my shekhinah

21 08 2008

By 5 a.m. she was up and an hour and half later, showered, dressed and breakfasted, she was ready to be back at Hospice with my dad. Aside from her desire to get there sooner than later- it also gave me a chance for the changing of the guard allowing my brother to go back to mom’s house and get some sleep, eat something decent and chill a bit before doing it all again tonight. Billy had a dose of morphine soon after we’d arrived – but he was awake enough to give “knuckles” to my mom when she reached for his hand. The nurse thought he’d been plagued a long time with arthritis in his hands because they looked so stiff and swollen…”no,” I told her – “that’s new”…more and more edema in his extremities. Slowly the fluids will continue to back up in his system. No more meds to help rid the body of what the heart can’t take care of…the pump is just too weak.

Sticking to my guns of the lipstick threat of yesterday -when my phone vibrated- I stepped outside to have the conversation. All reports of the last 12 hours given…everyone was informed. After a few minutes of sitting in the warmth of the morning sun with the faintest tinge of crispness in the air, I realized that summer is waning – but I’m still in Indiana. It was time to go back inside. As I got up from strattling a pretty fountain with no water in it – one foot in and one foot out – I lifted my head to see the shekinah glory…hovering right above the entrance to hospice. Well of course, it’s there – I’ve been feeling it all along.

Just the tiniest residual of Sunday School imagination made this come true but my rational mind says this is actually a contrail, vapor trail or jet trail whatever it’s called…from one of the gazillion jets a day coming to or from O’Hare that has part of its trajectory over this part of the state. But I didn’t have to see it, it didn’t have to be right over the entrance…but it was – my shekhinah glory…just for me.

Shekhinah means to settle, inhabit or dwell. And just when I need things to mean what I want them to – I turn to WIKIPEDIA: “The Shekhinah is held by some to represent the feminine attributes of the presence of God (shekhinah being a feminine word in Hebrew), based especially on readings of the Talmud.[1} And I needed it today – when I can’t figure out why this is taking so long, when I’m too tired to be gracious, when I could sleep 20 hours, get up and sleep some more. But shekhinah is here – hovering – knowing what’s what – in charge. My shekhinah.

this is my body

20 08 2008

I’ve been holding on to this post since the 21st of July. I’ll give you “pre” event thoughts and give you the “post” event some other time.

07/21/08 – 6 pm EST – Grand Rapids, MI

This is my body…which is broken for you.

Tomorrow at 10 a.m. the pastor is going to my parent’s home to celebrate communion with them. It almost took my breath away when I heard my mom say that…who does that? I’ve never known anyone to do that. It’s my birthday – 53 of them to be exact. I was selfishly guarding the day to myself…wondering if I could put off going down for one more day. Until I heard that.

I feel like I need to be there for that holy moment. How will my dad react? Will he just cry? Will he know it may be the last broken bread and wine he has on this earth? Or will it be marked by a release…his understanding that he’s free to go…all his affairs are in order? Does he understand that this isn’t the treatment that everyone in the church gets? Will it feel like he’s awake during the Last Rights?

This is my body…broken for you.

His body is so broken. His skin is transparent – like parchment paper delicately laid over a skeleton. Too much paper in some spots – and not nearly enough in others. Slowly the years have evaporated from his soul. He seems so tired – so ready to go. Maybe he needs to hear how much we’ll miss him and how sad we are to see him so frail and not enjoying life. I always think I should speak those words on my way out of the house…wondering if it will be the last time I see him…and I can’t bring myself to force the air around my vocal chords. I just say, “see you later mister…I’ll be back in a couple of days”

Even if he leaves before I get back – those words are true. I will see him again – and it will seem like a couple of days. And I’ll be so glad to see him again or hear him whistling. He can barely catch his breath. No whistles here. He’s saving them all so that when he shows up in that place…his brothers and sister will hear him coming. His nephew will know that Uncle Bill has arrived. Two moms and a dad waiting too…one who left him as a motherless child so long ago…only to have her sister step in to care for him and the others. And his dad – who he loving shaved for six years when his own soul was trapped in a motionless frame.

