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Archive for March 2014

We remember Jeremiah Denton, Jr.

His image was grainy and odd when I saw it on the television in 1966. I was 11 and had seen images of war on the evening news for years. It would be a long time until I understood his profound courage, courage he knew would likely lead to more torture. It did.

Jeremiah Denton, Jr. served in Vietnam and was shot down on July 18, 1965, when he was flying his 12th mission over North Vietnam. He took off from the South China Sea. As he flew over the Thanh Hoa Bridge on the Ma River, he was shot down and taken prisoner. He was kept in different prison camps for the next seven years and seven months. Awful, torturous spaces.

Ten months after his capture, he was selected to participate in a propaganda interview for Japanese television. As he appeared on television, he blinked in odd patterns, as though the lights bothered him. But he was sending a message with those blinks – TORTURE – he spelled in Morse code with the blink..blink..blink-blink of his eyes.

The POWs came home – alive – in February 1973. I was a senior in high school and understood a bit more about war. I wrote letters to one POW who returned, welcoming him home. He came to school and spoke to the students, explaining how they communicated with tap.tap. tap on the walls. Learning each other’s names and remembering hometowns. They were a community of heroes.

Jeremiah Denton, Jr. died last week at age 89. Today, we remember him: his patriotism, his courage and all that he suffered, all he endured - for US.

(S-R photo)

Mudslide: Day 8

The mudslide story plays constantly on the Seattle news stations:  the faces of waiting loved ones reveal exhaustion and grief. The workers who dig and pole and sift through the muck appear as subject to slipping away as the victims of one week ago.

The rain pelts down, hour after hour after hour.

Fire Chief Travis Hots has been in his job since January – two months. No matter if he had been chief for two decades, no imagination or experience or training could have prepared him for this disaster. We keep vigil with him, with the communities of Oso and Darrington and Arlington. 

We wait.

(S-R photo: Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots )

Perfect im-print

A woman can see and function again. She has reclaimed her life thanks to a printer. Really, a printer.

A 22-year-old woman whose skull was thickening, suffered from headaches, lost her vision and her sense of coordination from the thickening skull. In a 23-hour surgery she received a new skull created from a 3-D printer. The new skull is a perfect fit. She has recovered from her symptoms and is a living miracle of modern times. 

The marriage between unlimited imagination and science continues to improve and redeem our lives.

(S-R photo)


“Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard”

Kay Ryan writes a lovely poem that easily fills the grief spaces in our hearts as searchers continue to slog through the sludge, debris and pain caused by Saturday's mudslide. Somehow humans persevere, but each step demands intent and hopeful purpose. A poem: 

Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard

A life should leave

deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to
white pastilles;
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
almost erased.
Her things should
keep her marks.
The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
however small —
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn’t
be so hard.

Kay Ryan was the 16th Poet Laureate of the United States.

(S-R photo: A searcher uses a small boat to look through debris from a deadly mudslide Tuesday in Oso, Wash.)

Mudslide: Hearts with hope

The mudslide scene in Oso, Washington reminds us of the eruption of Mt. St. Helen in 1980: the debris and mud and unknown. Where are the lost?

We seem to hold vigils almost daily during these days of catastrophes, made by nature or ourselves. We are a community of humanity who suffers together. We wait together. And listen for news, for names, for images of life.

We keep the light in our hearts burning with hope.

(S-R photo: The Oso Community Church displays a sign reading “pray with us for our community.”)

Muddling through life

Planes, helicopters and walls of mud – all falling away from life. The last two weeks have been difficult. Saturday a hillside became a mudslide and washed away homes, and with them, security. Three people are confirmed dead. An infant clings to life at Harborview.

We work so diligently to create secure and certain lives – and so much lies beyond our human control. Seems a good time to tend to simple acts of kindness for whomever we encounter.  Life is harder than it looks.

(S-R photo)

Abandoned baby

So dad can’t “explain” how he forgot his infant daughter in his car in the parking garage; he just “forgot” to drop her off at day care and left her in the car – all day? Hmm.

