Meridians

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My mother was remarkably strong when faced with her final days.  She was more concerned with those she was leaving behind than herself, a gift of the great faith which resided in the center of her soul.

My dear, sweet father, was not so sweet near the end.  He fought the inevitable with anger and then some silent depression.  But there was a meridian he passed in the nick of time; a place of acceptance and peace.

“Navy Blue Blazer’, were the words my father used to indicate to me that his fight was over.  He pronounced it roughly, as aspiration pneumonia gripped him in his final days.

“Yes, Dad”, I moved to his hospital bed and leaned over him to hear every struggling word.

“Rotary Pin”, he went on, as he tapped the side of his hospital Johnnie.

“Dad, you want your Rotary Pin on your Navy Blue Blazer?”, I whispered in return.

He nodded with a slight smile, encouraging me to stay with the translation.

He cleared his raspy throat as his baby blue eyes held my gaze,

“Nephews.”

“For the funeral, Dad?  You want your nephews to be Pallbearers?”

He smiled at the idea that I was getting his gist.  Broaching the subject of his funeral must have frightened him, as he had clearly been in a private wrestling match with acceptance for weeks.  Somehow, the ease of my understanding his simple requests relieved him.  Hyperbole was unnecessary, overwrought emotion held at bay on both sides.  We had an understanding, my Dad and me.

Finally, with little voice left and whatever stored up bluster he had,

“Party!”

“Of course, Dad.”  I said, “A big party, at the TK Club, with Clam chowder and an open bar”

This suited my inexhaustibly social, Irish Catholic father well.

He gave me a weak thumbs up and soon after fell asleep.  He would not speak much again, and four days later he passed at three o’clock on the morning of January 6, 2009.

Those who have read my blog, know that I love American idiom.  In a nod to that, I tell you, this is not my first time at the rodeo.

Uncle Bobby has failed exponentially since we first heard that whisper of a word, Hospice.  The dwindles have been fast, and today his rather regular, queen size bed was replaced by a hospital bed to better help his aides and the hospice staff relieve the pain he has from bed sores, and to help them shift his weakened body.  It strikes me that it is the first real signal of “Uncle” in the way we use it to announce that we concede.

I read to him from time to time from his favorite novel, “Moby Dick”.  That dark, drizzly November in Herman Melville’s soul takes on significant meaning for me now.  For Uncle Bobby, the beauty of Melville’s words, the paragraphs he builds with delightful precision, sweep him away for a bit from the drumbeat of anxiety that grips him in the face of death.

Uncle Bobby shared a dream with me just the other day.  He is too private a man to share dreams as habit.  This place of unsureness urges him to more intimacy.

“I had a dream last night.  I was moving.”, he said.

“I moved to a shanty town, and the apartment was small, but the price was right.”

He adds a landlord who needs to make some money.  So, while the place wasn’t luxurious, for $8.00 per night, it was good enough.

“Can’t begrudge the guy to make a living.  I didn’t mind paying, and there was a nice place around the corner to have a meal.”

Moby Dick begins in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the quintessential Shanty Town. It is no surprise to me that Uncle Bobby now dreams of the sea, imagines that his next move might be near the ocean that he loves so very much.

When the dying begin to dream of moving we somehow know that they are approaching the meridian of acceptance.  It is the great blessing of life that while we spend an unimaginable amount of time fearing death, when the time actually comes to engage it, somehow our dreams usher us to a meridian which offers some peace.

This weekend, I will take an invitation to spend 48 hours by the sea.  I will trust that Uncle Bobby will follow his path of slow acceptance.  I will hope that he will wait for me to return.

When I go to the sea, I will ask it to help me be strong in this journey I am on with my last, great underpinning.  I will ask it to give me grace in the final leg of the journey.  I want so very much to be the measure of Uncle Bobby.  I am his person now, as he has been mine   in this extraordinary year.

 

 

 

Limitless Possibilities

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Easter weekend and my thoughts fly to reinvention, rejuvenation, and re-imagining what my life can be. Forget about cold Novembers in my soul, too many months in the last year have felt cold and song-less. It’s refreshing to finally find a space in my mind to rethink and begin the process of moving forward.

I have an Indian friend who, if I listen carefully enough, often presents me with pearls of wisdom.  He is my surprising sage. Dinesh planted a seed in my mind last August when I was lucky enough to share a beer with him at his summer tennis club. I arrived there as the sun was setting on a warm night, after a day of tennis playoffs an hour or so south.  I had finished playing late afternoon and was too wired to head home for the night.  His tennis club is like a second home to me, and it turned out to be an inspired destination.