Does the pastor feel it? Does he feel my dad’s spirit withering like a week-old mylar balloon?

On my 53rd birthday – I will be there to celebrate life…a life well lived…a life lived in sacrifice for the ones he loved…a life lived in imitation of the One who’s life was willingly sacrificed for many.

I don’t remember ever taking communion with my dad…he was always off DOING communion – serving others – NOT being served. It’s your turn now Billy.

no talkin’ brie

19 08 2008

They aren’t exactly Irish twins but 18 months difference between kids sets the stage for some interesting dynamics- The firstborn was quiet, brooding, mysterious…someone once accused me of leaving him in the crib all day just because he was happy and didn’t need to be entertained. So if the kid was content – why move him? There are four years between me and my closest sibling so I understood the concept of individual play and necessary space. But that second one was always looking to live fully engaged in community – as if she’d been born onto the set of the music video for “Let’s Get This Party Started”.

Her first step onto the stage embraced every ounce of joie de vivre. It took him a while to adjust to the new force in his universe. It was like having a gypsy dancer twirling around him at all times. Colorful and graceful but sometimes just not what he was looking for. She wasn’t deliberately looking to annoy or pester – she was just being who she is designed to be. I don’t think he was more than four years old when his famous words came out with a force that surprised us all – when he’d had all he could take and needed more head space for figuring out a Lego construction designed for someone twice his age – he exclaimed with all the exasperation a mini could muster – “no talkin’ Brie!” So 20 years hence – it is now the code in our household for, “I need space – quiet the chatter – you are suffocating me!”

I’ve thought of that so many times as we are trying now to adjust to Billy’s present reality. One of the things that happens at the end days of life – one will hallucinate or have conversations with others that preceded them in death. Generally these are private conversations as the person is doing the work of preparation for the afterlife…the body is still here talking but the spirit and soul have a foot in the other world. Some people understand it all intuitively – others don’t. But there are those who feel that these conversations are an attempt on Billy’s part to communicate…so before you know it there is hovering and hollering. “What did he say?”

I couldn’t have any more vivid reminder of this than as I sit here typing. While my mom and I are in his darkened hospice room waiting for his bathing aides to arrive and bother the heck out of him, my brother just stepped out to stretch out on a couch in the family room and to watch a dvd. My mom is in a recliner closest to the bed working through her book for word scrambles. My dad has been sleeping since dealing with a number of visitors this morning. People have come in and he’s slept right through. And as I was sitting here working on this very theme…with my eyes on my computer screen, he yells out in a loud voice from deep within his gut- “WHAT?”. My mom levitated off the chair – half way to her feet – leaning in to see what is going on…and his eyes are closed and seemingly hasn’t moved a muscle. My heart is still racing with instant RedBull in my veins. Sweet Jesus – what was that all about? We’ll never know.

There are so many similarities between the beginning and end of life. Picture your first visit to see a newborn sleeping in it’s nursery…tiptoe in, hushed tones, barely moving a muscle. But sometimes in this space what we have is the total opposite…as if we were at a Cubs game hawking down the hot dog vendor! I keep having to restrain myself from whacking people upside the head. I’d be hard pressed to know of too many new mothers that would think it cool for you to walk into that nursery, get in that baby’s face and do the Broadway stage whisper till the baby opened its eyes. Is it just me or does this not make an ounce of sense? Let’s invite 10 people to stand into the baby’s room and chat it up about life while the baby tries to drift off to sleep…that’s not gonna happen.

So I am thinking of advocating for hospice bodyguards…people with a certain kind of energy (and yes I mean that in all the zen- yoga-chi-chakra reality) that set the stage for how to let someone die in PEACE. I want to take my magic wand hands and run them over each individual that comes to visit just like airport security and check them at the door. With my xray ability I will pull them aside and rid them of negativity, excessive drama, too much chipperness, raw sentimentality, crazy ass voices and anything else I deem unfit to be in the presence of my dying father. When your dad dies, you’ll get a chance to choose your own way and your own tone. It’ll be your stage to set.

