Thoughts from the sick room

Tiberius, with his breakfast syringes

At four am, awoken from a deep sleep by the need to feed a small person who counts on me for all their substance. Padding down to the kitchen by the light of LED night lights cycling between cyan, green, yellow, I go to the kitchen and mix the meal, standing over the sink. Warming it in the microwave and carefully shaking to make sure no hot-bubbles remain to disturb small and sensitive tummies. Back upstairs, across cold linoleum, to the nursery. “Hello little one,” I call softly into the dark.

But this time, of course, it is not my sweet baby – imperative for a bottle. I will not snuggle a son on my chest while I stare out the darkened window in the lyric trance of the late night feeding. This time, I will scan the floor for more evidence that the food I so carefully place in my cat is not remaining in my cat. Most often, I find it. And then I feed him again. Unromantically, through a syringe in his neck. The stopper is hard to press with the grainy cat food in it. I pet him. He’s got food stuck at spots in his fur (port feeding is harder than you think it would be, and messier). I daydream about coming in one morning to find him vigorously grooming himself to get it off.

Even dying cats like watching squirrels
Even dying cats like watching squirrels

I bounce back and forth between hope and grim suspicion. I think grim suspicion currently has more evidence on its side. Four days after the feeding tube was installed, he is losing ground fast against starvation. He mostly sits in that miserable posture that cats adopt when all is not well with them. He looks at me reproachfully when I present him with real food. “Woman! You know I can’t eat that. I wish I could.” But other times, there’s a little more hope. There’s an appreciative stretch of the neck when I scritch his ears. This morning I have him out with me on the porch, and he seems really quite interested what’s happening out there. But his breathing is also a little too fast and shallow, and his coat is clumping over his revealing bones.

Why do people have pets? I do not lack for people in my life whom I love, and who love me. My caretaker impulses are more than fully satisfied. Why did I want shadowy pawed figures walking through the dream-halls of my sleeping home, purring on the back of couches, or trying to sit on my husband’s head? I do not know.

I do know that these animals teach us life’s great lessons, but without the “life will never be the same again” weight that happens when we learn these lessons with the people in our lives. Tiberius has taught my eldest son to look with both eyes at a sickened, disfigured animal coming from surgery and not turn away his face. I am teaching my son fidelity in nursing and care. He is learning to walk with me between hope and fear – and that sometimes when we are walking that walk we forget for a bit and enjoy what we are doing. Grey is learning to plan for death while hoping for life, and to do so unafraid. I prefer him learning these lessons, in which the heart of humanity is held, on a feline scale before he ever needs them on a human dimension.

So we watch, we hope, we pray for God’s presence to be with those who suffer, and we make those faithful midnight wakings.

And as I wrote, he threw up again. He kept his meager breakfast down for two hours. There’s only one place that road ends, silly Milkstache. But I will walk it with you if that is where you are bound.

The Magic is gone

Some animals are exceptional, at least in their owner’s eyes. Our cat Justice, for example, is the friendliest and most social cat you’ve ever met. He invites himself in to new houses, makes friends, and may be better known in the neighborhood than I am. Other pets are just who they are – not exceptional but no less loved.

Christmas Magic
Christmas Magic

Magic was just such an animal. After noticing Justice was going completely crazy at home by himself, we decided a logical solution would be to get a second cat for him to play with. We went to a now-defunct animal shelter in Arlington where one of our friends volunteered. Magic was always a little funny looking – she had a tiny head with ginormous eyes and a big body. At first glance, she looked a lot like Justice, but further examination would show she was nothing at all like him. She was purry and affectionate from the get-go, but only tolerated a certain amount of petting before suddenly baring claw or fang to the offending hand. Magic loved to eat and to sleep. She was a comfortable house cat – a fixture on cushions, with a funny wheezy snore. She never longed to go outside, happily lounging inside where it was comfortable, like a sensible and comfort loving cat.

This morning she died. She was an elderly cat, and has been on medication for several years. She had gotten less and less active lately. Last night she began throwing up. As we got ready to go this morning, she was trembling and looking terribly unhappy. I had the boys talk to her, telling her they loved her and petting her. Adam took her to the emergency vet this morning, but she died as she was brought in, with his kind and loving hand touching her.

The house is quiet now. No snoring cat lies in the corner. An extra food bowl and litter box can be put away now. Justice’s sister and friend will no longer play with him. My sons face a feline farewell for the first time, faces grave.

Farewell, Magic. May there be sunbeams where you are, and bowls overflowing with food. May no one clip your claws, or want to sit on the seat you’re sitting on. May they leave cans of tuna unguarded on the counter. May you have scritches under your chin and behind your ears – but not too many. You will be missed, and your absence keenly felt.

