inside out

31 08 2008

I grabbed a handful of fresh dirt and rubbed on top of his casket. Like putting a period at the end of a sentence.  That was the only way to finish it all off. 

 I’m surprised they didn’t have the mound covered with the pseudo- grass pretending to think that the earth didn’t have a big, naked yawning gap in it the shape of a coffin.  I like those interments that are really interring something…lowering the body into the grave. Yes, it’s hard to watch but it is what it is.

When I saw myself in these scenes as I replayed them with each north-south jaunt it felt different.  Maybe its been the years of decline that weathered it all like Lake Michigan driftwood.  The rough sand and pounding surf rounded out all the sharp – grayed up the deep colors.  I need to see it played out on a huge screen, sitting in the darkness surrounded by strangers eating popcorn- to feel it. 

The wail of the bagpiper – the somber processional transported me to some small church in the Highlands, some windswept hilltop grave.   Words whispered to my mom by one of the dwindling number of the Greatest Generation – I wondered if he thinks about what his widow will look like with her trembling hands outstretched as the triangle is entrusted to her.  The soft leather of the interior of the limo – being that car you see and wondering what it feels like to be inside it.  

Engraved forever in my mind the faces of the grandsons standing behind the flag draped oak box. The cacophony of memories leaking out of their eyes – jaws set. What we all really wanted was for no one to be there with us – we wanted to weep like our hearts were telling us to but ceremony dictated otherwise.  

Did you know that in the jewish practice of shiva the mourner is under no obligation to engage in conversation and may, in fact, completely ignore his visitors?  That feels right.  There were inquiries and comments that felt like I was being slapped awake from a dream for no good reason. People tend to keep their distance if grief is openly expressed –  but since I wasn’t sobbing – they thought I was open for business as usual.  The whole time I was wondering if someone was getting their feelings hurt – why should I be worrying about you at my father’s funeral?  

So now on to the business of living.  I will find my space to cry my tears how and when I want to. There is a porch in Michigan that is waiting…wishing we (beedub3club) were there tonight as the lightening bugs start to blink their on and off message that Billy is with us, all around us and he’ll never let us go.  

an open letter to my nieces and nephews be they tulley or mcniece

30 08 2008

There are moments of brilliance in all this gray…I must stay sharp and attentive or I’ll lose sight of them all. There are quiet times around a table that my mom has great clarity about things long since lived. I had quizzed her just the other day about when they were engaged and got a mixed story. She didn’t think that they’d gone to a Cubs game but to some other game in Chicago.

Well with the internet at hand I just figured a good journalist does their best to facts check. The Sox were out of town that weekend in 1947 and isn’t it a bit bizzare that someone has taken the time to post the schedules from that long ago? The Cubs did play that day…and knowing what I do about our family – I don’t care how love sick my father may have been he would NOT have spent his hard earned cash on celebrating his engagement with wasting money on Sox tickets. It would NOT have been. And since most of this is memoire anyway – and the things about that day don’t hang on exactitude…I make the rules.

But there are times when I can cull more and more detail from her jumbled mind too – when the stars line up, when her blood sugar is good – I don’t know that there is a formula I can follow so I grasp and run when they tumble out of her mouth and call it gospel truth. There are times I feel a little like a detective – hearing the story 5 times in the space of a relatively short amount of time – I just cross check facts – if she repeats the same thing 3 times, I call that verifiable. So today’s recounting still had some of the same components plus a few others…two quite contrasting as a matter of fact.

When she got her diamond – they went to the apartment where she lived with her dad, and brother…her dad was over the moon and quite expressive and didn’t let them out of his sight till he prayed a blessing on them. That would be my Grandpa Cummer.

Next was the parade, then stopping by Billy’s house to show his folks. His dad, a civil engineer by trade had a holiday from work. July 4th…and he was busy hanging wall paper in a small bedroom upstairs. I can see my mom (motherless remember) looking for anyone to share in her joy – running up those dark wooden stairs. James Robert McNiece had his head down with probably a board stretched across two wooden saw horses making exact cuts in the wall paper to make it fit. She plopped her sparkely left hand down and said, “What do you think about that?” wiggling her left finger. And his reply was, “You’d better move your hand or I’ll cut your fingers off”…and as she told me the story she laughed and said, “It sounds like something your dad would say”…and to that I say amen and amen.