I had played two matches that day and won both.  Sitting with him to debrief was great, but in a weak moment, I got a little misty.  I missed my partner in life who, just a year before, would have been greedy for the details of my competitive day.  The small victories in one’s daily life crave an invested audience.  One of those “meaningful nothingness” things you don’t quite appreciate until it is gone.

Dinesh is an empathetic soul, and often surprising philosopher. In response to my unexpected emotion, he put his hand on my shoulder and said,

“I envy you.”

HA!  How silly to envy my exposed, bereft soul.  Last summer I was as lost as I could be:  heartbroken, untethered, desperate for traction.  Envy me?  Unimaginable!

He went on,

“Within a short time, your daughter will graduate, and before you know it, your life will be full of limitless possibilities.”

Aha! The flip side of the sorrow that comes with loss.  My parents both gone from the earth, my children on the precipice of independence, and no significant other with whom to meander?  Dinesh equates that sad concoction to limitless possibilities?

A year ago, I had morphed into such a pathetic shell of myself that the words of my insightful friend sort of floated around me, as though they were more to be studied, figured out,  than applied.  My imagination for myself had gone the way of my self-esteem at that juncture. I could barely recognize me, let alone re-imagine what I could become.  A year ago, all I wanted was turn back the hands of time.  Undo the mounting sorrow.

In fits and starts, I would advance, but traction remained elusive.  Three steps forward inevitably led to two backward. Mostly, I was disappointed in myself. I couldn’t find a way to move ahead, to let go of what diminished me.

I applied Dinesh’s observation like a mantra, wanting to believe it.  Candidly, my jaded soul didn’t and the mantra took a cynical turn.

Picking up medical unmentionables for Uncle Bobby might prompt a sarcastic take,

“Right, look at me and my life of full of limitless possibilities!”

A Friday night with no company to count on might engender,

“Just me and my limitless possibilities!”

Perusal of dating sites offering tattooed, Harley riding, big game fishing men for my consideration might result in,

“Great, all these gems with whom to share my limitless possibilities.”

This past year felt like one endless limitation.

I’m not sure why, but recently Dinesh’s mantra began to resonate.  I helped it along with a some literal and figurative spring cleaning.  With bravado, I actually dumped the junk someone left me, right on his front stoop. As though it weren’t enough for him to bury me in his emotional junk, he left mounds of literal junk.  I felt lighter in the return of it.  A small, but important step in the embrace of limitless possibilities.

It’s interesting how sometimes a small step can thrust you forward.  And so it was with the junk dump.  The lightness I found in the result compelled me to think forward. Wistfulness was replaced by a tug of hope, a distant barely perceptible tap of actual optimism on my shoulder.

That one relatively small action gave me back some of my power, helping along the feeling that maybe it can begin to take hold.  With the arrival of spring, the myth of limitless possibilities suddenly seems less like a self-deprecating mantra and more like a reachable concept.

As I write this, a message comes in from my Russian friend, who continues to humiliate me in online chess.  He writes after my recent move,

“Bold move, I like it!  Just don’t get carried away.”

Message received!  I love a little metaphorical serendipity! A good reminder that reinvention might be best achieved in small steps.  I contend that playing a Russian in chess to begin with requires a bit of cock-eyed optimism.  Once upon a time, I had a stockpile of it.

So, to my Indian mystic, I say thank you for the gift of imagination for me. Rest assured, your words were not wasted on a sultry August evening, just held too carelessly.  I needed time to understand them, some healing to grasp their power.

Let it begin; the rising, the planning, the rebuilding, the moving forward to something which holds promise. I have learned that the world does not stop spinning on its axis just because I choose to slow down in self-imposed sadness.   I will try to be bold in imagination for myself, smart in preparation, and open to the truth that my life is indeed filled with limitless possibilities.

Food , Glorious Food

Several years ago I had the great fortune to direct a middle school production of “Oliver!”  Little did Charles Dickens know that this dark story of orphaned boys in early 19th century London would be brought to life with such grandeur.  Notably, The opening number, “Food, Glorious, Food!”  perfectly captures the yearning for comfort food.  So good is that opening that you can almost taste the morsels which make the sooty-faced orphans pine.  Do we eat to live or live to eat?

When my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in September of 2005, it took nearly 3 weeks for the doctors to make an accurate prognosis.  It was imperative that they find the source of the initial cancerous cells first. That wait was almost inhumane, but my mother bore it with remarkable stoicism.  I suppose she knew that the cause mattered not at all, the result would be the same regardless of where those insidious buggers began their destruction.  Of all the Irish luck,  the roulette wheel landed on the adrenal gland, giving her an extraordinarily rare cancer with little evidence of successful treatment, and no positive outcome at the stage 4 level.  The prognosis was 3 months to live.

