Saturday, August 29, 2015

Losing Both Parents: Reflecting on the Death and Rebirth of Home

The last several months have been extremely difficult.  I had figured that the mourning after my father's death would help prepare me for the eventual loss of my mother, an event I had figured was still many years away. My mother's death in May and the months afterward have demonstrated otherwise.  Crossing into a parentless world by my mid-twenties, I've found myself struggling with questions I've heard are often associated with midlife crises: what is a worthy life and what values do I want to embody for the rest of mine? Time is short.

Within this strife, though, has arisen a surprising opportunity of creating something new.  This post, and perhaps several to come, will reflect on the many overwhelming, paralyzing, and empowering emotions I've journeyed through leading up to and through my mother's death.  It may go without saying, but I write this not to seek out sympathy (it has been greatly appreciated) but as a reflection of our common humanity.  Perhaps we may learn something together.

After my father died in 2011, concluding what I had thought was nearly a decade of hardship for my mother as his prime caretaker, my mother fell ill and was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis (MG)-- an autoimmune disease which weakens voluntary muscle use.  Her symptoms got especially worse with the stress involved when I moved her from our longtime home in Northern Virginia to Michigan.  There was heavy emotion after she dropped a fresh pan of appreciative cookies on the floor, and at the end of one moving trip she had to hold open her eyelids to say goodbye.

Nonetheless, over the years since she seemed to have been on a steady trajectory of recovery utilizing steroids and other medications to ramp up her body systems to compensate for the losses from the disease.  Remission is possible with MG, but for as close as my mom seemed to get she would find herself stumble, get frustrated, and have to ramp up steroid use again and start the process again.  Three steps forward, two back.

It was during one such stumble I began to have a deepening worry of my mom's health in the first days of May.  At this time I have been nearly four years settled in Denver, and my mom three and a half years in Michigan.  I often used my vacation days to see my mother, help her out with items at the house, and anticipated potentially leaving on short notice to help her for a week or two get back on track.  This time I went so far as to warn my boss and volunteers with the Sierra Club of a sudden departure, waiting on my mom to make the call.  The trouble was, I couldn't tell how sick she actually was.  Every conversation seemed to be in a layered cryptic code where I had to read between the lines.

She had told me she was having more trouble getting around.  She had to use a wheelchair to get to her last doctor, which given her stubborn pride was a shocking development to me.  She also complained of worsening pain in her back as she let slip for the first time she has known for a year she's had a growing heart problem.  After this list of ailments, she would play it all off and say she's doing alright and there's no need for me to be there to help, at least not yet.

In concern, I called a neighbor who was providing more and more care for her to try and get the whole story.  I asked point blank if I needed to get up there and, in respecting my mother's privacy and trust, she gave a long pause and said I would have to ask my mother.  The tone in her voice grounded my worry.

I went back to my mom with growing anxiety to try and understand the full severity of her condition. She downplayed it once more and concluded with "I don't know what's going on, Bryce, and that's the truth."  I repeatedly offered to come up right away but the answer was no, not yet.  She didn't want to offer any sort of urgency given her condition.  Yet, as we talked on the phone I noticed her tone was more impatient and our conversations brief; our family's sense of dark humor around death more evident. How much was she holding back?

My mom knew I had an upcoming trip to San Francisco with the Sierra Club to be a trainer for new organizers.  She asked me to essentially be on standby for traveling to her, wanting me to prioritize my visit around a pending appointment with an MG specialist and not take me away from work yet given the trip.  I reluctantly agreed thinking any visit was now weeks off, but was soon surprised to learn she secured dates for my brother and sister to separately visit later in the month.  I was heavily suspicious of her sudden desire to see her children and feared the worst case scenario.

