I began writing this after a dear friend of mine suddenly became gravely ill, and was not expected to survive. It was my attempt to capture the thoughts and memories his friendship inspired. It was originally posted as a single entry in my old MySpace blog, that took on a life of its own.
The blog has since been gobbled up by the vultures of social media.
So I decided to save it here. Enjoy…
Monday September 25, 2006
It all began 5 years ago, with a notification to my Inbox… “You’ve Got Mail!” I clicked on the link and saw the photo .. It was the beautiful smile of a man at the helm of a sailboat with a spirit that spoke to me in a way that made me feel at home, peaceful.. and all those other sensations we know not where they come to us from… but they come all the same and are welcomed like the wind that blew him softly into my life.
The first line of his message said, “You sound like a hoot!” That was a familiar adjective used often in my family.. I read on. I was captured by his humor and straightforwardness. I wrote back. After a few more emails I invited him to call me on the telephone. Was this feeling true? Were we to destined to meet? How else can I explain the gentle touching of two kindred spirits??
In this writing I will refer to him as “Irish” for confidentiality purposes. Irish so reminded me of the beautiful spirit I shared as a best friend for over 30 years. Her name was Hildi. Hildi and I were childhood friends. We met in first grade and were like glue.
Hildi had the laugh that would light up the darkest of moments. The music of her spirit would always put a smile on the most confirmed curmudgeon within earshot of her infectious laughter.
Although many in society look upon life’s struggles as a burden Hildi and I knew we shared a different perspective form the first moment we set eyes on each other. Me in my parochial school uniform… topped off by my “all the rage of fashion accessories ” complete with that “Forrest Gump” style!
Hildi had her own interesting style… Hers was a sterile one … an invisible one… you could not reach out and touch it but it was there like the hot sting that came from the prick of her life giving needles filled with precious insulin.
At the tender age of 5 Hildi’s little body stopped making insulin… she was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. Through the years of sharing our changed worlds we healed each others wounds in ways no medicine or bandages could ever touch.
As the years passed we were separated through my family’s travels… time and time again. Each time our spirits were reunited it was as if nothing had changed…. but her body had. That was one reality which drew us even closer than I thought ever possible.
At 18 Hildi had her own house, complete with her ticket to ride…her pride and joy.. I lovingly called it a motorized food mixer on wheels.. She called it her Little Red Bug… a VW. It was with great pain, at the age of 21 she made the decision to put that dreaded For Sale sign in the window of her sweet lady bug. A new chapter of her life was about to begin she realized her vision had deteriorated far beyond the point of safety behind the wheel. Her days of independence were forever gone.
Or so you may think… Her spirit was “cranked up a notch” far outside the realm of comprehension for most who encountered us. We “got it” that zest which Emeril so intently tries to sell on the Food Channel. Ours was free for the taking… We filled our baskets and began anew with an intense focus and vision gifted to me by my dear blind friend.
We both loved music and movies.. Some of our best memories were woven from ordinary happenings on a Saturday night out on the town. One of our favorite places was King’s Cross Station. We go to hear live music and party till the lights went out… at least for me! Hildi did not like taking her cane and or guide dog Verna when we went out together..
Each outing was an adventure. She and I had so much fun just taking in all the interesting reactions from the people whose paths we crossed. I had a prominent limp.. Hildi craving all the attention acquired one of her very own..
By the age of 25 Diabetes had taken her right leg, just below the knee. For that she was grateful, as above the knee amputations come with even more challenges. Hildi’s prosthesis gave her an unusual new gait which was in the complete opposite direction of mine. Remember, she could not see nor feel what this new desensitized limb was stepping on. Each step was one of calculation… and blind faith.
Some nights we would walk into a new club, ready for an evening of folk songs or good old rock-n-roll, with elbows linked and torsos gently bumping together. To the uninformed observer we looked like a couple of drunks who had gotten a head start at a previous watering hole. It was not a rare happening for the bartender to refuse to serve us our first drinks of the evening. We’d laugh as though we really were drunk. By the time we finished sharing the roots of our laughter with the barkeep he happily poured our drinks. Our libations would be dispensed while the bartender laughed in amazement accompanied by an ear to ear smile. Life was good.
Christmas shopping was the best!! Me in my motorized wheelchair with Hildi walking behind, hanging on to the back of my wheelchair. That was a real eye catcher. How I wish Hildi could have seen the looks on the faces of the hurried shoppers…they would slow down for a moment to do double takes as we peacefully strolled along selecting our gifts. Her eyes could not see, but her heart saw more that I ever knew possible. Going anywhere with Hildi was a gift I knew I could always unwrap and cherish forever.
Wrong.. Well… in the physical way. Over the years the thief in the night stole Hildi’s kidney function. After a few years on dialysis she was to receive two transplants 6 years apart. The first one took over like it was her own, but after a few years it was rejected by her faithful body only attempting to protect itself from this perceived interloper. The second one was just not meant to be.. And so her Hildi’s spirit was to be challenged once again.. kicked up yet another notch.
Dialysis in a nutshell, is a life preserving method of filtering out of one’s body, via the blood, all the toxins retained by a body void of kidney function (Google it ..it’s actually an amazing process). This is achieved through 3-4 hours of treatments 3 times a week which consist of having two large 16 gauge needles inserted into the veins. The needles are connected to clear tubing to cycle your blood through a filter where the blood is “cleaned” via a complete circuit in which the blood never stops and is returned back to the body through the second needle. The blood continues making the loop until around 100 or so liters of blood are processed.
