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On with life…


A dichotomy was at work within the family in the last week.  It turns out both are celebrations of differing times of life.

My uncle, Henry Andersen, a renown Presbyterian minister and one of those uncles that you could really get to like, passed away on Labor Day.  This coming weekend his children and other relatives, admirers and past congregants gather in Portland, Oregon to celebrate Hank and all that he meant to whole generations of people.

Then there’s Emma.  The celebration around this little wonder started in May and shows no signs of stopping yet.

Emma is ready and rarin’ to go the Minnesota State Fair with mom and dad.

She giggles at peek-a-boo, tries ever so hard to talk, and is a jolt of household energy (even if she insists on playtime during Ellen’s supposed off-hours between midnight and 5 a.m.).

One dedicated, fruitful life of service draws to a close while another enters the fifth month of her new adventure.  Getting on with life, it seems.

———————-

Ellen and Reid probably opened envelopes with this letter over the weekend:

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September 4, 2012

Ellen/Reid: It’s tough deal with my uncle Henry but in other ways a good thing in that whatever suffering he experienced was over.  He was just a plain and simple good guy.  Lived his life as he preached it.  You would suppose that might make things easier for his family but it never is.  He was always fair and decent and we always seemed to get along pretty well.  It is amazing how fast things can turn; healthy and vibrant one moment, then the precipitous fall.  But Tom said things were peaceful at the end.  Henry had been under hospice care for only four days, and in some ways that is a blessing.  Even in his state, Henry was insistent on coming down to see both your grandparents in their failing moments.  Your uncle and I will go to Portland.  I will head out Thursday the 13th.  Not sure when Ralph will make it.  Probably about that time, too.  Mary was an absolute rock through all of this.  She handled it very gracefully and was a pillar of strength.  I’m glad you both had a chance to experience Henry in the last couple of years.

The Democratic convention is in town.  As much as I’d like to get downtown (or Uptown as the locals call it) for some of the action I will more than likely stay at home and watch on TV and read the paper.  That’s a little too much activity for this guy not to mention all the security.  We walked the golf course yesterday and saw the big military grade helicopters doing their thing very close to the course.  Some sort of dress rehearsal.  I like that the convention is here; good for the city and state although the GOP’s self-described “attack” troops are in town, too.  It’s a good thing they don’t call them “Truth Squads” since that would be stretching it a bit.

Reid, I’d go with your mom’s Calphalon.  That is pretty good cookware and will more than get you and Liz by in your squeezed little space.  You have to be able to cook and every meal in will save you money and increase your together time by that much more.  Food prep is a fairly social time and there’s nothing wrong with that.  We rode to breakfast yesterday morning to a little dive across the border in South Carolina, and there was a table of adults and kids a few feet away.  Three of the adults and two of the kids were on their mobile devices.  It’s whack if you ask me.  The art of conversation takes a nose dive when you see that happening – but Felicia and I both check our ‘smart’ phones when we’re out.

I’m going in tonight to an after-hours orthopedic place to get my right elbow checked out.  It just hasn’t been right since it got smacked in Wyoming and continues to be puffy and very sore.  They may have to drain it.  It’s hard to place my elbow on a table, it is that sore.  I don’t know what the hell happened.  I didn’t realize backpacking was such a contact sport.  We went to a post-Bridger reunion the other night with Tom and Richard and it was great seeing all the photos and reliving the perilous moments (i.e. eating overcooked or distinctly non-flavorful food, blisters and other assorted ow-ies, etc.).

Ellen, I love how Emma is displaying her personality.  She is going to be a handful.  She is working so hard to talk.  Once she finds her vocabulary, her babbling will be non-stop so watch out.  Nothing wrong with that, however.  I’ll have to change my screensaver with one of the new updated shots of her smiling and trying to talk.  Wish I could see the little charmer more often.

Okay, enough already.  Keep the text messages coming, and the photos, too.  Reid, send me some solid dates for Christmas, and I will get your ticket.  Just don’t’ expect it to be First Class.