My mother, father and I left that prognosis meeting in silence, each of us digesting the news which was delivered with compassion by an oncologist whose name I don’t even recall.  We drove the 10 miles from his office to my parent’s suburban colonial, each in our own stillness  Mom was exhausted when we got home and went directly upstairs.  Not knowing what else to do, I followed her and asked her what she would like for dinner.  Seems a silly question in light of the news, but dinner plans were important in my Irish Catholic home.  Throughout my life the day seem to start with the question, “What’s for dinner tonight?”

She sat on her bed,  thought carefully and said, “I think I’d like some meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans.”  Okay then, that was easy enough.  I ran out to the market and got the goods and prepared while she napped, while my poor dad sat in the den struggling to wrap his mind around the inevitable.  

Meatloaf is best made with your hands; it’s nearly impossible to meld the hamburger, onions, eggs and breadcrumbs properly with a spoon and my mom’s kitchen had no such modern convenience as the Kitchen Aid mixer.  The old fashioned way was best, and there was something cathartic in preparing that loaf and finally pressing it into a bread pan, topping it with a Heinz Ketchup glaze and setting it in the 350 degree oven.  Mashed potatoes are more work and in my mom’s kitchen the Foley ricer was the tool of mashed potatoes.  Once they were boiled, peeled and cut, the stainless steel contraption would do its magic, smoothing out the potatoes so that just the right amount of milk and butter would create a creamy, fluffy concoction.  Green beans take no effort at all.  A quick boil and shake of salt and there you are.

Mom had lost significant weight in the months before diagnosis and her appetite had dwindled significantly since the word Cancer had been introduced nearly a month before.  In a twist of Irony, she often mused that she wished she had eaten what she wanted during her middle years, rather than battle her weight.  Juicy hamburgers and creamy sauces on pasta were traded for white fish and chicken, chicken, chicken after a heart attack stopped her in her tracks in her early fifties.  She survived the heart scare and thought perhaps that might be enough medical complication for a lifetime. There is a hint in there somewhere that we ought to live a little more freely while we may.

I prepared her plate of food, which she wanted to eat in her room.  On the tray, I put a placemat, silverware and a cloth napkin with a sterling silver ring.  A small glass of whole milk was a bonus and I carried it up the stairs carefully.  She was awake, but lying down when I walked in.  Upon my entrance, she scooched up and rearranged her pillows.  In that moment, she may as well have been just battling a cold or the flu.  Regardless of the dire information of the day, her countenance was peaceful, tired, but she was, as always, receptive and polite.  You could almost forget in that moment that the number of nights in the home she lived for 45 years were nearly over;   that nights of peaceful sleep were now numbered.  She asked me to put the tray by her side in the empty space to her right.  

I sat on the floor next to her for thirty minutes or so, but we did not talk of cancer or doctors or what happens next.  As I remember it, we spoke of my children and how long I would stay this visit. We planned my return the following weekend.

Mom didn’t touch a morsel of that meal on that October night.  Nor did she eat a bite of the roast chicken, baked potato and broccoli I made a week later.  Same for the pork chops, applesauce and potato she requested subsequently.  Her appetite was long gone now, and her tastebuds were muddled with medication.  It took me some time to understand that it was the smell of those comfort foods she craved; the soothing effect that comes from the aroma of the foods we love.

Mom passed away not 7 weeks later on the greatest food day of all time: Thanksgiving.  I’ve grown to love the irony.  Her death was met with kindness to my dad from all corners, and that kindness came often in the form of food.  His freezer was filled for almost year with casseroles, lasagna, chicken parmesan, chili,  and creamy soups.  Not a soul worried for him about carbohydrates, salt or sugar intake.  Not one person prepared white fish for him in the year following my mother’s passing.  Food, high calorie, delicious food, was their show of love.

This musing of mine is brought on as I watch Uncle Bobby’s appetite dwindle to nothing.  His most notable activity each day is to go to breakfast and dinner at the assisted living home.  He gave up lunch months ago, and sustains himself midday with Oreo’s and Fig Newtowns.  He will occasionally slip in a wedge of apple in a nod to health.  I puzzle at the menu at “Maplewood”, as it reflects our generations obsession with healthy eating.  The menu is fancy and announces “farm to table freshness”.  It’s impressive in its breadth and attention to detail, but Uncle Bobby and his dining companions often comically remark on the offerings.  

“What’s this, Fra Diavolo with roasted red peppers?”