I understand forgetting a half gallon of milk in the car and books, a pile of swimming gear, but an infant?

The question becomes what is the focus of our lives? What is so foremost in one’s brain that a father becomes more intent on getting himself to work than on caring for his child? The child in the back seat of his car.

Wonder what conversation followed between dad and mom; perhaps the consequences from Child Protective Services paled in comparison to the wrath of one enraged wife.

The Affordable Care Act – act now

Take time to travel with one woman as she seeks and finds her way to a health care plan. Enjoy the comic depiction of her journey. One needs patience and curiosity to arrive at the goal– and more than a bit of understanding to navigate the best way through the complex process.

While many Americans are slamming the ACA, after 23 years  in healthcare, I am hopeful many of our fellow Americans can now access the preventable care and regular checkups they need to live healthier lives.  Too many times people with no insurance fear the cost of health care, visiting their local emergency department $$$ when symptoms become intolerable.  Many times these visits are too late.

(S-R photo)

Don’t “Toy” with me

When my car was rear ended 18 months ago, and totaled, I had to shop for a new vehicle. No small task when I am married to the king of research. And I mean research –every detail.

My stance was simple: no Toyota. The scary stories were all over the news: Toyotas were inexplicably accelerating and drivers could not stop them, and the cars crashed. Several people lost their lives and still denial and silence from Toyota. No assuming responsibility. Nothing. Instead, the company concealed information about defects from consumers.

This week the Justice Department fined Toyota $1.2 billion for their criminal actions.  I have no idea if $1.2 billion makes a dent in their profits, but should my new car ever experience dents, I will continue steering clear of Toyota. 

(S-R photo: Attorney General Eric Holder announces a $1.2 billion settlement with Toyota over its disclosure of safety problems)

KOMO 4 crash

Seattle’s KOMO 4 team works diligently to report the events of our communities; and they do it with great grace and professionalism – even when they are the story.

Dan Lewis was at Sea-Tac when he learned of a KOMO helicopter crashing. Lewis was on his way to Washington DC to interview President Obama, but he immediately returned to KOMO.

“I knew this is where I had to be,” he said as faced the viewing audience, voice quivering. He said he hopes to have another chance to interview Obama, but if not, that is okay.

The sad crash of the KOMO 4 chopper Tuesday morning made its way into everyone’s heart. We forget the media have no idea who their viewers are, but we feel we know them as friends. And that is why we watch their grief; we extend our compassion and walk with them as they grasp at understanding the details of a helicopter falling from the sky with colleagues and friends, photographer Bill Strothman and pilot Gary Pfitzner, on board.

Life does change in an instant. We should love accordingly.

(S-R photo: KOMO assignment editor Norm Mah, right, gets a hug as he works at the scene of the crash of a KOMO news helicopter Tuesday, March 18, 2014)


Colon cancer on the decline

Good news: colon cancer has dropped substantially in the last 10 years. People are getting screened and paying attention to choices that make a difference, such as less eating less red or processed meat.

The biggest decline was among those 65 and older, perhaps because Medicare offers its enrollees free colonoscopies. Those enrolled in other insurance plans also have access to free colon cancer screenings, thanks to the Affordable Care Act.

Many health diagnoses surprise us, so when a simple procedure detects precancerous polyps, it seems sensible to opt for it. If you are older than 50 or have a family history of colon cancer, and have not had a colonoscopy, make an appointment. In the end, you will be happy you did.

Family ham?

So, seems my cousin is turning her cartwheels into comedic business sense. Sherrie Martin was never known as the family comic, but as the beautiful girl with ambition and a takes-no-prisoners way with the world. We haven’t seen each other in years, except I do see her on Facebook – hanging upside down and stretched among colorful scarves.

While people ask us when we are 10, 15 and making our way after high school, “What do you want to be?” we really never know where we will end up. At 55, Sherrie has not even come close to hitting her cruising speed. Nice work, cuz.