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September 10, 2012 · 5:58 pm

Very far very fast…


Mom has lost her mobility and eyesight, but she has her moments of lucidness. This is a tough image for me to see, but our choice is to remember her as she was, not as she is.

For the second time in the space of 15 months, my brother and I are  renewing acquaintance with hospice.  Our mother went under hospice care late last week in a small facility in Wood River.  I can’t imagine mom ever envisioned that things would come to this in a declining small town of 1,204 hidden away in central Nebraska.

The question we ask ourselves is ‘when?’ but there is no certain answer.  I don’t want there to be.  All we know for sure is that she has slipped very far very fast.

If the situation is looked at only from quality of life standpoint then what will eventually happen will be merciful.  Mom is thankfully in no real pain, there is no known disease present beyond the numerous small strokes that have accumulated to bring her to this sorry stage of life.  She has simply no more gas in her tank.  Even so, I told Ellen and Reid on the phone and by letter that we don’t know what she is thinking but we know that she is thinking.  Her facial expressions – a nice smile or a knowing roll of her eyes – is evidence enough that she still processes a sizable portion of what she hears. My time with her last weekend was devoted to stroking her hair, talking to her about the old times when we were growing up as kids, and watching her green eyes.  There’s still some life there.  It’s just that we don’t know how much.

My brother and I have had pretty much the same muted reaction to the long goodbye.  It is some mixture of stoicism and relief (for her).  If mom has taught us yet another lesson, it is to get the most out of what we have left, too, but that when our own end stage of life arrives, neither of us wants anything dragged out.  If there is a plug to be pulled, the kids can kiss me on the forehead then yank the cord.

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August 30, 2011

Ellen/Reid: It was a pretty melancholy trip to Nebraska these last four days.  As you can imagine, it’s tough to watch your grandmother deteriorate over such a short span of time.  Everyone, and I got caught up in it too, tries the guessing game of how much longer she will be among us, but it’s not up to anyone beyond the higher source who will make that determination in due time.

Mom in late April of this year. I wasn't prepared for how quickly her condition had changed. This is the image I will keep.

I really wasn’t prepared for the difference between last spring and now.  She has just gone downhill so rapidly.  She’s not ambulatory in any way.  There is no more walking let alone sitting up without significant assistance.  But you know, she can look up at you with those green eyes and you can tell that she is absorbing information to the degree that she can.  I spent a lot of timing just looking into her eyes, stroking her hair, and watching for her reactions.  If you say something funny she’ll roll her eyes and maybe nod her head approvingly.  Sentences or a short string of words are tough to come by for her and at most she can get out a couple of labored ideas but you have to be listening attentively.  What warmed my heart was she distinctly asked “how are the little ones”, and when I gave her the updates about you two knuckleheads she would roll her eyes approvingly or smile.  That was incredible.  If I hear no other words from her, at least I have her final ones: “I love you” (along with “Drive safely”).  She can also give you a little kiss on the cheek, and before I left her room I made sure to get a couple of those.

She spends almost all her time by herself.  When the staff puts her in her wheelchair, they roll her out into the common room where the TV is attuned to whatever it is the staff wants to watch.  She can’t see far enough, let alone hear the TV, to make much of a difference.  But at least she’s out among ‘em and whatever that is worth is okay.  None of us really knows what is going through her mind, and perhaps she’s taking more away from “As The World Turns” or whatever soap or news program they have on, than we know.  I hope she is.

Your uncle and I have decided that when the time comes, hospice will come to her instead of her to it.  That’s how we did it with your grandfather last summer and that worked out just fine (given the circumstances).  She’s not in any particular pain or discomfort, other than the same prone position in bed or sitting in her wheelchair, so there’s not much necessary in terms of pain meds or anything of that order.  In some very major ways, that’s a blessing.  She does wince a bit when she wants to roll over or move, but that’s to be expected.  You’d do the same if you were in the same position 24/7.  Our layman’s view is that we seem to think she’s just running out of gas, pure and simple.  Like your grandfather, her appetite is mostly gone and they keep her going with a few sips of protein drink since she cannot feed herself or really chew solid food.  But she still has those green eyes and you can see something going on behind them.  She’s trying to hold her own and keep on keeping on as best she can.

