My not good, very bad, horrible day

Last week I had a not good, very bad, horrible day.

Driving on my way to see a donor, from whom I was expecting a significant commitment, I phoned a pastor friend to catch up. We exchanged the usual professional and family information that makes men feel they are staying in rhythm with the heartbeat of their buddies. And I learned that his wife had left him. I’ve not been so shocked in a long time. They seemed to be thriving.

Fortunately, he handled the situation immediately and professionally with his church, and they demonstrated the love and commitment that he has earned there. The leadership unanimously wants him to stay.

Later, while waiting in the lobby of my donor friend, I received a phone call from the son-in-law of my high school buddy from Wisconsin who for the past several years has lived within 80 miles of me. I knew Don’s cancer was back, and he likely wouldn’t make it through the summer.

In fact, I had just checked the map to learn where his house was in relation to my meeting to see if I could run over there that day. I was still wavering between going that day, or waiting until next week when the son-in-law called. Next week would be too late, Chris said. In fact, that afternoon might be too late, as Don was leaving us today, he said in a broken voice. Could I come?

I promised him I would come as soon as I finished my meeting.

Over lunch with my donor prospect I learned his business was off by 35 percent and he would not be able to do for the foundation for which I work what he had hoped and planned to do. He’s a fine man, supportive, and encouraged me to stay in touch.

Pulling away, I called Chris from my car and said I’d be there to see Don in an hour. “Don has passed,” Chris said through his tears. I went anyway to be with the family. We shared hugs, tears, coffee and cookies and some laughs and memories.

The body that once held Don remained in the recliner, dogs in his lap. It would remain there until his son in California and daughter from Seattle arrived and said their farewells.

No matter how much time you have to prepare for a loved one’s passing, you’re never ready when that final breath rattles through the pipes and then falls silent. Don’s illness was terminal and this moment was inevitable. Just, as always, too soon.

That night my friend Steve in Omaha texted that he’d lost control when his bike hit a bump, and he’d broken six ribs and partially deflated a lung.

It was overwhelming really, this day of bad news, and I felt like a patch of dry grass in the path of the lava flowing down from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano.

I was overwhelmed and yet strangely detached. Is it because these tragedies happened to someone else and I remained untouched? Or is it because I’m basically a stoic and consider these events – as painful as they were to those to dear to me – as merely ebbs and flows of the human experience?

Stuff happens. Nobody promised us a rose garden, yadda yadda.

I’d hate to think that absorbing the stings and arrows of those who sought my undoing in past days hardened my heart to such an extent that I had no soft spot left from which to squeeze a tear.

Or is it because the faith in God’s providence to which I cling truly is sufficient? I’ve often said during difficult periods, “These are not the times that try our faith. These are the times that prove our faith.”

Unfortunately, the opportunity for proving presents itself in trial.

Fortunately, faith is sufficient and trials prove it.

Smoke, Flame and Memories

relatives

Relatives in one of the many photo albums stored in dad’s office.

Dad’s sudden death in March left a home office crammed to the brim with files of records, boxes of old photo albums, crates of special event greeting cards and birthday wishes he’s received over decades.

My siblings and I sorted through cassettes of his favorite polka bands, remembering polka tunes like “Fortunes of War” by Ray Budzilek, “Red Wing” by Marv Herzog or “She’s Too Fat” by Frank Yankovic. Video cassettes of movies, and promotional pieces I’d done for clients through the years filled boxes but would never be seen again because no one has a video cassette player.

We found thick newspaper files of cousins’ high school graduation notices, boys going off to war and anniversary announcements. He saved confirmation programs and programs from funerals. Dad was executor for the estates of several relatives who died decades earlier and all their paperwork was still there in the cabinets.

Over every dusty file we shook our heads and asked dad why in the world he saved all this stuff. I never knew he was such a collector of this memorabilia.

We went through everything because we dared not miss clues we needed to settle eventually his affairs. Of course, we saved not one percent of the items, which included old National Geographics and lovely calendars from the last century.