Within a few days, my mom found out the MG doctor appointment, hours away in Grand Rapids, would be months off.  She then emailed me:
Come when it is convenient for you and don't worry about Grand Rapids which is off in the far distance. Give me a phone call sometime, no rush, and we can discuss our options. Love to you.....................Mom
My heart dropped.  Here she was playing off any need to worry, yet those extensive periods share a tone which are very uncharacteristic of her.  With the pending work trip, I immediately called her and said it wouldn't be a problem for me to cancel and go straight to her now. She paused for some thought, but insisted I go ahead with the training.  I was torn because I knew she didn't want to be a burden-- especially after those enduring years taking care of my father-- but how severe is she really?  How much time does she have?  Am I reading too much into this?

Confronting my mom with the separate one-on-one visits from my siblings, she said I was the most flexible for traveling on short notice; thus, it was important for me to be 'on-call.'  At the time my sister was overseas with the Military Sealift Command supporting the Navy in the Middle East playing politics with Iran, and my brother runs a business in international trade out of Mexico City.  I couldn't argue with her.

Just before these conversations my sister had recently sent me instructions on if there were a "mom emergency" how I would be able to contact her via the Red Cross.  Given the recent developments, I shared with her my fears in an email on May 4th:
"My hope is it is just part of the MG and she'll pick up again, but thus far my conversations with her-- and our morbid jokes-- are that she's entering a severe stage that she doesn't think she's going to get out of given all of her ailments (MG, growing severity of her heart problem, diabetes). I think on one level the staggered visitations are goodbyes."
My doubtful sister soon shared this suspicion.  My mom quickly dismissed it by stating "you know how Bryce is always being dramatic."  Hearing my sister's feedback from their conversation, I decided to alleviate my worry for the time being and focus on the training for the week.  My flight took off for California.  


I arrived for what ended up being one of the most emotionally difficult weeks of my professional career.  We went off schedule at the training to rightly explore the severe issues of institutionalized racism and white privilege within the Sierra Club.  From holding a powerful privilege walk to having black and white caucuses, there was much shared anger and sadness, sobbing and quiet reflection.

What happened at the organizing training was a conversation which I believe will go down in history as a turning point for the Sierra Club.  I'm proud to see this will be an ongoing conversation and commitment for all who participated there and beyond. Privilege is a very complex thing, as is beautifully illustrated as an example in this recent comic, and I struggle almost everyday assessing my privilege afforded to me and what to do with it.

In parallel to this week, I found myself working hard to help an acquaintance deal with a severe life crisis.  With a group of friends, we spent many hours searching for the right resources to provide support.  It was exhausting on top of the already taxing week, being the most difficult time I've had since my father passed away.  Fortunately though, things worked out in this case and I'm happy to share the person got the help they needed.

After visiting a few friends in San Francisco, I quickly found myself traveling through the airport headed to my gate on Mother's Day.  As usual when I have a brief moment, I took out my phone and called my mom.

"Hi Bryce!"

"Hi Mom!  Happy Mother's Day!  I'm sorry for not calling earlier, you wouldn't believe the week I just had..."

I spent a moment explaining a bit of what had happened, and the crisis I found myself involved in.

"... but everything has worked out!" I finished.

"That does sound like a long week..." she said in a hurried breath.

I brought up I got her a gift for Mother's Day (a hydrangea) but it was a few days behind, and to expect it soon.

"Bryce, you shouldn't have done that," she said in a surprisingly terse tone.

"Since I can't be there right now it'll serve as my presence and radiate love until I can be there."

"Aww..." She went noticeably quiet.

"Yeah, I need to go in a minute to get to my gate, but I just wanted to say hello, and I love you and I miss you.  I'll talk to you later about everything this week."

"I'll let you go... but... I...  we'll talk later.  I love you."

I paused at her pause, something seemed off.  The cryptic code tugged at me, but I had a plane to catch.



(* Our family has a habit of saying very long goodbyes, and to resolve this issue at one point we created a numbered system for this and other certain situations.  27 happened to be code for the all-encompassing "I love you, take care of yourself, I'll be thinking of you, etc." good-bye). 

The conversation lasted 5 minutes and 54 seconds.  I resolved to call her the next day and put a date on the calendar as soon as possible to visit her.


