Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Polly Died Yesterday

Polly died yesterday.  Mr. Bradburn died last Friday.  Beattie died a couple of weeks ago.  Linda died a couple of weeks before that.  This trend needs to stop right now.  At least for long enough to let me re-equilibrate after all these people shedding their mortal coils right and left.  

Polly was my sister’s mother-in-law, Mary A Landgraf, but was called Polly by everyone, including her only granddaughter.  She had lived with my sister and my sister’s husband, her son, for about thirty years, which meant that she was a member of my family, too, especially after my mother died about twenty years ago.  Polly was sharp as a tack, even though she was almost 103 when she died.  She was the one in the family who could remember things—correctly.

Mr. Bradburn was my almost 96-year old neighbor who was so incredibly good to me, including mowing my grass on his trusty riding lawn mower.  He would also occasionally weed-eat around the edges, but with his failing eyesight and less dexterity, he frequently left little divots of dirt where the weedeater hit the ground.  Oh, well, a small price to pay. 
 I went to his funeral yesterday.  I took Mrs. Johnson, who is my age, but who seems to me to be a lot older than me.  Is this typical of us “oldsters”?  

 The service was in a funeral home up in Madison County, the next county over from Asheville.  Very country.  Very mountain people country.  In fact, before and during the service a woman played old-timey hymns on the piano in the mountain style---lots of the same embellishments over and over, and lots of repetitions of the same hymn, over and over.  And when she commenced to sing, why you’d have thought she was Loretta Lynn. 
Then the preacher, who obviously had never laid eyes on Mr. Bradburn before he saw him in the open casket (another Protestant mountain tradition, or maybe it’s just Southern), seemed afraid to ever mention Mr. Bradburn’s name.  He referred to him as “our brother” and “our veteran” (Mr. B was a proud vet, but that is another, or many other stories). Perhaps Mr. Bradburn’s first name—Blufford—scared him.  He might have been afraid he’d mispronounce it.  Or maybe he couldn’t believe anyone would actually be called Blufford.  Actually, some people called Mr. B “Brad” and I’m sure that in the Army he was called Bradburn.   

Anyhow, the preacher preached, as in reading a bunch of Bible verses and then referring back to them over and over without ever making any connection with Mr. B.  It was fifteen or twenty minutes of the same ten phrases used again and again in various combinations.  It seemed to me that it was probably harder to do that than to have actually read a prepared sermon.  Oh, well.

The pallbearers were interesting.  You need some younger guys to be able to carry the weight of the coffin (a lovely coffin, Mr. B had bought and paid for it himself several years ago), and these guys were young and local and sporting tattoos and ponytails and casual shirts.  At least they all wore long pants.  Mr. B’s son got up to say a few words, but after only about 10 or 12 words, he sat down.  This was hard for him.  When your Daddy lives to be 95, I guess you start thinking he’ll be around as long as you are.  

 Anyhow, Mrs. Johnson and I elected not to drive to the graveside ceremony (another 25 minutes away) although I would have liked to have seen the military ceremony. She and I neither one can stand for very long. 

Later that afternoon, Mr. B’s son was out mowing grass like a fury; I guess he needed to work off some sadness.  Mr. B would have approved.  He never liked sitting around, especially if there was a garden to be tilled or wood to be cut.  

 Rest in Peace, Mr. Bradburn.

My friend Beattie died of complications of Parkinson’s disease and lymphoma.  She was 88 and had lived enough different lives to befit 3 or 4 people.  She was Jewish and her funeral couldn’t have been more different from Mr. B’s.  She had an extended family, all of whom were in attendance, including a very talented granddaughter who not only wrote the best obituary I’ve ever read but also gave a moving eulogy to her grandmother at the funeral service.   

The funeral was held at the temple Beattie and her family attended, the very same temple she snookered me into being the accompanist when the choir practiced.  That only lasted a year or so until they got someone who was actually competent, but I did enjoy it, and I was familiar with the temple itself.  I was surprised, though, at how little religion there was in Beattie’s service.  The 23rd Psalm was recited, and the rabbi (a woman) chanted some as the casket was wheeled out at the end, but most of the rest was devoted to (planned) eulogies to Beattie.  