Because my sister who is estate executor didn’t want anything taken to the dump that had on it people’s names or personal information, she insisted we burn them. After an aborted attempt to incinerate the goods in the cornfield on the old home place – an attempt that quickly attracted an audience that for some reason arrived on fire trucks – we scaled down the conflagration to a pleasant, hand warming experience in the backyard barbecue pit of my cousin Bobby, who coincidentally is the local fire chief.

As I’m feeding the pit with decades of detritus I voice my frustration with dad’s having saved all this stuff – a practice over decades that now requires my attention to dispose it.

“Our parents save this stuff because they think it will mean something to us someday,” Bobby said. We acknowledged the simple reality – with a healthy dose of reverential head nodding – that it doesn’t. At least it doesn’t register meaning to us at the level our parents probably thought it would.

I later expressed that thought to my wise and insightful niece Stacy who said we were doing exactly what dad expected us to do. He knew we wouldn’t save all of those items, but he knew we wouldn’t just haul a truck up to the door and start pitching drawers and files into it, either.

Stacy reminded me that we went through every file and photo page by page, each page a memory. Some we flipped through, some made us pause and share and talk about it, laughing or crying as we recalled that moment, friend, or relative.

We were kids again, each sharing incidents the others didn’t recall, expanding our memory banks with new deposits. When finally we made our way through the last of them, determining which to save, and with which to feed the fire, we were able to close a chapter, like the slap of a leather cover against the last page of the last album that we saved.

Thanks for the memories dad, and thanks mom, for putting all those photo books together years ago.

Our children will enjoy going through them.

March of the boxes

Dad's hands

My hand over dad’s in his final moments. 

Where do you stand when they wheel your shrouded father from his nursing home room? It’s awkward. The next time you see him he will be wearing his best suit, hands folded across his chest, toes up, wearing his glasses even though he’s “sleeping,” never having looked more like his own father.

Tight lipped, my sister, her husband, my wife and I nodded at the mortician and his assistant, and followed them with our eyes on their familiar path down the carpeted hallway to the door where their hearse waited. They’ve made this trip before, harvesting one by one the carcasses of giants who once roamed the earth. But family never is ready.

Then we slid back into the room where dad spent his last week and packed his paltry possessions accumulated during the travails of his final days shuttling on “the system’s” money mopping monorail between hospital, nursing home, hospital, nursing home and hospice.

My sister Denise and I were with dad when he breathed his last. She sat on the bed, hand on his leg; I sat next to him, hand on his arm.

We chatted with our unconscious father’s labored breathing a constant, disquieting rumble in the background. Her own life has been very difficult the past two years, with cancer in both her and her husband. Living a thousand miles apart, such moments of sharing are precious and rare.

Suddenly, silence boomed through the room. Denise stopped in mid-sentence and we turned toward dad. He was gone and we were immediately grateful and sad. We lingered for nearly a half hour before we called the nurse.

After hospice workers and the coroner verified the obvious, and the mortician wheeled dad’s body out the door, we carried our packed boxes down the hallway like ants following a trail of ketchup.

That trail led past the dining room where a couple dozen residents prepared for dinner. Their eyes lifted to our quiet convoy and immediate, unspoken recognition passed over their faces. We walked the hallway down which someday soon they will be wheeled.

Our small boxes and sad faces reminded them starkly that one day their own children would shoulder the remnants of their lives and move quietly down hallways real and figurative to fill the holes they leave behind.

Through all the sad events of my dad’s final days, the flash of recognition on those faces stands apart. Life recognizing death. Antelopes sharing a watering hole with a lion.

One day they’ll be too tired to run. Or the lion will be too hungry to give up. But today, they’ll live in uneasy proximity.

Our march of the boxes reminded the residents that one day the watering hole will dry up and they will lose the race. But not today.

One eye tuned to us until we turned the corner, their heads dipped again as they returned to their meal.

 

When Someday Comes

“Someday” arrived on a drizzling cold Saturday afternoon as I idled in the back of a long line of slow moving cars, each with blinkers on, heading for the same destination at the top of the hill where my dad always said he would be laid to rest someday.

The call we all dread but expect someday came four weeks earlier. Dad had fallen. He was unconscious before he hit the ground and his head smacked the cement unimpeded, prompting bleeding in the brain. At the trauma center surgeons told my siblings on site, and me on the phone a thousand miles away, that we had five minutes to decide whether or not to operate.