My flight arrived back in Denver late Sunday night.  I was completely exhausted, still reeling from the difficult week.  My wonderful girlfriend, Katie, swept me up in a bucket and dumped me on the bed where I feel fast asleep in a balled heap with her at my side.

Out of the dark lull of sleep, I awoke to the distant ringing of my phone I had left downstairs.

Who could be calling so early?  Should I be worried about mom?  It's probably one of those east coast telemarketers again...  I drifted back to sleep for a few minutes.

The phone rang again.

I knew something was wrong.  My eyes shot open and I ran downstairs to see I just missed a second call from my mom's neighbor.  My heart sank as I immediately called her back, I feared the worst.

"Hi, I didn't check your message, I just saw you called..."

"Bryce... something, awful, horrible has happened..." she stumbled over her words.

"Your mom passed away."

"No! No, no, no..."  spilled uncontrollably out of me.  

She explained my mom called her up saying she couldn't breathe.  The neighbor's husband called the ambulance as she hurried to the house.  She got upstairs to see my mom in the chair staring at her, "I can't breathe."  Then she had a deep, guttural sigh.  I knew from her description it was death rattle.

The neighbor, in a panic, then said to mom "I have to wave down the ambulance, I'll be right back."  My mom's house has an address on a road which no longer exists (it washed out into Lake Michigan years ago) and indeed having her wave down the paramedics outside saved precious minutes.  My mom was unresponsive when they arrived.  She never recovered.

I fought to recompose myself as my mom's neighbor handed the phone to the police officer with her.

"Mr. Carter, I know this is a very difficult moment for you right now.  I'm sorry for your loss."

I rushed upstairs to grab a piece of paper to take notes as he described the next steps and phone numbers of the hospital and police department.  Katie stirred and quickly realized something was horribly wrong as tears streamed down my face.

The officer asked, "With you as next of kin, I need to confirm her wish was to be cremated?  The funeral home is going to pick her up shortly."

"... yes, her wish was to be cremated."

Katie's face paled.

I wrote down the information for the funeral home, thanked the officer, and thanked my mom's neighbor for everything--emphasizing I know she did everything she could-- and let her know I'm going to be up there as quickly as possible.  

I hung up and fell into Katie.  Again losing all control, I sobbed deeply with her for several minutes.  

I then forced myself to recompose again, explained what I knew to Katie, and set about the next task of informing my two siblings.  

I pulled out my sister's information she gave me of how to contact her in an emergency through the Red Cross and was soon put on hold.  My aunt then called-- the first time I can recall ever speaking with her in my life.  Katie and I switched phones a few times managing the calls.

We finally got through to a Red Cross representative and had to provide my sister's information, and the phone number for the police so they could independently verify.  I told my aunt that I would be leaving as quickly as possible to get up there.

I started trying to contact my brother in Mexico who wasn't immediately available. I aggressively was e-mailing, Skyping, and messaging him to contact me.  

I called my boss to let him know.  I e-mailed several people and then put up an auto-responder for a 'family emergency.'  

My brother finally called my phone.  His immediate response to me saying mom's dead was "no she's not."  But then it dawned on him and the shock hit.  He would work to get to our mom's house right away.

A few minutes later, a Restricted Number called me.  "Bryce, what the f*ck!?" my sister exclaimed.  The Captain had just pulled her in and told her the news matter-of-factly, and was letting her use the ship's secure line.  We touched base and my sister would have to fly out of the Middle East through Germany.  Fortunately, they were still in port for another hour or two and she could get off the ship right away.

Having lost a parent before, I knew what laid ahead.  I immediately started packing a heap of my clothes, potential funeral attire, and took a shower.  I came out to find Katie gone.  In a moment of overwhelming devastation and loss, I fell to the floor.  I thought Katie had needed to remove herself from what was happening and left, making me feel utterly abandoned.  I was sheepishly relieved a moment later upon learning she went to the grocery story to buy me food for the road.  Katie is amazing, and felt bad for the misunderstanding.

