Goodbye My Friend and Inspiration

Today I discovered someone who has influenced my life immensely has died. We don't have close mutual friends so I can see how no one would have known to inform me. But that doesn't mean he wasn't important to me and that he didn't impact my life dramatically. It mostly means he was so humble and so special to so many people it would probably have been impossible to inform all the people whose lives he touched. It happened earlier this year while we were in China, in April, about a month before my own life began to melt down.

I am really devastated that I didn't know and had to find out through a Google search. I had just written to him a few days ago inviting him to the Pergolesi Magnificat in which I'll be singing in a couple weeks. I was so excited to tell him we were back in Michigan and we could resume our (too infrequent in recent years) visits consisting of hours sitting, chatting, drinking, and eating.

It was unusual for him to not respond to an invitation, one I'd send out at least once or twice a year so we could stay in touch, and I got a sinking feeling. He had some concerning health issues I knew of, and I searched the obituaries and confirmed he had died a few months ago at the age of 65.

Robert (Bob) Delaney was first my professor of economic history at Walsh College and over the years we had many opportunities to work closely together. One semester he agreed to be my advisor for my independent study in the arts and economics, another time he helped advise and edit an essay I wrote on the arts and the free market. A few years later after graduating he allowed me to student teach in his economics courses, which paved the way for my start in scholarship in earnest, becoming a professor and researcher at Walsh.  He is someone I came to consider a good friend and something of an intellectual Godparent. I would look forward to our meetings throughout the years with excitement, sitting for hours sharing coffee and a slice of pie or a meal and exchanging ideas, stories, emailing YouTube videos of operatic performances or interesting new articles, lamenting technological advances that pulled people away from these things. He is the man who introduced me to all the great economics texts, including Ludwig von Mises' Human Action, which I've been meaning to re-read and would definitely be reaching out to him to discuss it.

There is truly no one I've met like him. He had the kind of depth of mind, wit, and spirit you only read about in great historical characters or see in movies. But the difference was he was real: a living encyclopedia, endlessly fascinating storyteller, generous, kind-hearted, and often hilarious. Other than  perhaps my own husband I can also think of no one who was a more convincing defender and supporter of the importance of the arts (opera and theatre in particular), economics, motherhood, and faith. How fortuitous and fortunate that our lives would intersect around 2008 or so: he, an older bachelor, professor, journalist, and theatre critic, and myself: a young married woman who happened to be an opera singer, aspiring professor of economics and homemaker.

I have never forgotten a moment that changed me and has bolstered my spirits in times of feeling down about my life choices. It was during his class when we were making introductions to our classmates. I indicated I was pursuing my Master's but had just gotten married and quit my job to be a homemaker. Another woman in the class piped up, "What's the point then? Why are you even here?"

But Bob, who had a way of starting to speak with a pause, focusing his sights up and outward, and begin with a slow, "Well, actually..." launched into a solid, if not a bit biting, argument for the value of someone like myself, voluntarily unemployed, focusing on my family, with a diverse educational and professional background. His closing statement before continuing to teach the class is one I think of fondly. "Just think of all that she will be able to accomplish!" I remember that moment so clearly - to be completely validated and defended as a scholar and a woman by someone so eloquent and intelligent was a high complement. Eventually I'd come to find we shared a mutual love of the arts. My only regret is that I did not know Bob sooner in life so I could have spent many more classes and afternoons with him and his enlightening insights (and stories!).

He died too soon and had so much more to offer, but absolutely made a huge impact on the many people who had the pleasure and honor of knowing him: students, colleagues, friends, artists, musicians, and actors, and the many people in the Archdiocese and City of Detroit (a city he knew better than anyone I've met and had had plans to conduct research and write about from an economic historical point of view - a project which sounded so interesting and I thought could bring incredible new insights, with which I had always hoped to one day find time to assist him). I remember asking him about this project after his retirement and he hadn't quite found the time to get it started.

I'm so very sad. I don't want life to be too busy for people like Bob. I'm devastated he won't be coming over for lunch in two weeks. I was really, really looking forward to it.

When my father died a friend said to me, "Now you need to take on all that he was." I feel this call again as a reminder that when someone we care about dies, we cannot let all of them die, but try to take on those beautiful aspects of their lives so they can live on. With that, I'd like to make it my goal to slow down more, have some afternoons where I sit and philosophize and story-tell with friends, see some great live theatre and opera in Detroit, and read some Mises. And I'll be thinking of Bob when I do.

Goodbye Bob, you will really be missed. 

The Milans in My Life

Today marks the 9th anniversary of my father's death. 5:31pm. I held his hand as his heart stopped and he took his last breath.

I have a confession to make: that moment changed me, because of course it did. But it catapulted me into 9 years of recurring panic. The inability to sleep at night, invaded by thoughts of death. Panic simply driving around because it might end in a crash. Panic especially during my pregnancies and births and tending for tiny babies.

My thoughts were not ruminations I indulged or invited as much as they were invasions - terrifying thoughts that would rob me of lovely moments, peaceful moments, or utterly mundane moments. Moments where I should be restful could become unbearable when I was visited by these thoughts.

Afraid of death. Afraid to die.

