A good week for an opera

This week I have been trying to forget about the ugliness on our southern border, instead summoning beautiful memories of the many wonderful musical moments I’ve been lucky to enjoy over the years.
Two very close friends of my parents were childless, and Fred and Rachel Troutt thought of me like extended family. Rachel was my piano teacher and was a character in her way. One of her other pupils and I would joke that she would be upstairs in the bathtub and call down, “play it again.” I got lots of encouragement, but not much structure, from her lessons.
Jonesboro had a Community Concert Series in those years, and Rachel would take me to hear the artists, sometimes even making sure that we were introduced to them. The concerts were usually held at Wilson Auditorium at Arkansas State College (now ASU). My parents had no interest in going, so Rachel became my cheerleader for classical music.
The Metropolitan Opera, as part of a national touring program that lasted 100 years until the mid-1980s, used to stop in Memphis each spring. Fred Troutt was a patron. His sister, Grace Witherspoon, Rachel and Fred treated me each season to three days in Memphis with them, enjoying the performances. I remember being shocked that Miss Grace, as I called her, drank a Coke for breakfast. I thought that was a great idea. And staying at the Peabody was a real treat.
When I was in high school, the Troutts invited me to travel with them to St. Louis. I don’t remember the specific opera we saw, although I remember having a great time. I had a new experience, a date, my first pizza, and a movie, arranged by a friend who lived there. It was an icy night, and Rachel said later she worried so about my safety that she kept washing out her hose, trying to stay busy. I don’t think she told my mother in advance about the date, probably anticipating that she would veto it.
The performances were in the original language, and the only tool we had for understanding was the libretto. I tired of reading it, so I learned to listen to the music and be transported to a place I hadn’t been before. In recent years, after subtitles became common, I extended my appreciation to how the story was developed through the lyrics underpinning the fantastic arias.
I longed later for my husband John to go to the opera and give it a try. For an Andy Williams devotee, it was a stretch.
He finally agreed to go to the 1977 tour, and we purchased tickets through the Troutts. The performance was Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. According to the Metropolitan Opera’s database, the star was Fiorenza Cossotto. She was very short and very heavy, wearing clogs. Every time she went toward Samson (sung by Guy Chauvet), I winced, thinking John would be caught up in the visual performance and not the voices. When it was over, much to my delight and surprise, John got up out of his seat and rushed to Fred Troutt (I called him “Unkie”) and when I followed I heard John asking how he could become a patron.
Sadly, the Met soon after decided it could no longer afford to visit Memphis, and stopped the whole national tour a few years later. One Christmas, when Johnny was living in New York City in the mid-80s, he gave John and me a memorable trip to the city, including three nights at the Metropolitan Opera. That was the year they at last staged Porgy and Bess, and I still put myself back there hearing “Summertime.’
Mary Kathryn and I were fortunate to be in the audience for Luciano Pavarotti’s last appearance at the Met (in Tosca), another memorable night shared because of the influence of the Troutts, early in my life.
Last year, I was in New York and saw Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette for the first time. I went alone to the Met and immersed myself in the wonder. Since I’ve moved to Little Rock, I’ve become a regular at the Met’s Live in HD movie-theater broadcasts, though I’ve yet to enlist anyone in joining me on Saturday afternoons for what are consistently moving, powerful performances (volunteers still welcome).
To hear this music creates a song within me, much like a trip to the mountains or the beach, effectively a prayer of thanksgiving.
In our lives, we seldom know how a person or persons influenced our lives until it is too late to thank them. I am sure the Troutts knew that I loved them, and, in their memory, I am mesmerized by works of the great composers. It gives me peace and brings me closer to God.
The love of music has opened many other doors of deep friendship. John recognized the talent of Andrew Skoog when Andrew was only a teenager. He loved that young singer. Andrew sang at his memorial service, driving from his home in Knoxville to present his gift. It has now been five years since we sat around the table the night of the memorial service with Andrew and his brother Bjorn, reminiscing. Andrew’s father Al taught Kyle Linson, the excellent Director of Music and Worship Arts and Welcoming Ministries at First United Methodist Church in downtown Little Rock. Kyle and I hope to introduce our gifted friend, Andrew, to the congregation as a guest soloist.
My loved ones, Johnny, his husband Arif Hasyim, Mary Kathryn, and I have a unique connection over our love of music. They like and appreciate most any style or period, as long as it’s well done. To attend a performance together and then discuss it afterward is a time of sharing. When I was in San Francisco for Mother’s Day, we spent an evening at an outstanding performance of J.S. Bach’s “Magnificat” by the San Francisco Symphony and its chorus.  My heart sings with the classical.