On one side I’m blessed with warm fuzzy sentimentalism from my dreamer grandfather – the watchmaker, jeweler, theologian, chess player, chocolate ice cream and oreos for breakfast- kind of guy. There will be much to say about him in the future – he was one of the most important people in my life for millions of reasons that you’ll hear all about. Then the other strand of my DNA has this seemingly cold, stoic, gruff, steel-eyed, no nonsense whammy from my dad’s family. And I see myself perfectly in that blend – delicate as it is.

So in an effort to really understand history so we understand ourselves better – I say I’m sorry I’m not warmer and fuzzier when you think I should be – but move your damn hand before I cut your fingers off. I still love you all – but telling you once in your lives is plenty. Get over it.

p.s.  Just in case I ever make it to the Oprah show – I kept doing everything I could to keep fact checking the Cubs game thing…then I found her “diary” from 1947 and they DIDN’T go to a game that day.  It wasn’t until the almost 12 days later…and it was the SOX.  My apologies to Billy for saying “he’d never”…

Here’s to you!  An Irish funeral prayerDo not stand at my grave and weep,

I am not there, I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow; I am the diamond glints on the snow. I am the sunlight that ripened grain; I am the gentle autumns’s rain. When you awaken in the morning’s hush, I am the swift uplifting rush, Of quiet birds in circled flight. I am the soft star that shines at night. Do not stand at my grave and cry. I am not there; I did not die

mairzy doats

29 08 2008

I am numb. I’ve escaped to the anonimity of a hotel. I’m trying to turn my brain off – off load some of this stress. I step into the elevator and the door slides shut…and I start to cry as I see one of the chain’s efforts to decorate the inside of the utilitarian space. And this stupid little poster?

Me, sitting alone in the backseat of whatever car we had back in the day. Driving anywhere – going from one window to the next (we didn’t have to wear seatbelts back in the day). And I’d make up songs (early singer/songwriter DNA gene pool).

But Billy taught me one that I’ll never forget Mairzy doats

Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?
Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?

I don’t think you’d ever think of him as a singer but he had a good voice and could carry a tune. He enjoyed music and as a cousin reminded me, he had a great appreciation for his stereo equipment. Everything was always mounted in a closet – separate receiver, turntable, etc. We were taught how to clean records, carefully place the needle. We never had much money but whatever was invested in that equipment – was well spent.

And the treat of all treats was getting to wear the headphones. It was like stepping into a dream world. Nothing could touch you there – you were swallowed by sound. Even looking at this photo I can still smell and feel those massive headphones pressing in on my head.

Today I will be accosted by the sounds of people talking, sharing, remembering, consoling. I’m terrified of getting trapped in one of those conversations that yammers on about things that I could care less about today. This is probably one of the hardest parts of this whole process for me – having to engage people when my head needs quiet. I’d like to see the people that come to the wake – receive a warm hug – but have my ears drowning in white noise. Like a huge acrylic hamster ball – me inside- watching, observing, lip reading but silent.

Maybe I’ll feel better after more sleep. I woke up at 2 a.m., I’d fallen asleep at 8 p.m. I’ll finish this up, post, have coffee and go back to sleep till whenever. At 1:30 p.m. I’ll be at the funeral home dropping off some last minute casket props. I love set designing. Can I wear an ipod to the wake? Oh, the soundtrack I’d play…starting with The Cure…after all…It’s Friday, I’m in Love.

the boyz n the hood

28 08 2008

You could only be in the club if you knew the secret password:

 “Father Michael, Roman, Lucy, Tino, Cheto, Juanita, Mary, Maria, Michael, Anthony, DeDe, Louie, Tommy, Eddie and Isaac.” – said in one breath.

I was a guera – more WASP I could not be.  

I wanted ethnicity – they had what I wanted.  

Our next door neighbors on Porter Street were this wonderful Mexican family being raised by a widowed mother…a bunch of them.  I remember the buzz around the hood when we knew that Father Michael was coming around.  The older sisters in all their glory looked like they walked off the set of Mad Men, like a  60’s version of JLo.  They probably don’t remember me – I couldn’t tell you who is who to save my soul – but they pressed in on me.  