When I left her Sunday afternoon, I wondered if this was the final goodbye.  I’m relatively at peace with things; her husband is gone, she’s incapacitated and she’s largely in no pain, she knows her kin have largely done okay and that her job as a parent is fulfilled in a good way.  I suppose what we should do is remember her as she was, not as she is.  There is no other way to approach it.  Life has taken its turn with her.  She’s had a good one and now is the time for it to end.  It was great that you both had a chance to say something in her ear on the phone.  She would respond and smile as you both took turns.   That’s when I knew I could leave her on good terms for the both of us.

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No sunrise service or holiday ham…


It's the small things that count. The nursing home staff in Wood River do mom's hair once or twice a week. Her lucid moments may be few but when they occur, she is the mother I remember.

You’ve seen no letters to my mother in the past few months.  None has been sent.  Part of it is family dissuation, part is her new address and, moreover, a new staff who would have to be instructed to do the reading.  I was in Nebraska for Easter but there was no sunrise service or holiday ham.   Instead, the time was spent alone with her.  She has her moments of clarity and you can see the gleam in her eye when certain topics – her beloved golf (“I was good at it”) for example – are mentioned.

Her situation is a persistent topic among Ellen and Reid.  Last summer remains fresh for them. They don’t want to miss their chances.

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April 25, 2011

Ellen/Reid: It seems like the trip to Grand Island, and more importantly, to Wood River, did not happen.  I was hardly on the ground long enough to catch my breath.  It was scarcely 48 hours from start to finish.

Your grandmother is doing okay.  She looked much better than I anticipated, and her mental cognizance was a little bit better than was anticipated, too.  She’s at a spot called Good Samaritan in Wood River, which as a town is nothing more than a wide spot on Highway 30 about 15 miles west of Grand Island.  The Union Pacific’s main East-West line is only about 20 yards from the highway so that gives you the history of Wood River right there.  Time, and the trains, have both passed it by.

But it is a good spot for her.  The staff is very caring, her hair was done nicely and someone had bothered to paint her nails.  It was obvious someone had paid attention to her.  Your uncle and I went straight there from the GI airport and the whole lot of them, about a dozen or 15, had been herded into the TV room although it was hard to see if anyone was really watching the tube.  Your grandmother wasn’t.  Her head was down but she was alert, and after a few seconds, she seemed excited to see the two of us.  She wasn’t quite sure who I was right off but then the light bulb turned on and you could see it in her eyes.

It is very hard to watch her slip away.  When you think about it, not even nine months ago she was ambulatory and much more conversant even if she had a lot of anger.  There is none of that now.  She’s confined to a wheelchair and her walker remains folded up against the wall.  She wears the same pair of shoes she’s worn for more than two years now.  She seems so much more balanced at this point, not because she’s sedated into silence, but her meds are much more attuned to her needs.  Your uncle found a doctor in GI who took the time to review all the dosages, removed some and put her on others and that has made an incredible difference for her.  As you look around the room at the other seniors, it’s not so much a quality of life issue as it is simply making the best of the days you have left.

Money will be an issue for her.  She’s running out of it.  It is incredible what even a little joint stuck in a backwater in the boonies of Nebraska costs month in and month out.  Your uncle, bless his heart, has had to bear the entirety of writing checks, and it appears that she will move yet again, this time to the Vet Center on the north side of Grand Island.  The cost won’t be so high, and her medications will be taken care of.  Honestly, it is really a matter of letting things take their course.  Moving to a high-end, beautifully designed spot wouldn’t amount to much for her because there are so many people at the Vet’s Home and so few staff.  She just won’t get the attention.  As long as she is clean and well fed, that is what matters.  Your uncle sees her every day, and that is about as much human interaction as she can handle.  I saw her three times out there, and on the final time I wondered if this might be the last time.  She perked up when the conversation turned to golf, and she said it always came easy to her.  That’s as conversant as she’d been.  She tries so hard to put two and two together, but being able to have some give and take just doesn’t work very well.  None of us really knows how she processes things.  I just want her to be comfortable and secure.