When it’s about more than just the battle


I’ve been a little troubled by all the remarks about how Senator John McCain will fight his just-diagnosed cancer. It’s typically kind and hopeful to offer that wish, and he is such a strong man. But this particular kind of tumor is a formidable foe. My mother was diagnosed with one 31 years ago this summer, and died early that Halloween.

That summer (1986, if you’re counting) I had begun to notice my 81-year-old mother was behaving differently. She was very irritated with a dear friend and had hurt her feelings. One day I went to her condo and found her locked in her bedroom with the alarm system armed. She was unsure about making decisions. Her college roommate, who lived in Colorado, had invited her for a visit. She had accepted but hadn’t made any reservations. John had commented to me that she should have a medical check-up before she made the trip, as he felt the altitude might exacerbate any illness she was experiencing.

Mother (pictured above, the year before the diagnosis) loved Chinese food. Mary Kathryn, John, and I took her to her favorite restaurant and could see something was just not quite right. She insisted she would call the doctor the next day, and we took her home.

Later that evening, Mary Kathryn called me. She had been praying about her grandmother and asked if I would take her to the emergency room. She went with me to Mother’s condo and, surprisingly, Mother did not argue.

After being checked at the ER, the physician on call told me she needed to be admitted immediately. He thought she was showing symptoms of a stroke. He called her doctor, and he refused to admit her, to the chagrin of the ER personnel. The nice ER physician was Dr. F. M. Wilson. He told me to take her home and not to leave her for a minute, that she was a very sick woman. He could not override her personal physician’s orders and told me to take her to the physician’s office as soon as they opened the next morning. The next day, I had to be very assertive because the doctor said I was just overreacting. He finally agreed to order a CT scan of the brain. The doctor called me the next afternoon about five and was apologetic in his report to me. The radiologist had found a glioblastoma which had already crossed mid-brain. I knew nothing about this diagnosis, as I had never heard of this type of tumor. I remember a physician/friend stopping me in the parking lot and telling me he hoped for her sake it would be a fast death. I was stunned.

The next morning I called her internist in Memphis, and he admitted my mother to Baptist Hospital so she could have one of the new tests – an MRI. That evening the surgeon from Semmes Murphey Clinic came to her room with a resident to talk with us. He said there was no need for an MRI because the radiologist, Dr. Bill Garner in Jonesboro, was such a perfectionist that the surgeon never ordered other tests. He wanted to schedule surgery for two days later and said he would de-bulk the tumor to make her more comfortable. I noticed the young resident trying to catch my eye, and I excused myself to go into the hall. He followed me saying he would like to speak with me, although he could lose his residency by going around the chief surgeon. The young man told me my mother could have a fairly comfortable time for several months enjoying her family and friends — or she could have the surgery and spend the next nine or so months as an invalid, probably in a nursing home. I thanked him and went back into the room, where Mother was agreeing to the surgery. The doctors and I shook hands, and they left.

I told my family about the visit with the resident, and we decided to get more information. It became obvious that more thought should be given to the question of surgery.

Then came the task of dismissing my mother from the hospital. The internist had disappeared by then and wouldn’t return my calls. I was panicking because I didn’t want to take her against medical advice. Finally, I called Dr. Willie Young. He understood immediately and told me Jonesboro had a new neurosurgeon, and he would have him call me. After Dr. Ken Tonymon’s call, we were able to have her transferred to St. Bernards in Jonesboro.