At this point, I embraced the only action I knew I could do-- get to my mom's house as quickly as possible.  I wanted to be the first there so my siblings wouldn't have to bare the burden of arriving to the empty home and whatever else may await.  My aunt, Katie, and my siblings implored me to not drive straight there.  I explained as long as I felt like I could keep going, I would.  I drove for 19 hours straight.

Driving has always been a reprieve for me, a place to relax, a realm between the realities of life.  I needed to drive and keep my mind clear, compartmentalize everything else away in the back of my mind.  The day turned to dusk as the arid landscape of the plains morphed into the dull shadows of trees blurring by in the night.  Every few hours I would get gas, stretch, and as the night progressed sought out caffeine.

When approaching the Chicago suburbs, a truck about 30 seconds ahead ran off the road and flipped on its side.  By the time I drove up, another half-dozen trucks stopped with their drivers going to help the one in need.  I kept going.  The faint haze of daylight started to hint as I hit the Michigan state line.  Within 24 hours of my mother's death I arrived at the house.

I parked outside the garage on the driveway, knowing the neighbors would quickly observe my arrival.  I kept a key on my key chain for the house and entered.

I took careful, cautious steps into the house.  The silence was deafening as the blood in my ears screamed.  I still pause to expect the family dog, Princess, to come running around the corner.  She died several years ago.  I walked deeper into the house and soon upstairs.

I looked into my mother's room and it said everything.  The recliner ajar, her medical bracelet carefully placed on a nearby stool next to the wireless house phone and several packs of her favorite Neccos, the imprints of a half-dozen varied feet in the carpet itself.  This is where she died.

After several moments absorbing what lay in front of me, I slowly turned with no purpose but for more deliberate steps out of the room when my phone shattered the silence.  As expected, my mother's neighbor expressed her wish to have had me visit her first so I didn't have to be in the house alone.  It was alright, I said, I needed to stop here first.  And I did.

Within hours my brother and sister arrived-- all three children spread around the world, all three arriving within a day.  Mom would have been so proud.

The difficulties, though, were only about to begin.

/// end of part 1 ///

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Tragedy of the Housing Commons

During my extensive traveling for Green Corps, I came across and fell in love with the city of Denver.  I had to move to the Mile High City and was fortunate enough to be offered a position there with the Sierra Club.  Appreciating the security of inheritance from my father's death several months earlier, I decided to splurge and rent a two-story studio apartment for about $1,150 per month in the fall of 2011.  

The view of the Uptown neighborhood in Denver. (Credit: Bryce Carter)
Fast forward a year, I started to hear from my neighbors trying to renew their leases complaining about being priced out, essentially evicted, seeing several hundred dollars increase in rent.  By the time I left, similar studios as mine were going for $1,500+ for month.  Evidently, I wasn't the only one who fell in love with Denver.  

I'll be the first to admit I'm a privileged white male who grew up in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, Fairfax County, but I understood what I experienced in Denver as a consequence of rapid immigration and growing wealth was just a mere hint of the challenge lower-income communities have facing gentrification.

Gentrification is the transition of a neighborhood, and thus community, through the buying and renovation of homes and stores by those with higher wealth.  From scraping lots to intricate remodels, the property values in the neighborhood go up and often displace those with lower income.  The process is a double-edged sword, as more resources are invested in a community there is an increase in quality of life.  The other serrated edge is, just like I was priced out for my apartment, families who may have been living for generations suddenly find themselves forced to move-- usually to places where there is less available services, less social capital, and higher environmental risks like toxic power plant emissions. 

What It’s Like To Lose Your Home To Gentrification
Posted by BuzzFeed Video on Thursday, January 15, 2015

BuzzFeed's Video on Gentrification in San Francisco.
When it comes to accessible, affordable housing, I believe Denver is facing a humanitarian crisis.  Rents are skyrocketing, rising 10.2% over the last year with vacancy rates as low as 4%.  To support a modest two-bedroom home in 2014 Denver, the minimum wage needed was $18.46/hour.  Some advocacy groups say fair cost-of-living wages should be up to $23/hour.  

