Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

This Memorial Day hits me with a very different perspective.  I just finished reading the book "Flags of our Fathers", which is about the six men who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, an image that was captured by an AP photographer, and soon captured the hearts of America during the last year of WWII.  Those six men were actually raising the 2nd and bigger flag, and were just there to do what they were asked.  Three of those men died in the nearly 30-day battle to secure that island.  The other three (one of whom was mis-identified) went on to sell war bonds, eventually leading their lives in the fame of this single photo.  As the author continually stated, 1/400 of a second of lifelong fame.

But two of the survivors, Ira Hayes and Jack Bradley, reminded anyone and everyone they talked to that the real "heroes" were the ones who did not make it off Iwo Jima.  Who died on the first day, and every day, that it took for the US Marines to eradicate the Japanese troops.

And today, on Memorial Day, we must remember these men, the men from WWI and WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the 1st Gulf War, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and even those who died during peacetime - remember them and honor them, and NEVER forget that THEY paid the ultimate sacrifice for OUR freedom.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day

I think this post will be one of the most difficult to write that I have, well, written.  For, you see, I am not doing anything for my mother for Mother's Day.  Yes, some of you may feel that's cold, even heartless.  And I am not apologetic in writing this.  I am simply expressing my thoughts.

My 90 year old mother is in the advanced stages of dementia.  I do not go and see her often.  Sometimes I think I should go to see her "for me".  But truthfully, even if I do go to see her, she will either forget who I am, or remember me vaguely, and then within moments of my departure, forget that I had been there.  If I send her flowers for Mother's Day, she will not know who they came from, or possibly even not know that it was a son of hers who sent them, and she would need to be reminded that they were for her.  For sadly, my mother now doesn't always remember her 3rd and youngest son.  So, for me, there is no reason to go see her for myself.  I don't need to have her look at me with an expression that questions "who are you?  I don't know you."  And, since her attention span is now only minutes, to go see her for her sake doesn't make sense to me.  If she doesn't know who I am, and I don't wish to be looked upon as a stranger, why should I go?  Some of you might say "because she's your mother!", and in a sense, you are correct.  But in reality, the woman I knew as my mother is gone.

I've talked to Colin and Audrey, who do have memories of her.  Audrey was almost 2 when my dad died in 2004, and Colin was almost 3.  They have vague memories of him.  But they do remember my mom better, since they visited her often while she was still somewhat lucid.  But now, she only remembers one grandchild, her oldest granddaughter, my niece.  I asked Colin and Audrey the other day if they felt like going to see their grandmother - my mom - and they both felt that if she didn't remember them, that they would rather remember HER when she was able to call them by name and hug them.  And I respect that decision.

My mom, Christmas 1969
And that made me realize why I don't feel the obligation to go see my mom.  I know that for her, at her advanced stage of dementia, she probably won't know who I am, or how long I visited, or what I told her.  And the thing is, I don't want to remember her this way.  For you see, I want to remember my mom when she was still vital, still alive with the love of Bible Study, still attending church regularly, still making her dinners on Sunday nights.  That's the mom I choose to remember.  I don't mean to sound cruel, but I really don't wish to see a fading remnant of what she used to be.  I don't wish to see a woman who is now in a wheelchair, who can't engage in a  conversation, whose eyes are clouded and almost sightless.  My mom was never a strong woman to begin with, but to see her mind breaking apart and her body slowly dying, is something I choose not to see.  I can deal with the reality of this, but I just wish to remember her differently.  My brother Jim still dutifully visits her and she sometimes doesn't even remember him.  And my oldest brother Donald does make it down on occasion.  I don't know how they feel, but I know for myself, I want to remember the mom of my childhood: the woman who made lunches, took me to and from school; who washed my clothes, and sang to me from an old hymnal each night.  Some of you may argue that's she's alone.  And in all ways, she is.  Her mind is now alone, alone in its damaged state, so even the other women that surround her (she's in an assisted living home) are strangers to her.  And even if her sons visit her, she still is alone.

I love you, mom.  And I know that you know that, even though it's lost in that haze of your faltering mind.  But I also know that you love God, and that someday, He'll call you home.  

Sunday, May 04, 2014

On Leadership

I have always been fascinated by leadership.  Now, I don't mean power. I think people often confuse power and leadership, and do so without understanding the distinction.  Granted, some people with power exude leadership, but quite often, people with leadership often have little or no power.  So, what is, in my mind, the difference.