It is long arduous treatment which removes (if one follows the strict dietary guidelines) approximately the optimum of no more than 4 or so liters of toxic fluid from the patient’s body. Over the years dialysis takes its toll.
Our bodies are designed to work as a fine tuned Orchestra.. with all musicians playing their equally essential part… to resound in a beautiful symphony; the likes of which allows us to be the privileged season ticket holders in the greatest show on earth… Life.
Hildi’s show was slowly coming to a close.. She was now in her thirties, her extremities were being ravaged by that perpetual thief in the night. She had taken up piano and I had taught her to crochet. This was quite an undertaking as she could only feel my hands while I crocheted and would try to copy the movement of my fingers and the yarn. My hands were never easy to understand as my Arthrogryposis had left them with an accent unto themselves. Over the next few years she lost many of her fingers to Diabetes. Again we found other ways to share our precious time together. We often laughed till we cried and would tell each other that between the two of us we had the perfect makings for one good body! We always found something interesting to talk about.. rewriting our scripts as nature dictated.
The time came when all the hopes, laughter and tears would meet up for a last call. At 35 Hildi’s larger-than-life heart dimmed the lights of her stage and she made her final bow. It was a curtain call I will remember with bittersweet tears. Hildi’s father called me to the hospital that morning. Her heart had stopped during her last dialysis treatment, she was resuscitated but her now frail shell of a body could not fight anymore. It was time to let her go back to where she came from, like an angel returning home. Her dad and I sat closely to her, each of us gently holding one of her tender hands for the last time. We asked her to go on and finish her mortal voyage. We kissed her forehead and she was gone.. Like a quiet wind .. we both stared in awe as we felt her Spirit pass through us. Her pain was gone. Her Spirit remains to this day deep inside me where no mortal cause will ever separate us again.
You may wonder why I told you about my sweet childhood friend when I began this story. It had great significance..
To be continued……
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Over the long telephone conversations with my new friend Irish, we discovered we had much more in common than the written word could begin to explain. We decided to meet even though he lived nearly 100 miles away. He had to come up my way for an appointment so we made a date for lunch. It was like being with an old friend who had stopped by after a long absence.. We talked for 4 hours like it was just moments..
When he walked me out to my van he showed me the reason for his visit to my neck of the woods that morning. He had just purchased an older Diesel Mercedes 300D from a nice retired man in Sun City. It was in mint condition and he knew he got a great deal. I sat in it with him and shared in his joy. Then I told him my father also lived in Sun City. Irish opened the envelope and showed me the paperwork on the car’s title. The seller of his new car… lived just 3 doors down from my father. We looked at each other and were silent for a few moments.. Curiouser and curiouser….
He invited me to a picnic on his sailboat the following weekend. The cool November day passed like a flicker in time.. We talked about everything and anything.. We loved the sea, music, laughter and so much more.
The day turned to a chilly November night. While the songs of our lives played in the background on the stereo, we sat reclined on the newly upholstered bench seats, with legs outstretched facing one another across the table, snuggled down under blankets. All that could be seen of each other’s faces were just our cold noses and attentive eyes across the 3 foot span.
There we sat quietly and so peacefully sharing into the wee hours… warmed by the little propane fireplace mounted near the end of the table. We were taken aback by the connection we felt… from that first announcement, “You’ve Got mail.”
You see Irish had received an untimely gift tightly wrapped in his birthright. His mother had passed it silently to her children. Her life was cut short after years of riding the roller coaster of PKD, Polycystic Kidney Disease. It is a mean disease which slowly and deliberately destroys all the kidney function of the gifted one. He was in his mid 40s and had slowly experienced the changes in his body. We met just weeks after he had begun his first dialysis treatments. His wife of 10 years had recently moved on to safer ground. He had never felt more alone.
Here was that dreaded word again.. coming from the lips of another sweet friend. He had told me his story before we met. He shared with me his adventures of growing up on a small secluded Hawaiian island, sailing as soon as he was allowed to work and earn enough money to buy his first sailboat. He was Champion of his State in uphill cycling. The cyclist’s trademark of strong beautifully shaped legs were his proof so many years later.
He had gone to college in California and began a rewarding career which ended at the age of 45. He had been a top notch Electronic Engineer in Texas, then Alaska and finally back in The Golden State. Dialysis had caused him to be “downsized” by his employer, a well known, huge corporation. Of course he could never prove he was fired because of health reasons. The management made certain to cover their tracks like a pack of outlaws running from the Sheriff. Now he was really on his own.
He knew his life would change one day. Somehow fitting all the adventure into the front end of his journey made his the second and much more treacherous uncharted waters easier to navigate. I was to be First Mate in the next few years of the adventure… and what an adventure it was.
We were both retired and spent 24/7 together. Our cars were on auto-pilot to each other’s homes. We decided I would pack up my household goods, put them in storage and find a suitable tenant for my home. I would move in with him. And so the voyage began. We would spend 3 mornings a week in the dialysis clinic as captive audiences of one another sharing the previous 45 years of our lives. With each story we grew closer and closer..
Neither of us had experienced this kind of a connection with someone of the opposite sex. It was beyond our comprehension. We neither tried to understand nor judge it. We just enjoyed it and went along for the ride…. wherever we were meant to travel.