Very nice, indeed.

When my pancreatic cancer-stricken friend Linda died, I only accidentally learned of it when, after several attempts at calling her at home, her daughter answered and promptly burst into tears.  It seemed that Linda had died about a week before, but no one in our cancer support group was notified by her daughter and there was no obituary in the paper. The daughter said they will have a memorial service at her house this spring and invite our group.  They will plant a lilac tree and bury Linda’s ashes beneath it.  I wonder if that will really happen, though.  I can see that some sort of “closure”—no matter how simple or brief—would have been nice for our support group.  We develop very close ties to each other while we’re alive. 

 And we’re all feeling somewhat at loose ends about Linda. 

Sharing a Special Moment

My father and I didn’t know each other very well.  At least for the first 50 years of my life that was true. I think that when I was a toddler he took an interest in me.  There are a bunch of photos showing us together when I was small enough for him to hold me in his arms.  And I remember a few times when he took me places by himself.  But by the time I was in elementary school we lived in the same house but on different planets.  To me, he was like one of the pieces of furniture. Because he was a commercial fisherman, he had long since left the house by the time I got up in the morning.  When he was home during the day he was either reading the paper, dozing in a chair or asleep on the couch.  I don’t know what he thought he knew about me, as we never conversed and had little interaction except for a goodnight kiss.  He (and my mother) often did hold forth at our daily family suppers, mostly talking about local people he knew (he was a native) or relatives or reminiscing about their own growing-up years.  My sister and I were to be seen but not heard.

 But all that’s a different story.  This story is about our sharing a special moment.  It took place 23 years ago when I was 50, and he and my mother had been married for 52 years.  They weren’t all wonderful years, at least for her, especially during the years when I was growing up.  But that’s another story.  This story is about when my mother had lung cancer.

She had spent almost a month in the hospital the year before, having fluid drained from her lungs.  And when she got home, she implored us not to ever take her back to a hospital.  While she was there, I spoke to her doctor who told me that the only thing they could offer my mother was palliative radiation that would shrink the tumor, but the cancer would come back.  The radiation might offer her a couple of years.  

I encouraged my mother to have the radiation, which might have been selfish of me.  But I did it mostly because my father would have been helpless if she died quickly.  So she did have the radiation, which did reduce the tumor, but also damaged her esophagus so that she had difficulty swallowing.  She also lost most of her sense of taste.  So it wasn’t an easy two years for her.  But although she never spoke about dying, she did begin to teach my father to take care of himself.  She, a former bookkeeper, had always handled the finances.  So she taught him to write a check, and to keep track of the regular expenses.   She taught him to grocery shop, and to run the washer and dryer, and to hang up clothes on the clothesline, and she even taught him how to cook fish and grits, and to make a tossed salad or coleslaw. 
By the time the two years was about up, she took to her bed, too breathless to move about much. My father called me in a panic, and the next day I drove to Florida to “help out.”  The first thing I did when I took a look at my mother was call her doctor and insist that she be seen the next day.  (My mother, of course, had not called the doctor because she already had an appointment with her in two weeks.  The inability of these two old people to maneuver the medical system was the main reason I had rushed to the rescue.)  The next day the doctor did see my mother, and after listening to her lungs, sent her immediately for an X-ray.  She promised to call me that evening with the results. As soon as we got home, my mother went right back to bed.

Sometime after supper, the phone rang and I answered it.  It was the doctor with the X-ray results.  "Your mother’s lungs are filling with fluid," she said.  "One lung is totally useless and the other is filling, too.  I’m sorry, but there’s nothing to do at this point.  She’s going to die from this."

"When?I asked.  "It’s hard to say," she said. "But weeks, not months."

I hung up the phone and looked at my Daddy.  I could tell from the look on his face that he was hopeful. There was nothing to do but just tell him.

Daddy," I said.  "Mama’s not going to make it. It’s just a matter of time now."

Daddy’s eyes filled up and he cried out “Oh, my beautiful sweetheart!” and he put his head down on my shoulder and cried.  And I cried, too.

