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.

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.