Me and My Hobby….

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I had an old friend who once loved competitive tennis and me.  During his meandering, protracted exit from us, he said in a pique of unexpected anger,

“You #%! @?!  people take your ‘hobby’ too #%! @?! seriously!”

There was purposeful bite in the delivery and the expletives were splendidly explicit. The purpose of the pronouncement was not really to mock competitive tennis, but rather to diminish me.

Diminishment of me sort of became his hobby for a memorable stretch of time. He took that pretty #$%*! seriously.

Every once in a while, the anthology of cruelty he built with words echoes in my brain; sneaks into my frontal lobe despite the good work I’ve done to exorcise it.  That’s the thing about words I guess; powerful, deafening bells that can fade in time, but the echo never really gets unrung.

Words, words, words…. That “sticks and stones” nursery rhyme? Pure poppycock.

I’m nothing if not painfully reflective, and so two years later I might adjust the missive to suit my own voice

“Aren’t you lucky to have a hobby that means so much to you!”

Damn Straight, I am!

I recently returned from the United States Tennis Association forty and over Sectional Championships, held North of the great city of Boston.  With ten incredible ladies well passed the 40-year-old mark, I took my place on indoor tennis courts which baked in their aluminum and steel coverings all day during this relentless August heat wave. No such luxury as air-conditioned indoor courts North of Boston.  I felt like a hot dog at Fenway Park, just sitting on one of those rolling griddles waiting to be plucked and put out of its misery.

And boy was it &#%!? fun!

I admit, USTA competitive tennis can seem a little nutty to the layperson’s eye, and perhaps some of us border on obsessive. But dadgummit, it is a rare joy at our age to compete athletically for something that means anything.  Candidly, it’s been part therapy for me as I have muddled through the last 2 years.   The tennis court is a place of peace from the perseveration of things over which I have no control.

And like love, serious often comes with unadulterated joy.

I am an athlete of the Labrador variety.  As a child,  I would chase or gather any orb in site.  Softball, basketball,  and golf were the choices in my athletic prime.  Tennis was just an entertaining way to while away an afternoon with my friends after the real games were done.

At 42, I turned to tennis when sports of my childhood became more memory than sensible reality.  The ladies and gentleman I play with on USTA teams are a raggedy clan of athletes who find that competing at this stage is worth every groan of lumbar or knee, every piercing pain that shoots through shoulders and elbows.   On the court, we feel young and tend to our aches with a gladiatorial pride that we ache at all; so happy we are to still compete.

I am also mostly Labrador in my everyday life; friendly, engaging, playful and approval oriented.  Once the sports bra and the nearly too short tennis skirt gets wrestled onto my middle-aged body, all bets are off.  When I take the court in a USTA match I am there to do one thing: to win.  I am helped a great deal to that end by an opponent’s bad line call or any hint of mental gamesmanship.  Any whiff of arrogance or unsportsmanlike behavior across the net from me and it’s GAME ON!  Once a match is settled, I revert off the court to my affable self.

I have a wonderful regular woman’s partner whose on court disposition is quite different from mine.  She loves a little chatter with the opposition on side changes and court controversy discomforts her.  Her game face demands peace and focus on that fuzzy yellow ball. She calms my fiery competitive core when it overheats, while I draw grit from her zen-like center when our backs are to the wall.   Accepting each other as we are leads to winning more than losing.

This is not to say my tennis life is all serious business.  Often, USTA matches in regular season are just plain fun.  Locally, I usually know and like my opponents and those matches can seem inconsequential and controversy free.  On those days, I marvel at the lot of we middle aged athletes racing forward and backward, side to side, chasing that fuzzy ball at endless risk of injury which might wreak havoc in our “real” lives. On any match day, a teammate might catch me doing a little salsa step on the court, cuz even when it’s intense, I never forget that it’s fun.

As well, this midlife foray into tennis has brought to my world people I might otherwise never come to know in my regular world.

I have USTA tennis to thank for unexpected friendships with international flavor: Russian, Indian, Moroccan, Japanese, Chinese, German, South African, British and Spanish. I count among my tennis pals: Nurses, teachers, businessmen and women, scientists, attorneys, allied health professionals, and many friends who are chief executives of their families.   They have all added texture and richness to my life off the court.