I knew his wait for a kidney transplant would be many years… his blood type was O Positive.. the same as mine and the highest in demand for transplants. I asked to be considered as a candidate for a live kidney donation. I was disappointed to learn my predisposition for high blood pressure (well under control with medication) ruled me out as a possible donor.
We continued on.. boating, attending practice and concerts in which he played bass trombone with many community bands, and remodeling his property. He did all the work himself. He was an accomplished carpenter and took pride in every aspect of making the former crack house he had purchased as the ugly duckling on the block, a welcoming home. We painted, sanded and just danced to the beat of our own music. We would stay up all night talking or hit the grocery store at 3am. We were content as ever and matched each other’s tenacity in different ways.
We studied every aspect of the life of a dialysis patient. Together we learned more than we ever imagined about the road we would have to follow to insure Irish the fullest life possible. Some lessons came harder than others.
There were many problems with the dialysis clinic he relied on to keep him alive. Some of the staff RN’s refused to follow mandated health and safety code guidelines. Water monitoring reports were being falsified. There were mysterious fevers and then 4 sudden unexplainable deaths. We documented our observations over the months prior to these untimely deaths and were met with hostility and discrimination when we tried to bring the facts to the staff’s attention.
We requested to have an audience with the managing doctor. We were once again met with hostility and a letter from the attorney representing the clinic. We forwarded our supporting documents and communications to the California Department of Health. We left that clinic in protest of the treatment and practices. It took a year before the clinic was finally closed by the State. It was a tragedy for the patients involved. Dialysis clinics are overflowing in this country. Costs are being cut left and right.. In California the dialysis patient is considered to be one of the walking dead and is consequently treated poorly by many of the professionals who have taken the oath to, “First Do No Harm.”
We came to the discovery that Home Hemodialysis would offer Irish the best chance for longevity as he would be in charge of his own treatments, both quality and quantity. The more dialysis one had, the cleaner the blood, the higher the function of the body and thus the quality and length of life. This was a no-brainer for him.. and me.
Before we could move to this next step he had to secure a new clinic for treatments until the Home Hemodialysis mission could be accomplished. Going more than 3 days without treatments for someone with no kidney function is very detrimental to a patient’s health. Death can come in as little as a week to 10 days.
This meant finding a new clinic ASAP. The nearest one was 50 minutes away. He grabbed the opening and off we went in hopes of a better, more ethical clinic and staff. Again we were met by skepticism and prejudgments. It appeared the previous clinic had made some “notes” which were enclosed in the forwarded medical records.
Irish requested to see what on earth was contained in his records which were casting such a dark shadow on him long before he arrived for the meeting. The staff hesitated and then after we applied some polite yet firm reminders of the confidentiality laws a few other regulations we were finally given a copy.
The initial new patient interview which normally lasted only 15 minutes spanned nearly 2 hours. When we presented our case we were calm, articulate and patient. We believed in the truth and prayed that the facts would speak for themselves. Thankfully, they did. It was a tough battle but we had prevailed. We were now securely tied to a new dock while we waited for the smooth sailing winds to blow our way.
We enrolled in the nearest Home Hemodialysis training available. It was a rare gem, as Home Hemodialysis is definitely not a money maker and it takes a proactive committed team of both patient and medical professionals to make it successful. We found the only one available and went through the lengthy and very tedious application and approval process. It involved changing all his doctors and dodging the unethical bad rap which followed us from the first, now closed clinic. The center was located one hour and fifteen minutes by car from where we were living.
It was a huge commitment for the both of us. We were determined. We got up at 4:30 each weekday morning and drove to the center and made it home by 5:30 or 6:00pm. The one-on-one intensive training spanned 12 weeks. It was offered under a research grant and the extra treatments, supplies and home equipment were provided for under the grant. The days were long, spent learning not only how to administer the medications and treatments, but also the operation and troubleshooting of the complicated pieces of equipment.
During the training Irish received daily Hemodialysis treatments.. Long and slow… much easier on the body…the best kind. As the weeks passed he began to feel stronger, more energetic and was sleeping through the night again for the first time in many months. It seemed like a miracle and we were ever so grateful.
Learning and understanding every step in our training had life and death consequences. Starting with Universal Precautions, Heparin dosing, mixing solutions, keeping air out of the bloodlines, possible power failures, machine failures, maintaining optimum blood pressure, blood flow, stringent record keeping and compilations of monthly reports and so on. We had a huge manual and we were like sponges. We constantly drilled each other to pass the time over the long drives to and from the clinic.
He was a technician by nature, with a fear of sticking himself with needles. Since I do not have enough manual dexterity to hold on to a needle.. let alone stick it into a vein he would have to overcome his biggest challenge. I was an old hand at blood and gore, but my fear of the machine matched his fear of needles.. A match made in heaven.. Just whose heaven?
We were given exams each Friday with the big written final at the end of the 12 weeks. Then we would have to complete 3 completely error free treatments before being sent on the next leg of our journey. We did it! We passed the written exams which I feared as I always experienced test phobias. We finished with scores of 98 and 96! We were so happy and instilled with a new confidence to help us through to the step of our life saving dance.