After seeing Mother and examining her, Dr. Tonymon was disappointed that an MRI had not been done, as my mother was in great shape for her age. He scheduled one in Little Rock. Billy Joe Emerson drove Mary Kathryn, my mother, and a nurse to Little Rock. Mother was very apprehensive as well as claustrophobic, and it was not an easy trip for anyone. The machine broke down halfway through the test. However, they had a partial read, enough to confirm the diagnosis. An oncologist was also conferenced, and he agreed that the best treatment was palliative care until time for pain control. The Decadron, a drug still commonly prescribed to combat swelling, was to be continued. It gave Mother an enormous appetite! John, knowing how she loved raspberries, arranged with his buddies at the supermarket to get fresh ones in daily. They did this until she no longer could swallow.

She spent the next two and a half months in her condo surrounded by the people and things she loved. We took her out to lunch, and she even enjoyed a couple of bridge games at her place. During that time, she had her meals at the table with us.

Dr. Tonymon made all this possible because he was willing to make house calls a part of his routine, and he would draw the blood himself for tests. She was unable to walk, so the wheelchair became a part of our lives. I had nurses round the clock, although I couldn’t trust that they would come on time or at all some days. After we had her settled at night with a nurse, I would go home to sleep.

I remember one afternoon going to the office and when I returned to her condo there were about six people standing in the front yard. I asked why and was told the nurse said my mother needed to rest. I invited them in, telling the nurse she had a lot of hours to rest ahead, and a big smile appeared on Mother’s face. I am still embarrassed about losing my temper one afternoon at a nurse; she kept following me around and talking instead of doing her job, and at one point asked me if I was all right. I told her I would be — if she would just get out of the kitchen.

The last six weeks or so, we had a hospital bed brought in. Mother had always had her hair done twice a week, and John helped me wash it by holding a trash bag at the head of the hospital bed at her neck, and I used a pitcher to rinse. Then I would blow it dry and she smiled at the results. I know that these little things made her feel we cared.

About two weeks before her death, she was taken by ambulance to the hospital as she needed a feeding tube. She could no longer swallow her medicines, and they were important. Especially critical were the anti-seizure drugs. She was fortunate to have had only one seizure, and I attribute this to Dr. Tonymon’s careful use of drugs. One day I called to tell him she was complaining of a headache, and I had given her two extra strength Tylenol. He said that was good, but in the future to give regular strength as too many extra strength tablets could damage her liver. And this for a person with only weeks to live? Laughter is healing, and I did have a little laugh at his expense as I put down the telephone.

In a few more days the morphine was started, and she slept most of the time. Frances Puryear would come by as she walked home from work at St. Bernards in the afternoon and somehow Mother would rouse at the sound of Frances’ voice.

Her days were as full of smiles and laughter as we could make them. And her death was peaceful. I thank God for the wisdom of that young resident and his brutal honesty with me. Any decision about treatment is such a personal and individual matter. I remembered that Mother asked John to promise her that he would never put her in a nursing home, and his answer was that he could not give that promise, but that he would promise he/we would not as long as she had any knowledge of where she was. She had such a fear of a lingering illness and used to say she wished she could drop dead at the bridge table!

Since then I have watched a beloved younger friend die, who showed such strength in wanting to live. She was such a cut-up. I was taking her to radiation one afternoon, and I commented in pulling up to the reserved parking that I had hoped never to have to use the oncology parking. She quipped that even worse would be to have to use the Gastroenterology place. Senator Ted Kennedy was diagnosed during this time, and she had great hope that something would be discovered for him and that it would help her. She dreamed of going to Duke and being cured.

A dear friend from school days died several years ago of this same type of tumor. Her husband called me from their home in Newport Beach and told me she had forgotten she had told me goodbye. I was on a plane the next day and sat in a beach chair by her and just talked nonsense, broken hearted and holding her hand. Her husband tried everything. The gamma knife was new then and was tried a couple of times. He took her to Boston for recommended treatment, but the tumor always came back.

Three others have touched my life in special ways after their diagnosis.

Duke reports the polio virus treatments may help, but I understand nothing is definitive yet. I hope that Senator McCain will choose the right path for him and for his family. The hope is always for a cure. What a blessing that would be for others suffering the same diagnosis.