Hmm.  That’s some serious musing about a ‘hobby’, and maybe more metaphor about life than anything else.

As in life and love, commitment, dedication, investment, enthusiasm and stamina are noble attributes to apply.  The rewards generally reach beyond expectation.

Taking one’s hobby too %&#*! seriously might apply to risking your life to find a Pokemon. Tennis, golf, knitting, writing, and anything that constitutes a “hobby” deserves enthusiastic engagement. Otherwise, what’s the point?

My ladies team advances forward to next weekend’s New England Regional Championships with a shot at a spot to compete in the national USTA Championships late October.

What’s that I hear in the distance?  Hmmm, I think it’s the echo of that swagger I used to have, coming to find me.

Belittle my hobby all you want, but at 54 that calls for some serious %$@!* celebration!

 

 

Sifting….

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It has been a month since his death, and friends want to know what life is like for me in a “post-Uncle Bobby” world.

Well, the big stuff is behind me.  Funeral done, the attorney engaged, insurance claim forms filled out and his apartment cleared.   My garage is filled with the big stuff: a bed, chairs, tables, walker and boxes of clothes which will find their way to Goodwill. I held out a wonderful terry cloth bathrobe and flannel shirt to call my own.

The real treasures, however, are inside my home and they cannot be rushed.

What do I do now?

Often, I find myself sifting.

Sitting Indian style on my office floor reaching into boxes with the intent to discard, but instead minutes’ turn to hours and the save pile outperforms the throw away by a wild ratio.  They are too rich, these treasures he brought forward with him through 90 years.  These boxes in which I sift and lose myself inform me further the measure of the man.

Uncle Bobby was a sentimentalist.

There are pictures, so many, of a grandfather I never knew, but am finally coming to know.  Louis Barry died when Uncle Bobby was 14, my mother just 10.  He was handsome and tall and a man of letters, and writing…. reams of writing.  My grandfather was a storyteller with a devilish wit.

A letter, typed on the most delicate sheaf of yellowed paper to the Reverend Father Gilfillan dated December 19, 1938, extols the virtue of straight bourbon over whiskey or mixed drinks,

“Cocktails, a distant relation to both alcohol and whiskey, is ruinous to health and happiness, and mostly consumed by the idle rich, actors, actresses and the great writers.”

Or the letter dated July 12, 1936 to his son,

“Dear Bob,

            How about the warts?  All is quiet in Providence.  Mama, Rita and Louise went to Narragansett Pier today, while I worked.  What is going on at camp?  Are you broke?  Miss you and will send some dough when I can.”

                                                            Love,

                                                                        Daddy

When Uncle Bobby received that letter he was only 12 years old, at the camp in Matunuck, RI that he spoke about wistfully to me 78 years later.  Imagine, “Daddy” taking time for his boy on a hot July day.  I think I would have loved my Grandfather.  He was a sentimentalist, too.

Two years later, there is a note card from Bobby written in cursive,

Dear Mother and Dad,

            I suppose you are waiting for this letter I am sending you.  I suppose you want to know what I do down here and how I like it.”

Uncle Bobby was an anvil even then, dragging himself through the sand with a piece of taffy.  I read and want to say to this 12-year-old boy – “get on with it, already!”

He does in his own time,

” I made friends with the Hunt brothers.  I must say they are the funniest two boys I have ever known.  We went, as we call it, ‘bumming’, and but no luck and had to walk from Bonnet Shores to Wakefield.  I got quite a sunburn on my legs.”

“Bumming” would in due course be called hitchhiking, a little mid-century political correction at play.  12-year-old boys hitchhiking and reporting it to their parents?  There is a beautiful innocence to that.

He closes with this,

            “Please come down to see me on Sunday.  I would be glad of it.”

                                                            Your son, Bobby

            P.S.  please excuse my spelling.

Can you imagine Louis and Mary Barry sharing that letter at the dinner table on Kingston Avenue on a steamy July night?  I imagine my blue-eyed, curly dark haired eight-year-old mother hanging on every word of her big brother’s escapades.

Two years later, Louis would pass away. How Uncle Bobby’s heart must have ached at that loss.