The center required that I be present and assist when needed during all treatments. So every other day we would spend anywhere from 4-6 hours in the 3rd bedroom which we had painstakingly converted into a mini dialysis center. He removed the carpeting, installed new linoleum, the dialysis machine, a water softener, a reverse osmosis water purifier, sink with counter, cabinets filled with medicine and supplies, one of my spare televisions and 2 comfortable chairs.
Irish had two other constant companions, the sweetest Black Labs …Buster and Bonnie.. They were his shadows.. always followed him wherever we went. Both could shift and balance on the Hobie Cat like salty old sailors at sea and loved going out on the big boat when time allowed. They had accepted me into their tight family, and I was honored.
There was a place where they would not be allowed to join in. But they observed from the threshold and understood more than us humans will ever know. The “D” room .. as we lovingly called it, was jam packed and actually kind of cozy. With the humming sounds from the water and pumps when added to the close quarters it was as though we were once more at on the sailboat, hunkered down below in the quarter berth for yet another new adventure.
The Captain’s Chair was a special one provided by the clinic which allowed his feet to be elevated and his head dropped below heart level to keep him from losing consciousness in the event his blood pressure dipped too low. We were very careful to always err on the side of caution as the boat that rocks too swiftly is bound to capsize. Although we came close a time two we never went “all the way.”
And so we carried on …..
To be continued….
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
The days turned into weeks and as time passed Irish became a master of his treatments. Although I would always “glove up” and assist him in getting all the supplies, meds and related essentials ready I saw a yearning for independence begin to surface. Here was a man who was the incarnation of the term “Free Spirit” when it came to doing his own thing. It is an absolute necessity in a competent sailor. The Captain of the sailboat who sails solo masters the art of self sufficiency.. his life depended on it.
Time passed and life continued on. At times we were like two children. It was a 25 minute drive to the local supermarket. We loved going grocery shopping in the wee hours of the morning. The isles were free of little kids and we had the playground to ourselves.
The giddy and carefree sensations which seemed to overtake us when we set out to accomplish the mundane things were inexplicable. Could the pressure of being held hostage by a machine while the outside world carried on oblivious to his captivity have been the catalyst for it? I believe it played a huge part. Whatever the reasoning.. I was along for the ride… quite literally.
Before I met Irish I would use the motorized shopping carts at the supermarket as my power wheelchair did not have a basket. Early one particular morning we pulled up into the supermarket parking lot and headed for the entrance nearest to the part of the store where the electric carts were stored.
Irish stopped, flashed me a funny grin, turned on his heels and ran over to the shopping cart area. I was a bit puzzled as I watched his long tan legs exposed by his trademark denim shorts fly across the floor. In a flash he returned with an interesting looking shopping cart.
You may have noticed these carts. The design was eye-catching. They were regular shopping carts which sported a bright school bus yellow and red bench attached to the widest part of the pusher’s side of the cart. The bench was designed to accommodate two small kids and still have room for an infant in the traditional fold down basket seat.
Or as Irish pointed out to me with a mischievous grin.. it would accommodate one 5ft tall woman quite nicely! He motioned to me with both hands, as though he was my footman welcoming me to my carriage. I graciously took my royal seat upon my whimsical coach.
In a flash we were off as we sped up and down the isles, and from side to side as fast as he could possibly take us without crashing us into the shelves.
On the straightaways Irish would step up and place both feet on one of the support bars and join in on the ride which would cause me to laugh even harder!
As we took the corners at lightning speed he would make a squealing sound to simulate the “Mario Andretti” effect as I hung on for dear life. Our laughter was infectious. As we whizzed past the night crew restocking their shelves, the sight of two grown ups taking over the isles in pure childlike fashion broke their monotony, confirmed by the return of laughter accompanied by their wide grins.
From that day forward the everyday errands and long waits in check-out lines were never the same. Irish had a sense of humor that was fanned like a wild fire when we were together. We matched each other’s wit and endless comebacks. Our banters reminded me of the matches of wit fencing I so often had participated in with my three brothers.
Sometimes I would make mention to the cashiers in stores as he would be reaching for his wallet, “Oh, I hope they gave him enough money” (pan faced) “He’s on weekend pass from the jail and they are kind of afraid to give the inmates too much cash.. They might skip town.” “You aren’t planning’ on skippin’ town now are ‘ya honey?” Or other little ice breakers to liven up the spirits of the people we crossed paths with. The majority of the time folks laughed with us or sometimes at us, but at least they laughed!!
The months flew by. Every now and then on non-dialysis days I would drive up and spend the night at my mom’s and visit with my family. They had all moved up from the coast to the Lincoln area one by one over many years. Mom and I were the stragglers, followed by dad. My parents had divorced in the late 60’s. Dad remarried, and divorced again after 30 years. It was nice to see them getting along in their twilight years.
Dad had given us all a run for our money. He was a Oregon farmer/law student who ended up many years later as a Colonel in the Army, with 28 years of service under his belt. He was a tough old bird! He was also a proud survivor of 2 heart attacks, a massive stroke, colon cancer and prostate cancer. Many were the times we stood beside his bed to send him on his way. He just wasn’t quite ready to leave!
My sister had taken up any slack left by my absence. Although my parents lived independently and were in pretty good health there were times when dad would require someone to accompany him to medical appointments or speak for him on the telephone. Dad’s stroke 20 years earlier had left him with profound aphasia. It was a difficult mountain to climb for the former Oregon State Champion Debater and storyteller. We missed hearing him recite his fascinating long narrations, but he missed them more.