Glioblastoma doesn’t have to be about the fight. It can also be about the comfort of palliative care, and making the best of precious time left together.


Remembering Suzanne

Suzanne, Neville and Mary Lee | Mary Lee Writes

I never knew life without Suzanne Patrick and Neville Frierson. We were introduced before we could walk, and then we shared birthday parties and all other life events. Suzanne and Neville were bridesmaids in my wedding. Though we were separated by distance, we always kept in touch, remembering the old “ties that bind” with love. And now one of these friends has died. I am sure Neville is feeling the hole in her heart as am I.

The booklet from which these accompanying pictures came was made for me as a gift from Suzanne. She also gave one to Neville. Suzanne was creative and loved painting. During a class reunion weekend, I hosted a showing of her work in the lobby of First Bank (now Simmons). I remember her excitement at the many compliments on her work.

I called her parents Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Irene. My parents were Dee-Dot and Uncle Lloyd to her. They were part of a group called the “kitchen friends” and were together every Saturday night and all holidays. Pop Sloan played the piano by ear, and Suzanne and I would sneak close enough to hear him play “Tiptoe Through the Tulips with Me.” There was never any alcohol served in this group, but you would never have known it with the loud laughter, joke telling, and teasing that went on. I have always thought this the reason their friendship survived as long as they were alive, because they cared for one another in a gentle way. I never heard any anger expressed by that group. The sons of the Ralph Sloans joined us at times, primarily Christmas night to play with my toys!

Suzanne was known for her colorful clothes, the hair ribbons, and the matching shoes to every outfit. She was very feminine both in her attire and make-up. Clothes were important to her, and she would call months ahead of a trip to ask what we were taking. Her choices were part of Suzanne’s creativity. She was a lovely model for the stores in her area until just a few years ago. There is a certain sense of amusement that she was found in her closet. I can just see her smiling as she chose her clothes for the next outing.Remembering Suzanne |Mary Lee writes

I have a funny story that I just can’t resist repeating. Several years ago, the group of high school friends met at Neville’s home in outside Chicago for the weekend. It was hot as blazes that week, and I noticed Suzanne had on a long skirt in the fashion of that year. It was black, and I think it was from the traveler’s group at Chico’s. We shared rooms in the tennis house, and that night as we readied ourselves for bed, Suzanne said she was so glad she could get out of those clothes. I was startled to be told she had a pair of slacks on under the skirt and asked her why. Suzanne replied that in case of an emergency landing she would need the pants as she had on a skirt – so, wearing the slacks under it, though hot, gave her a look she wanted. She could modestly use the chute. Though friends, we were very different.

One of the highlights of the Chicago trip was to tour Millennium Park. Neville’s husband John was our guide, showing us the reality of his dream as he had played a big role in the creation of the park. However, Suzanne said she had to have a wheelchair for the tour as her back was hurting. Neville found one and pushed Suzanne in the soaring heat so that she could enjoy the park. The love and consideration between these two friends were visible to all.

Remembering Suzanne |Mary Lee writesIn the ways that counted, we were there for each other. I will miss our long phone chats. Suzanne didn’t accept that computers are useful as a means of communication, so never learned to text or email. I found early on that if I encouraged her to learn, she would get very defensive with me.

Suzanne, I have loved you dearly these many years, and right now I want to pick up the phone and find out how things are with you today. In my deepest being, I know you as a faithful child of God. I can just picture you, so peaceful and surrounded by love. Your emotional and physical pain are of the past. You are loved and remembered for your sweetness and loyalty to your family and friends. I will miss you.


Remembering Suzanne |Mary Lee writes


An incredible woman

Melissa's story | Mary Lee writes


I met an incredible woman earlier this month on my trip East. Her name is Melissa, and she is a nearly 90 year-old physician.

Melissa was raised by her mother and aunt and, as I remember her story, she was one of nine children. In the early 1960’s, she attended Howard University and decided she wished to help others. She told her family she was entering medical school, and they pledged to help her in any way possible, a large vote of confidence as there was no extra money. She went on to graduate and complete her residency in internal medicine.

