Letter from the Editor

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Hold that thought

Being a newspaper editor means hearing a lot of complaints. It goes with the territory. One reader has spent years waiting for us to put an apostrophe in the wrong place, so that she can circle it in yellow magic marker and rush it in to complain. I'm tempted to do it more often, just because it so thoroughly makes her day.

One source tells us bitterly this week that we did not make a correction to her information - which she sent in a day after the newspaper was published. Another complains that we printed what they said, not what they meant to say. Oh well, nobody's perfect, right...?

On almost a weekly basis, I field complaints that the newspaper is: A. Too Republican; B. Too Democratic; C. Too Communist. D. Too Preachy; E. Satan Incarnate; or F. Slightly Irritating When Rolled Up and Smoked. Um, sorry...

Complaining is the American way, so why argue? And I always try to appear sympathetic when people share their complaints on their own lots in life: They don't like where they live, they don't like their neighbors, they don't like what they get paid, they don't like politics, they don't like the laws, they don't like the ref from last night's ballgame, they don't like the jail project or the school project or Project Awaysis, they don't like what's on TV. And buster, they're not completely sold on blue skies, smiles, hugs, warm puppies, motherhood, baseball or apple pie, either and by-heavens-they're-keeping-a-watchful-eye-on-it-all-and-may-just-write-a-nasty-letter-to-goshdarned-Congress if need be.

I'm one of those people too often. I curse the cold of the place where I live, the hectic schedule of getting everyone in the clan to where they were supposed to be 15 minutes earlier, the 16 months of late night writing since the last vacation day, the president, the aches and pains - you name it, I can complain about it.

All too seldom do I stop to appreciate the beauty of the place I live, the joy of having that busy family, the fact that I have a job which does not require the wrestling of swine (not to mention kind people willing to read the foolishness I write), the privilege of living in a free country with a free choice of political scoundrels, the health to be active enough to still achieve those aches and pains.

I remember one holiday - Valentine's Day, I think it was - and stopping to visit my grandmother in the nursing home where she was dying.

Not that we knew she was dying - at least not that she was dying all at once. She did it with such dignity, endurance and good nature that no one really knew it was happening.

Still, I could feel the pain she didn't talk about, and it would get to me. I would usually leave the room for a bit, get outside and gulp down some air before going back in to playact upbeat.

I remember that day that I had my share of complaints. The bank account was suffering, work was a hassle, I didn't have half enough time to get around to everywhere I was expected to be. The truck wasn't running right, the cat puked on my jeans, the bills were overdue, it was a bad hair day and I'd burned myself on the toaster. And now, here I was spending another Saturday afternoon in a depressing nursing home.

Man, my life sucked.

That's what I was thinking when I left my grandmother's room, stalking outside with my hands in my pockets and a scowl on my mug.

There in the hallway was something that didn't fit in, and I stopped to look.

Amid all of the very elderly people populating this nursing home, there was one young man - I don't think he was even as old as I. Guessed that he had the end stages of some pretty horrible nueromuscular disease, and no where else to go. He sat alone in the dim hallway in a wheelchair, much of his body withered away, barely able to hold his head part way up, and barely able to move a finger to activate his chair.

I realized after a bit that his hand must have slipped off the arm of the chair. He couldn't lift it to reach the controls. He apparently couldn't ask for help, and only his eyes spoke of his need. The hall was vacant, without a nurse in sight. There was nothing he could do about his predicament.

I picked up his hand as gently as I could. It was impossibly light, as I recall. Placed it into a groove that helped him reach his controls. Poor guy, I thought.

I was amazed when he broke into an amazing smile, a bit lopsided, maybe, but as intense as the sun breaking through a storm. His eyes flashed an expression of pure joy. He motored off, and I never saw him again. Never forgot him, either.

I stayed in my kneeling position for a while there, wondering. And I can picture that smile to this day.

And when my day gets going bad, and I find myself complaining about my supposed bad breaks, soon enough, that smile comes back into my head, and I shake my head at myself for whining over a paycheck or a popped-off button or a twisted ankle or a burned breakfast.

I wonder how long it's been since I've found a smile like that one in a simple pleasure.

It occurs to me that the people who really deserve to complain almost never do, and the people who really have nothing to complain about, make such a darned career out of it.

Those people among us who are fighting cancer or some other terrifying illness, are often among the brightest of spirit. Those who have lost a loved one, those who are disabled in body, mind or senses, so often seem to find a joy for what they do have and are so little inclined to complain about what they don't.

Perhaps that is why they have survived and often thrived in situations that would cause many of us to give up trying.

The last thing my grandmother said to me before they called me to tell me she had died in her sleep one night, wasn't about what she knew was coming.

In all her pain, she wasn't about to complain. She was busy caring. "Are you sure you have enough covers on at night?" is what she asked. She smiled as I left that day.

I do, grandma. And I've found that the warmest blanket is woven from the lessons we learn from the strongest of people.