Brother and sister
Brother and sister

Those of you who knew her: do you have any favorite Magic memories or pictures?

Momento mori

An angel of the sea with a broken anchor
An angel of the sea with a broken anchor

I’ve always loved graveyards. I remember being six and going to the graveyard overlooking Bonners Ferry, and thinking how lovely it was. I am particularly fond of older graveyards. I have taken many a happy walk through graveyards. In fact, I walked through graveyards during labor with both my sons (different graveyards). I love the quiet and peace of a cemetary. I enjoy reading the headstones and wondering about the relationship and lives of the remembered. I’m particularly fond of gravestones that hold some message for those left behind to read.

In the oldest New England graveyards, in New London, for example, the messages can be downright depressing – about how the inhabitant of the grave is in hell and if you aren’t more careful you will be too. One of my favorite classes in college was “Death, Dying and the Dead”, in which I learned that the whole purpose of the “pastoral graveyard” (of which Mt. Auburn in Cambridge is a prime example, and Arlington National Cemetery another) was to invite the living to remember the temporary status of their condition.

Anyway, with bright and fair weather, I took a walk to our local graveyard. It is no Mt. Auburn, granted. It sits high on a hill overlooking a Dunkin’ Donuts and used sports equipment store. It is the second oldest graveyard in town. The town was founded in 1725, so we have had significant history to bury. The oldest graveyard is next to the YMCA childcare center, but we aren’t permitted to wander there because it is (apparently) unsafe. (I imagine falling through an unstable burial chamber, and complain only a little.) This cemetery – Lindenwood – is also not the Catholic Cemetery. That’s further down the road. Lindenwood dates back to the early 1800s. A small stream runs picturesquely through, in a wooded glade at the bottom of the hill. The hallowed ground holds the remains two young brothers, whose mother updates their shared tombstone regularly. There’s a congressional medal of honor winner (WWII, by the dates). One of the last heroes of the now-nearly-forgotten Spanish American war lies there. In a few places, rings of white marble with initials surround large and imposing monuments, marking the final resting place of families. Sometimes this dignified white marble is marked with “Mom” and “Dad” – no names.

In this recent trip, I found quite possibly the creepiest tombstone EVER. Usually, as I tell myself stories about the people lying here (and perhaps more interestingly, the people who stood at their funerals), I can imagine what they were thinking when they made the choices they made. They decorate grandma’s grave with Christmas ornaments because she always went overboard at Christmas. The 30 year old who died in the 80s, but whose tombstone shows an infant going to God? Perhaps he was severely Downs Syndrome and his parents never saw him as a grown man. But I cannot for the life of me fathom what was going through the mind of the relations who placed this marble monument:

At the bottom it says, "Watching and waiting"
At the bottom it says, "Watching and waiting"

I can’t think of a single non-creepy interpretation of that one. It’s straight out of a Stephen King novel.

So how about you? Avoid cemeteries at all costs? Like to wander them? Find it morbid? What’s the creepiest you’ve ever seen? And what possible non-freaky interpretation could there be of Cora’s tomb?

One year ago

Mike and Laureen
Mike and Laureen

There are moments in time that are seared into your memory. For me, I can watch them as though remembering a scene in a movie. A year ago, in the middle of the night, was one such moment.

My husband’s father was sick. He’d been sick for a very long time. Shortly before we conceived Grey, his father was diagnosed with stomach cancer. They removed most of his stomach, followed by radiation treatment. Michael never fully recovered. He couldn’t, without most of his stomach, pull the nutritional value from the foods he ate. This was a great horror to him, a constant discomfort and embarrassment. For the next four years, he fluctuated between terribly sick and maybe, possibly getting better. When Grey was born, he was very, very sick. He looks older than his father-in-law in those pictures. But with courage, optimism and hope he always kept striving. We’d hear about the amazing improvement he’d made with the latest treatment attempt. My mother-in-law could rattle off the protein content of many foods, and was constantly researching and trying new supplements or foods, hoping to find the one that he could eat, that would bring him back to health and vitality.

But that week, my indomitable mother-in-law sounded frazzled, tired, and at the end of her rope. She sounded like she was going to cry. I’d never heard her sound like that before, or since. And he was very sick. Things weren’t going well, not at all. That afternoon, feeling a bit foolish, I’d bought my husband tickets to go down to see them. His Dad might not have needed him, but his Mom did.