I don’t blame people because it is normal for us to want to have some significant interaction with people that we love dearly who are soon to be gone. We want quippy last words, we want an endearing look, we want to know that we have been special in the life of that person or to tell them how about the impact they have had on our lives. But what I imagined end of life to be and what it is…or at least in this case seems to be taking it’s own unique course. Billy was never a betting man…but dimes to donuts – he’s waiting till everyone leaves him well enough alone before he checks out.

I’m gonna get lipstick and write across his forehead, “No MORE TALKIN’!”

It’s automagic

18 08 2008

Walking into a grocery store behind my dad not long ago, I remember laughing as he stepped on the rubber mat in front of the door and as it slid open he proclaimed with mock surprise, “It’s automagic!” From one space into the next – with nothing more than a foot fall – a door whooshes open and we’re in.  

Now here we are standing in front of another door with our full weight on the welcome mat and that door seems stuck.  This business of dying is quite tricky.  I’m getting familiar with the signs and sounds accompanying the process but it’s not over till it’s over.  I am still having a hard time realizing that it was exactly a week ago today that hospice came for the assessment interview and by this time I had meds in hand and he had oxygen.  Reading and re-reading the little blue book that tells me what this process looks like I find myself becoming impatient now because I’ve been living it for over a year.  So many times in my drive back to Michigan I’ve spent that travel time thinking of what this reality would be like.   Now I’m here and I’m ready for the next thing.  Seriously.

You’d think I had enough experience with process that I’d learned a thing or two – but apparently not. When my young family first left for Spain in 1983 there were lots of things involved in the passage.  Months of sorting, buying, wondering what we’d need there, what I should take from here – the babies were small, one just barely two years old and the other 7 months…I kept trying to imagine my life here transported to a country I knew relatively little about and imagine myself living there.  Packing up all our belongings and learning my way around phone conversations that dealt with shipping methods, customs papers, inventories, etc.  But that wasn’t the only thing I had to do to get us moved from one place to the other.

There were the dreaded good-byes.  At that point, I knew these separations could mean four years until my parents saw their grandkids again.  It was breaking my heart.  All the little things that they wouldn’t be a part of and would only live through letters…again this was pre-technology iChat, email, skype, and other instant goodies.  Farewell gatherings were exhausting as I felt like I had already stepped through the door but I didn’t fit with all the people hanging on to my ankles holding me back.  I barely had any more tears left because in my mind – I’d moved on and was living with an adreline rush of anticipation to get on to the next thing so I could get my family settled.

Looking back on all of that now – I’d say it took nothing short of a year or two really before things felt normal. What I thought it was going to be and what it turned out to be were two very different thing. It wasn’t just about getting across the Atlantic Ocean part done – it was the journey of doing it all- that made it what it was.  

So I am in this waiting space and I don’t like it much.  I’m projecting ahead and trying to be prepared – wondering how long I’ll be in this spot that seems like the pneumatics on the door quit working.  Will it be in a space when no one else in the room?  Will we all be there?  Will there be words or just mumblings from a hallucination?  Will it be sacred or ordinary?  The threshold is close enough to touch but the door won’t open.  There is no way of knowing what moment in time that is reserved for Billy’s foot fall to be the final “open sesame” – but I know that there are things for me to learn while we wait.

round to roll

17 08 2008

I had just finished college and was living at home saving money before our wedding the following May.  One of the pieces of furniture that we hadn’t begged, borrowed or stolen was a couch.  Sofa beds were the perfect solution for situations like ours where we anticipated some visitors and knew we’d be living in small spaces.  I remember walking through a furniture store in town and falling in love with a tan, gold and brown plaid 3 seater (give me a break it was the late 70’s)…now I was in trouble.  It was the same price as another debt that I was trying to pay off before the wedding.  How I wrestled with what to do and my dad said, “Don’t sweat it.  Money is made round to roll”.