The treasures are bottomless.  There are his sisters report cards from Saint Sebastian’s School.  My Aunt Rita was a crackerjack student, and my mom?   Well, she was a little like me and it turns out my daughter; excelled at what she loved (History, English), and struggled at what disinterested her (Math and Science).  This is new information for me.  I assumed my mother was a scholar. I should have known her patience with me as a student was less virtue than empathy.

As I winnow, I open a delicate envelope with a return address from the Bristol, RI Superintendent of Schools.  Uncle Bobby was a lifelong teacher, and I had no idea he had taught anywhere but Pawtucket.  My heart lurches a bit as I read that this Superintendent was not renewing his contract due to unsatisfactory performance.  It was his tenure year and my sweet, sensitive Uncle Bobby was sent packing.

Who saves that sort of rejection?  It was written in 1966 and was still in his possession some 49 years later.  I would have torn it up on the spot, sunk it to the bottom of a river, or burned it.  A letter like that would be destroyed so as not to give it the power to nick at my self-esteem.

Uncle Bobby was smarter than I;  wiser by furloughs.  That letter, co-mingled with letters of love, is a reminder that humility keeps us grounded.  Failures do not define us, but inform us going forward.

A lesson from beyond the grave, I suppose.

The remainder of his treasures await me for another day.

So what am I doing “post Uncle Bobby?”

Sifting through the treasures; uncovering the lessons he left for me.

Farewell, Uncle Bobby

saint sebs

 

 

And they came, a surprising number of them, to say goodbye to a wonderful man. They came to a beautiful stone church nestled in a quiet neighborhood on the East Side of Providence.  A neighborhood whhere the young Robert Barry slid down snow-covered hills and skated on pristine frozen ponds.  Where he passed a long armed wicker basket among the communicants each Sunday morning at 9 am for forty years.  Where he lived the life of a gentleman for 86 of his 90 years.

And we said goodbye with laughter and tears, and finally, with a full military salute as a young officer handed me a perfectly folded American Flag and with extraordinary grace informed me, “On behalf of the President of The United States, we thank Robert L. Barry for service to his country in the Second World War.”

It was a marvelous day.  And here is what I had to say about my dear Uncle Bobby:

“It is good to be home here in a church which meant so very much to the Barry Family.  Built in 1916, Our Grandfather Louis Barry was one of the builders of Saint Sebastian’s.  Robert Barry served as an Usher here for 40 years.

He was, for most of my life, my elusive bachelor uncle. My earliest memories are of a Volkswagen beetle and my wonder that a man so tall could fit in a car so small.  He was a teacher and a veteran and a constant guest at my mother’s dining room table, not a holiday missed. He loved the great writers, and Herman Melville was his favorite.  He was like Ishmael: a man of the Sea.

It was not until the final years of his life, that I came to know the core of him.

Uncle Bobby was, in no particular order, Charming, stubborn, private, witty, sensitive, resolute, exasperating, and sentimental.  He was, above all things, a gentleman and a gentle soul.

His Accountant, Attorney, Financial Advisor and notably, his cousin John Murphy were intimately aware of how very exasperating Uncle Bobby could be.  No decision came quickly, no action moved upon swiftly.  He was careful and cautious.  All things on Uncle Bobby’s time. When he came to Connecticut to live his final year I came to understand this.  Asking Bobby to move in a concrete direction was much like trying to drag an anvil through the sand with a piece of taffy.  Make no mistake, he was captain of his ship til his final breath.

His charm was disarming.  That was his secret sauce and he spread it around liberally. In the great battle he fought with his body this past year, he always had a reserve of charm.  When he passed away, I received notes and calls from the care workers, mostly young women, mostly Hispanic. They spoke not of his death, but of the songs he might sing to distract from the intimacy of his care, the anecdotes he would share while they went about their noble work, or the questions he would ask them about their own lives.  He had the charm of a true gentleman

As for me, this journey with Uncle Bobby was a great gift.  In his suffering, I learned perspective.  In his mounting challenges,  I learned that patience and trust in the God are essential to finding peace.

He wrote in my elementary school autograph book, which I still have, “To Ellen, Miss America, and my very best girlfriend.”  He remains one of the most memorable men I have ever known.”

