Tuesday, May 17, 2016

he is the greatest generation

It's been a while since I've written about our beloved, Jimbo.


Last year at this time, Mom and Jim were residing in Florida.  They made the decision to return to South Carolina in August, because as much as they love Florida, my mother really needed some additional support to care for her husband.

At the age of 92,  our former WWII Navy pilot, could still come up with answers for just about any crossword. But his mind has been slipping, and what started as a difficulty remembering where simple things were - like his wallet or car keys - has slowly evolved in to a general confusion about where he is, what he's doing, and when he's going home.


Despite his confusion, Jim would almost always win in cards. And if you sang a tune from long ago, he'll know every lyric.  When we were with Jim a few years ago in Florida, and he started reciting the poem "Casey At The Bat" from memory, the lot of us that had gathered around him, were gobsmacked.

As I've written before, Jim is from a long line of professional baseball players.  Jim's Dad actually played with Babe Ruth for Boston in 1917;  before playing for several other teams - including the Chicago Cubs. It was with the Cubs that his Dad made an unassisted triple play, which landed him in the Baseball Hall of Fame.


Jim's Uncle played professional baseball, too. As did his grandfather, who Jim says is the one who "died at first" in the famous poem.   Jim would tell me that those were the golden days when ball players played not for some multi-million dollar contract, but for the love of the game.

(Although, he adds, it sure would have been nice if his family had made millions doing what they loved!) 

Jim has always had an insatiable love of sports, and would watch games on TV - any games - just so long as there was a ball involved. Baseball, basketball, football, tennis ... golf.


Over the past few years, my mother has been Jim's primary caregiver as dementia has slowly taken over his brilliant mind.  And while Jim has always remained the consummate well-dressed gentleman, with a bright smile, and joyful expression of "Hi-Ya Kiddo!", Jim's demise has been painful for everyone, especially my mother.

More and more, I've become aware of articles and news stories that highlight the very real issue of caregiver stress, and after witnessing it in my own mother - I know how frightening and crippling it can be.


The exhaustion from sleep deprivation due to round-the-clock care; the frustration and depression from the exhaustion and inability to do things for yourself; the guilt that you think about doing things for yourself - and the worry that no one can take care of your loved one like you can.  Add to that, the stress over the expense of care should you even consider it - can run thousands per month.


Mom had resisted putting Jim in to a nursing facility not because of the expense, but because she loves him and treasures his companionship.  According to mom, "Jim gives me purpose, and he is always so happy.  I hate to do it to him ... he is such a kind and wonderful man!" 

And he is. 

But a few months ago, mom was at a breaking point. Every time we would talk with her, she would collapse in to tears because she was so tapped out.  And finally, she took the advice of what every doctor, nurse, and health care professional had been telling her ... she sought help and put Jim in a facility where he would be cared for, round-the-clock.


It hasn't been an easy decision for mom, and several times she has mentioned taking him out and bringing him home.  But since Jim has been in a nursing home, mom has been able to spend some time on herself, which it turns out has been critically necessary.


Mom, who tries to make the the best of every possible situation, has started singing when she goes to see Jim. According to my Aunt Grace who has witnessed this before, residents will light up when my mother starts singing, and people who were moments earlier, sitting in a comatose state - will begin tapping their foot, clapping their hands, or singing along.

With the gift of music, it seems something deep in their minds is sparked.


"Your mother has such a gift with people," my Aunt has told me.

Indeed, she does.

I know it.

And Jim knows it, too.


This past weekend, our beloved Jimbo had a stroke.  After spending the weekend in the hospital, the decision has been made to administer comfort-measures, only.  He was transferred to hospice today, and mom is with him - by his side, holding his hand, and nurturing him.  Today when I called, she was tucking blankets around his chin, fluffing his pillow, and keeping the phone near his ear so people could tell him how much they love and appreciate him.


When I spoke to my mother yesterday, she told me that when she went in to his hospital room - although he could not speak - Jim's eyes made contact with hers, and she said that his eyes were so full of love, and gratitude.  She said that it honestly felt like his soul connected with hers, and their souls said to each other, "Thank You."  And when I talked to my mother tonight, she said that Jim had been trying to lift her hand up to his lips so that he could kiss it.

The thought of these sweet gestures make me weep tears of gratefulness.

Oh, what a gift these two have been for each other!

Jim's first wife, Pat - who was also a dear friend of our family - passed away in November of 2000. And for the past 15 years, Mom and Jim have been together.  They've traveled all around the United States, and spent more than a decade in Florida.  They've laughed together, danced together, swam together, done crossword puzzles together, played cards together, and of course - sang together.

