The Gift of Empathy

I remember the first time my son said, “Daddy” instead of “Da” or “Da da.” It was October 12, 2012, exactly two years ago, and I remember it so clearly because it was pegged to a specific moment in time.

Julian was in his crib in our bedroom, recovering from surgery. His pain meds and anesthesia were wearing off at the same moment, as his recovery nurse had warned might happen. Jen and I were in the living room, sitting quietly and waiting for signs of distress from his direction.

We heard him start to fuss and crank, the way he normally did when waking up, but this time it carried more urgency, since he was in discomfort. I walked quickly into the kitchen to get his pain med and headed to the bedroom. The very second I entered the room, he cried out, “Daaaaaaadeeeee!” I gave him the medication and held him and he gradually quieted down.

My wife and I don’t discuss the specifics of his surgeries (he had two), to protect his privacy. We do talk about the fact of his surgeries, though. We discussed them at the time because we needed the moral support from friends, and we talk about them now for another reason.

While we were in the waiting room, hanging from a thin cord, desperate to hear anything, we watched the other families. We saw tiny infants awaiting the knife, small children with complex leg braces, kids who seemed sickly thin, and kids who seemed “normal,” but who clearly had a serious reason to be in a surgery.

Julian is now healthy and the problem he faced is one that’s thankfully resolved, but when we round the corner on each anniversary of his operations, I can’t help reflecting on the kids we saw, and their parents.

I feel grateful for organizations like Chicago’s Open Heart Magic, where a friend works, and my heart sinks whenever I read about a child who is seriously ill. I feel thankful that Julian’s surgeries succeeded so well, and I’m enormously grateful to his surgeons and their teams of support people.

My wife follows the Facebook page of a sweet little girl with leukemia, and we ache that we can’t do much that feels like anything for these kids and their families. But there is one thing I can do, one thing that matters a lot — maybe not always for kids, but maybe so.

I donate blood. I get an email notification when it’s my time to roll up my sleeve again, and I book the first possible time I can to get in there and bleed. I maximize the giving by donating double red cells each time.

I’m sitting here as I write this with a bandage on my left arm and the pervasive feeling of low-level lethargy that usually follows a donation. But I’m also sitting here, wondering about the families my blood will help, and that feels pretty damn good.

Y’know, for Julian, and the kids in those waiting rooms, and that sweet little girl, and all the kids we don’t know anything about.


Four Damn Decades


My father died on this date, forty years ago. 31 years old.

It was fucking pancreatic cancer, and it lingered for months. He started feeling ill during Labor Day weekend, while working on our new house in Marietta, Georgia. He died April 14, a Sunday. Easter Sunday, in fact.

Dad had just taken a promotion, one that moved us from Louisville, Kentucky, down to Georgia. He and my mom had grown tired of moving. (In my first five years, I lived in four different places.) So he had his sights on his next promotion, and he had some options to choose from: stay in the Atlanta area permanently, move to the D.C. area and stay there, or move out to Seattle. My mom said they were sort of leaning toward D.C., but they had only just started to seriously discuss it when he fell ill.

Dad was a hotshot auditor for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. As I wrote here two years ago, he investigated development projects that took public funds, to ensure the funds were being used efficiently and honestly. He uncovered a few cases of fraud during his time in Kentucky, and he saved the government so much money as a result that HUD kept kicking him higher up the ladder. He was rising quickly in HUD, and it’s sometimes hard to imagine what might have happened had he lived–how far he might have gone, what our lives would have been like in Atlanta, Seattle, or D.C.

I don’t mean to dwell on the tragedy of it all. My father famously didn’t get along with his parents, and he wasn’t terribly fond of my mother’s mother either. (My mother’s dad, on the other hand, thought of my dad as the son he never had.) He left home the first chance he had, to attend Bellarmine College, a Catholic liberal-arts school in Louisville. (He was the proverbial first-in-his-family-to-attend-college type.)

He visited his family often enough (he was close to his siblings) that on one trip, he met my mother, and it didn’t take them long to decide to marry. I came along in 1968; my sister, in 1970. By 1974, they were looking to plant new roots somewhere.

Just not in southwestern Indiana. Not near “those bitches,” as he called both my grandmothers. (I remember them both well; they were … difficult.)

So had he lived, we wouldn’t have seen the extended family much, probably just on holidays. The strange truth of his death is that my mom moved us back “home,” so she’d have help from the family in raising her kids. I grew far closer to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins than I ever would have had my dad lived. So when I say I don’t want to dwell on the tragedy, that’s what I mean. Moving back to Indiana had its benefits.