My dad never made much more than $13 an hour by the end of his 34 years at NIPSCO.  My mom had gone to work when I was in third grade to help make ends meet…it put us all through college and I grew up knowing things were tight but we lacked nothing.  Bills never went unpaid, credit cards were non-existent, cars were owned outright – and some things if they had to be purchased “on time” it would be 90 days same as cash.  It was a priority for them to always give back a portion of their earnings to the church and that was always done willingly and lovingly. 

As far as I ever knew, he and my mom both shared the responsibility of dealing with the finances.  In these later years, their social security and pension checks would come in the mail, endorsed and he’d take them down to the bank for deposit – some in savings and some in checking.  Sometime in this last three years, I remember my mom calling me in tears saying that he had accused her of spending all his money or hiding it from him.  Looking back on that now, it was the more serious onset of the dementia.  Calls to the bank, checking out back statements – things that should have been in checking had been put into savings.  No harm – no foul.  

In this last year, arrangements have been made for direct deposit and I check accounts on line to make sure things are recorded properly.  Most bills are automatically paid and whatever might come in the mail awaits my weekly visit in a wooden holder beside the phone.  Saturday’s were “allowance” day – in my running around getting groceries, prescriptions and more – I’d be sure to have cash for both of them.  He didn’t really need much cash – just enough to get things at the Dollar Store, etc.  I don’t know what he’d spend it on – and I didn’t much care.  The man needed bills in his wallet.  Thus I earned the nickname “the boss”.

Once he’d been transfered to hospice, it was a strange feeling for me to pick up his wallet and grab out the bills when I didn’t have time to run to the bank.  I felt so low…stealing from his wallet.  Then there was the issue of his coin purse.  At least once a week he’d pull it out and show me its contents:  a few nickels, a few dimes then some very important coins:  a wooden “coin” with the profile of an Native American Indian with the saying “don’t take any wooden nickels” across the top, a 1922 silver dollar-the year he was born, a quarter with a hole through the middle (“that’s my Sunday quarter – it’s holey”) and last but not least a round tuit (for whenever you get “around to it”).

That funny little coin purse is a reflection of his life.  It’s just money and just round to roll…some issues are more important than the bottom line.  A true blue collar family that learned to live in the tension of frugality and generosity.  He’s not leaving this earth with much in his pocket but he is a wealthy man.  That couch I bought – long gone (thank God) but the lessons stuck for life. He never took money too seriously – he let it do it’s job – but always held it in an open hand.  Usually extended to someone who needed it more than he did.  And he did that well.

no more down and outers

16 08 2008

Orange juice.  Chocolate ice cream.  Cranberry juice. Three things that we never knew him to like.   A fan blowing on the face.  Hanging up things we can’t see.  Carrying on one way conversations.  Using invisible tools. Two blankets and freezing cold.  Watching two “bugs” battling on the wall.  Twisting up an entire blanket.  Perfectly still.  Not breathing for as much as  30 seconds.  Talking.  No talking.  No eyes open. Mouthing every word to Amazing Grace as the chaplain played his guitar. Trying to sit up.  Not moving a muscle for the entire night.  Bright blue eyes staring through you.  “I’m just trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing…”

But we are quiet. We are at rest.  We’ve all read the booklet left us by a hospice nurse.  A folder full of pamphlets  – but this ONE…we must read.  Yeah right.  Do you know how much information is coming our way?  But these people radiate such an energy of calm and a quiet “in charge” that their lead must be followed.  They have not been wrong yet.  They do death.  That little blue book explaining the signs we will see – our only touchstone that this is really happening.