Odds were slim that dad would survive an operation, given other health issues. And we knew dad would rather be eaten by piranhas than to endure a lengthy term of physical impairment. We knew his end of life directives, so we elected no surgery. We would let this injury run its course, whatever channels it might carve.

Dad made a remarkable recovery in just a couple of days. My wife, daughter and I transferred him to a rehab center in our own car, and we returned to North Carolina. Dad improved steadily before I noticed on my daily phone call that he was very confused. He quickly deteriorated. I returned to Wisconsin and two weeks later dad died.

I was at his beside, listening to his labored breathing, urging the hospice nurse to administer morphine every hour as allowed, praying for grace and dignity and asking God to make dad’s final hours as few as possible.

His last breath was no different from any of the previous 100. But his body decided that last one was enough, and then it quit, signaling the end with a profound silence that rang through the room like a gong. My sister and I looked at each other and knew it was over.

It’s not easy to die in our system. Too many economic incentives are in play to let an old man pass in peace. A well insured patient at the end of life becomes a virtual money bladder into which every medical discipline sticks a straw to suck out their own sustenance.

I’ll write more on this later, but it seems less “health care” than it is “wealth share.” Or, in the case of the surviving spouse, or heirs or debtors, “wealth pare.”

Dad fell a second time when he was at rehab. Although we had determined the previous week we would not allow surgery or heroic measures just to keep dad breathing, attendants rushed him to the local emergency room, then back to the trauma center in the capital city. There doctors examined and tested him again, and a bevy of very kind, soft spoken palliative care doctors and interns explained options, and convinced dad’s children to admit him to palliative care at their hospital. When their straw was sated, they said he had to go back to the nursing center, under what would become hospice care.

There he spent his final week on this side of the veil as his body slowly shut down. It was a privilege to be there. It was a privilege to deliver the eulogy. It was a privilege to be known for 50 years as “Marv’s helper” and for all of my life, past and future, to be known as “Marv’s son.”

I have some trophies on my shelf, some papers in frames. But my proudest moments came from dad recognizing my hard work, whether it was splitting wood for the furnace that heated our Wisconsin farmhouse, or bringing home a good report card, or giving him a grandson. My worst moments were enduring his disapproval.

Dad was 86. His kidneys were bad, his heart weak. We always knew that someday we would lose him. But no matter how long you anticipate the final event, when someday arrives, it’s always a surprise, and you’re never ready.

 

 

I remember that

lucy-mcbathLucy McBath finds joy in her calling to make her son’s death have meaning. But the scars of her sorrow still show every time she speaks. 

 

News headlines flash at you and disappear, like an oncoming driver flicking his bright lights. Then sometime later the story beneath that headline is resurrected. You meet someone who brings it back to life and you think, “I remember that.”

Only now, it’s real because you’re talking to the person involved. It’s not ink on a page. It’s a voice in the ear, a person in your eye.

I met Lucy McBath in New York City this week. She’s the mother of Jordan Davis, the young man who pulled into a gas station Nov. 23, 2012 in Jacksonville, FL playing his music too loud for the pleasure of Michael Dunn.

Dunn asked/told Davis and his companions to turn down the volume. Davis, as a 17-year-old kid would do, got his back up and they had words. Dunn got a gun from his car and shot it 10 times into Davis’ car, striking him three times and killing him.

Davis was black. Dunn is white. But they both bleed red. The difference is that Dunn’s blood is still in his body in prison somewhere. Davis’ was spilled out onto the parking lot and his car seat.

It’s dangerous to be black in America.

Of course, I’ve just returned from the conference God and Guns 2016 at Riverside Church in New York City. So my nerves are raw. I’ve been illumined to the underlying causes of much of the gun violence in this country. (I’ll soon post stories at BaptistNews.com. There I covered them straight. Here I’m talking more from the heart.)

In New York I met Lucy McBath, Jordan’s mother. As soon as she started telling her story, I thought, “I remember that.”

But now, instead of a flashing headline, her story is meat and bone. She has dedicated her life to ending gun violence in America so that Jordan’s life and death will not have been in vain.