But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I left Indiana nearly 12 years ago and have no desire to move back. I get along well with my mother, but I think my dad left for reasons other than his family; I think he wanted a bigger world than southwestern Indiana provided at the time. (Even into the 1980s, Evansville was an insular place. My dad’s very small town was even more cut off; I think they got phone service some time in the 1950s.)

I think there’s something in his fierce independence that leads me to sit now in Brooklyn, writing about a childhood in Louisville and Marietta. I’ve recently returned from Mexico, and I’m about to leave on another trip–ironically perhaps–to Louisville.

On this 40th anniversary of his death, I want to get some words out about his life and attempt to understand how he continues to influence me, all these decades later. My children will never know this man, except through me, and to some extent, through my mother.

I wish we still owned that necktie, and I can’t tell you how pleased and amused I am that spectacles like his are back in style.

Fasciotomy! Fash ee oh to me, my X-Men!

So today, I finally finished Stephen King’s ON WRITING, which got lost in a tote bag for months. And I learned that after the traffic collision that nearly ended his life, King had fasciotomies to his right leg. What this entails is cutting into the connective tissues around the leg muscles, to relieve pressure caused by swelling and tissue damage. If you don’t do this, the pressure in the limb can cut off circulation, leading to tissue loss and possible amputation.

Why is this interesting to me? Because after I broke my leg in high school, I had a fasciotomy on my own leg. I fractured that fucker so hard that I very nearly lost that leg at the knee. In my case, they cut open my leg and left it open for about 10 days so it could drain. (It was covered with a sterile dressing, but it was open so fluid could drain out.) Every day, someone came around and poured saline into it, to clean and sterilize the wound. One day, the cleaning happened at the same time my physical therapist came in. Since I couldn’t really feel my limb below the knee at that point, I always had to watch as I did my PT exercises, to make sure I was doing what they asked of me. So I watched as I flexed my ankle and a silvery clump of tissue in my leg expanded and contracted. Have you ever seen your own muscles move? I have. It’s fascinating and sickening all at once.

Incidentally, if you visit the wiki link I’ve posted here, you’ll see some gnarly photos of people recovering from fasciotomies, after skin grafts have been applied to the wound. Click the pictures, if you dare, and blow them up really big. That’s what my leg looked like for months my graft was applied. Pretty gross. I didn’t get laid much in high school.

Atheist or agnostic?

Michael Shermer, at Skepticblog, writes:

Of course, no one is agnostic behaviorally. When we act in the world, we act as if there is a God or as if there is no God, so by default we must make a choice, if not intellectually then at least behaviorally. To this extent, I assume that there is no God and I live my life accordingly, which makes me an atheist. In other words, agnosticism is an intellectual position, a statement about the existence or nonexistence of the deity and our ability to know it with certainty, whereas atheism is a behavioral position, a statement about what assumptions we make about the world in which we behave.

When I left Christianity, I still considered myself a believer for a long time. I believed in some sort of god; I knew I didn’t believe in a Christian god or any sort of personal god, but I believed in the same vague, indescribable Something that so many seem to believe in. Then a day came when I realized I didn’t act like I believed. I realized I didn’t pray to God, and I didn’t ask God to guide my decisions, and I didn’t even think about God all that much anymore.

When we act in the world, we act as if there is a God or as if there is no God,

The day I realized that was the day I realized I no longer truly believed in God. I was acting as if there was no God, despite what I thought I believed. And once I realized I acted as an atheist, I became an atheist.

Unfortunately, a lot of people are still confused by the word atheist. They think that when I call myself an atheist, I’m in some way asserting that I know that God doesn’t exist. It’s not like that. Here’s my position. First, I do not believe in any sort of personal God, including the Judeo-Christian conception. I don’t believe in the Father, I don’t believe in the Son, and I don’t believe in the Holy Spirit.

Second, I do not believe it’s possible to disprove the existence of God, or, to put it another way, I believe it’s impossible to prove the nonexistence of God. You can’t prove a negative. God might exist, but then again, so might Zeus and the rest of the Greek pantheon. Which leads to point three …

Third, I believe the burden of proof is on those who make claims. I don’t claim that God doesn’t exist, therefore it’s not up to me to prove he doesn’t. Those who claim God does exist and that he manifests himself in the world — the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate this is true. Thus far, no one’s presented compelling evidence to make me believe it. And since the God question has existed in some form for thousands of years, without anyone presenting demonstrable proof of its claims, I have a strong suspicion it’s unprovable. If anyone could have proved it by now, someone would have. I think that if God does exist, we can never prove it.

So in sum, I think God’s existence is an unprovable question, which makes me an agnostic. But I also personally don’t believe in God, which makes me an atheist. There’s a term for this, and it won’t surprise you: agnostic atheist.