So after almost 48 hours in a hotel, conferring with the committee – I drive back to home home for a couple of days or less depending on the situation.  The time in the car was typical except I kept thinking of all the times that I tried to imagine how I’d feel on this particular trip.  When the doors to the hospice center closed behind me, I walked out into the courtyard where all rooms have their windows overlooking plants, flowers, trees, statues…from outside, I leaned into the window to his room and peered through the slated blinds.  Just as I’d left him…just as he’d been all day.  They said we’d have days like this following days like yesterday.

Yesterday there was some activity that we had to play along with – feeling as if we were entering into the game of charades mid-stream.  It was fairly easy to pick up the cues and roll with it.  Lots of visitors – some expected and anticipated, others a surprise.  Playing the part of gracious hosts at a party we didn’t even want to be at – never wanted to host.

As exhausting as it was for me – it was harder on Billy.  The afternoon shadows were lengthening and he still had words for my brother-in-law, “are there going to be any more down and outers?”  Down and outers…we laughed quite hard.  He was tired too.  Too tired.  So much so that today there were barely any words or even a hint of understanding when he was being spoken to.  Maybe it was the perfect time to say good-bye – I didn’t have to deal with an answer from him or look into his eyes and wonder if he even knew who I was.  

“I’m going home to get some clothes.  If you fall asleep before I get back, it’s okay, I have the key.  I know how to get in.”  And I was out the door.

Half my trip home was more NPR – then I put in some cd’s.  Natalie Maines summed it up best. 

These walls have eyes
Rows of photographs
And faces like mine
Who do we become
Without knowing where
We started from

It’s true I’m missing you
As I stand alone in your room

Everyday that will pass you by
Every name that you won’t recall
Everything that you made by hand
Everything that you know by heart

And I will try to connect
All the pieces you left
I will carry it on
And let you forget
And I’ll remember the years
When your mind was clear
How the laughter and life
Filled up this silent house…

Not to worry – there won’t be more songs…we have better things to talk about tomorrow!

It’s Friday I’m in love

15 08 2008

I’d love to think that you’d all be familiar with The Cure and their song about Friday’s, but I know better.   Sure there might be lots of room for interpretation here but I’ll give you my Billy spin. And I’ll even treat you to a great acoustic version on YouTube.  It’ll add to your read time but will be worth the detour.

I don’t care if Monday’s blue
Tuesday’s grey and Wednesday too
Thursday I don’t care about you
It’s Friday, I’m in love

Monday you can fall apart
Tuesday, Wednesday break my heart
Thursday doesn’t even start
It’s Friday I’m in love

Saturday, wait
And Sunday always comes too late
But Friday, never hesitate…

I don’t care if Mondays black
Tuesday, Wednesday – heart attack
Thursday, never looking back
It’s Friday, I’m in love

Monday, you can hold your head
Tuesday, Wednesday stay in bed
Or Thursday – watch the walls instead
It’s Friday, I’m in love

Saturday, wait
And Sunday always comes too late
But Friday, never hesitate…

Dressed up to the eyes
It’s a wonderful surprise
To see your shoes and your spirits rise
Throwing out your frown
And just smiling at the sound
And as sleek as a shriek
Spinning round and round
Always take a big bite
It’s such a gorgeous sight
To see you eat in the middle of the night
You can never get enough
Enough of this stuff
It’s Friday, I’m in love

I don’t care if Monday’s blue
Tuesday’s grey and Wednesday too
Thursday I don’t care about you
It’s Friday, I’m in love

Monday you can fall apart
Tuesday, Wednesday break my heart
Thursday doesn’t even start
It’s Friday I’m in love.


Here’s how Billy’s perfect Friday played out.  He’d come out to the kitchen, sit down on that chair and get his shoes on.  Go out to the drive way before 5 a.m. to get the paper, then take that orange bag and stuff it under the chair cushion until he needed it for garbage collection. There would be an early snack of “pbuzzes” (Honey Nut Cheerios).  It’d be a long wait but somewhere around 10 a.m. after patiently pacing for a good long time, I’d take him to Kosmo’s for a second breakfast of biscuits and gravy.  There’d be more waiting but the time could be passed going to the Dollar Store to buy more “1000 flushes” than a toilet could use in a life time – but you can never have enough blue water.  Or we could wander around the grocery store to buy more things to add to the never ending food pantry he has going.  