Eleven months had flown by since I had joined Irish on his journey to independence. My sister was growing weary of the increasing demands she felt were being placed on her. She had many talents, but compassionate caregiver was not among them. It was time for me to return home.
Irish would not able to satisfy the clinic that he would be safe going solo on his treatments, without several months of a slow planned transition. Ninety-nine percent of Home Hemodialysis patients have a spouse, significant other or family member present for treatments. It takes a big commitment from another person to maintain the dialysis lifestyle. He agreed we would move into my home.
I gave my tenants notice and we began the tedious process of making not only a household move, but a mini-dialysis clinic move as well. It was going to be a big change for Irish. Not only would be leaving his boats, the Lake and Delta, he would be moving farther from his doctors, clinic, community bands and most of all his home.
The plan was put into action. There were many hoops to jump through to facilitate the move of the dialysis machine and all it’s buddy machines. The clinic had to provide it’s blessing over the transfer, my house also had to pass muster. The water supply had to be analyzed for hardness and other characteristics which could affect the safety of Irish’s life saving treatments.
It was like planning a wedding or some other synchronized event. Water and drain pipes had to be installed in my dining room. The clinic’s technicians were the only people authorized to move the equipment. Irish could only miss one day of treatment. This meant we had one day to make the complicated switch. It reminded me of Mission Impossible.. with everyone playing an equally important role in the caper.
It was 2 weeks before our scheduled move. We had just finished the one hour clean-up protocol, which followed every dialysis treatment, that sually lasted 4-6 hours. We were tired and had just sat down to relax when the telephone rang. Irish answered it and listened a moment. He told me it was my eldest brother calling. His face went blank as he handed me the receiver, “Your father had a heart attack” were his next words. My heart felt as though it filled with something other than its lifeblood. I could feel the pounding in my chest. I told myself to remember to breathe. I needed a clear head if I was going to be able to understand the details in my brother’s call.
To be continued….
Friday, September 29, 2006
We threw some essentials into our overnight bags and jumped in the car. It was the old Mercedes from dad’s neighbor. I felt an uneasy feeling as though this would be one of the longest drives of my life.
Irish and I began to talk, his calm demeanor made this dreaded journey to the hospital so comforting as I shared with him my favorite memories of the man I called dad.
My father, Mac as his friends and family referred to him, was one of those worker bees. If something in the hive needed tending to he was the first to start, and the last to finish. This was a beautiful and extremely rare quality which I had quickly recognized in Irish. It was one of the things that drew me closer to him.
On this day dad had joined the work party at my sister’s new home. The team was made up of all the males in the family who lived not far from Lincoln. The plan was to install new laminate flooring. Dad was always Johnny on the Spot when it came to a barn raising, he did not see much of difference in today’s task at hand.
It was dad’s second divorce, which lead him to leave his sweet home…and follow his brood to the foothills of Placer County.
He had bought a flat barren acre in Carmel Valley in 1973. It was his dream, after years of uncertainty with the Army lifestyle, to have a back forty of his own once again. He missed his Oregon roots, but understood California was his home now. Dad and an old family friend built his new home on what would turn out to be his “God’s Little Green Acre.”
Mac had taken this empty piece of land, which was a strong stone’s throw from the Carmel Valley River, and over the years turned into his Garden of Eden. Upon every visit to dad‘s place, whether just to make a quick, I was in the neighborhood pit stop or a planned family hootenanny, the 50 cent tour was never lost in the hustle and bustle of our lives.
The comforting ritual would always commence by stepping out into the backyard where his mammoth of a outdoor fireplace-BBQ-sink combo sat at the center of the welcoming patio. This is the kind of outdoor kitchen that is all the rage now… but dad built it in 1973, brick by used brick, with love and vision. He wanted it to be a place where his 5 children would gather on birthdays, Father’s Day and any other day we could invent to conjure a good reason to get together.
From the patio we’d cross the lush green lawn. It was kept that way by the water drawn from the well. The same well that gave its life giving moisture to the many fragrant orange and lemon trees which lined the walk to the back forty. The tour would follow a well worn dirt path bordered with flowers of every variety. As we walked along the loop that made its way around his masterpieces, dad would tell of us of all the changes in his garden since my last visit to the museum of his joyful works.
The avocados were Orwellian, the likes of which we’d never find perched on the cold shelves of the local grocery store. The artichokes were full, with leaves tucked in tightly as if to tell us their secret treasures were safe. The happy tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, potatoes, asparagus, rhubarb, squash of all kind were planted decades ago. They all came up volunteer every year after that, as if to say thank you to dad for all the love and care he put into their first year on the land.
As I spoke the words which were in honor of these fond memories of my father I felt a twinge of sadness. The sadness was not for me or my father, but for Irish. His father was a Navy Test Pilot and was lost at sea in the Bermuda Triangle when Irish was only an innocent child of 3. Only three brief years to fit in all the love, lessons and memories I had 46 years to experience with my dad. Suddenly I felt like the luckiest person alive. I had been bestowed with the priceless gift of time.
The gentle and loving hands of Father Time which had been so generous to me were now letting me know how very lucky I was to have dad for so long. These hands were now motioning him along to the end of his earthly journey. I so wanted to be there with him to usher his Spirit along, as I did with Hildi so many years ago.
By the time we arrived at the hospital most of the local family members had been gathered around my strong patriarch for hours. They re-told, as if telling it for the first time, the sequence of events which had ended here in this powerful circle of love.