Addressing conference participants, McBath said change will not come if we wait for someone else or some other time. She quoted President Obama, who said, “We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.”

McBath is the Faith and Community outreach leader for Everytown for Gun Safety, a fairly new organization with chapters in all 50 states that sprung up after the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown. Their goal is “common sense reforms to reduce gun violence.”

“Ninety-one people each day will continue to die if people of faith are not engaged in saving lives,” McBath said. “It must be our task to usher in a nationwide moral movement against gun violence.”

She reeled off the statistics that any advocate will have at the tip of her tongue:

An American is 25 times more likely than in any other developed country to die by gun violence:

52 percent of women killed by guns are killed by their intimate partner or family member;

Easy access to firearms plays a major role in childhood death;

More than 21,000 people each year kill themselves with a gun;

The presence of a gun in the house greatly increases the chance that a domestic argument or a period of depression will turn lethal.

“After Jordan died I questioned the absence of the faith community,” said McBath, a devout Christian. “Their silence troubled my spirit. Where were the pastors, the ministers, the reverends and priests abiding by the Word of God to challenge the ethical and moral violation of the sixth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not murder?’”

McBath is dedicating her life to reducing gun violence so other boys like her son, and the sons of Sandra Rougier and Natasha Christopher and the students of Newtown teacher Mary Ann Jacob who all testified at the conference can live in a time and place without fear of being gunned down in the street.

I remember that.

Don’t Blink

At the doctor’s office this morning I looked down to fill in the remaining blanks on the form at the receptionist’s desk. It was my first visit so, of course, they wanted to confirm my willingness to sacrifice my first born if necessary to pay their bill.

The office computer had auto-filled some of the information and I just needed to fill in the rest. Staring up at me in simple black text over the white paper form were the identifying factors that would enable them to track me down should I limp out of there with their charges unredressed.

One simple number struck and confused me: 63. I thought at first it was “Question No. 63,” but it was on the first page and the form wasn’t that long. Then I thought it might be a part of my address, or something to do with the third of June. Of course, all of that flashed through my mind in a second before I realized the number represented my calendar age – the number of years since I emerged large and in charge from my mother’s womb.

I would have shaken my head except it’s still wobbly atop my neck from my bike accident, the reason I was at the doctor’s for a follow-up.

Seeing that number reminded me of when I was being transferred from one emergency room to a more capable trauma center three weeks earlier. The medic riding in the back of the ambulance with me called ahead to the trauma center, alerting them that he was about to arrive with a “63 year-old-male, with head injuries.”

“Poor sucker,” I thought. As best I could, since I was strapped to a neck board, I craned my eyes to look round the ambulance because I thought I was the only one riding to Winston-Salem. Turns out I was alone. Then I realized he was talking about me.

Sixty-three? When did I get to be sixty-three? Except for the momentary and exceptional fact of a fractured skull and several vertebrae, I felt 40. Sixty-three was my dad. Sixty-three was grandpa when I was a kid. Sixty-three was plaid pants and knee socks in gray walking shoes, and dinner at 4:30 for the discount.

Sixty-three was not me.

During the first third of my life, I always looked younger than my actual age, and it bugged me to no end. When I was 25 I was married, living in the second house that I’d owned and a college girl came to my door to look at some furniture we were selling.

I opened the door and she said, “Is your mother home?” It took my wife three weeks to re-inflate my pride.

Twenty years later I stood at the register to order a coffee and cinnamon role at Bojangles and the server repeated into the microphone, “One senior coffee and a cinnamon role.” I tried not to cry because my associate who was with me was too busy laughing.

In twenty years I went from “Is your mother home?” to being offered a senior discount.

And now the paper says I’m 63. The mirror agrees. My body nods affirmatively. My mind shouts vehement denial. Goodness, I’m embarking on new ventures infused with still developing hopes, dreams and plans. To quote Buzz Lightyear, I’m setting sail, “to infinity, and beyond!”

I turn to my wife, a wrinkle of concern still lining her forehead as we await the doctor, and ask her to verify the identify of the patient on this form.

That’s me? Age 63? How did we get here?

Don’t blink.