Sometime in the early afternoon, we’d get “the call”.  That’s what Friday’s were all about.  A highlight of his week.  Back before we took his keys away (still rue the day but I have to revisit alot of things here as time goes on), the routine would be more to his liking.  He’d go down to the church gym…do 100 laps the length of the basketball court (I’m not quite sure if that was 100 steps or one length would count as one), and that work out would be topped off by grabbing a ball and shooting four baskets.  If he didn’t make all four in a row, he’d start shooting again until he made them all.  Just 52 weeks ago – he could still pull this off.  Then he’d be warmed up for his “job”.

His was the business of stuffing the church bulletins.  I don’t know how many years he’s been doing this – but a few at least. Never particularly time efficient but certainly careful.  And what it really was all about was his way of serving his church family.  Something that has always marked his life – quietly, behind the scenes, not calling attention to himself.

If I wasn’t around on Friday’s the routine was even more modified as my mom would take him down to pick them up, they’d take them home and return them later in the afternoon and maybe stop for a hamburger on the way home around 4p.m. before they’d call it a day.  

About two months ago things really got dicey.  As they were leaving the house with a wicker tray basket that conveniently transported the few hundred folded missives…he stumbled on the steps out of the kitchen – tried catching the basket and got into a bloody mess as a result.  It was so traumatizing to both he and mom that he “retired” himself.  But I knew we weren’t going to give up that easily.  So I’d make it a point that Friday’s were on my schedule to be with him.

His first time back on the job after the tumble toss was on the 25th of July and it was a whopper of a job.  Three inserts!!  What were they trying to do…stress this guy out!  Force another retirement?  We set everything up in one of the Sunday School classrooms.  His breathing was so labored that he’d have to stop every short stack and take a break.  I worked out a system that I’d stuff, he make sure that they were carefully placed and forcefully creased – ‘coz that was essential.

The next week I decided to just pick them up and take them home so he didn’t have to leave.  We got them done in no time at all and I returned them with no mishaps.  But seven more days and things were different.  We’d been out to the doctor all morning and that was the day they’d ordered him on oxygen and we were at home waiting for it to be delivered.  The church called when he was sleeping…I went to get them and brought them home. He didn’t wake up when I came home and I left it at that.  Fifteen minutes later – I was done stuffing, the bulletins returned to the office just in time to be back to the house for the influx of equipment from Walgreen’s Home Care.

So here we are – another Friday.  From here on out everyday will be Friday for Billy.

You me too too…that makes four of us!

14 08 2008

As if I were a brain injury patient working with a therapist, more and more I have to stop and consciously think about what day it is, what month we’re in and the actual date. I can’t fathom that I took Billy to the doctor just a little over a week ago and I was glad to get him oxygen. We’ve stepped onto some kind of cosmic slip ‘n slide and are tumbling through a wormhole between one dimension and another. Seconds become minutes, minutes become hours – days an eternity.

Others have arrived at my mom’s side – sitting shiva for the slipping. I’ve checked into a hotel – I need to be alone. I need to finish sorting through important documents and make sure I have my hands on things we’ll need very very soon. I need to be able to sleep when I want and be with total strangers not having to talk. Much has been done weeks, months ago – but some things yet to be tied up. Maybe I’m doing my own kind of separating. I have had my days spent along side his weakening body. But there are times that I can’t believe that certain things happened just 48 hours ago.

One of those restless days recently- when it seemed we couldn’t find our footing no matter how badly we tried – it was time for him to pretend to find a few fleeting minutes of rest in bed – he was going through the routine that had become frustratingly familiar. “Here’s my flashlight, there’s my water, and my snot rags…now I’m gonna scooch myself way back there in the corner against the wall and ….” I’d stand there, take a breath, and the cycle would start again…”Ok, that’s the light there I need if I get up, there’s my water bottle…” God’s clever sense of humor to revisit children with the torture they put parents through. When it came time for piano practice, I suddenly had a spring in my butt as soon as I’d sit on that bench. I’d be back getting one more thing, going to the bathroom, any other lame excuse to not get at the chore in front of me.