I am so grateful for the role that Jim has played in my life, a close friend to our family for the past 35-years.  And I am so grateful of the grandfather that he has been to our children.   Almost all of our children's memories of Jim involve the beach and laughter.  (And getting whooped in cards.)

But mostly, I am so grateful for the love that Jim has brought in to my mother's life.  I am so grateful that for the past 15 years, Jim has been my mom's best friend - someone who unexpectedly has given her so much purpose, joy, and adventure.  I'm so grateful for this intelligent, gracious, kind, patient, sports-loving, well-dressed gentleman, who has adored my mother and treasured her for the gift that she is; just as she has treasured him for the gift that he has been to her.

Yes, this is the face of companionship...


It is my prayer that Jim, and my mom, feel all of the love surrounding them.  And that for Jim - there is no pain... just peace, and comfort, and faith.

Faith that he he has his toes in an ocean of love...


And the tide is rising.

(Pam, Stan, and Kimball - you, too, are in our hearts. xox) 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

here's to growing up

When we lived in Virginia, there was a little boy who lived down the street from us, and one afternoon, he went for a bike ride with his mom.  To hear his mother tell the story, "He was riding his bike, just in front of me, and I could see that he was heading straight for a parked car.  I kept waiting for him to swerve to miss the parked car, but instead, he slammed in to the back of it, and flipped over the handlebars.  When I rushed up to him, he was curled in a ball on the ground crying.  I asked him, 'What were you thinking?!' and he said, 'Now I know. Don't ever ride your bike with your eyes closed!" 

I absolutely love that story.  There are certain things that kids just have to figure out on their own.

Now that William has joined the Boy Scouts, he goes on a full-weekend camping trip once a month.  For the past several months, Charlie has joined him as they leave on a Friday afternoon, and return home Sunday afternoon.  

Tents on the beach

This past weekend, William was slated to have a camping trip to a beach on Corpus Christi, approximately five hours south of us.  Until 3:00 PM on Friday afternoon, Charlie was planning to go with him - but at the very last minute he decided, "I really need a weekend at home." 

So we packed William off on his own - his first time ever - and after arming him with a cell phone and strict instructions on how to behave, and sunscreen to apply, etc. etc. we bid our son fare thee well a while.

William texted us along his route - they stopped for dinner  and gas - they were driving again - now he was sipping a root beer and nibbling snacks!  At 11:30 PM they arrived at the campsite and he wrote to tell us that he'd be setting up his tent and going to sleep.  Everything was going swimmingly and Charlie and I, feeling content that our son was doing A-OK, went to sleep.

At 1:17 AM the phone rang.

I answered it, and on the other end was a very distraught William.  There was sand IN his tent. There was sand everywhere.  He was miserable. Please, could we come get him?

Um, let me think about it for a minute ... NO!

I told him I loved him very much and that he needs to put the phone away and go to sleep.  "Goodnight" I said, as I hung up the phone.  Less than two minutes later, the phone rang again.

"MOM. You don't understand. THERE IS SAND EVERYWHERE AND I AM MISERABLE.  Oh, and also, Dad forgot to pack my sleeping bag."



For nary a brief millisecond, the thought flashed through my mind that I'd drive south and rescue my son, five hours south of us at nearly 1:30 in the morning. Once that moment of insanity passed, I nudged a groggy Charlie and handed him the phone, as I rolled over on my side and tried to smother out their conversation with my pillow.

This is what happened next:

Charlie flew out of bed gasping, "What do you MEAN you don't have your sleeping bag?! William, we PACKED your sleeping bag. It's in the support trailer!!  I'll tell you what happened, you arrived and were goofing around with your friends and not paying attention to what you had and what you didn't have and now everyone's asleep and LO you don't have your sleeping bag.  I love you little man, but this one's on you.  You need to go to wrap yourself in a towel and go to sleep. Find your bag in the morning." 

My husband hung up the phone and less than five minutes later, it rang again.  I could hear William's bellowing on the other end of the line, "DAD! YOU FORGOT TO PACK MY SLEEPING BAG! I CANNOT SLEEP! COME GET ME RIGHT NOW, PLEASE!!! I'M MISERABLE!!!" 

And my husband, God Bless him, held his patience and said, "Son, I love you more than life itself. But there is no way I'm driving five hours because you can't find the sleeping bag that I packed for you. Use your towel, wrap yourself in it, and GO TO SLEEP.  You're in south Texas in the middle of May in a tent. The temperature will not drop below 75 degrees tonight. You'll survive until morning. Sleep well. I'll talk to you tomorrow, I'm hanging up now. GOOD NIGHT!" 