Melissa is the great-granddaughter of a slave. She has heard many stories about the tragedies of the era and relates how her grandfather was separated for years, beginning at the age of only three, from his mother after emancipation.

It took her a while to trust me because hearing my accent gave her a sense of fear. After we began visiting and sharing our thoughts, she realized I saw her as a human being, created by God, with no fundamental differences. We shared the belief that all deserve to be accepted as a unique creation, loving one another unconditionally.

Melissa asked for my phone number as we parted, telling me she had found a new friend and wanted to stay in touch. Much to my surprise and delight, she called me last Monday. She had just finished her day at the methadone clinic that she runs and was on her way to the office to see her private patients. An amazing woman, she has never stopped working to help the underserved of her New York City. My life is enriched by knowing and being embraced by her grace and dignity.


The man in the window seat

Man in window seat | Mary Lee writes
I was on my way to California on a Delta flight out of Memphis, probably 20 years ago. My seat was on the aisle, and the middle seat was empty. The window seat was occupied by a man who, when I greeted him, said he was from Mississippi. We exchanged pleasantries, and I then lost myself in a book.

The flight attendant came by to offer drinks. I told him I would like a Diet Coke, and all of a sudden, as the attendant asked, “and Sir, what would you like?” the man in the window seat absolutely exploded, telling the attendant in a thunderous and angry voice that he wouldn’t take anything from those “—damned black hands.” He also called him some of the grossest names I could imagine. The African-American gentleman responded by saying he was the server and would be happy to take care of his needs. The man just wouldn’t shut up, telling him he would wait until a white person served him. The steward smiled gently and moved on.

Then came lunch (which was served in those days, even in economy), and it was a repeat of the same horrifying dialogue. The man added that he was going to report the attendant to the airline. The attendant again responded with grace and moved on.

After lunch, when the cabin crew had a break, I went to the back service area and apologized to the attendant for the behavior, complimenting him on his handling of the incident. We both laughed a little at the fact the outburst had driven the other attendants away. The man had no food or drink on the four-hour flight, nor did he ever leave his seat.

I asked the attendant what I could do to help in case he was asked by his superiors to explain the incident. I told him I would write a letter on his behalf. The attendant wrote his name and the contact name and address of someone in the corporate office and handed it to me. I wrote as soon as I could get to pen and paper.

Never expecting to hear again from the gentleman, I received a postcard several weeks later from the attendant, picturing a city in Mexico and postmarked in Mexico. He expressed his appreciation to me for protecting his reputation.

I am sad to think how many opportunities I have missed over the years to get outside my comfort zone and speak out or act on behalf of a person who was treated in a demeaning way. The candidacy of Donald Trump has made me ask many questions. I had not thought about the time on the plane in years. However, I remember the attendant’s face and demeanor of quiet acceptance as if it were yesterday. Let’s remember we are all created as equals. What a boring world it would be if we were all alike. The man in the window seat is only an unpleasant accompaniment to a training experience.


The self-help desk

Self-help desk | Mary Lee writes
When Mary Kathryn visited several weeks ago, I was having trouble with my printer. She tried to get it working and then told me it had just “died,” and I needed to get a new one.

You need to understand that I have only plugged and unplugged under the direction of Suddenlink! I decided to purchase the wifi printer recommended by Mary Kathryn and install it myself. I spent Saturday morning getting it unpacked and set up, then started the connecting the cables. I made sure to position the cartridges. It sounds ridiculous, but it took me awhile to find the paper feed, as it is a drawer at the front in this model. John and Mary Kathryn will both confirm that I have never read directions, they drive me crazy.

I thought it ready to print, but, guess what? It refused my commands. Mary Kathryn didn’t answer my calls, and John told me he couldn’t figure it out long distance! I told him I hated to wait until Christmas to have a working printer.

So……..I called Hewlett Packard. After a half hour of the tech’s taking over my screen, I asked him if it could be something to do with my router. He said not. He told me that when I uninstalled the old printer, I had messed up the configuration, and he would connect me with someone who could help. All this time he is manipulating my screen, clicking too fast for me to follow.