Well, I finally got him settled just so and as I paused to turn off the light, again going over with him that I’d leave the hall light on, I said, “I love you Daddy”…and the words tumbled out of the brain vault before they could get organized for delivery he said, “You me, too too, that makes four of us.” I cracked up.

Those little sayings and turns of phrase are things that each of us are clinging to as we feel like someone put vaseline on the base of our slip ‘n slide before the water was turned on. Each day we see him making a strange progress that is really loss – or is it if he’s farther through the wormhole and closer to the dimension where we find freedom and total gain?

There are so many things that I’m examining through this new reality and asking questions from a different place…and most are questions. I don’t want to hear your answers..I want to find my own answers. Maybe Billy was right after all and there were four of us there that night.

karma, chakra and chi…oh my!

13 08 2008

Six months after she’d given birth to my dad – three months shy of her 24th birthday, Eva died of meningitis leaving four children under the age of five. Her unmarried “spinster” sister, five years her senior, came from the Southern Illinois village of Ellis Grove to become a housekeeper for her recently widowed brother-in-law. After all that’s what you do when you’re family.

Vera didn’t make that journey alone. She had to bring along four unmarried brothers and her elderly widowed father, Eli Harris since their housekeeper / cook was moving away and they weren’t about to lose her! Best counts puts about ten in that household for her to deal with. A neighbor across the alley, Mrs. Jascoviak who had no children, volunteered to care for baby Billy all day long, returning him at night to sleep in the “boarding house”. I don’t actually know how long that went on – a year or less perhaps- or longer…it didn’t matter once that bond was formed. Auntie Jazz became a surrogate. No one made her do it. I’m quite sure she didn’t get paid to do it…but she opened her home and heart to that baby.

About eight years after Vera had come to help out her brother-in-laws’ brood, she spent a morning preparing a Thanksgiving meal for the clan and at some point – took off her apron, dusted the flour from her hands and she and her brother-in-law went down to city hall and officially tied the knot. It was another four years or so until they had a daughter of their own to add to and complete the blended crew of three boys and two girls.

Old Eli passed away somewhere in there, the bachelor brothers in and out – one was always in…Guy Jennings Harris. He was one of the most colorful characters from my childhood as the youngest of 14 grandkids. Tattoos on both arms – one a huge Naval anchor…he smoked like they did in the 50’s – just like on Mad Men…there was always a cloud hovering around his head and a freestanding ashtray like a mini cocktail table within an arm’s reach. The most fun was when he’d light a cigarette and let you “try” to blow out the match. God help me if I got in front of the TV when he was watching Gun Smoke. I asked Dad where Guy worked “No where!” was his quick answer…then I’d remembered – he was a bookie. “Legend” has it there were some shoeboxes stuffed with money found in his room after his death. My mind colors that even more knowing the kinds of activities in the Chicago area in the 1920’s and 30’s. I wonder if he paid room and board?

Vera’s house was pretty much a no nonsense kinda place. I don’t remember sleep overs (there was no more room!) but I remember family gatherings on the holidays throughout the year and we’d be a group numbering over 25 piled in around one table in the dining room and one stretched out in the basement for the kids. And to me – it all evokes the warmest of memories.

I don’t know how old I was when I realized that Grandma was really my dad’s aunt and I had never known the twist about Auntie Jazz till recently. That fascinated me – a stranger taking in this baby boy to almost raise him as her own – to help out another hard working woman – who had stepped into her sister’s shoes and got the job done. But in the end Vera was their “mom” and when Granddad, later in life had a stroke….the dining room table was taken out and replaced by a hospital bed. I think it was six years that she cared for his motionless body day and night. My dad would go over to the house on his way to work each day to give him a shave. I don’t doubt that a huge measure of my ability to respond and react in hospital settings had to do being around Granddad and talking to him like “normal” even though his vocal chords could barely eek out a sound. You don’t have to be afraid of quadraplegics in hospital beds.