Felicia picked me up at the airport and it was good to get back to some normalcy.  Your uncle is encouraging me to make another visit sometime in June and I’ll probably do that.  I hope she can last that long.  But she knows we love her and she said the same.  That’s all I needed to hear.

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The law of the jungle…


My son-in-law Tim sent this surveillance photo of Henry and Ellen snoozing away a big chunk of a nice St. Paul Sunday morning.

Back in the day when I was Ellen and Reid’s age, workplace stress seemed somewhat different than what I perceive it is now.  It was… softer.  Your job was cut-and-dried.  You knew your role, your task(s) and you either liked your job or you didn’t.  People seemed to get along.  Perhaps we wore blinders back then or maybe it was just the places I worked (a TV newsroom and a school system) but things weren’t as hurried.  Maybe it is that the workplace is now so hyper-computerized that it makes it easier for us to keep up – or keep an eye – on each other and what someone is doing and how they’re doing it.  Something has changed and I have trouble putting my finger on the precise change and its root cause.

Ellen is teaching.  If her Minnesota district is like those down this way, teaching to tests, and I don’t mean the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, is sort of a side-door assault on teacher creativity.  Reid has been downsized once and is scratching his way up the ladder.  Both are on-the-job pressures I thought would take them years to experience, but here they are.

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April 11, 2011

Ellen/Reid: My little lettuce pot on the front porch is producing more romaine and arugula than can possibly be consumed by the average adult.  I douse it with homemade dressing based on balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and olive oil.  If this were Iowa the rabbits would mow it down to the dirt but down here they don’t even give it a second look.  The spinach has been wonderful but it will run its course soon enough.  Now, it’s on to tomatoes.  One plant will be plunked in a pot this weekend.

Whew, last week was a rough one at work.  I will spare you the gory details other than to describe them as gory, but a meat cleaver would do a more humane job of slicing and dicing when compared to some folks downtown.  I mentioned to my boss that my faith in workplace humanity had taken a hit but he reminded me the “law of the jungle” prevails and he’s right.  I have discovered a new pragmatism whereby the bad or iffy things roll off my shoulders and down my back and away.  It is all about survival and just like the animal kingdom, it is usually reserved for the fittest.  We all have our burdens to shoulder whether it’s in schools or digital agencies or banks.  It’s just that the names of the protagonists that change along with the circumstances.  On the way in this morning I was wondering what I would write to you about surviving in your jungles but you guys probably have a better handle on that than me.

No doubt it would require some mixture of pragmatism, patience, knowing what battles to fight, turning a blind eye, an honest work ethic, and perhaps a thickened skin.  Improving one’s skills would fit in there somewhere but survivability is as much pluck and grit as much as anything else.  When I master all those traits I’ll let you know.  But I’m nowhere close to that right now so don’t bother holding your breaths.  Sometimes the notion of achieving for the common good gets misplaced or forgotten altogether as the engine of commerce grinds forward.

As long as I’m whining I might as well move on to another sore subject.  Mike and Mort were in town this weekend, and we played Friday afternoon at a nice course in Fort Mill, SC.  Not terribly penal but it can bite.  Sure enough, after a few holes my swing collapsed like a house of cards and those two took infinite joy in reminding me of my abundant hitches and stops/starts every time I try to hit the ball.  I think what I will do is just live with the demon rather than try to overcome it for the umpteenth time.  Nothing seems to work and it’s a flaw I’ll just have to coexist with.  I did walk the course pushing a cart and emerged none the worse for wear.  No repercussions to report.  Mike is about to start a series of Stephen King films and that appears to be his swan song.  He’ll exit film editing, he says, when the series is complete.  I think the total is three to five films, something like that.  Mort is doing pretty well and I encouraged him to give his stalled Western book another jump start.  He’s a good writer but has a case of writer’s block, the same as the rest of us get more often than not.  We ate more than we should and just basically hung out most of the time.  They treated Felicia and me to a fun dinner Friday night at a local bistro over at that mall you like, Ellen.  We traded lies and old stories but it was great fun.  Saturday night we had bad storms and heavy rain, so heavy it was like, to cite an indelicate quote from Pat Drickey, “a cow pissing on a flat rock.”  It really came down.