The next morning at 7:00, William called and said he was feeling GREAT!  He was able to go to sleep and when he awoke this morning, there was a beautiful sunrise.


Also, he found his sleeping bag.

Imagine That?! 

Nonetheless, this was a wonderful experience for us - and him - and his siblings who heard all about it, because part of growing up is problem solving.  This was the first time he'd ever had a "problem" that wasn't immediately solvable by his parents ... and it was a good thing.  For everyone.  

My final word of warning was to make sure he put on sunscreen every 2-3 hours.


When he arrived home today, he was burned to a crisp and he now knows that just like I told him - it is critical to reapply sunscreen throughout the day.


Much like riding your bike with eyes open, some of these life lessons you just have to learn on your own.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

one year ago tonight

One year ago ...

I took the children shopping for supplies so that we could host a lemonade stand for our wonderful bus driver, Mr. Yani.


He had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and with mounting medical bills and dismal insurance coverage, we thought it would be a good opportunity for the children to host a fundraiser and show support for someone who they cared about. (In the end, they rose nearly $1K!)


The theme would be yellow.  Yellow for sunshine, school buses, lemonade, and joy. 


Standing in the aisle looking at yellow cups, balloons, and table cloths - I received a call from my brother, Francis.  I'd seen the emails flying around the family the past 48-hours that Dad wasn't doing very well and had been hospitalized, so I immediately knew why he was calling.  I didn't answer the phone because I couldn't very well talk to him about my father's failing health, in the middle of Party City.  But as I clicked him through to voicemail, and let out a few small gasps and the tears escaped my eyes, the children stopped their perusing and looked at me. "What's wrong Mom? Why are you crying?"  Biting my lips, wiping my face with two hands, and trying to hold it together, I whispered, "Aw sweeties ... my Dad is dying."

By the time I'd pushed the cart to the front of the store and checked out, Charlie was calling me to say that my family was trying desperately to get in touch with me.  "I know," I told him.   He urged me to get home as soon as possible and call my brother back.  "But, I don't want to call him back," I said. As if my not returning his calls would somehow delay the inevitable.  

When I arrived home, I made the call to my brother.  He was standing at my father's bedside in the hospital, along with my sisters Beth and Janet, and my brother, Wally.   Francis told me that they were administering comfort measures, and asked if I'd like to say a few words to my father.  He then held the phone down to Dad, and I could hear his labored breathing and the beeping of various machines in the background.   I was totally unprepared for this.

What had happened?

How had he slipped so fast?  

While I knew that Dad was not well - I had spoken to him less than two weeks earlier when Beth - thank God for Beth - called me while she was visiting Dad so that he could wish me a happy birthday, and I could wish him a happy birthday.  The phone had been removed from his room, so my ability to call him was non-existent.  On that call we had on Beth's cell phone, we talked and we laughed and he sang, and it was so wonderful just hearing his voice.

And now, less than two weeks later, he was being given comfort measures? 

So on that Sunday afternoon, while our children were selling lemonade with other neighborhood children and their parents, I spoke with my Dad.   I told him that I loved him then I sang to him, "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?" The Van Morrison song that he and I danced together, at my wedding.  Then I sobbed and my brother Francis must have heard my sobbing because he came back on the phone and said, "Do you have any objection to us taking him off life support?" 

Absolutely not ... I have no objection, because I do not want for him to suffer.

Soon my sister Eileen called and told me that she was flying back to Boston that night.  I decided that I, too, should look at ticket availability and found that there was one seat on a 7 PM flight.  But I hesitated booking it ... because I didn't want to leave Charlie and the kids.  How would he get to Boston if and when Dad passed?  Would he drive - all by himself - with all the children?

Carolyn was supposed to have her tonsils removed on Thursday. We were smack dab in the middle of a kitchen remodel which was on a fast-track because our house was going on the market the next month.   And on top of it all ... I was in disbelief that this was actually happening.

Could I really be on the verge of losing one of my parents?!

So instead of booking the flight, I called my cousin, Margaret and I cried.  Then I left the un-purchased reservation on my computer and walked up to the lemonade stand to think.  And for the next two hours, I stayed with the children and handed out cups of lemonade and worried.   Although Charlie had been telling me, "Go, Go, Go..." I wasn't listening. It wasn't until my neighbor, Le, said, "GO RIGHT NOW." That I literally dropped a cup of lemonade and ran all the way home; threw clothes in a suitcase and ran back to my computer to purchase the ticket.