 

 

Of Memories and Miracles….

The stories of Uncle Bobby I share going forward will be just memory now.  This Monday morning, I struggle to imagine that I have no tasks which will take me to him in the middle of the day.  I feel untethered today, vaguely rudderless.  I miss that cantankerous soul who fed my soul so richly in this last year.  It has been a gift to share him with you.

On Thursday, July 7, I arrived at Hospice late morning aware that he was at the edge of the end.  Tuesday was marked by his restlessness and agitation.  Wednesday, deep, undisturbed sleep.  He did not speak to me at all on Wednesday and I was afraid I might never hear a complaint, directive, or stream of commentary from his mouth again.  The watch had begun, and while his body was present his soul was working its way to the other side. It’s an interior place the dying inhabit, a stark reminder that we are, indeed, born alone and die the same.

He slept most of the day, occasionally calling out for water.  Gone was the irritation and frustration which marked the last two weeks.  Water was his simple request, only expounding once to tell me,

“I could drink the Atlantic Ocean.”

This lover of Melville and the New England Coastline could drink that ocean.  What a thing, that thirst of his.  Only death could quench it.

The restlessness he had finally left behind inhabited me that Thursday.  With so little to attend to, It was hard for me to light while he lay sleeping.  His peacefulness gave me none and I paced the room, walked the halls, sought out anyone at Hospice for conversation.  As the hours ticked by, I finally found a jigsaw puzzle, intending to hunker down with that for as long as we needed.  Plucking end pieces from the box calmed my nerves as though the exercise were some sort of meditation. It helped me breathe, the distracting nothingness of it, and I was grateful.

Uncle Bobby and I had come to know Liz, one of the Chaplains, during his stay.  She is warm, gentle and always approached him with a charming combination of youth and wisdom.  I was relieved when she walked in his room.  We sat on either side of the sleeping Uncle Bobby, and when he woke once for water, I could see that he was comforted by her presence.

We sat for 30 minutes speaking across from him.  Liz cueing me to tell stories of my Uncle, to get a fuller picture of this man she only knows in his fragility.

Then the most curious thing happened.

Without a knock on the closed door of Uncle Bobby’s room, a hospice volunteer walks in with, of all things, a golden retriever named Polly.  Now, I’m all for the concept of “comfort” pets, but honestly, their entrance felt intrusive.  I want to direct her and her good intentions down the hall to some patient not quite so close to dying.  In addition, Uncle Bobby is decidedly not a dog guy and I am armed with a “thanks, but no thanks”.

Before I can get that out, Polly bypasses both Liz and myself and leaps to place her two front paws right on Uncle Bobby’s stomach.  I am sure this will lead to either a pained scream or direct ascendancy to heaven via the Hospice roof.

Instead, Uncle Bobby wakes gently, smiles and with both of his useless, weakened hands, rubs Polly’s furry head for what has to be 4 minutes.  I am stunned.  Polly then gently retreats and before you know it the Hospice volunteer leads her out of the room and Uncle Bobby’s eyes are closed once more.

Liz and I look at each other with bemusement, neither of us quite sure what just transpired, yet return to our quiet conversation.  She is hungry now for stories of Bobby as he was before age and health conspired to bring him to this place.  I share one of my written stories of his life when he was young and gliding across the frozen ponds of his youth.  She is mesmerized, tears streaming down her face, and takes hold of Uncle Bobby’s right hand.  He sleeps on and it occurs to me that just maybe he can hear this story himself.

As I finish my tale, there is a bark from the hallway. The bark of a dog out of place in such a solemn place.  At the sound, Uncle Bobby opens his eyes, leans forward, and speaks clearly for the first time in days.

“What’s the matter, Polly?”

He then clears his congestion riddled throat, looks at both of us, and says,

“I’m tired now, you two can go.”

I lean in close to him,

“You sleep Uncle Bobby, I’ll be right here, it’s fine.”

With that, he bores into me and, with his characteristic sarcasm wrapped in a wink and a smile, says this,

“Get the hell out of here, YOU have things to do!”

