. We added the necessary sentences to the draft copies of our wills and were about ready to ask the folks living here to witness our signatures.
Ron, however, who, along with Marlene and Tom, had been kept appraised of the decision-making process, suddenly got in touch with some surprisingly strong inner resistance to our intended course of action. He felt that both for Lauren’s sake and for that of the community we should find some way to allow her to remain here in the event of our deaths.
My initial reaction to this was something less than fully empathic.
“Why did you wait until the last minute to voice your reservations?” I asked. “We’ve already explored the local alternatives carefully and weren’t able to find one that felt viable.”
And to myself, “Whose decision is this, anyway?”
My frustration and impatience were tempered, however, in several important ways–by Ron and Lauren’s love for one another; by my own understanding of how tricky it can be to get in touch with deep emotions; and by an awareness that such a weighty decision didn’t belong to Joyce and Lauren and I alone, but must include the others with whom we share our daily lives. So we told Ron that we would put aside our wills (so to speak) and stay open to the process until we could find something that everyone could feel O.K. with.
I used the intervening weeks to step more fully into Ron’s shoes. I felt the devastation of losing Lauren on the very heels of having lost Joyce and me. I felt Lauren being suddenly deprived not only of her parents but of her home, the rest of her community family, and all her friends as well. I felt her loss of home education, and many of the other values that weave into and make possible this on-going experiment in “child-led learning.”
Ron, meanwhile, was putting a lot of energy into trying to formulate a practical local alternative. His efforts stretched my heart. But he was unable to come up with something that could realistically and simultaneously meet the needs of everyone involved, the criteria that Joyce and I had established, and the inevitable scrutiny of Lauren’s bereaved and concerned grandparents, aunts and uncles.
So we ended up agreeing to implement the wills as they were, with Vins and Bev as Lauren’s guardians, and Jo and Richard, whose parenting cycle is out-of-sync with ours (their children having already left the nest) as back-up guardians. Ron felt that his needs and concerns had been “heard,” and that his rightful participation in the decision-making process had been honored. He also gained a deeper appreciation for the complexity of the question.
We also agreed that there is no “perfect solution” to such a problem, and that many of the values we all share have already taken root within Lauren’s psyche and will remain there, secure, regardless of what doors open or close for her in the future.
And that about concludes a very abbreviated account of choosing guardians for Lauren.
Trying to figure out what’s best for one’s child is neither simple nor easy. I’m just glad this culture doesn’t endorse the practice of arranged marriages.
The Childhood of the Gods (Tuesday, 24 August 1993) I’m walking down a side street in Salem, having just dropped our van off at the mechanics. In a factory parking lot I see a young man underneath his car, replacing the muffler.
Later in the day, on my way to pick up the van, I pass the same parking lot. The young man and his car are gone, but his old muffler is still there, lying on the ground. My first reaction is to shake my head at the insensitivity and immaturity of the person who had simply left his loose end behind as litter for someone else to take care of.
Hard on the heels of this conditioned response, however, comes a phrase that drifts through the back of my mind: the childhood of the gods. And with these words comes peace, and acceptance, and a feeling of warmth for the man I had just been criticizing. It’s as though his foibles (and my own, and everyone else’s) have suddenly been put into a radically different perspective.
Once more I bless the opportunity of being a parent. Had Lauren not come into our lives, had I not changed her diapers and picked up her messes and watched the slow growth of her thoughtfulness and awareness and responsibility, the ripening of her inner beauty, then these words, “the childhood of the gods,” would have been a mere shadowy abstraction, rather than an emotionally compelling and spiritually startling insight.
Slanguage (Sunday, 29 August 1993) For a kid who’s somewhat “out of the loop,” Lauren picks up popular kid slang and culture with great ease and agility, probably a combination of spending time with her publicly schooled friends and the occasional T.V. watching in Ron and Marlene’s basement.
“Radical,” “dude” and “awesome” are all stock-in-trade expressions, along with their fused forms, such as “dudical” (dude & radical) and “dudacious” (dude & audacious?). Then there’s “No Duh,” a rough translation of which might be, “what you just said is so absurdly obvious that it barely merits a response.” (“Lauren, it’s looking like rain. You might want to bring along your umbrella.” “No Duh!”)
[You have to remember this is backwoods Virginia. I’m sure most mainline kids have long since gone on to other phrases.]
Finally, there’s what I’ve come to call “the burp chant.” Any time that a belch issues forth (and especially if an adult happens to suggest that the proper response might be a polite “excuse me”–which, if pressed, Lauren will modify to “ex-squeeze me”), the following poetic retort can be confidently expected:
“I’m sorry for my rudeness, it wasn’t very smart,
But if it had come out the other end, it would have been a fart.”
So please ex-squeeze me, dudes, for so rudely including such an awesomely crude limerick in these hallowed chronicles.