And then, in the dark of the night, our months-old baby down the hall, the telephone rang. It took me a minute — we hadn’t had land line phones for quite a while. It did not take my husband a minute. He vaulted out of our bed as though he’d been waiting for this call all night. He stood, shivering, in the dark hallway. “Oh, Mom. I’m so sorry. Oh God.” I laid there in bed, staring at the ceiling, listening to my husband hear that his father had died.

After a while, she asked to speak to me. All she got out was “I’m so sorry” before she burst into weeping.

Two days later my husband boarded the planned flight, to be with his mother and clear out his father’s closet and make fond jokes about the man who had raised him.

That day at work, I wrote about Michael.

It’s been a year since then, and we still miss him. I thought, when I got this new job, just how proud of me he’d be. He was my father-in-law, but I started dating his son when I was 17. He was a father figure for nearly my entire adult life. My husband, as he increases his roles and extends into management, laments that he can’t call his dad for advice. My mother-in-law still sleeps with his vest and wears his old Timex watch, even though the velcro is giving.

Last night, for bedtime story, Grey and I read the story that he and Papa Flynn wrote over a year ago, about Forest Ranger Grey and the Falling Acorns. We watched the precious snatch of video that captures a moment in that writing. We looked at pictures of Papa Flynn and I told him some stories about him. Grey expressed his theme of disappointment, Papa Flynn is STILL dead?!?!?. Seriously, isn’t a year long enough to get over the whole dead thing?

Thane, my sweet Thane, oh child. He will have no memories of his grandfather who died when he was months old. We have a few pictures of Michael holding him. Mike looks like hell in all of them. But when he stops trying to eat the monitor, I’ll show him and tell him too.

Michael, you are greatly missed. You are not forgotten. We have not put you on a pedestal of perfection, instead we miss the exuberant, raunchy, crazy-smart, crazy-making man you really were.

My village

On Tuesday, my husband and I conscripted my brother into childcare and went to donate blood at the annual memorial blood drive for Vicky Graham. Vicky died of cancer a year or two after we joined the church. The blood drive is an especially appropriate way of remembering her, because during her fight infusions of platelets were one of the things that helped her feel better and get stronger. Vicky’s dad Whitey was standing at the entrance to the drive when we pulled up. We chatted, he signed us in and gave us stickers and little squeezy-balls. He thanked us for remembering Vicky.

As I was drinking my post-donation beverage, Whitey waved goodbye and said that his lovely wife was there to pick him up and he’d see us later.

Thursday night, when I came downstairs from putting Thane to bed, I saw my husband standing stricken with a phone to his ear. Whitey died Thursday afternoon from a massive heart attack.

When I think of Whitey’s dying, I think of work. There are Christians — I am one — who tend towards an intellectual approach to their faith. I think theology and Biblical study. Whitey was a Christian whose faith was done with his hands. He spearheaded the church’s ministry with the Dwelling Place, serving a meal to the hungry. Several times a year he cooked a meal for the church — Easter Breakfast, Fall luncheon. He was behind “Soup”er Bowl Sunday, and the Blankets and Tools drive. He was the lone guy on Deacons. He served with me on the Hospitality Committee. In my church bag, I noticed an envelope from him, my name scrawled on it. It was one of many projects we were working on together. He was a man who did things in accordance with what he believed.

He was also a father, many times over. He and Jean had three children: Vickie, Alex and Andrew. He and Jean had over 200 children. They were, are, foster parents. One of the last things he told me about was Alex and Andrew making foster-child Daryll laugh — Daryll is about Thane’s age. Whitey and Jean offered short term and long term homes to children in dire circumstances. They prayed every year for the children who “aged out” of the system and were sent alone into the world. Those children were always welcomed back at the Graham household.

When death comes long and slow, you have time to prepare. Gradually the tasks that person undertook are put aside in illness. I’ve seen that before. When death is a sudden visitor, you realize just how much you relied on a person. Whitey was supposed to give the sermon this Sunday while our pastor was on vacation. In an unusual fit of preparedness, he had already finished writing it, and it was read to us. It was about his faith, how his journey with Christ had progressed, and about what it had meant to him to be in community with us. It was an affirmation about how much he loved us. How strangely profound to hear from a man who had had every intention of delivering it himself.

Tomorrow, I will play “Lord of the Dance” at Whitey’s funeral. In September, I will find someone to prepare the Fellowship Lunch that was always his domain. In March, I will buy yellow roses and play “Lord of the Dance” for Vickie and Whitey. His example will remind me to be not only a thinking Christian and a feeling Christian, but an acting Christian.