“”Sea Bass? Where’s the fish and chips?”

“Since when did brussel sprouts become popular?”

I get the marketing of assisted living.  I understand that the elegant presentation in the dining room is not really for the residents, but rather the families who are trying to come to peace with the fact that the comfort of home is gone now for these elderly loved ones.  So while I understand it, I wish I had the courage to march into that kitchen and meet the chef face to face and announce, “Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy, hotdogs with mustard and relish, spaghetti and meatballs.  That’s what they want!”

But like Dicken’s orphans, they will push their fancified gruel around the plate, and fill their imaginations with the glorious food they loved throughout their lives.  If they are like Uncle Bobby, they will wish for the midday to come so they can inhale some Oreo’s or Fig Newtowns, or his other guilty pleasure: buttery Ritz Crackers.  Food, Glorious Food, Indeed!

Whisper Words

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Dwindle,  Hospice…… These are whisper words.  They have no hard notes.  There is no inclination to shout or spit them out.

Dwindle,  Hospice…… One word demands quiet attention, the other solemnity.

Just a little over a week ago, Uncle Bobby lifted me for a moment from my “Januarys”.  These last ten days he has found himself face to face with the ultimate “Januarys”.   His physical struggles are mounting, as his likely consuming lung disease is compounded by what appears to be a rapidly enlarging prostate. The two have joined forces to steal away his humor, patience, and energy.  This is how it is for the elderly at the end of a life well lived.   Their survival is tenuous.  Uncle Bobby has been a veritable house of cards for some time now. He is a fragile fellow.

My father died in this heinous month, seven “Januarys” ago.  In the late weeks of his final December, I recall a nurse selecting a charming word to describe his countenance,

“He’s got the dwindles”

The dwindles sound so benign, don’t they?  The word almost has a nursery rhyme lyricism to it:  Jack be nimble?  Jack has dwindles?  And if it is true that we revert to our child-like self’s as we come closer to our end,  then it is the perfect word.

Since an unexpected ambulance ride to the emergency room last Saturday,  Uncle Bobby has shown the tell-tale signs of “the dwindles”.  He is as moody, irritable and confused as a petulant three-year-old boy who can’t have what he wants, when wants it.  Despite his natural charms, he has always had room for complaint, but this past week they lack bite and fluidity.

The criticisms and concerns of this week are not spiked with entertaining self-righteousness.  His delivery is weak and his intellectual rants trail off prematurely.  There are no stories of yesteryear this final week of January, no perseveration about the Dow Jones, or sharp observations about the three-ring circus of presidential politics.  This week he is diminished; just a shadow of himself.  He will be 90 on April 7. He is deservedly exhausted. He has the “dwindles”.

The medical complication which landed him in the emergency room last weekend returned on Tuesday. It was suggested by the facility where he lives that a Hospice evaluation be done.  This exercise was done six months ago, and he was declined. There is a joke in here somewhere about a club into which you hope never to be accepted.  Suffice it to say, acceptance to Hospice care is almost akin to gaining admission to Harvard. If the standard at Harvard starts with perfect SAT’s, 4.0 GPA,  and a stacked resume, Hospice expects the same excellence in medical complication.  Remarkably, the “dwindles” qualify.

Hospice is a potent whisper of a word. It meant nothing to me at all until my mother entered its care in the last week of her life.  My father did the same three years later. From the cacophony of hospitals and nursing homes, Hospice nurses floated into our lives like gentle sprites, attending to my parent’s comfort and dignity with the kind of grace reserved for only the finest of angels.  Starting this week, Hospice will relieve Uncle Bobby’s underpaid, overworked and sometimes under trained CNA’s.  They will also help both of us prepare for the journey ahead.

When I listened to the voice message from Hospice while driving along a congested stretch of I-84, I was surprised by my own quiet tears.  For a year now I have been so focussed on the “tree’s” of Bobby’s care that somehow I lost the “forest”.  My heart aches to consider my own forest absent him.  He is the last of my Mohican’s.

Acceptance into Hospice care does not necessarily mean that death is imminent, though it suggests that 6 months is a fair barometer of time left. For my Mom and Dad, Hospice care meant days.  For Uncle Bobby, the prognosis remains unclear and there is always the chance that the gentility of Hospice attention will strengthen him somehow; that he will rise again to stave off the inevitable.

It is not lost on me that one year ago, when Uncle Bobby moved here from Providence, that I was experiencing my own emotional “dwindles” from which his presence demanded that I rise. He has been Hospice personified for my broken heart.

A dear friend gave me a poetic perspective today: Hospice suggests the “edge of the end”.   

She said it like a whisper.