Either way, a minimum wage earner in Colorado would have to work at least 90 hours per week to keep up with the market from their $8.23 wages.  Those dramatic hours are less time for someone to invest in their family, education, community, and a potential home down payment while putting a heavy toll on mental and physical health-- thus, those with less income become the first causalities of inequality in a gentrifying region.

In recent months, families have been put on the streets because of notices to vacate.  Take this dramatic story from the Sloan's Lake redevelopment project:

Did you notice the math?  Denver Mayor Michael Hancock committed to build 3,000 affordable housing units in three  years.  In one year, applications for housing subsidy vouchers increased from 18,000 to 23,000.  At this rate of growth (assuming the housing boom doesn't let up in the same time), there could be upwards of 40,000 people applying for 3,000 to 4,000 affordable housing units in a few years.  For what is available, existing units can often be dilapidated, as my unfortunate friends Kathay and Jason have learned the hard way.

If this isn't a crisis, I don't know what is.  The question is as we wrap up municipal elections: what will the city do about it?

My blog coming up-- from food co-ops to neighborhood cleanups, how I'm taking action against the negative costs of a gentrifying neighborhood while finding ways to promote intersectionality.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

4/16, Compassion, and Intersectionality

4/16 is a deeply engraved date in the Virginia Tech Community, like 9/11 was for the United States and world.  Except instead of thinking it as 4/16, as those who were in our community do, the world calls what the community in Blacksburg, Virginia experienced that horrid day in 2007 as the "Virginia Tech Massacre."

A student walks to the candlelight vigil being held on the evening of April 17th, 2007. (Credit: Bryce Carter)
The Virginia Tech community begins to gather to commemorate the 1st anniversary of the shooting in 2008. (Credit: Bryce Carter)
This time of year I take a moment to pause and remember the lives lost, reflect upon the torment our community went through--both with the act itself and the media onslaught after, and the comfort provided by the overwhelming support from around the world.  I've written enough about those stories over these years. 

This year, I'm now writing to ask myself and to challenge my friends and former classmates after eight years: How have we grown since 4/16, and how have we lived for 33*?

(Credit: Bryce Carter)
Here are two points I found myself reflecting on:
  • I strive for compassion because of what our community recognized in its peril - * Let me note I am sincerely sorry to those who read this and are offended by recognizing the shooter as a causality of the day, but he was in fact within our community.  I don't intend to highlight him over the friends and family taken from us, but to express the tragedy of what we lost encompasses him as an individual as well. In an act of deep and resolute compassion, the first several days the community itself put out 33 temporary Hokie Stones before the politics got complicated and his was removed and the slogan "Live for 32" was embraced.  The fact his stone existed, even temporarily, is a level of compassion and forgiveness I feel I must recognize, constantly strive for, and am inspired by today.

    A white rose with a black ribbon was placed on the dorm signage in which the shooter had lived. (Credit: Bryce Carter)
    The shooter, for the first few days after the tragedy, was included in the ad hoc memorial. (Credit: Bryce Carter)
  • I strive every day for solutions to promote community and intersectionality -
    For anyone who knows me, the pursuit of triple-bottom-line sustainability (balancing equality, environment, and economy) for our communities is deeply in my heart and who I am.  I believe the more sustainable a community, the naturally more resilient and interconnected it is.

    Blacksburg's slogan is "A Special Place," and I wholeheartedly agree (enough that I even ran for Town Council in 2009).  And after traveling the country in the years that followed, I realize Blacksburg is special because it is a close, generally open-minded community where you will run regularly into friends.  Every time I biked somewhere I would find myself stopping to talk to someone in the community on the street.  As a small university town in concept and design, Blacksburg naturally promotes intersectionality and in turn, promotes growing commonalities.