Late next week it’s on to Grand Island to see your grandmother.  She did not sound very good on Saturday and I can’t wait to get out there.  I am very apprehensive about it.  Your uncle says she is gaining weight which is good, but when she sounds like she does it scares me.  Keep your phones on that weekend and I’ll let you say a few words to her in her room.  That should perk her up a little bit.  She could certainly use it.

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A bad hair day…


As letters go, today was the equivalent of a bad hair day.  It was a tangled unkempt mess.  Mom didn’t get my best effort.  I took the day off.

For the first time in a long time, I didn’t bring anything to the writing table.  No pizzazz, no new information.  No nothing.  (I can just hear some of you now: “So, how’s today different from any other time?”)

My mind could very well be elsewhere.  I think I’m a little preoccupied with things.  You can chalk that up chiefly to temporary work and my ongoing effort to find a full-time situation.  As it is, I’m at the bank through the end of the year.  At least I made it past Christmas.

So here is today’s tangled unkempt mess.  Sorry, mom.  I’ll do better next time.

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November 5, 2010

Mom: You are not much warmer than we are down here.  The weather experts say our low on Saturday is supposed to be in the 20s.  That will send the locals shivering to the store to buy their woolies and gloves.  It has been much colder here the last couple of days.  Even I have resorted to wearing a hat to the office.  Even when it’s in the 50s some folks bundle up like they live in Nome, Alaska or some place like that.  I planted some pansies in the window box out front and they are supposed to be cold hardy.  I guess they will get their first real test.  The tomato plant is kaput.

The leaves are finally starting to drop bit by bit.  Because it was so dry down here this summer the color is not quite what people would like to see.  Most of the trees consist of varying states of brown leaves and the leaves are falling fast.  This weekend’s cold snap will make it go a little bit quicker.  It will make the Bermuda grass go dormant very quickly and none of the golfers will like that.  What I find when it turns cold is that my house, like many others down here, aren’t insulated worth a hoot.  It gets cold very quickly.  I’ve not yet turned on the furnace but it too is about to get its first test.

There have been some people looking at the unit next door to me.  It’s been on the market for more than two years, and it would be good to get some people in there for a change.  On my little block there are about eight or nine units for sale.  That’s how bad the housing market is down in Charlotte.  Things just aren’t selling very well.  From everything I read things seem to be a little better in the Midwest.

Your brother Henry sent me a nice letter and I sent him one back the other morning.  He doesn’t use a computer like I do to write letters.  Instead, he writes it all out by hand.  It was nice to get and he seems to be doing pretty well.  He said he calls you every week and he’s awfully concerned with how you’re doing.  His hearing isn’t too good these days but he seems to be getting along.  If you’re going to live in a town, Portland wouldn’t be the worst place to live.

I was disappointed in the elections.  The candidates seemed to be particularly vicious this year.  No one is civil to each other anymore.  It’s attack, attack, attack.  And you can’t tell when someone is telling the full story or not let alone the truth.  I voted but very few of my candidates were elected.  Voters seem to have a pretty short memory, and there’s too much TV and Internet advertising for my liking.

Ellen and Reid are doing fine.  Reid was in San Francisco last week and went to the first birthday of little Annie, Andy and Steph’s little one.  She’s your great granddaughter and a real cutie.  Reid said he had a good time as he always does.

Well, it’s off to the grocery store tonight.  Doesn’t that sound exciting?

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