The abruptness and strength of that takes me aback.  Liz strokes his arm, says a final word I cannot recall, and backs away from the bed.  I lean in, kiss his forehead and say,

“Ok, I love you.  I’ll see you in the morning.”

He watches me as I gather my things, I wave to him from the door, but he has no strength to wave in return.  His eyes close.

It was 4 PM.  Uncle Bobby passed quietly, without struggle, at 9:20 PM, alone, just as he came into this world 90 years ago.

I returned to Hospice that night, after his final breath, to sit with this man I loved so dearly until the funeral home came for his body.  It was a beautiful, peaceful time for me.  His eyes were open, his face absent the pain and worry of the previous months.  I closed his lids for him and kissed his forehead one last time.  This Friday we will celebrate his life with a Catholic Mass at Saint Sebastian’s Church in the place he loved the most, Providence, Rhode Island.

When that is done, I will begin to find the life he wants for me.  I will try to bring to my new life a modicum of his humility, generosity, and kindness.  I love you, Uncle Bobby.  Thank you for the gift of your journey.

Small Victories…

Small Victories…

Ah, Savannah! Cobblestone streets which lead to an endless river walk, the hint of hauntings and pirates and…. humidity. My God, the Humidity! 48 hours spent in 95% humidity and thermometers which race to 98 by 10 am. I learned a new term in Savannah: swamp pants. No need for detailed description.

Amidst a swarm of tourists there are caramel coated Southern men who tip their caps and, with honey-dipped accent, say “good evening ladies, y’all lookin’ beautiful tonight.”    It is not lost on me that were the same type of man to approach me on a sidewalk in Danbury, CT, that flirt might feel intrusive or vaguely threatening. On the streets of Savannah, it makes me feel…..well, lovely!

The breadth of architecture in the city almost makes you forget the heat. How many different styles can create neighborhood squares? Georgian, Federal, Gothic, Greek, and Italianate merging together, flanked by majestic oaks draped in Spanish moss and grand magnolias just past their bloom. Rather than distract, the lack of uniform architecture intrigues; each neighborhood like a different movie set. Savannah, you are stunning! I only wish I had more than 48 hours to give you.

But 48 it is, and once my daughter is settled in for a week at Savannah College of Art and Design with the hope of finding her heart’s desire, my mind and body returns to the business of Uncle Bobby. Last week he moved from home hospice to inpatient hospice care at a newly opened local facility. Regional Hospice is stunning in its own way, understated elegance diverts attention from the very real business of the journey to what we hope is peaceful death.

To gain a bed in this elegant, twelve patient model of dignified care, the end must be foreseeable. Uncle Bobby has been dwindling for many months, but the final leg seems a bit like pulling an anvil through the sand with a rope of taffy. His body has mostly shut down, but his mind is where the fight lives. He has a beautiful, nimble, oft surprising mind which scoffs at the destruction of the rest of him.

The hospice Chaplain said this to me recently,

“I have seen denial of the inevitable to nearly the last breath, but I sense something else with Robert. It is as if he has he’s fought so hard in his life that he is conditioned to fight on. It’s remarkable, really.”

I was nervous to be away from him during the Savannah 48 and return to discover that perhaps my concern was justified.

As I head toward his room on Tuesday morning, I am intercepted by his on-duty nurse.

“Well, he hasn’t eaten or taken liquids since you left.”

Confirmation for me that my choice to skip the vacation end of my trip was prescient.

Any swagger gained in Savannah let’s go like helium from a fourth of July balloon. I enter his room with trepidation and immediately spy the nearly empty catheter bag. Uncle Bobby is speaking in low murmur to the local Catholic Deacon who interjects solemn nods with practiced empathy.

“It’s brutal here.”, Uncle Bobby offers weakly to Deacon Peter.

“The nights are the worst. No one pays attention to me.”

That would be the dehydration speaking. Of this I am sure, attention and care at Hospice exceeds reasonable expectation.

His mouth is dry, his eyes sunken and cheekbones more pronounced that just three days before. Gaunt would be the adjective of the day.

It strikes me, as Uncle Bobby drones on, that Deacon Peter is a bit above his pay grade in this moment.

“Robert, is than anything I can offer you in spiritual support?”