And I grew up knowing that my dad was a serious blood donor. He has a fairly rare blood type and I knew that it was a monthly ritual. It wasn’t till talking to his younger sister the other day that it all came full circle – Auntie Jazz needed blood for some reason later in life…and my dad’s blood became a lifeline for her. When my father found out they were charging her for blood – he threatened to quit giving and a quick policy change involved an arrangement that Billy’s blood to Auntie Jazzy was always free.

Mismashed family it was – even knowing that there were mumblings of Auntie Jazzy wanting to adopt my dad as her own…it left a DNA imprint deep on my dad’s soul. My childhood home became home for people who’s parents were in other places…some just stayed weeks – others, a lifetime. My folks’ hearts had both been stretched big by the circumstances of their own lives…both motherless at young ages, they became parents to more than their biological children. My mom still tells people she had 11 children.

My parents’ generosity of spirit, rarely in expensive, extravegant showy ways, just quiet, practical honest love and a way of making their home a refuge for anybody who needed a place came from them learning to receive the kindness of strangers themselves. The Auntie Jazzys and Auntie Veras in our world today are still out there – quietly doing what women do best – picking up the slack, stepping in where there is need and nurturing other people’s kids. So even though my dad would never espouse squat about chakras or chi (but here he’d turn the phrase and say “no but I’ll take some tea”) – he said “what goes around comes around” – and call it what it is…karma.

what do you do with a drunken sailor?

12 08 2008

It’s like a handful of trading cards…he can move around “freely” but he can’t breathe…or he’s comfortable but stays put? What’s a mother to do??? Over and over again in my mind these questions without one answer whirl. One thing has become more and more clear…once you start making Billy comfortable I suddenly have a drunken sailor on my hands. The first night we had hospice meds he was konked out in his chair soon after the 6 p.m. and he looked comfy there but I have worked in a health care facility long enough to know leaving him there might not work. Ha!

As if I were reliving the first night home with my first born…I kept looking every few minutes for a status check and by 9ish more and more of his feet were hanging off the end of the chair. I also knew that he’d not be as aware of any need to get up to go to the bathroom a million times tonight so we’d have to “depend” it. It was no small deal to get him to focus enough to let him know what I’d be doing by lowering his chair, standing him up, walking to his room, dropping his drawers…you get the picture. When I started to lower the footrest – suddenly the whole chair tipped forward. He says in a drug stupored voice “I’m flying!” (gotta love morphine). And I gotta love three years in that rehab hospital where I learned a trick or two about being a people mover. Good thing this guy’s all of 142 lbs. coz he was a weeble.

I remember him telling the story of his days in the Navy when a few fellow sailors got wind of the fact that this 125 lb. whisp of a guy had never had a drop of alcohol. They backed him into a corner and tried pouring some down his throat. Oh no you didn’t… End of story. I always got the impression that it was probably one of the few times in his life he got physical.

Anyway – my point is this…his wishes have been stated LOUD and clear that he wants to die at home. That is all fine and good as long as it doesn’t kill my mom in the mean time. At this point we are going to be making decisions based on what is best for the whole, over-arching good. If this means we move him to the hospice center so she can be with him all day long there – come home to a house where there isn’t so much tension in the walls – so be it. We did the best we could for as long as it was best for him. When he was able to enjoy this house – he was here. Now he’s enjoying something else and I really know that he doesn’t much care…

He was never one to take aspirin for a headache…remember 34 years with no sick days. Who does that? It was a little strange to hear the doctor tell me to stop all his meds. I dumped them on the table and put them back in their bottles. They really aren’t doing any more good. “Good” now is easing out – hopefully sooner than later.