The ones closest in age – relatively speaking – started with Louie.  I just remember dark, Latin and good looking.  But he had the heart of Mary Jimenez who lived 3 doors down right next to the South Shore tracks.  Mary’s brother JJ was my age – JJ – Juan Jose, Jorge Juan – I don’t know.  It was just JJ to me.  We’d be playing at my house and if we heard the train coming (like it did about every few hours) headed to and from the Loop – we’d run down to stand in front of JJ’s house and wave.  Like our own version of trying to get a trucker to toot the air horn…waving at people staring into space.

Then there was Tommy, Eddie and Isaac – all closest in age to my brother who is four years older than I am.  What girl can’t have a crazy crush on three Latinos living next door that always hung out with her brother?  

Maybe my memory is all whack – but I remember Mrs. Ortiz opening her back door – calling for the boys and they’d line up for hand-outs.  I got into that line a time or two.  Fresh, hot, homemade flour tortillas, dripping with butter and salt.  To DIE FOR.  To this day – one of my favorite breakfasts, lunches, or dinners – but mine are I store bought imitations that I throw on the griddle till they start to puff up.  Carb heaven!

Mrs. Ortiz doesn’t know that I was so fascinated by Hispanics that I started taking Spanish in 5th grade when our elementary school started one of the first bi-lingual pilot  programs in the States.  So many had come from Mexico to work in the Steel Mills that they capitalized on that influx of kids to help us learn Spanish.  Just think of it – 40 years ago we were glad to welcome those workers to our industries and were even smart enough to learn a thing or two about a culture other than our own bland one.  Who’d a thunk it?

And Mrs. Ortiz doesn’t know that in high school and college I took as many Spanish classes as I could.  Nor does she know that then I moved to Spain to live for 12 years.  And she doesn’t know that for the last number of years I’ve been working as an interpreter in a rehabilitation hospital helping Hispanic families who’s kids have all kinds of challenges.

But I see Mrs. Ortiz whenever I’m at work – Latinas that know how to love and nurture their broods.  When the Hispanic families I know are admitted to the hospital – their rooms are full.  Family comes from Chicago, Iowa, Florida, Kentucky – wherever to sit beside the bed of their suffering loved one.  The “white” people’s rooms – especially the older ones – no one comes to visit those grammys and grandpys.  They might be “graced” with a visit when it is convenient on the weekend as long as it doesn’t go too long…

There are so many things I’d like to tell Mrs. Ortiz about.  How I wish I could speak to her in Spanish.  How I’d love to hear her story from her mouth.  But I can’t.  Two hours after my dad died on Monday morning – we got a call from Tommy saying that his 96 year old mom died in another area hospice center.  Two hours later!  Tomorrow I will take my mom to the viewing.  With 49 grandchildren,  74 great grandchildren and 5 great great grandchildren…they may not even notice us come in.  With the exception that we’re gueras.

Wonder if Mrs. Ortiz lives next door to my dad again?  That neighborhood would be heaven.

strawberry fields forever

27 08 2008

It’s called stress eating.  I know it’s wrong but it’s stress. When I’m here in my dream world of a hotel room – alone – tv on – and it’s midnight and I have a mini 7-Eleven in the lobby, I do the wrong thing.  It was only one ice cream bar – not a box full.  About a bite in and I’m thinking of how this ties me to Billy.  It’s all his fault.

We joined the mass exodus from Gary to land in what seemed to me to be Podunksville – Valpo.   My brother and I laughed that kids probably would be coming to school with manure on their shoes.

It was summer when we took possession of our new digs and with working parents – there was no room for idle hands.  My dad was still commuting into his job some 25 miles away and his route – meandering of course, took him right by a big fruit farm. And I’ll be darned if he didn’t stop in there one day and talk them into hiring a 12 year old with zero experience to help pick fruit.  There goes that karma thing again – me thinking everyone was a hick, I suddenly became a farm hand myself.

My boss was an hispanic migrant who lived on the property in a very small trailer with his wife and a newborn.  With acres of land, you’d think that they could have found a shady spot for that little silver bullet but it was parked in the middle of the cracked earth – just like a mirror it seemed to intensify all the heat the sun could dish out.  