But that ticket was gone.  No longer available.  

Panic gripped my heart and I started to sob. I wanted to go to Boston, and I couldn't.  Even if I got in the car and drove, I wouldn't be there until the next day and that might be too late.  So I searched and searched and searched and nothing showed up, because by this time it was 6:00 PM and there were no flights available on the internet for departures that evening.   So I called airlines, and on or about the fifth airline, I gave up and called a travel agent who informed me there was one seat remaining on a flight that departed at 7:45 PM.  I booked the ticket on the spot, and was still talking to the travel agent, reading off my credit card number, as I was throwing my suitcase in to the car.

Our children stayed with a neighbor while Charlie rushed me to the airport. When I arrived - I ran through security to my gate - and was the last person to board, just seconds before they shut the door. This was a photo that I took that evening en route to Boston. When I snapped it, I suspected it would be the last sunset shining on my father's life:


I arrived in Boston at the same time as my sister, Eileen, who was flying in from Michigan.  Our sister-in-law, MaryAnn, picked us up from the airport and drove us directly to the hospital in Concord.  We arrived at 10:00 PM and immediately put on the yellow disposable coveralls that were required prior to entering my father's room in the ICU.

After greeting my siblings, I entered the room and immediately went to the left side of my father's head.  I held his hand and despite warnings of biological hazard, kissed his cheek and said, "I'm here, Dad ... I'm here with you."   He squeezed my hand.  And whenever I would put Chapstick on his severely parched lips, he would softly squeeze my hand again.

Six of the seven siblings were there ... Marylou was still in Kentucky, having just attended the Derby, and was trying to figure out how to get back.  In addition, my father's younger sister, Peggy, stood vigil with us; along with Janet's husband, my brother-in-law, Bob.

For the next several hours, we told stories, listened to music, sang, and we laughed. Particularly when we heard the lyrics to this old navy song (Bell Bottom Trousers), which my father used to sing an abbreviated version to me, when I was younger.  As a surprise - Dad had that same abbreviated version played for us to dance to, at my wedding.

None of us had heard all the lyrics before (for good reason!) and we were in stitches laughing.  Even Dad, who we thought was slipping in to unconsciousness, tapped his foot a few times to the beat, and had a slight smile across his lips that let us know YES, he actually DID know ALL the words.   

While I wouldn't characterize our gathering as "festive", it certainly wasn't somber, which was remarkable given the grim circumstances and the fact that several of my siblings are estranged.

Francis and Wally had a business falling out several years ago, and had not spoken to each other in more than a decade.  Francis and Beth had a falling out - over the care of my father - and were on rocky terms, which put everyone at odds with someone else, depending upon whether you were in the "Beth" camp or "Frank" camp.  For example, I'd had a semi-falling out with Francis ... because of his falling out with Beth, and we were on quasi-rocky terms.  Others had fall-outs here and there, and would likely not be standing in this same space if not for the circumstances.  While there was an air of cooperation and uniting for our father's behalf, there was an underlying friction that we all did quite well to ignore.

Given our family dynamic, I'm absolutely certain that my father knew we had gathered for him. That we had put all of our disagreements and frustrations aside and had united, telling stories and helping to usher him out of this world - with kindness and laughter - in a way that he would want.

A nurse came in and told us that she was going to remove my father's oxygen line and make him comfortable.  She asked that we exit the room for a few minutes so that she could clean him up. Before I left my father's side,  I adjusted the prayer shawl that lay across his legs, and leaning down whispered, "I love you so much, Dad.  You are a GOOD man, and a GOOD Dad."  And my father, who had been laying so still, gently lifted his hand and softly cupped the back of my head.

When the nurse joined us a few minutes later, we asked what would happen next. She told us, that you never can tell. "Sometimes," she said, "People will wait until a certain moment to leave.  Sometimes, they wait until everyone has exited the room and then they slip away.  It often helps to open a window and let them know that it's OK for them to go." 

When we returned to the room, all the beeping sounds were gone, and the whoosh of the oxygen was silent.  We cracked open a window, resumed our places around Dad's bed, and continued our vigil for another few hours, before we were exhausted and people retreated to the waiting room.

Janet and Bob tried to sleep in a chair - and quickly decided that they needed to drive home so they could properly rest. Aunt Peggy decided to leave and drive back to Boston.  While Beth, Wally and Francis stayed in the room with my father, Eileen went somewhere in the hospital to sleep, and I curled up on the three foot sofa and dozed off.