Robot Papa

Grey is still very much processing his grandfather’s death. There’s a certain spot on our commute home that must remind him of Michael, because he often talks about him as we pass it. This was last night’s conversation:

Grey: Mommy, is Papa STILL dead? (Sounding aggrieved that Papa hasn’t gotten over this “dead” thing yet.)
Mommy: Yes Grey, Papa is still dead.
Grey: When he going to stop being dead?
Mommy: Not in this world as we know it, Grey. (Note: I know too much about theology. The less confusing answer is that he isn’t, but I believe in the resurrection and the life everlasting, so I go with confusing.)
Grey: Why he dead?
Mommy: Well, he had lived his life. He was a baby, then he was a boy, then he was a young man, then he was a grownup, then he was an old man. Then he got sick and he died. (Subtext: don’t worry, kiddo. Neither you nor we are going anywhere soon, God willing.)

** pause for thinking **

Grey: I have an idea! (He holds up his finger to show that yes! An idea!)
Grey: We could make a ROBOT Papa!
Mommy: **nearly drives off the road giggling**

If only we could make a Robot Papa, son. You’ll just have to make do with your memories.

Would Robot Papa help Grey write stories?
Would Robot Papa help Grey write stories?

A final answer

Today my mother-in-law called me with the autopsy report on her husband. There was no sign of a return of cancer. It wasn’t the liver function. It wasn’t the morphine. It wasn’t the pancreatitis. It wasn’t the staph infection he’d fought off. It wasn’t depressed vitals. None of the things he’d fought against for years was his undoing.

My father-in-law died of a massive, systemic bacterial infection that affected all his major internal organs except his lungs. It was a very unusual infection, and a sample has been sent to the CDC for analysis.

“That’s great!” I told my mother-in-law.

In the aftermath of death, you find yourself placed in the oddest circumstances, saying things that are just bizarre when you step back and look at it. That said, this is just about the best news we could’ve had without getting him back. Here’s why:

1) No one missed anything. It wasn’t that his doctors were careless. It wasn’t that my MIL should have fought to get him ventilated after the morphine. That wouldn’t have done anything. There weren’t signs that should’ve been heeded and weren’t. This likely had only been going on for a day or two prior to his death, and there really wasn’t any way anyone could have known.
2) Even if we had known it wouldn’t have changed much. Mike had vowed that he would never take antibiotics again. He had a terrible, painful reaction to them — and the amount of antibiotics this would have required might have killed him in their own right. I’m glad he didn’t have to choose not to fight it, but it would’ve been an awful fight. If there was any way for us to have known. Which there wasn’t.
3) It’s not genetic. There is no warning in this to Mike’s sons.
4) This particular infection might have killed a healthy person. I’m not entirely sure that’s *good* news, per se, but once this infection got started, even being healthy wouldn’t have helped him much. This helps remove any guilt about “if only we’d gotten him a little stronger”, etc. It wouldn’t have mattered.
5) It was quick at the end.
6) We KNOW. There isn’t a lingering mystery. That’s actually quite a relief.
7) There is absolutely no cause for guilt. This one was just bad fortune.
8 ) Mike went down a fighter. He must have really had amazing strength and constitution to fight not only all the things that were wrong with him from day to day, but this additional massive infection. It makes me feel like he went down throwing punches to the last.

Now that we know this, it really feels like we can start healing. The last of the mysteries are resolved. With that resolution comes the laying down of all the might have beens and would have dones that linger at the edges. It doesn’t make it hurt any less, or make us miss him any less, but it puts our mind at rest.

He went down fighting
He went down fighting

Funeral baked meats

This weekend was overlaid with the patina of soft-grief, of the loss of a friend who has been sick for a very long time. I had a lot of interaction with those who were strongly affected and a lot of “touches” with the funeral preparations, so I ended up spending a good bit of time thinking about funerals, death, and comforting the young in a rather concrete way — but distant enough from me that I could bear to think about it.

The woman who died, Lynda, had been very ill for about 2 years. She’d had cancer for near 30, but it was sort of a chronic cancer. Every once in a while she’d get chemo or surgery to remove some tumors, but most of the time she was pretty healthy. They were slow-growing and while not exactly benign, they weren’t doing a lot. Then two years ago, the cancer changed and got much more aggressive. She never managed to fully recover or get back on even footing. The doctors put in a stent — she was getting fed entirely through IV — and that got infected and in the end, it was the infection that did her in. They simply could not clear it up, so she’d go home for a week and it would re-ravage her and she’d head back to the hospital… over and over and over again. It became clear that she was losing ground in the fight, but she had two children — a 20-something young man and a 17 year old girl. So she kept fighting. Once she gave up the fight, once she relinquished and admitted that she was done, she died within two days. It was her will that had been holding her, and once it turned from the task, her body gave up easily.