It was the tail end of the strawberry season as I quickly learned.  With the sun barely up, I’d have to search for enough berries to fill each small pint container.  There must have been something like 12 pints to a flat and when I got to that magic number I’d get a ticket.  Tickets were turned in at the end of the day and I swear they were worth pennies on the dollar.  But a couple of tickets could be redeemed for an ice cream bar at the farm stand.  Heath bars were new and they were my friend. I’m not sure I ever brought home any money – but I did eat alot of ice cream.

After strawberries came raspberries.  Bushes and scraped up knuckles.  It gave a break to the knees and back and punished the hands and arms.  We’d work from sun-up till about 4 pm.  So hot, so sweaty…our only break was 20 minutes at high noon to eat sack lunches on the back of a flatbed truck in the bald scorching sun.  One afternoon, as I awaited my dad in the lengthening shadows, the foreman invited me into his trailer where he handed his wife 2 pints of raspberries.  Before I knew it I was drinking a concoction of berries pressed through a sieve, some cold water, lemon juice and sugar.  I had discovered the nectar of the gods right there in the middle of that farm field from the hands of a sun-burnt migrant with a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon.

It is not lost on me that 40 years later I’m working with these people again but in the context of a medical system that defies understanding even when a person is 100% red-blooded WASP.  I now have a greater understanding of those families that are bound together by caked earth, sweat and back breaking labor that this little guera couldn’t do in the prime of her life to save her soul.

My first paying gig did more to teach me what hard work looks like than all the other jobs to follow.  And I love raspberries – flavor, berries, preserves…not with chocolate though.  All around me are pieces of Billy stamped on my soul – even to my taste buds.  I can’t imagine that there will be many days that I don’t think about him a million times, in a million ways and with a million tears.


26 08 2008

Billy I know where you are-

you’ve been put back in your proper place and I will find you.

“You me too too and that makes four of us”

              with all the love our hearts can hold-

                                                Rosemary, Melinda, Buddy and “the boss”.

William E (Bill) McNiece  October 31, 1922 – August 25, 2008


p.s.  in case you wondered…this blog is JUST getting started.

hospice bingo

25 08 2008

When we came into the hospice center I feel like we should have gotten a bingo card.  Life isn’t fair and neither is death.  There was a family last week who’s elderly relative was brought in and two hours later – she was gone. They barely had time to find out where the free coffee was.  Then there’s us…two weeks and counting.

Hospice is like the heavenly lotto…I know I’ve said this before but we’ve been overwhelmed with the care that has gone into the design of this entire facility.  A place to do our laundry, quiet rooms to escape to when we need it, a library, baked goods brought in each week by volunteers, pop for 50 cents a can…last Friday two massage therapists giving chair massages along with some aromatherapy and meditation from a stress-relief therapist.  We were like noodles.  Who does this?  What haven’t they thought of…

The demons of hospice live in my head – the voices that come at me each morning I awake grabbing at my cell phone to see if I’ve slept through “the” call – or is my ringer turned off?  – or is my phone not charged?…only to find there were no calls, no news, no changes to report.  A heart still beating at 180 beats a minute, a blood pressure that has dropped lower than 80/50, rapid breathing…then apnea…then rapid…then apnea.  But we are still in the game…  

The voices that echo in the stillness of the night wondering what if I’d never called hospice in the first place…where would we be…better? worse? over?  The screech that says maybe this is a cruel thing afterall – there must be some reason he’s not gone – is he mad at me afterall for having moved him out of the house?  Is there someone he wants to talk to that never showed up?  The whisper that says I must have imagined the severity of his symptoms and put wheels in motion that can’t be stopped.

Then my insanity is gone – like a brain burp.  I focus once again on the bingo card of life and grapple with the harsh reality that our number has yet to be called and I can’t fault the “Caller” for how the numbers come out of the tumble cage – hand picked and carefully read. No mistakes, no re-do’s.

Maybe this long game has been good for us all – a slow adjustment to learning to play the game without Billy right here rather than a  more sudden exit that would have left us breathless and reeling.  This is the marathon bingo – the triatholon event of the sport.  I should have known Billy is a world class competitor.

The clapping monkey is poised ready to swing into action the minute our number is called and our bingo card is complete.  Go monkey go!

spoon anyone?