By 8 AM, I was awake and back in my father's room.  Soon, my brother Wally's wife, Donna, who had just gotten her three boys off to school, joined us ... as did a Priest who read my father the Last Rites.  The morning nurse entered at around 9:50 and asked that we go outside for a few minutes so she could reposition my father. We retreated to the waiting room again and a few minutes later, the nurse hurried back and said, "You need to come quickly."  We rushed back in to the room and stood around Dad's bed as he took one last breath and exhaled. Just as our evening nurse had predicted - he waited until we had all stepped out of the room to leave.

I waited for him to breathe again, but when he remained silent, I gently put my hand on his face and softly closed his eyes.  For several minutes, I remained on his left side, holding his warm hand, stroking his fingers and nails, while clearly remembering the way those strong hands would grip a steering wheel, ship helm, lobster tail, prescription bottle, Budweiser bottle ... or my own hand.  


"Don't leave me, Dad." I silently prayed.  "Please don't ever leave me." 

A year later, I'm certain that my father hasn't left me. I feel his presence now more than ever; and there have been so many things that have happened ... almost every day, something new - all of these incredible "chance occurrences" or "coincidences" that remind me of Dad, and what I strongly feel is some greater energy, surrounding us.


I'd arrived at my father's bedside at 10:05 PM, and he passed at 10:05 AM, exactly 12 hours later.   It's hard to believe that I had hesitated purchasing the plane ticket to be there, and then had the incredible luck of actually making it; the last seat on the last plane.  Because when the time came - there was no place on earth I would have rather been, than right there with Dad, holding his hand on the last night he was physically with us.

One year ago, tonight.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

my buttons ... they poppeth offeth! (the awesome nephew edition)

I've written about my nephew, Tommy, before.


He's my sister, Eileen's son, and we adore him.   This last week, we received word that after winning various competitions in his platoon, battalion, regiment and brigade ... he won Soldier of the Year for the entire 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

To put it in perspective, that's from a pool of ~25,000 soldiers.   Next up, he'll be competing for the Airborne Corps ... and pending the outcome of that - soldier of the year for the entire Army. 

To say that our family is proud of our Tommy ... and all of our boys in uniform would be a significant understatement!


This is a photo of William and his cousin - my other awesome nephew, Michael, the 105 and counting Merit Badge Eagle Scout, who flew in to surprise us for my birthday week.  And who went camping with William on his first Camporee, which his troop WON after beating out 10 other troops from the Houston area.   Here, they're practicing knot tying en route to their campsite:  


We had such a wonderful time with Beth and Michael while they were visiting with us.  One of the highlights of their visit - in my opinion! - was a horseback ride that I took them on.   


The girls and I have been riding almost every week for the past four months, and it is now one of my favorite things to do with people whenever they visit us in Texas.  Here's my sister Beth, checking out the four-legged inventory and carefully pondering her steed selection. 


I was so happy and proud of my sister for joining us on this ride!  


She hadn't been on a horse for over 40 years, but she climbed on and took off, like a pro. 


We were worried about the flooding with all of the storms in Houston, but there wasn't too much standing water... 


Well, except this "pond" that had a residency of approximately six alligators. 


So we were told, once we had safely crossed to the other side. 


At this point, Beth gave up trying to keep her feet dry. 


During this ride, Michael was able to work on his horsemanship merit badge. 


In addition to learning about horse anatomy, grooming, tacking, and care - Michael had to walk, trot and canter.  He did awesome and has expressed an interest in possibly procuring a bomb-proof horse one day that he can take with him when he goes hunting and fishing in the New England wilderness. 


His favorite thing to do was trot, and I could hear him whispering to his horse, "Trot ... Trot ... Trot!"  When his horse would change gait, Michael would break in to laughter. 


Going in to this, I really wasn't sure what my 15-year old nephew would think of this experience, but I've never seen him so happy or excited in my life.  And best of all?   There was NO chaffing!   Poor Michael, I told him he'd never live that one down!   :)

As for Tommy, I won't ever let him live down the time I took him to Disney Land - when he was six - and he wanted to ride Space Mountain with me.  We stood in lines twice and made it all the way to loading, only to get out of line twice. Once because he had to use the bathroom; and again because he was going to "frow-up."  Eileen finally stepped in and said, "It's nerves. Let's go to "It's a Small World."  And so we did.  I've been thinking that what I'd really like to give him as a gift of winning the Soldier of the Year, is a trip to Disney so we can finally ride Space Mountain together.  :)

All kidding aside, these two nephews ... I couldn't be prouder of them.  Or more grateful that they are in our children's lives as such outstanding role models.


Bravo to my sisters, Beth and Eileen for raising such amazing young men!