Anyway, I think that 4 or 5 years ago, I would’ve been looking at this from her daughter’s point of view. I would’ve been thinking how horrible it was to lose a mother and the huge gap that would create. How lonely it must be. And how many practical things will be difficult… can they keep the house she grew up in? (Her parents were divorced.) Is there a chance she’d have to change school districts? Who will help her with her college applications? Who will go prom-dress shopping with her? When a wedding comes around, how badly will she miss her mother?

I’m thinking of those things too. But for me now, I see this from Lynda’s point of view. How unready I would be to die now. I’m not wildly afraid of death — it comes for us all and I truly believe that while death is the end of what we can know from where we stand now, I do not believe it is the end. For me, I am less afraid of death. But I am terrified to leave behind those I would leave behind. My sons! My husband! I, too, would fight against leaving them with all the strength I could muster.

My mother told me not long ago that she felt much freer now. With all her children well-launched into their adult lives, while parting would be sad and we would miss her greatly, we are all standing on our own. I really understand her point of view. Most of my family has been thoughtful enough to die in the fullness of time, after having completed the tasks to which they set their hands and with few regrets. (My grandmother’s only regret is that she’s STILL HERE.) I am not at all afraid of that. But I cannot bear to think of leaving now.

And then there’s the little boy and the practical aspects. I really wanted to go to the reception-thingy. (Wake? I dunno — it seems like a very New England thing to me. You make the bereaved stand in a line and hear for three hours straight “I’m sorry your mom died.” I’m surprised the Geneva conventions haven’t outlawed this practice.) Mostly I wanted to go because I wanted to give the daughter big hugs and tell her I was there for her when she was ready. The issue was that I had sole custody of a Mr. Greypants. Worse, it was the Napless variety of the Greypants.

So I got out the neat photo-album scrapbook from Grey’s baby shower. (He is in a “loves looking at pictures of baby Grey” phase.) I showed him my belly and how I was pregnant with him, just like I was pregnant now with baby-brother. I showed him the picture of Lynda and I together. I explained that she had left (I did use the word die), and that her family and friends were very sad because they would miss her. I told him we were going to see her family and friends and give them big hugs to make them feel better. I told him we needed to be very polite and quiet.

And I put him in the car and took him to the wake. He stood very nicely and politely in line until it was our turn to express our condolences. He *did* give big, comforting 3-year-old hugs to the bereaved. And then I sat with the other church-mothers (mostly the moms of my teens) and we talked about Lynda and the kids. I critically failed my “be welcoming to other people” roll, though, I realized on my way out. It can be so nice to sit and talk with your friends that you forget to talk with the people who don’t have as many folks to talk to. May I be forgiven for it.

Tonight is the funeral. (Very fast!) Part of the unspoken role of the church is to provide snacks to the mourners afterwards. I remember that when my grandfather died — after a very long and protracted Alzheimers-decline — the church my grandmother attended put on quite the spread for us. It was especially kind as none of them would have known my grandfather when he could, you know, talk. The funeral baked meats and funeral feast stretch back into the mists of time. If memory serves, Gilgamesh had a funeral feast. And that story is one of the first ever written down. They’ve changed over time of course. But it is a sacred obligation, a continuation of a story, a link to our history and tradition, and a very real and present comfort in a time of tears.

Somehow it seemed wrong that I should take up this sacred burden and acquit it with funfetti cupcakes, but by then I was really, really, really tired. I thought about a tea ring (which seemed to me like an appropriate funeral-food), but weariness won out over symbolism. I do wish that I’d had frosting other than the pink stuff I used for the Patrick cake.

Lynda wouldn’t mind.

I’m a little sad that I’m far too pregnant to play for this funeral. Much of the time I end up getting called on in my role as a trumpeter for funerals. I play “Lord of the Dance” and taps. (Lord of the Dance is apparently my church’s gold-standard for funeral music. It pretty much always shows up. For the record, I prefer “How Great Thou Art”, “Abide With Me” and some of the evening hymns. Also, I’d like the funeral to happen before I die so I can enjoy it and plan it out properly.)

I wish I had a good way to tie this up — to talk about the Christian confidence in redemption. In our church we do not pray for the dead, for they are the care of God. We pray for the living who are left behind. I truly have full faith and confidence that Lynda is where she belongs. I pray for the rest of us wisdom to know how to reach out and comfort and support those who will miss her every day for the rest of their lives.