The flooring detail party had been working and enjoying a rite of passage that was in store for anyone who required the McKay family crew on their project. Dad was content doing what he adored…. working alongside his kids in a display of skill and love. My brother saw him bend over, as if he had lost his balance. But as dad hit the floor the look in his vacant eyes told another story.
My younger brother reached for his father as he witnessed this man of steel gently fall to the cold floor he had just laid with his own warm hands. Instinct overtook my dear little brother as he began the frightening, methodical motions of CPR.
He carried on for some time until the Cavalry has arrived sirens of the paramedics told him help was finally in the trenches. Dad’s heart was beating once again. Would he see his children’s worried faces when he opened his eyes? Be there to witness the love that radiated from the family who cherished him so? There was that ray of Light we call Hope, and isn’t that all we need to see us through the moments when all seems lost to the darkness.
And so the watch over my father’s bed began with the careful surveillance of his every labored breath. His gentle eyes, grown small with the passing of years were now closed as if to say without moving a muscle, I am at peace.
The doctor was kind and as gentle as my father’s hands tending his beloved garden. But the words he spoke to us that day felt like the hard edge of a rusty spade cutting into the roots of our family tree. The wound left a small mark at first, but as the moments passed we understood the majestic redwood that had been our father would soon be culled from this land.
The nurse arrived like a breath of fresh air into the stale walls of the room in which we sat gathered, like Native Americans around their dying Chief. She told us that the large nurse’s lounge just a few doors down the hall would be ours for the next few days, interrupted only by another watch.
The family rotated shifts while we waited for our dear fiddler to play his final tune. The sound of my father playing The Irish Washer Woman on his beloved fiddle rushed through my soul as if it was yesterday. I now missed that song, as the memory of it in a speeding flash arrived upon my heart, gifting me once more with the joy it brought to my life for so many years.
Irish and I could only stay one night watching and waiting. Irish required a different watch. A life watch, someone to practice a life giving vigil with him within the four walls of rejuvenation that was “D Room,” nearly 100 miles from my father’s peaceful bed. For as much as I wanted to be at my father’s side to comfort his Spirit I knew he would understand my leaving his bedside for the precious life of another strong man.
I would make the most of the precious time I would spend with my father. As Irish lay resting on the large cushions of the window seat I sat between these two Goliaths reclined in a chair, pulled closely to my father’s side, one hand resting on his chest to feel the beat of his heart and the life giving breaths that were growing shallower. The rise and fall of my hand continued through the night. Somehow sleep did not come for me, that night bore a gift I will never forget.
By morning the time had come for Irish and I to make the drive back home for a treatment. We would always return to the hospital as soon as his blessing had been received, and
the sacred ritual was done, so that another life could go on. We followed this pattern for 7 days. The nurses were amazed at the strength of this man whose strong roots to the land held him fast until his entire family was able to travel to stand one last time under his majestic boughs.
On January 11th we were busily working through the last minutes of clean up when the telephone rang. It was my eldest brother, the one who stood as father to me in my heart when my dad was stationed overseas. When I recall all the years the tenacious little sister in me taunted and pulled at the belt loops of patience on my dear brother’s jeans I smile, still feeling his love.
My brother’s tone was as soft as his heart. The inflection in his voice told me what I was waiting to hear long before I could hear his two words, “He’s gone.” I took a deep cleansing breath. This time it was peaceful breath, not the hard breath of trepidation which accompanied my last call from my brother. My heart cried for just a moment, and then it sang in celebration of the beautiful Spirit that was my father.
October 4, 2006, 9:05 PM
For you to get the full impact of the bits of comedy in this story you’ll need to read my previous series of Blogs titled Touching Spirits otherwise you may feel like you missed the first half of a conversation… and dammit I just hate when that happens to me!
My father died January 11th 2003 at the ripe old age of 83.…
This is not a sad tale…
No Kleenex required here just a good sense of humor..
Shall I continue now that you know it’s safe?
Our family got together and threw my father a grand wake that put St. Paddy’s to shame. My middle brother Ken made a magnificent PhotoShop DVD which was projected onto a huge screen that sat above the quite posh looking oak stage.
The Grand Ballroom at Sun City had been partitioned by a pair of the fanciest room dividers I had ever gazed my brown Maltese eyes upon. There were round tables scattered atop the meticulously polished hardwood floors, which put the most expensive laminate floorings to shame. The welcoming tables were overflowing with people who knew my father. I could almost hear his voice saying, “For me???”
My brother Ken produced a Fortune 100 quality film-like DVD for the audience. Ken’s voice in a gentle narrative was accompanied by music from the pages of the large book that was our father’s life.
There were countless precious photographs from days gone by, and all the wonderful milestones and markers which we cherished and recalled with joyous and bittersweet memories.
It was a class act. In fact if dad would have been there to witness the whole Hootenanny, as he would have referred to it in his speaking days, he would have made one of his wrote exclamations which escaped the assassin of his words, “Too much trouble!!!”
The tables were filled with the elbows of so many wonderful people who had been touched by dad’s now quiet life…and there I sat at a table with my family and three of my best friends….
Maeve, my now twenty something year old daughter who loved to play giddy-up-horsey on my father’s knee and would never would be able to recall her grandfather’s words said to her as a baby, “That is one ugly baby… Ug-llllyyyyy!! After which we’d all laugh knowing she couldn’t understand the literal meaning of his words. She only needed to witness our big smiles and hear our laughter to know that she was loved.