I connected with the supposedly more competent technician, and he told me he would be glad to help, and that it would be $99. I replied, “I don’t think so.” I told him I was disconnecting him from my screen and would work it out myself. This is a brand new printer, and I had the extended warranty – and they wanted $99 to help me attempt to get the printer to perform? He wished me a sarcastic “good luck” and I hung up, frustrated and determined.

I started tapping around on the menu and a printed page popped out, telling me to hold down the router signal (button on top of the router) for three seconds. Voila! Printing! Now who needs a tech! Does anyone need tech support? I am free.


Je suis Paris

Je suis Paris |Mary Lee writes
On a visit to our son John, then working in London, I was asked during dinner with his friends if I had ever been to Paris. I responded that I had not, and the young man suggested that I extend my trip to include a few days there. I replied that I couldn’t imagine going there alone, but no one at the table thought that a valid argument. I was intrigued with the idea and called my husband to discuss it with him. Being unable to travel because of a progressive neurological disease, he encouraged me to make the trip. I had always dreamed of going there with him, but life demands an adaptable spirit.

John and his then-partner had planned a trip through Switzerland with me. Instead of flying home from there, I changed my reservation to go to Paris.

Arriving in Paris late on a Sunday afternoon, I took a taxi to my hotel, settled in, and then went for a walk. This was before we Americans carried a bottle of water with us, and I remember one of the first things I noticed was every young person I passed was drinking from one. Still a little intimidated by being in that beautiful city alone, I returned to the hotel and ordered my dinner from room service.

The next morning, I took a taxi to the Louvre. The driver could or would not understand me and dropped me off at the far side, nowhere near the entrance. I finally found my way and entered, feeling very alone.

I purchased my pass and was handed a map which was so confusing that I sat on a bench to study it. A woman about my age spoke to me and asked if this was my first visit. I told her it was, and she replied that it was her first, also. Her husband was ill that day and had stayed at the hotel. She suggested we see the Louvre together.

My new acquaintance and I had a delightful day. She was from Michigan and had been training for her trip by running. I was recovering from a broken leg, but I kept up. We took a break for lunch and spent the rest of the day perusing the treasures. I knew only her first name, and we didn’t exchange addresses. In this day, we would be Facebook friends sharing pictures of our families.

I walked, I listened to the sounds of Paris, I soaked in the beauties of the history, the art, the shopping, the cathedrals, the restaurants, the museums – taking time to embrace the sights in wonderment, still unable to grasp being in this magical city.

John called the third day and said he had finished his business in Switzerland and was coming the next day to treat me to dinner. He kidded me about saving the Eiffel Tower for the evening he was there, but I don’t think he minded being my tour guide.

I cherish the memories of that first trip. Talk about seeing Paris on foot, I did, and am grateful that I was able to see it “my way.” I explored, meditated, made mistakes in ordering food, got lost, scurried through exhibits uninteresting to me and lingered for a long time over the ones I loved.

The Paris I remember was a friendly one, filled with beauty. I mourn the lives lost this week, the attacks that leave people feeling vulnerable and uneasy. It is impossible to comprehend the effect of this impact on our world, the little we can do to help. I see the ways good people try to reflect the fact that we care. This is apparent through the profile pictures changed on Facebook and comments on social media.

I must not lose my trust that good will win over evil, but at what cost we do not know; I believe that going on with our lives is important, because I don’t want to let anyone be powerful enough destroy my joy in each day; I will not question or criticize decisions of government officials, because they have access to information that we do not have; I know that containing the terrorist movement is larger than any one man can control, it will take not a village but all nations; I will look carefully at our candidates for President of the United States as that election is more important than ever – who will we put our hope in to step forward and be brave in decisions that are bound to be heartbreaking to make? This goes far beyond petty comments as to religion and emotions, it is to the very existence of our nation and world. Join with me in saying a prayer for strength, let us be good neighbors to one another and keep our eyes toward the goal of peace, which begins within each of our hearts.