24 08 2008

 As I sit here in the family room at hospice I’m being assaulted by PineSol.  A volunteer group is in today washing all the toys in the kids’ playroom.  My brother-in-law was spending overnight in my dad’s room last week and at one point – an aide came by and closed the door to the room.  A bit of time went by – the door was re-opened- and all he could smell was disinfectant.   A near daily occurrence at hospice has to do with people moving.  The room was all ready for its next occupant. The idea of cleaning things before they are reused is not new.  It’s generally accepted as hygenic and normal.  Generally accepted…then there was Billy’s way.  

Soon after my dad retired in 1983, my parents really got into collecting antique glassware.  On their small round oak kitchen table is an antique spooner.  Spooners typically came as part of a four piece set along with a creamer, sugar bowl and butter dish.  Since the spoon was the most used utensil – it was kept out and easily accessible.  So my mom became a fancy pants and had a spooner on the table where all the spoons were kept.  

In this last year it was Billy’s utensil of choice.  Everything would be put together in one bowl. “It’s all going to the same place!”, he’d exclaim as one of his most famous concoctions of cottage cheese, peaches, scalloped potatoes and ham all went in together. And bowls were easier so he could “catch” his food.  He’d reach across the table, grab a spoon out of the spooner and dive in.

 Then as he’d be finishing up – out of the corner of my eye I’d wait for the next stealth move.  Sure as shootin’ – what I thought had been happening WAS happening.  He’d lick the spoon clean, polish it with the bounty from a kleptogenarian outing (lots of “slopkins”) and slyly reach across the table and drop it back into the spooner.  Now a real conundrum…when I’d go to grab a spoon to stir my coffee…which is the one spit washed?  The answer – probably all of them.

Everyday – sometime in the day – at least the days I was there – I’d grab out those 6-8 spoons and wash them WITH SOAP AND WATER.  These were the times that I’d just shake my head in disbelief of how dementia could change a person.  As I live and breathe there was a day he would never put up with such antics.

Being a good Midwest Baptist family, we’d have a typical large Sunday dinner after returning from the morning services and Sunday School.  I remember looking forward to such lusciousness once a week.  The menu was only on a two to three week rotation but I don’t ever remembering hating any one of the options.  Two favs were roast beef, carrots, mashed potatoes and gravy or fried chicken, green beans and mashed potatoes.  Fancy jello salads were part and parcel of kitchen caches in the 50’s and my mom had her specialities that would be assembled Saturday night for Sunday’s feast.  My personal favorite:  black cherry jello, a can of pitted black cherries in their juice, topped with small marshmallows.

I say it was a favorite but in the interest of full disclosure, I need to modify that some…I liked parts of it – the marshmallows and the jello.  Those mushy black cherries, not so much.  So I formed an alliance with my brother, four years my senior, that I’d pick out the cherries and give them to him if he’d give me his marshmallow topping.  Deal.  Clever devil that I was – I figured a way to get all the jello off the cherries before I gave them up.  Noone could figure out just HOW I was able to get those cherries SO clean.  Duh – that is easy – I’d just pop them in my mouth – whoosh them between my tongue and cheek a time or two – sucking off all the jello and put them back on my plate before the trade.  

Then I got caught…and this is the stuff of family lore.

Billy’s take on my deception should be added right along side my entry.  

The moral of the story…if you’re ever at my mom’s you might want to drop your spoon on the floor, excuse yourself from the table and wash it before you start eating. And smile when you think of silly Billy.

you can’t get there from here

23 08 2008

 I remember being quite young and feeling like a trip was taking too long or that the roads didn’t look familiar and I’d start to whine thinking we were lost…and he’d play along knowing full well where we were and how to get to where he was headed.  He could not be accused any form of road rage either – but he was probably the cause of some rage behind many a shaken fist.   He meandered…poked…Sunday driver on steroids…speed limit or under – you get the picture.  But he was an excellent driver and because he logged hundreds of hours a month in his NIPSCO vehicle – only his left arm at just above the elbow at the T-shirt sleeve line was perpetually tan.