Fathers and sons

I don’t know what prompted the search, but I idly Googled my dad’s name a couple of weeks ago. I found this, on the website of the Kenton County Public Library, in Covington, Kentucky.

Virgil Dietsch, Louisville, auditor from the area office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development
Date: March 3, 1972
Source: KY Post
Type: Photograph-Black & White
Subject:People – Dietsch

He investigated development projects that took public funds, to ensure the funds were being used efficiently and honestly. I know that at some point in the early 1970s, a Covington-area paper did a piece on a case of fraud that he uncovered. (Covington is just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio.) My mother used to have the clipping, but I don’t know where it is.

Julian will never know his grandfather Dietsch. Virgil died on this date in 1974.

I remember that necktie.

I dreamed I held you in my arms

September 2010

Dr. Lund brought Kali in to us, wrapped in a blanket, and handed her tenderly to Jen. I snuggled in close, and Jen cradled Kali in her arms, like a newborn baby. Dr. Lund quietly backed out of the room, and we sat with Kali, scratching her head, petting her whiskers, and singing softly to her. She began to unclench; her brow unfurrowed and she went limp all over as the sedative lured her down into Dreamland.

We hadn’t seen her look so peaceful and calm in weeks. Even in sleep recently, she’d been tense and furrowed.

We continued to sing to her and pet her pretty little face, even after she was completely unconscious, taking solace in the knowledge that her last sensations were of how deeply we treasured and adored her. Dr. Lund came and retrieved her for the final shot, and Kali was gone.

loving the fresh air

April 2008

We were back in New York City after a couple of days in Providence and Boston. We had booked a Zipcar to drive some belongings up to our new Providence apartment, and Jen had job interviews lined up in Boston. With these new opportunities on the horizon, though, we were still worried. Kali’s brother, Dubby, had taken a bad turn just before we left, and we wound up having to take him to Cat Practice in Manhattan, on our way out of the city. We thought it was somewhat routine, but he had chronic health issues, so we took no chances with him.

The morning we got back, we thought we’d be able to pick him up that afternoon and bring him home. We were excited for him to meet the new apartment, with its staircase for him to run on, and skylights facing up to tall trees with their birds and squirrels. We knew he’d love his new home.

I got to my desk, and within minutes had a call from the vet’s office. He was having trouble breathing, and they suspected he was having heart problems. They wanted to know whether I could get him and take him to a cardiac vet specialist. I said I’d work on it and get back to them. Alarmed, I tried to call Jen. She was apparently in a tube somewhere on her way to work, because I couldn’t reach her cell. When I got off the phone, there was already a message from Cat Practice. Before I could listen to the message, the phone rang again.

“Mr. Dietsch, this is Dr. Shaheri. Can you get here immediately? Dubya’s in cardiac arrest.” I grabbed my coat and ran. Luckily, Cat Practice was very close to my office. I called Jen en route; she had just reached her desk and several unheard messages from Cat Practice. I told her she needed to come immediately.

I got there in about 5 minutes. They led me to the exam room. Dubby was having a seizure, breathing rapidly and shallowly, wild-eyed, in deep pain, and terrified. The doc was going to tap fluid from his chest to relieve the pressure on his heart. Bereft and afraid, I retreated to the waiting area. One of their in-house cats, Miss Kitty, approached. She climbed in my lap and stayed with me a while, keeping me company while I waited for Jen and further news.

A while later, the doctor came back out. Dubby’s heart had stopped and she wanted permission to resuscitate and intubate him. I knew Jen was underground again, so I consented. Around 10:20, she returned, teary-eyed. Dubby was dead. I went back to see him and spent some time with him, crying over him and petting him. Telling him how much I’d miss him. I returned to the waiting area and Miss Kitty came back into my lap. Other kitty parents were sympathetic but uncomfortable, wouldn’t meet my eyes.

The elevator opened and Jen stepped off. She only needed to see my face to know.

Lazy Saturday Sunbathing

September 2010

I thought this would be much harder, killing my loved one. I knew it was time, and the right thing to do. When Dr. Lund examined her, she told us that Kali’s abdominal cavity was full of fluid, indicating that her organs were failing. This would explain the rapid decline in Kali in the days before her death.

She seemed bad on Monday, when I took her in. But at the same time, she was eating and getting around somewhat. By Thursday, she had stopped eating and drinking water, and she remained on the bed in the same spot all day, shifting position every so often. She was wetting herself and unable to shit. Although she was calm, she was obviously suffering. But brave little girl that she was, she seemed not to want to show us.

