Thursday, December 26, 2013

Remembering My Mother-In-Law

On this day after Christmas, my husband Pete and I laid to rest an incredible woman, whose accomplishments as a wife, mother and early pioneer for women in law were overshadowed the past 13 years by a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. Pete’s mom, Marjorie Clark, died Christmas Eve at age 96. For those 13 years, particularly the past four, Pete devoted his life to the care of his mom in selfless service that exemplifies a love that I doubt many others would endure.

Marj was born in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. Her father ran a feed store that served the horses in New York before automobiles and mass transit overtook the streets and subterranean tunnels of the City. She graduated from Hunter College, where she was the center on the women’s basketball team, then studied law at NYU. She wanted to become an attorney. The passing of her parents halted those plans, but not her love of the law. She was hired by the former Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Charles Evans Hughes, as a legal assistant at his law firm, Hughes Hubbard, and became the chief assistant to his son-in-law, William Gossett, general counsel at Bendix Aviation, then general counsel and executive vice president at Ford Motor Company. 

In the 1940s, Marj was often mistaken for Katharine Hepburn. Her beauty led to her being asked out on dates by well-known figures in the New York of that day. She enjoyed riding horses in Central Park and adored dogs of all types. She loved the color red, swimming in the cold waters off Cape Cod in September, and an occasional gimlet. Her smile lit up the room and it was easy to make her laugh. She married Joseph Clark, whose first wife was killed by a drunk driver, leaving him to care for five children. Pete was the only child from their marriage, but his step-brothers and sisters always considered him to be a "full sibling" and his mom as their own. Pete's father died in 1972, leaving Pete the "man of the house," a role he took on for the next 41 years.

Marj continued to work at law firms in Manhattan and in later years, New Jersey, retiring after a fall that broke her hip at age 84. Even then, she bounced back quickly, befitting a woman who worked out daily in the gym, lifting weights, swimming and running around the track.

We noticed Marj was starting to get a little forgetful, nothing serious at first, but we believed it was time for her to move in with us. For decades, Pete would travel to New Jersey to help his mom. Having her move in with us simplified that travel schedule, but the long decline in Marj’s physical health and cognitive abilities had already begun, each stage bringing its own fears and concerns.

Four years ago, Pete got laid off by his employer, Clear Channel, ending a 35-year full-time career in radio (he is still on air part-time at another station). While he is now a licensed real estate agent, his real job was being the 24-7 caregiver for his mother. I will spare you the details, but the physical and emotional toll was tremendous. He carried Marj from room to room, cut and styled her hair when she could no longer go to the salon, cleaned her, brushed her teeth, fed her and more. He constantly hugged and kissed his mom, telling her, “I love you,” dozens of times a day.

We both learned a lot about caring for someone with dementia. For example, winters were rough because of decreasing sunlight, so we put bright lights in fixtures that could accommodate them. When she became depressed, we’d sing to her, simple songs like, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.”

A woman who worked with the powerful in courts and commerce eventually became a dependent, confined to a wheelchair and a hospital bed at home. Her interactions became limited to the point of just looking at us longingly but blankly, until the warmest of smiles creased her lips and she said, “I love you.” She’d reach out for Pete or me and we would melt in her arms, smothering her in hugs and kisses. We didn’t want to let go of one another, knowing the day would come when we would no longer be afforded the privilege of being Marj’s caregivers and comforters. That day came the morning of Christmas Eve, after a very difficult last couple of weeks. Marj’s passing that day was her way of giving us a gift – the knowledge that she was no longer suffering and was finally at peace.

Seeing Pete turn his life over to the care of his mother confirmed something I’ve known for 33 years. I am married to the most loving, wonderful human being in the world. We’re not done with our caregiving, as my mother has lived with us for six years, too. At 94, she is in relatively good shape, physically and mentally, but Pete and I know the time will come when we will go through something like this again with my mom. We were fortunate “the Moms,” as they became known to our friends, were as close as sisters. My mother is in mourning, too, but already, Pete’s inner caregiver has come to the fore, showing my mother the same love and compassion he did with the woman who gave birth to and raised him.

I am grateful for the best Christmas present I could ever receive – a loving husband and partner, talented in so many fields, universally loved and admired by friends and clients, a model of patience and devotion, someone with whom I long to grow old and, in the paraphrased words of “our song,” I love more today than yesterday, but not as much as tomorrow. Thank you, Marj, for the most wonderful gift of your son. We will always love and remember you. Rest in Peace.

One last thing...If you're looking for a cause to support, especially a last minute, end-of-year financial gift, please consider your local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. With advancements in healthcare and medicine, longer lives now bring the prospect of millions more people like Marj suffering this affliction. The Alzheimer's Association supports research and families who endure this long goodbye. 

Addendum: To read Pete's wonderful reflection on his mom, please visit his new blog.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Catholic Cardinal's Lesson on Chutzpah

Here's a definition of chutzpah: during an interview on Meet The Press, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan claimed the Catholic Church has been“outmarketed” on marriage equality and the Church has been “caricatured as being anti-gay.” Cardinal Dolan, as he often does, tries to have the Church portrayed as “the martyr,” attacked by the evil forces of Hollywood, politicians and “some opinion-molders.” Dolan claims, “We’re pro-marriage, we’re pro-traditional marriage, we’re not anti-anybody.”

Dolan's attempt at spin is easily shot down with examples of anti-gay animus too numerous to mention in one blog post, though I will list a few.