James, we met via Match.com 6 months after my divorce following my twenty-two year marriage. He was an attorney when we met and had just received his Masters in Clinical Psychology and was beginning a new career as a Therapist to counsel at risk youth who were abandoned by another kind of law, the law of loving families. We were only together for two years but remained very close after we gave up one kind of relationship for another. He now also lives in the local area about 40 minutes from me.
Irish, you’ll recall was my handsome Sailor from the beginning of this story. I’ll leave his details out so as not to make too many redundancies. We were still together and he had met Joe at family gatherings over the Holidays.
We were a happy bunch. I felt so loved. Here with all my family and the two most important unrelated men in my life.
We sat talking and sharing funny stories about my dad, he would have loved to join in wherever laughter was heard. My eyes fell stunned upon the doorway that led to the foyer of the now bustling ballroom, which was beginning to echo with chatter.
It was the silhouette of my former husband and father of my beautiful daughter. Paddy was a police officer for most of our marriage. Facial hair other than a well trimmed moustache was not accepted by the Police Department, and so it took me by surprise to see this formerly handsome man now obscured by the salt and pepper scruffy winter blanket of hair, a beard which I am quite certain had become his new pride and joy.
I got up from my table and walked over to do the polite thing. After all my parents had done to teach us manners I could not let them down now.
I went to thank him, this now masked man, for flying across the entire country from Vermont in the middle of Winter. Our bond had been badly broken, thanks to his buddies who insisted our decision to employ a Mediator to handle our very simple divorce was an act of heresy. He followed their advice and retained a high-ticket Barrister who not only stole his hard earned money but also snatched away any hopes I held on to for a civilized divorce.
As I approached him he looked over me with his familiar stare. A hard gaze of his dark brown eyes told me I was a presumed guilty felon awaiting interrogation. Sadly, in one moment I recognized what took me years to learn to understand and let
go of. Here stood an abandoned soul whose job had made his life a living hell and would never admit the death of his joy to himself, or another living soul.
Clairvoyantly, Irish slowly walked over to my side. Silently offering me the support I so needed. The past seven years had offered a welcome absence from this damaged Spirit.
His presence felt like a dark rain filled cloud over this joyful day. I dismissed the dark patch and used my umbrella which had now been coated with a fine dust. It had been years since I had to protect myself in this way.
It was my father’s time and nothing could take that happiness from my heart that day. I made the acceptable welcome and heard a gruff retort, “Who are you?” aimed at the direction of my dear companion Irish. This took him aback. Was it possible for someone to be so cold and indifferent to a total stranger met in a gathering at a time and place meant to honor the memory of a beloved family member?
The surprise was well disguised on my polite friend’s face. Paddy’s familiar attempt to go for the jugular was foiled by Irish and his gentle Spirit. A quick glance from Irish’s clear hazel eyes communicated to me he was ok, and I would be as well. I motioned Paddy toward the generous buffet which was beginning to be met with a line of the typical hungry attendees of a respectable Irish wake. Here Paddy would be camouflaged like a soldier in the underbrush of a heavy jungle. He would later be spotted hunkered down for the duration at a table far from mine with his signature mountain of sustenance. He was now a happy man!
And so you can gather the flavor of that special day. There were no tears, except from my dear mother who had to relive, through the larger than life images, her young happy years, with the dashing Army Officer Len, who was my dad.
Their marriage had spanned twenty-four tumultuous years. It was a wonder either one of them got out alive… But that’s the fodder for yet another story. Dad’s second former wife, “Laura’s absence was a welcomed vacancy in this cast of characters. After all this stage was not intended to be utilized for an acting class, at least not today!
I returned to my own strange bedfellows, both former and contemporary. What a loving bunch we were. I include Maeve in this troupe as she spent more years crawling in and out of my bed than either of the fine gentlemen to my periphery.
We were all chatting and sharing tidbits of gossip as close friends sometimes do. After all there were years of gaps to be filled by those of us who had the benefit of longevity with the Colonel.
I followed behind as the guests perused the long draped table filled with artifacts from my dear father’s life. The thoughtful display resembled a museum gallery offering, complete with his beloved banjo, mandolin and fiddle. Further down the table were special boxes which were opened to share my father’s other pride and joy. Here rested the old medals which had been worn with pride and honor on his Army uniforms.
Dad would have been impressed with the artifacts of his life set out to be given the final salute, by the army of friends and family lined up to great attention by his side!
It was then it hit me, like the conspicuous drop of a bayonet-laden rifle during a formation, at full attention to the Master Drill Sergeant…. on graduation day at boot camp!! My eyes quickly covered every square inch of the table, up, down and back again. Could it be true? Was my father’s presence forgotten is all the busyness?? Oh.. My.. god!! Someone forgot to park my dear father’s ashes at the appropriated place in the long line of his cherished items.
I looked over to my older sister Elizabeth, who under my brother’s positions of Director and Master of Ceremonies was the sole member of my family authorized to maintain control of my father’s fine remains.