Although I knew it was the right thing to do, it still felt like killing. Intellectually, I knew it was right, but emotionally, I was conflicted. In the end, though, it felt like a beautiful moment. We were honoring her life by giving her a graceful, peaceful death. It may have been the most loving moment we’ve ever given her, and in a bizarre way, one of the most loving moments Jen and I have ever shared together.

I expected we’d get shit-faced drunk afterward. And although we had more cocktails and wine than most people put away in a week, we actually drank less than we had each previous night over Kali’s final two weeks, when her decline became so rapid. I think after the end, we were relieved. Relieved for her, that her suffering had finally ended, and relieved for us, that we wouldn’t have to watch her in such misery. We had all been so upset–Kali, too–that she couldn’t get around, and that her quality of life had gone so quickly downhill.

She had an anemia diagnosis about a year ago, and she nearly died then, before we could find the right way to deliver meds to her. (She always refused to take anything by mouth, unless you hid it very well in food. We settled on shots.) The cancer scare arrived on Thanksgiving, when we noticed the lump in her mammary tissue. That was virtually untreatable; we’d have had to remove the entire chain of mammary tissue, along with the lymph node, from one side of her body. This would be invasive surgery with no guarantees the cancer wouldn’t return. Her doctors understood when we said we’d just continue to monitor it to make sure it didn’t worsen or spread.

The anemia and cancer were treatable, possibly for years. It wasn’t until her blood sugar spiked that her condition went downhill. That particular bit of nasty news arrived in July. On Monday, Dr. Lund was so alarmed by it that she suggested we could try insulin. But the prognosis still wasn’t good, even with insulin, and she suggested we might not have any real options other than euthanasia. In retrospect, I think even by Monday it was too late for Kali–that organ failure was inevitable and would happen soon. I know we made the right choice for her at the right time.

When I reflect on the differences between her death and Dub’s, I know whose was more peaceful and less painful and terrifying, and I’m very grateful we had the chance to give our graceful little princess a tranquil death.

The other night dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms
But when I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cried.

All photos by Jennifer Hess; all rights reserved.

Dietsch on

Sort of. A week ago, I went to a pork-butchering demo at Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg. Tonight, Jason Kottke linked out to my extensive photoset from that demo.

Needless to say, the number of people who’ve viewed those pix has now gone through the roof.

Jason notes: “If you want to know where your bacon or ham-related food comes from, here’s your chance.” Lemme be honest, that’s exactly why I went.

When I was a child, my grandparents Dietsch raised pigs and, every year, everyone would turn out to help butcher those pigs–even to the extent of going out in the morning and shooting the pigs dead (as opposed to letting someone else slaughter the animals). My sister, cousins, and I never saw the slaughter, since we were all pretty wee, and we didn’t see much of the butchering, although I clearly remember watching the adults making sausage.

What sticks closest is how damn good that pork tasted. Every butchering, my grandmother would fry up tenderloin medallions for those who’d helped in the butchering. Only once or twice did the kids get them, but we certainly got to feast on fresh chops that night. I know how good, fresh pork should taste–pork that’s been raised on a small farm, given room to roam and root around, and fed good stuff.

I’ve seen live pigs, scratched their heads, watched them play and run, and fed them. I know where pork comes from–or at least where it should come from. Frankly, I don’t want to know where Smithfield pork comes from. I guess for that, I could read some Upton Sinclair and assume that things have only gotten worse since his day.

What I didn’t know, because I was never there, was what went on during the actual butchering. I didn’t know how the pig was carved up and taken apart. So when Jen offered to buy me a ticket to the demo at Brooklyn Kitchen, you can bet your hairy ass-crack I went.

I was heartbroken as an adult, when I could only get the factory-farmed shit from Smithfield and their ilk. The other white meat, indeed. It tasted like nothing and was tough and dry. I thought I had fucked things up by overcooking it, but my mother reported the same disappointments. Only later did we realize that it was the pork producers to blame, not the cooks.

I never had pork I liked again until one of our first meals at Marlow & Sons, in Brooklyn, when I had braised pork–Jen and I think it was belly, but we can’t remember for sure. I can’t say this without lapsing into cliche, but it honestly did bring me back to my childhood. I closed my eyes and remembered meals at my grandparents’ table. I finally had pork that tasted like pork, that tasted like what I remembered and loved as a kid.

As we were leaving that night, the chef, Caroline Fidanza, was chatting with one of Marlow’s owners. I gushed so much I embarrassed not only myself but also them. Luckily, my social skills are just good enough that I realized I was about to cross into stalker mode, so I faked a cough and ducked quickly out the door.

So it’s only appropriate that the butchering demo I photographed was led by Tom Mylan, butcher for Marlow, Diner, and two locations of Bonita. I’m going to get gushy again, but you gotta love people who can really help you remember your roots.