(S-R archive photo:Spokane Aerial Performance Arts founder and instructor Sherrie Martin works with Carolyn Kinghorn)

Just one kiss

Glenn McDuffie has died. The 86-year-old man passed away in Houston. Remember him?  You know his kiss.

In 1945, the 18-year-old sailor was changing trains in New York when he learned Japan had surrendered.  World War II had ended. He felt ecstatic and saw a nurse in Times Square who noticed him hollering with joy; he simply grabbed her and kissed her – no words were spoken. The kiss was enough. Then McDuffie left her and caught his train to Brooklyn.

A Life magazine photographer caught the moment on camera and immortalized the kiss – and the joy of that historical day.

Glenn McDuffie wanted to prove he was the man in the photo. Six years ago he sought the assistance of a forensic artist who worked with him and the photo – matching muscles, ear and other features.  A perfect match, claimed the artist.

McDuffie enjoyed the next years of celebrity as he told his story at parties and local events. Women even paid him $10 to kiss him on the cheek.

Each of us has a special moment forever in our hearts – Glenn McDuffie was lucky enough to share his passionate kiss with one woman and their moment with the world - immortalized for Life.

(S-R photo: In this 2007 photo, Glenn McDuffie holds a portrait of himself as a young man, left, and a copy of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic Life magazine shot of a sailor, who McDuffie claims is him, embracing a nurse in a white uniform in New York’s Times Square.)

A good day for pi

I do not bake pies; the first year I was married, my sister-in-law baked Thanksgiving pies at my house and told the family we made them “together.”  Now, I make pumpkin cheesecake for Thanksgiving all by myself.

But the pi we celebrate today – I can sink my teeth into this kind of pi: mathematical pi. Today’s date is 3.14 and the first three digits of pi are 3.14. Hence, the festivities.

I think we need a nod to nerds who love digits. So bake a pi pie or memorize the non-repeating, infinite - calculated one trillion digits beyond its decimal point and counting - number as far as your brain will go. Either way, it’s a good day for π.

(S—R archive photo)

Angels living in evil

The angelic faces of Syria’s children stare back from the television, the computer, the newspaper.  They stare with deep sadness in their eyes. These beautiful, innocent children living in refugee camps throughout Lebanon.

And like all children, they dream.

The Beyond Association, a UNICEF partner, provides schooling as well as art and music therapy at Fayda Camp, some 25 miles east of Beirut, Lebanon. These moments beyond loss and grief find a way into the children’s imaginations where they can dream of a future, one with all their family members, with peace and with the normal routine children deserve – school, soccer, chores, friends and laughter.

War disturbs so much of our intended life: the landscape, pieces of our cultural and communal past. But somehow, war – any war – seems to claim children more than anything else; if not their lives, then their very souls.

(S-R archive photo: Syrian children stand near their tent at a refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon)

Thanks, sisters

This week celebrates the first National Catholic Sisters Week, initiated by St. Catherine University in St. Paul.

And it’s about time. If we can designate weeks intended to raise awareness about almost everything, we can take time to focus on remarkable women whose religious communities - such as the Sisters of Providence, the Dominican Sisters, the Sisters of the Holy Names - pioneered healthcare, education and serving the poor wherever they were.  

Women religious in partnership with lay persons continue their Mission to serve the poor, the marginalized, the hungry, the homeless, those feeling hopeless and lost. May we take time to thank them, honor them and continue to do exactly what they do: follow Jesus’ mandate to “Love one another as I have loved you.”

(S-R archive photo: Rosalie Locati, left, a Providence sister, and Celine Steinberger, a Holy Names sister)


Alzheimer’s predictor ~ a simple test

Alzheimer’s disease claims nearly 500,000 American lives each year.  And now new research has discovered the “predictors” of Alzheimer’s disease could rest within one’s specific lipids – detected through a blood test.  The test could identify who is most likely (research states 90 percent accuracy) to be diagnosed with the disease.

If one is identified, before symptoms appear, as likely to one day have the disease, possible treatment could begin. This news could catapult research –and answers - far beyond what we have previously imagined.