I know, of course, that Uncle Bobby’s spiritual underpinnings are well in place. There is an agenda here that no amount of scripture or communal prayer will address. Uncle Bobby knows his agenda, he just needs an interpreter.

There is no warm welcome home when he realizes I am there. He nods to Deacon Peter,

“Oh, here’s my niece, she’s just arrived via airplane.”

He laughs a little to assure everyone he can still tease with effect.

I stand over him,

“Well, hello. I hear you’re doing quite the imitation of Ghandi.”

At this Uncle Bobby realizes that the jig is up, and stares straight ahead, tightening his slack jaw to firmly pronounce,

“Maybe.”

His eyes briefly turn to me to gauge response, only to return to a straight ahead glare which indicates that negotiations are about to begin.

“So, to choose not to eat or drink tells me you’re not hungry or thirsty?”

“No, I’m hungry.”, he replies.

“ Okay then..”, and I shift with the practiced competence of anyone who has raised children.

“What can I do to convince you to drink something?”

With that, Uncle Bobby lifts his feeble arm, straightens his index finger and points to his left.

“I WANT to sit in THAT chair!”.

Clarity! Clarity I can deal with.

He is tired of the bed. The bed he refused to get out of for the past month now frustrates him.

“Let me see what I can do.”, I tell him and take a short leave.

A chat with the head nurse and doctor and some fine negotiation surrounding their concerns for his frailty and suddenly a move to a reclining chair is in the works.

In answer to their concern about his frailty I say this,

“Well, he is dying, and mostly miserable, so I think a request not to languish in a hospital bed is reasonable. If the chair is where he dies, well at least he gets control over something. Right?”

That resonates and the promise is made. Ghandi can nourish himself and the strike can end peacefully.

Uncle Bobby seems unimpressed by my problem-solving success. I return to him with the news and insist the reward for my cleverness be his agreement to take a sip of juice.

He relents

As I lift the lidded plastic cup to his lips, he waves it away momentarily, looks me right in the eyes and says,

“Just because I’m drinking doesn’t mean they can expect me to be some easy boy now.”

I roll my eyes as I watch him take in the liquid,

“Not to worry, Uncle Bobby. there’s not a prayer anyone here will ever confuse you with some easy boy.”

The following morning, I return and Bobby gets moved to the chair, which has wheels. For nearly two hours he sits up and takes in the lay of the land of his new home. He even goes outside for a bit, lifting his face to the sun with closed eyes.

From the garden, we go back inside and sit for a bit in the elegant library where he quizzes my brother, just up from Virginia for a short visit. Then we shift venues to the family room, where a darling elderly lady, propped up my pillows in her wheelchair listens intently to her extended, very animated visitors. They are loud and funny and remembering their childhood in her home. There are references to Mario Lanza and Edie Gorme, and bread from a bakery in the Bronx.

We can barely speak to each other over their din, but it doesn’t matter. Uncle Bobby is smiling and fascinated. He pokes my forearm and whispers, “Italians! I feel like I’m back in Providence!”

Sure, Italians and Irish, constant cousins in Rhode Island and it feels a bit like home in hospice this day.

Uncle Bobby loves this. It is life and living and it takes him away from the smallness of a lonely room and too familiar hospital bed.

It was a wonderful day. He has had too few of them since spring.

He eventually gives in to weariness and we return him to his room. The nurses lift him back in his bed with smiles. They know how important this adventure has been and Uncle Bobby’s contentment lifts them.

As I move to leave I tell uncle Bobby that I’m proud of him. He likes that and it prompts him to finally ask,

“How was Savannah?”

“Just great, Uncle Bobby. I’ll tell you more tomorrow.”

It moves me that this day has taken him away from his perseverations.

While I needed an airplane and the charms of the South to rejuvenate, Uncle Bobby needed but a chair with wheels.

I will tell him that Savannah was, like hospice is today, full of life and living.

Journeys

 

stewart

It is precipitous, this fall to mortality to which I have a front row seat.  Seems like yesterday Uncle Bobby was waxing on about old girlfriends and pontificating about the perilous future of our country.  In a matter of weeks, we are navigating new terrain.  It’s unsettling, this new place, and it calls forth an oddly tireless exhaustion, driven by the grief that is moving into my soul.  A grief in limbo. A larger grief is yet to come, but it has begun its insidious arrival.