Power is what is either bestowed upon someone, or seized.  The President of the United States (and I am NOT being specific as to which individual president) is given incredible powers by the Constitution and by the Office itself, and sways great power that is often misused (take Nixon and Watergate).  But this doesn't mean that the person in the Oval Office is a leader.  And quite frankly, we've had some poor Presidents who actually were good leaders, and good Presidents who were poor leaders.  Vladimir Putin has power, but is a poor leader.  The current Great Leader of North Korea has unbelievable power, but is obviously a terrible leader.  Leaders are not necessarily persons with power.

One example, though, of tremendous power married with natural leadership was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Forces, who commanded the overall invasion of Europe in WWII and eventually, defeated the German military.  I find Eisenhower - Ike - to be a fascinating man, as were many men and women during that time.  Born to a farming family in Kansas, one of several brothers, Ike never really stood out militarily.  He was not remarkable or flamboyant as say General Pershing or even his West Point friend, General George Patton.  He was calm, monotone in speech, bald, physically not intimidating.  Yet he wielded the utmost authority and power during those last crucial years of WWII, as he planned the invasion of Europe.  But what made him such an effective leader?  Frankly, it was his ability to build a coalition, and to get it moving in the same direction.  He recognized that in order to do the job he had to get commanders that spanned not just American interests, but British as well.  He listened to ideas and suggestions, and then made decisions.  He became a leader because he recognized that there was a bigger picture, and that his ego, and the egos of those under him (Field Marshal Montgomery's was the biggest, along with Patton's) had to be subservient to the mission.  He never forgot that it was the soldiers, the "jumpers" as he called the paratroopers, that would take the brunt of the mission on D-Day.  It's well-documented that he visited the jumpers and spent time with them.  He knew that their casualties would be high, and he valued those men enough to give them his full attention.  Eisenhower as a President wasn't as noteworthy, but as a general, he was the supreme leader.

Another example of leadership, also from that time, is President Harry Truman.  Another colorless individual with monotone speech and plain looks, Truman had the Presidency shoved upon him.  He made mistakes.  But he also knew that he had people with ideas and intelligence working for him, and he cultivated those ideas, and allowed for them to be freely expressed.  If he adopted those ideas, he'd give credit to the person when it was due.  If the idea didn't work, he took responsibility for it.  He never pointed the finger and said "I was advised to do so and so".  It was HIS responsibility.  And Truman knew from that first horrible day in April 1945, when Eleanor Roosevelt told him he was now the President, that he could not do the job alone.  Truman had, through his honest and frank nature, built up a base of friends and supporters in the Senate.  On that day, after he was told he was now the President, he returned to the Senate and met with those friends, and told them that he'd need their help.  To me, a leader recognizes that he or she is only as good as the team that supports them.  Eisenhower knew this, and so did Truman.

I will unabashedly admit that I'm a fan of "Star Trek: The Next Generation".  Now, I do not follow it for the technology, or the stories.  I follow it because I find the character of Captain Picard to be of such interest.  He is both a captain with powers given to him by that rank, and a leader.  He makes decisions based on the overall mission, yet balancing those with the needs of the ship and its crew.  He fosters creativity and outside-of-the-box thinking by his officers, yet holds them accountable for their errors.  Everyone on that fictional ship knows that they have latitude to do their jobs, yet are still tied to him through the chain of command.  Picard has high standards for himself, his ship and his crew.  He allows for the freedom of his officers to speak their minds, and disagree with him, yet once he makes a decision, they back him up.  And I have to think that as the series was filming, Patrick Stewart, a highly trained actor, provided a certain sense of leadership to the actors (some of whom were pretty much unknowns).  You watch the first season and the stiff acting, compared to the last season, with fully realized and real characters, and you sense that it had a lot to do with Stewart's leadership.

But finally, sometimes leadership is even in those who are not generals, presidents or ships captains.  I'm sure we can all find examples of those types of positions of responsibility with failed leadership.  You can have a team leader in the ballplayer who's only hitting .206, but is a positive influence to the younger players on the team.  You can have a leader in a woman who keeps her family going and finds time to do volunteer work at a local food bank.  You can have a leader in a teenager who sees that there are younger kids at his church that are without a parent or a supportive home, and that teenager takes those other kids under his or her wing, and fosters a sense of self-worth.  Leadership isn't power: leadership is taking ownership of whatever it is in front of you, accepting it, and making the best of it.  Leadership is earned, but sometimes it's naturally presented.  Some people have the gift, and some people develop it over time.  But to work for a true leader is often inspiring, and often, it's hard work, because they themselves are hard workers and require that from those they lead.