But two events changed that. The first was moving to China - I felt like that was a journey I took with my father. He was an immigrant, a world traveler, an intrepid explorer. I often imagined I was living the kind of life he lived. I felt proud of myself and I felt he would have been proud of me. It lessened much of my pain - I felt joy again, I felt closer to him.

And then when my son was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, it was like all my fear of death just vanished suddenly. Death wasn't just a spectre or a vague threat. He was standing right next to us and I had to confront Him head on. My son could have died during his weeks of misdiagnosis and lack of proper treatment and he didn't. My God I am thankful my son is alive. Every single day I feel that gratitude.

And while I am skeptical that things really work this way, my fear of death is now gone. Perhaps it is because I dance with Death daily now. It's like He's my new companion on my life journey. (But it has never been otherwise for any of us, has it?) I'm just more aware of Its nearness.

My son is always, every minute of every day dealing with a serious, chronic, potentially life-threatening illness. Since May I have had a crash course in keeping him alive and have to calculate every move he makes or doesn't make to ensure he continues to live. Every day. I have only had a full night of sleep a handful of nights since his diagnosis.

I say none of this to complain or seek pity - you will never hear me complain that I have the privilege of keeping him alive. I am beyond grateful I live in a time where medicine and technology allow him to have a mostly normal life.

And so, on this 9th anniversary I have a new perspective. I walk with Death and I hope I'm living my life more fully and with more awareness and gratitude.

I love you and miss you Daddy. 


One of my more memorable days, bumming around Zhonghuamen, playing hooky with the kids.
I never imagined when I landed in China one year ago I would feel like this knowing I cannot go back, at least not any time soon.

For a variety of reasons – we will not be completing our 3 years in China and are moving back…well, now. I’m devastated to be perfectly honest. But the last two months have been…beyond what words can really describe. Intensely scary and unnerving, testing the limits of my sanity and self-worth. It’s important that we come back.

I think some people would be overjoyed to come back because of top-notch medical care and Costco. I don’t really understand why I’m not, despite the fact I know it’s the right thing to do. I don’t think it’s just the exhaustion having sucked my ability to feel.

We made a home and a life in China. I was starting a new career. I was love-hating every single crazy minute there. I was making good friends. I was just learning enough Mandarin to surprise people. And for better or worse, I was reminded often of how incredible it was to be alive. Everything felt more tenuous, dramatic, strange, and even threatening there, and as a result, more precious. Any excursion brought with it the prescience of how different everything really is outside of the limited life I’d always had, yet never knew…and it is disappointing to leave that behind. I liked that knock-me-upside-the-head drama of awareness that living in China brought with it.

This entire year has been a deep-dive into stunning paradox, and it came to a wildly dramatic end being medically escorted from hospital to hospital, across the world, separated from my family, caring for our son alone, petrified and yet extremely thankful he was alive.

Just typing this makes me feel hot, dizzy and scared all over again. I will never forget how that feeling began when I received an email from my pediatrician in Michigan (who I asked for a second opinion on some labs because it looked like diabetes to me, but what did I know, I only Googled this stuff) at 9:57 pm on May 16th that I needed to take Milan to a hospital as soon as possible “to get treatment or he could go into crisis.” Within one hour, I mobilized everyone close to me to help watch my other kids, called Mike to fly home from California, and jumped into a car for the 2+ hour trip for Shanghai (my one and only trip to Shanghai while in China was spending a week in that hospital, leaving only long enough to buy toys to help Milan cope with his treatment.)

Yes, of course we should be home. But I’m so disoriented when it comes to that word now. I have no sense of place or purpose to go with it. I feel like it could be anywhere, doing anything.

And that is truly a gift from China to me, that I believe will last me my whole life. China taught me that I can be happy, alone in a strange 70s era hospital in Hong Kong, or in a two bedroom apartment with 3 kids and none of my belongings. China taught me I can be happy starting over at the very bottom of a new career where I am mopping floors to get experience. I get that I lived like a queen by any standards of the rest of the population of China, so I’m not trying to say I had a monk-like existence of humbled sacrifice…but I had to learn to accept a lot of things.

And I saw things. Heart-stopping things. Things that instantly and forever changed me. Over and over and over. I guess that’s why I want to go back. I feel like I was just beginning to uncover something about humanity, and my own humanity that can only be accessed when you live in another human culture. Like, there is no way to replicate that in the US. Fish in water, you know? Sure, I can on a very surface level continue to enjoy and study Chinese culture, I can go to authentic Chinese restaurants and grocery stores, and enroll my kids in Chinese school on the weekends, and take Chinese lessons, and study about China while I’m in the US, but I would do that only in an effort to keep some kind of lifeline to get me back to China. I feel like I have to get back there…almost like I just left half of myself there and I’m not going to be okay until I'm reunited.

And I think that’s the thing. Yes, China was different. I could go on about how much I loved the food, architecture, and people, and how wild and wacky it all was. But I don’t want to misconstrue and boil down my experiences, and the wonder of living in another culture to some cheap “hey, let me tell you some crazy stories about China” porn. China was different and I will miss China, but perhaps more I will miss the person I was in China. I don’t think she can exist here, and I guess I may have liked her better.

Who knows. Maybe it’s the exhaustion.