Uncle Bobby is still here, but not in the same way.

I already miss the recliner chair that he spent too much time in this long winter. It’s emptiness nicks at me each time I walk into his apartment.   I don’t like the hospital bed in his room.  I wait impatiently for him to give me some indication that he is coming to peace.  Instead, he seems defeated, agitated, and so very tired.  His voice has lost its deep timbre, and today, as he tried to articulate I saw only exasperation in his attempt to moisten his own lips.

“I’m sorry for this baby talk.  It’s all I have.”

No need for apologies, unless they are from the Good Lord to whom Uncle Bobby gives a nod every day.  I want an apology from the Good Lord for stealing this more than good man’s dignity.  I confess that I don’t understand this painful part of taking one’s leave. I want the Good Lord to cease the lessons of suffering and get on with the redemption already.  Uncle Bobby deserves no less.

There is a philosophical query many of us casually engage in​ while we still have our physical and mental health: Would you rather lose your mind or body first?

I am now very sure of the answer.  Take my mind, Good Lord, I could not bear to watch the decay of my body with full faculty.

There is nothing of Uncle Bobby’s body that hasn’t been assaulted.  It is bruised from head to toe, just from shifting in his bed or the caring manipulations of nurses while they bath and change him.  His eyes need warm compresses to alleviate a building film, and reading even the menu of food that he will ultimately just push around his plate with his fingers is futile.  The fingers and the food?   His flattened hands have lost all fine motor skills. He can no longer draw  a plastic cup to his lips to drink with  regular success.  He tries and tries, and spills and spills.  His legs have not borne his weight in three months, his toes are riddled with open cuts threatening infection.  Bed sores spread on his back and bottom as he perseverates about a relentless itch that is a symptom of the overall breakdown of his skin.

He does have his hearing, though.  He can hear loud and clear.  His hearing is so acute that he can hear every creak in the building.  His hearing often interrupts his sleep.

In a rare late-night visit this week to meet a new overnight caregiver,  I was audience to the “sun downing” people  make reference to in the elderly.  As I spoke to Yolanda, his 11-7 guardian, I heard Uncle Bobby’s voice, not calling to anyone, but speaking in sure sentences.  I quietly entered his room to see his right hand gesticulating in the air while he gave what appeared to be a speech.  His voice was sure and strong, his eyes open, but not awake.

“The Congress needs to meet with the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Not just the heroes, but those who suffered as well.  Our country must hear from all good men who served……”

Suddenly, Uncle Bobby is Jimmy Stewart and I am observing a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” moment, and it is entrancing.  Uncle Bobby’s mind is busy, racing in the night.  He has things to say, opinions to voice.  He is a patriot, a World War II Veteran of the South Pacific who suffered in ways we will never know, and at night when his world is quieter he says what he has wanted to say for a lifetime.  He is too much of a gentleman to foist his humble opinion on others in the light of day.  A gentleman who is not yet ready to let go.

Sometime this winter I thought June it would a good time to grab a getaway on the coat tails of my daughter’s summer college experience.  While she studies in Savannah, I’ll steal away to Charleston and try it on for future fit.   What’s a week when I haven’t been away for more than 48 hours at a clip in nearly two years?  Historic Southern charm seemed like a great idea to get the reboot I need. I root for the ocean, Spanish Moss and the sweet smell of magnolia to ease my concern that maybe this liberal Northeasterner might be “too much” for the gentile South.  It’s my year of my reinvention, right?

Let’s put a pause on that, shall we?

Tonight I decided to abbreviate that trip.  72 hours is all I suspect I can stand to be away from Uncle Bobby’s journey.  Even that will be a challenge. I will settle my daughter in and get back to the business of Bobby.  It is the only thing that makes sense to me on this night of a nearly full moon.

They’ll be time for re-imagination galore at the end of his journey.  I’m on his time for the time being.  He is frightened and I am his constant.  I can try on Charleston any ol’ time.

The journey?  Well, the sands have picked up pace in the hourglass.