The mythical game of “Would you want to know if you were going to get Alzheimer’s?” now requires additional thought when treatment may easily follow. Just as women who have the BRCA gene for breast cancer make proactive choices, potential Alzheimer’s sufferers may be able to use the predictors to make proactive decisions, possibly eliminating the onset of the disease. A longed-for miracle within many families.

(S-R archive photo)

Autism and the portal of Disney

Pulitzer-prize winner Ron Suskind has two children and one of them, Owen, has autism. The writer tells the story of his family’s remarkable journey with Owen in his book “Life, Animated” to be released in a few weeks.

Autism offers complex challenges to families and those who love them as well as the communities who serve and support those families. The Suskind family found their way to Owen through Disney and its characters. Yes, really. Just ask Owen - president of the Disney Club where he and others with autism decipher myth and fable, learning lessons of friendship, heroism, sidekicks and, yes, love.

(S-R archive photo: Disney Live! Mickey’s Music Festival)

Wheeling around on center stage

Joshua France, a 16-year-old high school student, wheels around on stage as Humpty Dumpty in the Puyallup school’s musical “Shrek.” Joshua lives with neuromuscular disorder Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) and was diagnosed when he was four. He also lives with his great singing voice and stage presence.

His mom, Christine, encouraged him to audition for “Shrek.” As Humpty Dumpty, Joshua sits on a wall. So his dad, Gary, built the wall as part of Joshua’s costume – right onto his wheelchair.

Joshua’s diagnosis and wheelchair may draw attention as he wheels through life.  But now he draws attention to his beautiful singing voice, acting skills and “crazy talented” gifts; I am certain the audience will “shrek” with delight.

Poetry, please

Sometimes one needs a poem. Here is one from Mary Oliver titled “Logos.” Seems liturgically appropriate given Lent is here.

Why worry about the loaves and fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands.
If you say them with love
and the felt ferocity of that love
and the felt necessity of that love,
the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speaking,
and don’t worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.

(S-R archive photo)

Sweet Lenten season

Lent: the next 40 days when Christians prepare for Easter. Some believers forego chocolate or television or social media as a Lenten observance, but…

“The evil of the day is sufficient thereof,” said my theology professor – and Matthew in his gospel, read last Sunday.

The School of Theology conversation examined those words. And the message feels real: no need to go looking for opportunities of suffering, life will present more than enough. So, worry all you want, deny yourself something, but eliminating chocolate from your diet will not bring about the Kingdom of God. Hasn’t yet.

“The evil of the day is sufficient thereof.” No kidding. Perhaps it is time to move gently through the day and dispel the evil– end the hunger in our neighborhoods, visit the sick friends who long for a companion, hand over gloves and a hat to the shivering homeless person wandering in the snow.

If we focus our Lenten journey beyond ourselves, addressing the unmet needs of our neighbors – food, shelter, comfort – we can confront the evil of the day and fill the hole in our own soul, an emptiness chocolate – consumed or denied - never satisfied.

(S-R archive photo)

AIDS: We all know someone

When the AIDS crisis was in its early stages in the 1980s, an editor said to me, “Before it’s over, we all will know someone impacted by this disease.”

And seems we do.  But a new drug tested as a vaccine against HIV shows big promise. Two studies using the drug on monkeys yielded 100 percent protection in both groups.

The drug, if proven safe, would be given as an injection every one to three months. And then before it’s over, hopefully, we all would know of no one who has died of AIDS. 

(S-R photo)

Airport chaplain

The role of chaplain can easily be misunderstood as one who offers prayers and theological discourse only at a local church, synagogue or mosque. Not so. Next time you pass through an airport, you may find the non-anxious presence of a chaplain who tends to travelers and airport employees.

When an airport employee experiences trauma, the chaplain is a familiar colleague who allows others to express grief within the employee community. Folks can share memories and offer each other comfort with the guidance of a chaplain –and colleague.