I approached my big sister with caution, as she was easily flustered when planning social events. I did not want to have a room full of guests bear witness to the untimely tipping of a loaded apple cart! As a quiet comment made in passing I asked, “Where’s dad?” The reply which entered my ear canals not unlike the sensation of little foxtails in a bad wind, stung at first, but then I was used to pain. I prepared myself for the answer but could not believe my ears… It was quite comical when it got right down to it! “Still at the mortuary,” she replied.
You see after his first heart attack, my father had made a handcrafted ceramic Urn for himself, some 35 years ago. It had sat on his mantle and was passed around on Holidays, or other family get-togethers. His story was always the same. We knew what would follow. With pride in his heart he would remind us kids of his ultimate wish to be cremated upon his death, and to have his ashes placed within the patiently awaiting Urn. This was very important to him, and by restating his desires at every opportunity, he rested assured his wishes would be followed.
When I realized that dad’s ashes were absent from his biggest party, short of his two weddings, I thought the walls of the filled ballroom would shake with the wrath of his hot Irish temper. But alas, we were safe!! There was no fear of unbridled Spirits bringing down building, as my father was not exactly the Spiritual type.
Throughout his generously long life he was never one to pay much attention to religion, or other such “Mumbo-Jumbo,” as he so open mindedly would label anything that he could not witness with his own eyes. Now if God would have popped out of the well tended soil in his beloved garden on a sunny afternoon, why then maybe he’d have been a believer! Since this had not occurred… we were safe! Otherwise, would have been headed for the hills post haste!!
Realizing that the turn of events were beyond my control, I returned to my circle of friends….. and proceeded to do what any good Irish daughter would do at her father’s wake…. I partied down, to the best of my ancestral abilities and made my father proud!
It was a great day in honor of a great man!
Shortly after life returned to normal, and all of our out of town visitors were safe in their own beds. I took it upon myself to find out why my father’s ball of ashes had been dropped. I called my sister, thinking maybe she was one of those people who just had more difficulty with the idea of bodies in boxes let alone fancy fireplace mantel dressing.
My assumption was correct, and so I offered my well honed mortuary skills to my poor sister. My talents had been come to me by way of the unusual number of visits to funeral homes, cemeteries and other such socially uncomfortable holding stations, to see friends off, lock stock and barrel on the vacation of their lives.
No wonder one of the professions which I ranked highest in, when testing for career counseling in college, was Funeral Director… which was outranked only by Real Estate Salesperson/Broker.
Elizabeth was quite relieved by my offer, and so I drove the short one mile jaunt to the funeral home where my dear father had been stuck waiting on a dusty dark shelf, like a lost piece of baggage at the train station. As I pulled into the parking lot I felt a comforting feeling. I was going to be near my father once again.
When I entered the foyer I was greeted by a somber looking woman in her late fifties. She was of a very fair complexion; in fact she looked as though she fit in quite nicely in her perceived dark surroundings.
She ushered me into her office, and as she chatted to me a bit about the dreary rainy day outside, her hands rustled through the many manila folders on her disheveled, poorly lit desk.
Then in an instant, I witnessed a whiter shade of pale take over the poor introverted woman’s face, as she said with great discomfort and apprehension, “Oh, Ms. Grover.. I don’t know how to tell you this… but there was, um… a problem with your father’s remains.”
In a flash through my vivid and sometimes peculiar imagination, I saw little vignettes of a sweet custodian, accidentally toppling dad’s unclaimed ashes on to the carpet as said ashes are quickly vacuumed up by the poor man in a state of shock! The image of Miss Paleface elegantly offering me the entire bag from the vacuum cleaner, as the now cherished tabernacle of my father’s remains put a smile on my face.
I do believe my little smile made Miss Paleface even more uneasy.. if that was at all possible! She quickly walked over to what appeared to have been the library of the lost and proceeded to pull down a large paper sack with a tag stapled to it for safekeeping. It reminded me of our lunch bags in elementary school, only on a much grander scale.
As she set the brown lonely bag down onto the mess she called her desk, I sat curiously in the nearest chair with my eyes intently focused on her hands and the top of the now mysterious bag. I was not going to miss what she was going to pull out of her bag of tricks.
Miss Paleface reached down as far as her short arms could, into the patiently waiting bag. She pulled out a black heavy gauge plastic box with yet another tag, and placed it next to the crisp tall bag.
I am certain she made out the essence of puzzled which was spritzed across my still calm face. I watched as I listened to her uncertain words.
With hesitation Miss Paleface uttered, “I understand … your father wished….. His…. remains to be sealed in theeee….. handmade Urn your ffff…amily supplied to us…. here at Lander’s Ffff…uneral Home.” I nodded slightly as I replied a soft, “Yes…..” so as not to give this woman a similar heart attack, which caused me to be in her dark office today.
Realizing she was having great difficulty with the present situation I gently comforted her and told her, whatever happened was ok.. It was not a worry to me, and thus should not be of such worry to her.
My demeanor was as gentle as it could possibly be. Her guarded words then became more fluid as she quickly flung them off of her previously pursed lips, “When your father designed his lovely Urn he underestimated the dimensions which would be required to hold his remains.”
At this moment I totally lost it…. I broke out in a guttural belly laugh the likes of which the Lander’s Funeral Home and its demure Director had never witnessed from a patron of their solemn establishment. This was so like my father!! Just as big in death as he was in life. Way to go dad!!!
I was smiling as I returned to my van with my father tucked tightly under both arms. He would have been proud to see my carrying him away in two containers.
He always loved the two-for-one sales at the grocery store!
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