 He knew nothing of the internet or relying on some androgynous voice telling him to “turn left in 500 feet…”  I never remember seeing him take out a map – he just knew.  I learned I could always trust my dad’s internal compass even in a raging blizzard.  But there would be those occasions when someone would ask him for directions and his first answer was always, “You can’t get there from here…”  And he was usually right…it is one thing to get somewhere as the crow flies and then there was Billy’s way.

 I learned that there are many ways to get to the same destination.  Some might be fans of going miles out of their way to get to the limited access highways when Billy knew full well that there were perfectly driveable two lane highways that  would eventually get him to where he was going.  “What’s the big hurry…”

After he was hospitalized last spring with a serious illness, the committee was in residence to help with rehabilitative care and we’d been toying with the decision.  Someone grabbed his keys to use his car and was met by a horrible surprise.  A special kind of treasure hunt revealed that he had taken one of those urinal cleaner cakes – deodorant things – and put it under the driver’s seat as a “freshener”.  Wow…that pushed the NO vote forward…

And in all of the adventures of the last couple of years I would have to say that taking his keys away was hands down the hardest, lowest, most rotten thing we could have done.  His voice would crack with emotion anytime he told people that we wouldn’t let him drive any more. And it’s not like he’d forgotten what we were doing to him as  the most recent time he mentioned that we wouldn’t let him drive anymore was just within the last month and a half.  To this day I’m not sure how I feel about that particular decision.  But after losing his keys while in a store we felt like we needed to take definitive action.  Yeah, we felt “safer” but he felt miserable, bored, useless and punished.  

He loved his car – it meant independence and freedom.  He’d go to garage sales or resale shops, the dollar store or grocery store, church or post office and a million places in between.  Always comin’ and goin’ – my mom would never know half the time where he was or when he was coming home.  Often he’d drop a few dimes in a pay phone from the grocery store before heading home to ask if there was anything she needed from the store. 

So what goes ’round comes ’round…we cannot understand how he is still hanging around.  His body cannot take much more – it just can’t.  We feel that we’ve been in this space for much longer than a ten days…this feeling of imminence.  But he’s back in the driver’s seat calling the shots.  He is behind the wheel and he’s gonna backroad it the whole way home takin’ his sweet time.  Just putzing…

a birthday for billy

22 08 2008

When the committee began talking about things that might be important for us to put our hands on in these last days – one of the biggies was my dad’s Bible. There is book shelf with a full 36″ of Bibles of all sorts, sizes, colors and styles…but not THE Bible. The one we were all thinking about was the one that we grew up seeing him carry to church. We all knew what it looked like, smelled like, felt like but it wasn’t to be found. But those deemed by the fates to be purveyors of trinkets REALLY know how to look. I walked to the shelf this morning and within less than 5 minutes I found where it was stashed.

In his distinctive block print – his name…William E (only) McNiece. Do you know what E (only) means? It is just an ‘E’…no dot behind it because it is not short for anything…just plain old ‘E’.When he would sign important papers he’d write the “E (only)” so there was no mistake. Does that E stand for everything, everlovin’, even-tempered, even-keeled or every-man…just an E. What is it in our human nature that doesn’t GET simplicity…the simpler something is – the more explanation it requires…”Your middle initial?”…”E – but just E – E only – it’s not short for anything…it’s just an E.”

Carefully I bend back the fragile sheet – this was a gift from his fiancee who was to become his bride eleven short weeks later on the day after her 21st birthday. They’d met during the Holiday season of 1945 at Christmas caroling party…and somehow his hand found hers and both were snuggled away from the freezing temps in the warm pocket of his Navy issue pea coat. He was in the process of being honorably discharged after his three plus years of service in the Asian Pacific Theater – his discharge would be official by the end of the first week of the new year.

“You should have seen him when he was courting,” she reminiced.  They dated about a year – beach parties with friends, church events – their relationship progressed and she received her diamond engagement ring on the evening of July 3rd.  The 4th was celebrated by going to a parade then into Wrigley Field for a double header Cubs against the St. Louis Cardinals.  I remember her saying that she spent the whole time just staring at the sparkles on her finger.  

Sixty years of marriage.  A household that was marked by love – gentleness – quiet strength. The sundial that stands in their front yard – a great reminder of what it takes to stick to the business of making 60 years work or 6 months for that matter.  Sundials don’t work unless their starting point is true north…and I think they figured which way was their north.