Airport chaplains serve travelers and the need is evident: often people must travel on short notice when a crisis hits, such as when a loved one dies or is critically ill. The typical stress of airplane travel can be easily compounded when one is grieving. A chaplain listens and assists with the practical details of travel – “I didn’t know they charged for extra suitcases and I have no money!” Chaplains may comfort a sobbing traveler or even simply reassure someone who experiences anxiety or fear.

Today, more than 2,000 flights are cancelled across the country due to extreme weather. Many travelers will be stranded. Nice time to grab a cup of coffee with an airport chaplain and relax. 

(S-R archive photo)

Turning 20 ~ Happy Birthday, Alex

My son turns 20 today. He did not ask permission – he just marched right out of his teen years and into his new decade. I am neither sad nor happy, just a bit bewildered. When I look at him I see not one age, but many.

The infant, who snuggled into my chest, plugging his mouth with his thumb while his other hand stroked my neck, rests deep within the young man. When he snuggled as a toddler, he continued to rub my neck, cooing, “I whike your warm, Mommy.”  But soon he found comfort in his own space, making forts and imagining characters no one else could see. We hauled blankets and cushions and boxes and old clothes, tipping chairs on their sides to keep the wild world out.

When we did venture out, his dark wavy hair seemed a magnet for anyone who came near him. He once admonished a stranger who reached for his head, “Stop that!” They did. Don’t mess with him.

The child grew and could rarely sit still in class, when learning was too exacting. Memorization of trite data felt ridiculous early on without imagination. But when lessons defined, improved, healed or threatened relationships, that kid listened. He kept details of Rosa Parks close and asked for years, “Mom, when did you or Dad stand up for justice?” He keeps us accountable.

His entrance into our lives came not on his birthday, but 135 days later when we landed in his birth country and met him face to face. And no wonder he loves the stage – arriving in America down a Jetway to waiting applause of loved ones.  A family star.  He checked us out for days with his furrowed brow, as if to say, “Who are you and where do we go from here?” He took us far. Our hearts traveling together.

When I look at the young man, I see the boy who wrote and drew his feelings into flowers and hearts and later sang them in the shower as I listened silently outside the bathroom door. He sings on stage now and tells me I will probably cry when I hear him. But mostly I hold my breath as if I could stop the moment, freezing it in time forever. I cannot.

He reminds us to continue our “family traditions,” rituals occurring through his whole life, but seem a recent add-on to me. On my birthday, he wrote and hid the clues, leading me to hunt for my gift. “Just like you do all the time for me, Mom!” Time teases us both.

My son turns 20 today and I do wish I could simply tip chairs on their sides to protect him from the inevitable uncertainty of impending adulthood.  Even if possible, this young man would have none of it.

Still, I dream. Just the other night my sleep filled up with his toddler self – the giggles, the long loose curls bouncing as he ran down the hallway. I reached for him and scooped him up into my arms, but he squirmed in protest and wiggled toward the floor.

“Let me go!” he insisted.


(S-R archive photo)


Here come the nones

No, not a misuse of the word. “Nones” are the people who self-identify as religiously unaffiliated. And, yes, it is a rather quaint collision of these two homophones. But this group is gaining ground politically. Washington state once identified as the least religious state in the US. We have lots of nones.

However, instead of denying belief in a deity, as do atheists, 68 percent of nones believe in God – they do not, however, participate in a formalized faith community.

One-fifth of the US public identifies as religiously unaffiliated and the number rises to 30 percent for persons age 30 and younger.

As politicians look at voting demographics, the nones deserve attention. And the caution is obvious: if you want to win this group’s vote, and not alienate the non-nones, what direction should be taken?

“Values politics” claims Chris Hale, a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

 The 2016 elections will be interesting:  Values politics? Thank God.


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About this blog

Writer Catherine Johnston of Olympia, Wash., addresses issues facing aging baby boomers and seniors as well as issues of serious illness, death and dying, grief and loss.

Ask a question: Catherine welcomes questions about aging issues and grief. Email her at

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