As for the Good Lord, I confess that despite my religious pause, I can’t quite seem to shake the old Catholic out of my soul. The Good Lord might want to take a listen right now.

“I need you to get busy with the business of Bobby, help him find peace and quiet his extraordinary mind.  It’s time for an assist, Good Lord.”

The assist is well earned.

LISTEN…..

LISTEN

I no longer sit on the diagonal in the living room of Uncle Bobby’s two-room assisted living apartment.  Rather, I sit right next to the newly installed hospital bed in his darker bedroom.  He no longer articulates a desire to get back out to the living area to take his spot in the comfortable lounge chair. The television has been moved to the bedroom, and Fox News talking heads drone on and on, now at a lower decibel.  This absurd, but entertaining, presidential election does not absorb him as it did throughout the previous nine months.

During the last 16 months, Uncle Bobby made it challenging for me to leave at the end of my daily visits.  Almost always there was a “one more thing” as I tried to make my way out the door. Yesterday, as he pulled the white matelassé bedspread to his chin to cover the hospital Johnnie he now wears, he said to me in resignation, “I think I just need to be quiet today, go on with yours.”  Six months ago I would have skipped out of that apartment, relieved by the gift of time.  Yesterday, I left feeling pensive

Since his arrival, Uncle Bobby has conducted the orchestra of people who tend to the business of his dwindling life. His personality, if not his unwilling body, stood tall at the stand as he masterfully toned down the cacophony around him.  He urged on the deep tones of the strings and raised the magic of the wind instruments to suit the mood of his day.  Regardless of his physical challenges, he was a Maestro in command. Today, it struck me that he is preparing to rest his baton.

The world of the actively dying leaves little space for grand conversation or incisive philosophy.  His world is shrinking, his concerns are immediate and deservedly self-centered.  He shows no interest in being helped from his bed to a chair, and “food, glorious food”, holds little appeal.  He is now acutely invested in the relentless itch on his backside, where bedsores have taken up residence. He wonders when they will heal and what can be done to relieve them.  Not much really, besides propping him just so to give them air. Not so very easy or comfortable when every bone and muscle is weak.

Nilda is the primary CNA today and she is a love, as patient and kind as she is beautiful. Widowed young, she found happiness in a new marriage and we have come to know her immigrant story over this incredible year. She speaks beautiful English, peppered with the accent of her Brazilian homeland. I am a fixer, a talker, an impatient American woman who struggles to be more mindful, less reactive.  It is a struggle I generally lose.

Nilda is a listener.

Uncle Bobby needs more listeners these days.

It was beautiful to watch from my perch as Nilda straightened his bedcovers.  She merely nodded at intervals as Uncle Bobby weakly railed on about the frustration of the day.

“It’s a small thing”, he begins, directing the conversation to her.

“Orange juice, not cranberry.”

He pauses to lick his lips, which are always parched now.

“Just a small glass of orange juice to start the day.  Is that too hard to understand?”

Nilda stops and leans into him with and places her hand on his bruised forearm.

“No, no, Robert, it’s not hard all.”

She moves on to fold a blanket.

At this point, I’ve heard so much about the shortage of orange juice that I want to run to the kitchen myself, or find an orange tree and pick a ripe one to squeeze for him.  But I may as well be three states away. Nilda is his focus.

He goes on with resignation,

“Seems simple enough, but she comes back with cranberry!”

He waves his hand in disgust.

At this final agitation, Nilda laughs softly, looks him straight in the eye and says, “It’s  not hard at all, but they get caught up in busy work and don’t take time.”

She turns her eyes to me, “He is so easy, if only they would take time to listen to Robert.”

And with that Uncle Bobby gives Nilda the idiom approval of the week, as he turns his head toward me, “See that.  Nilda just hit that nail on the head with a big hammer!”

Nilda throws her head back, “Oh, Robert, you make me laugh.”

She is done, his diatribe is over, and all agitation is from his gaunt face.  You can see his entire body relax and settle back into the same position he has been in nearly all day.

I feel free to leave.  Nilda can move on to her next task and Uncle Bobby can rest.

Nilda, the Brazilian listener, is a surprising gift to an old man who just needs someone to listen.

Meridians

exhausted

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.