    When I reflect upon 4/16, I think about how our community came together and supported each other from the base of resiliency we naturally already had.  As one might expect from those first few weeks, months, and years, I saw the blinding resilience and camaraderie we shared right after the tragedy fade more with every graduation (see my letter to the editor I wrote senior year).

    I believe creating intersections is key to creating resilience, because diverse people and communities find themselves interacting and building appreciation for their commonalities.  This is why over the years since then, I've devoted myself to promote the intersections of sustainability at every opportunity with the goal of better balanced, healthier communities for all.  
Every year on campus the day before the anniversary, I brought friends together to offer "Free Hugs."  My rationale: why do we need a tragedy to embrace our community? (Credit: Bryce Carter)
Fast forward to today: the Sierra Club and NAACP have partnered on a series of Healing Hikes to not only embrace the healing power of nature, but also promote intersectionality between our two groups. (Credit: Bryce Carter)

How do you live for 33?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Falling Apart at the Seams: The Gaping Wound of Inequality

A recent Pew Research study demonstrates the increasing political divide in the US.
I recently watched the documentary Inequality for All with Katie and her mother over the holidays.  I was hesitant because from Food, Inc. to Inconvenient Truth, social documentaries usually leave me in a depressed slump.  Yet, I found myself surprised and inspired by Inequality for All because of it's clear-cut economic analysis and piecing-together the complicated story of income inequality.  The bottom line take-away I had: 99% of us are getting paid less to do more and this gap started in the 1970s and has dramatically worsened since causing negative consequences far and wide.

Let me restate this: to do an honest day's work, the premise of the post-World War II "American Dream" branding, now gets you less today than it did in the 1970s.  Race and gender, sadly, still play a significant factor for income disparity on top of this, but it is ultimately class from the poorest to even the middle-upper class wealthy which unites us in a systematic depletion of our money and time.  Thanks to deregulation the wealth is gushing upward to the wealthiest citizens, who are often using it make it easier to retain even more wealth (see the Koch brothers as a classic example).

This restriction on available resources for the rest of us result in growing tensions.  If you have to work longer hours to feed your family, how will you find the time or money to get civically engaged?  Not just with educated voting, but education in general, engaging with NGOs, or even community events?  Or even just the time to have interact with your neighbors beyond an occasional hello?

When opportunities of intersectionality within one's own community become more limited, they aren't exposed to new or challenging ideas.  The ability to take the time to understand detailed viewpoints become withered down to Slate A or Opinion B.  Once in this boxed frame of reference, one can easily lose sight of the overwhelming commonalities of those around them.  Then, especially if one is the subject of countless generations of oppression for their skin color or gender or class and within this system of ever-restricting opportunities, how can anyone learn to trust each other outside their innermost circles?  Those who aren't in one's 'category' become scarier, and scapegoating and stereotyping becomes easy from all angles.  Neighbors can then become the enemy.

I am reminded of a story of the murder of a Canadian filmmaker working for the U.S. Department of Commerce during President Johnson's War on Poverty, putting a sharp focus on impoverished Appalachia (watch from 35:25).  Hugh O'Connor was filming his last shot for the day of a father play with his son on the front porch after a day in the coal mines, when the company housing owner rushed up with a gun and demanded he leave.  On his way to the car, O'Connor was shot and killed.  The case went to the courts in which the journey of the local community felt threatened and even ridiculed by all of the attention from the War on Poverty, and thus gave a light sentence for O'Connor's murderer.

Yes, police brutality is real and dangerous.  Racism is very much alive and well-- Ferguson is a household name now on these points, whatever the perspective.  Sexism is still very much here, too, and equal pay between genders still isn't law in 2015.  To me, these are very grave issues often putting blame and working to undercut one another within our communities.  Yet they all are intertwined with the most deadly of all-- the systematic undermining of our ability to meet our own needs for the benefit of a very manipulative few.  Income inequality is our gaping, gushing wound, pulling us further and further apart from our own humanity.  Addressing anything but this inequality first is just toying with band aids.

--Coming up, I will explore the ongoing housing and affordability crisis in Denver.--