Let's start with 1986 and the paternal-sounding “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” It written by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who 19 years later became Pope Benedict XVI. That document reaffirmed another from 1975 that called homosexual acts “intrinsically disorderd.” The 1986 Letter did not stop at sexual acts in and of themselves. “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” Ratzinger further declared that when “they engage in homosexual activity they confirm within them a disorderd sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent.” (emphases mine)

Ratzinger and the Church equation of LGBT people as being objectively disordered is an assertion as ancient and not based in fact as the Church's once-held belief that the sun revolved around the earth. His belief, and thus the Church's, is that the only purpose of marriage is procreation. The Ratzinger proclamation shockingly declared, “when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any inconceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”

In other words, LGBT people who seek to achieve any form of dignity, human rights or equality should not be surprised by violence toward them because they bring it on themselves. Such an assertion is despicable and encourages attacks, including physical ones, against LGBT people.

By opposing marriage equality, the Catholic Church seeks to impose its narrow definition of such unions on all human beings, regardless of one's belief or no belief at all. Yet, not all religions share that narrow definition of marriage. In the United States and many other countries, marriage is a civil institution, a legal contract providing protections for and placing responsibilities on two people committing to one another with absolutely no requirement or promise of bearing children.

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has spent millions of dollars and exerted significant pressure on political bodies in state capitals, Washington, DC and the United Nations to halt any advance in LGBT rights, believing any LGBT right relates back to marriage.

Five years ago, the Vatican vehemently opposed a UN resolution endorsing a universal declaration to decriminalize homosexuality. The Church, through its UN envoy, claimed discrimination – not against LGBT people, but toward the Church and countries that do not allow same-sex marriage. The Vatican was particularly opposed to any mention of “gender identity.” To the Catholic Church, punishment for being gay in 76 countries, five of which include the death penalty, is preferable to any attempt to decriminalize homosexuality because such decriminalization could be used to push for marriage equality and threatens "religious freedom," which has become code for the ability to discriminate on the basis of personal religious belief. The UN eventually adopted its first resolution in support of LGBT rights in 2011, but without Vatican support.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is opposed to any immigration reform that includes legally-married gay couples. For the Catholic Church, the inhumanity of keeping a binational gay or lesbian couple separated or living outside the United States is morally acceptable.

Millions have been spent by the Catholic Church and Catholic organizations like the Knights of Columbus in attempts to halt civil legislation in every state that has had a ballot measure on marriage equality. In 2009, the Diocese of Portland, Maine took up a second collection that raised $80,000 in what was then a successful attempt to overturn the state's marriage equality law. In 2012, another collection was taken up by parishes and congregations across Maine – on Father's Day no less – to oppose a ballot measure legalizing same-sex marriage. That attempt failed and Maine was one of three states to approve marriage equality last year.

Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin forbade Catholic family and friends from attending any same-sex marriage ceremony. “Catholics should examine their consciences very carefully before deciding whether or not to endorse same-sex relationships or attend same-sex ceremonies, realizing that to do so might harm their relationship with God and cause significant scandal to others.” In other words, going to your son's or daughter's or classmate's wedding will bring you a step closer to hell.

Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt mailed 400,000 anti-gay DVDs to Minnesota Catholics in 2010 and went so far as to tell a mother that she had to reject her gay son or risk going to hell. “I urge you to reconsider the position that you expressed in your letter. Your eternal salvation may well depend upon a conversation (sic) of heart on this topic.”

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, IL, conducted an exorcism at his cathedral, not far from the state capitol, “in reparation” for the legislature passing a marriage equality law. He also went the eternal fire and damnation route, telling a reporter, “If you're voting for someone because you have the intention of trying to promote something that is gravely sinful then you are putting your salvation in jeopardy.”

Dolan's list of anti-gay actions and rhetoric could fill a book. He was co-host of an anti-gay, anti-same-sex-marriage forum in my city of Poughkeepsie in September 2011, shortly New York State's marriage equality law took effect. This past September, Dolan emceed a conference at Columbia University on The Manhattan Declaration, which calls upon “people of faith” to oppose all laws that offer marriage equality, likening same-sex marriage to “polyamorous partnerships, polygamous households, even adult brothers, sisters, or brothers and sisters living in incestuous relationships.” (pages 4-7 of link)

Dolan refused to speak up during last summer's LGBT bashings in his city and the death of Mark Carson, murdered solely because he was gay. Rather, as violence was being perpetrated against gay residents, Dolan, in his role as president of USCCB, was instrumental is providing anti-gay-marriage prayers and bulletin inserts to every Catholic parish in the country in advance of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8.

I have said it before, but it bears repeating. Cardinal's Dolan's claim of religious liberty does not trump an LGBT individual's or family's claim to civil rights and common human decency, including the protections offered by civil marriage. To say you are against my marriage and the protections it offers, solely on the basis of my sexual orientation, IS anti-gay, despite any spin by the Cardinal that denies it. Fortunately, the people in the pews ignore his protestations, as a majority of Catholics support marriage equality.

One last thing...While Pope Francis told his hierarchy a few months ago to stop obsessing on gays, abortion and contraception, last week he came out with his “Apostolic Exhortation” “Evangelii Gaudium.” While much of the media focus has been on Francis' call for greater social and economic equality, the document also reiterated the Church's stance that marriage's chief purpose is procreation. Those hoping for change in this area are in for a tremendous disappointment. The fight for LGBT rights must continue, without – and often against – the leadership of the Catholic Church. Dolan's assertion that the battle is not over, comparing the ongoing fight against the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision, shows that the Cardinal and others in the Catholic hierarchy are in this for the long haul. So are we, the people on the right side of history.