At that moment, something shifted in our relationship.  Any façade we may have had with each other was stripped away, and we were two people who loved another, and each other, and we were family.
From that evening on until he died 8 years later, Daddy and I were easy with each other.  We could sit together on the front porch in silence.  Or we could talk. Either way was comfortable.  Over time he told me a lot of things about himself and his experiences, and I did the same. 
Everything between us had changed after we shared that special moment.

Enough Sense to Come In Out of the Rain

She doesn’t have sense enough to come in out of the rain, said my friend and professional education colleague. He was speaking about a first grade teacher at my school, a school reputed to be the best in the region.  The teacher he was referring to, Miss Trimble (name changed to protect the guilty), was probably in her fortieth year of teaching first grade, and she was on automatic pilot. 

 She was always a bit slow to react when you spoke to her, especially if you used “grown-up” words.  She relied mostly on stock phrases, such as “now boys and girls” and “let’s all walk quietly to…” and “young man, I’m going to have to send a note home to your mother.” 

Miss Trimble relied on her longevity at the school to get away with a number of rule infractions, namely parking in the principal’s spot, and failing to pull in close to the curb, so that her 1957 Dodge stuck a mile out into the parking lot.  And she let her class go five minutes early to lunch so that they got the “good” seats in the cafeteria.  If admonished by the cafeteria manager, she’d look around very vaguely and say “oh, I didn’t REALIZE we were early.”   

She knitted through every faculty meeting and waited until the very last minute to comment on the idea under discussion, and her comment was always the same, “We tried something similar 15 years ago and it didn’t work.”   You get the drift.

Miss Trimble didn’t much approve of how I ran my classroom.  We did science “activities” almost every day, with the kids out of their seats in groups, chatting and sometimes showing excitement.  This was a scandal in her eyes.  

 “Not the way I was trained’’, she’d say. 

"Times change,” I’d say. 

“More’s the pity,” she’d say.

Anyhow, my friend might have been right when he said she didn’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain.  Maybe it wasn’t part of her training.

The Vacation

     The day began much like all the other days this week.  I awoke to sunny skies, cool gentle breezes, a few puffy pink clouds, and the aroma of strong, dark coffee in the air.  Heaven.  Or it was supposed to be.  This is what I had come for, come to this isolated island with no cell service, no Wi-Fi, no TV, only a landline telephone in the manager’s office in the dining hall, several hundred feet away past the other cottages that make up this small resort.  On the other hand, there is sailing, snorkeling, swimming, shelling along the wide beach, and all the sunbathing you could ever want to do.
So what is wrong with me?   

The first day I was in love with the place.  Likewise, Day 2 and 3.  By Day 4 the novelty was beginning to wear off.  I’d been sailing, snorkeling, shelling, swimming, and as I’m not a sunbather, I’d skipped that part and located myself in a hammock with one of the several books I’d brought along.  On Day 5 I did little more than read all day in the hammock.  Day 6, yesterday, was Saturday, and we guests made an excursion into the nearby small town to buy souvenirs or stock up on provisions.  I bought some dark chocolate, several mangos and limes, club soda, and “still” water, as they call bottled water.  There were a few ladies with crafts to sell, sitting on blankets on the wide porches of the small stores.  But I had enough knick-knacks in my apartment back at home so I looked for some used books to fill out my tiny reading library.  Unfortunately, none of the books were in English and my mastery of the local language was not good enough to plow through anything more difficult than newspaper headlines.

Day 7, today, is Sunday, and I suppose all the year-round inhabitants of this lovely spot go to church, or at least they don’t go to work, so nothing is open, not even our dining hall.  Perhaps I should have read the fine print in the brochure advertising this “Vacation for the Tired Overworked City Dweller.”  Then I might have more in my larder than the fixing for a vodka tonic….minus the vodka….and a bar of chocolate and some mangoes. This may force me to make the acquaintance of my neighbors, whom I’ve only waved at on the way to the dining hall.  

They seem to be a family that cooks its own food.  I’ve smelled meat grilling from their place on a couple of evenings.  I wonder if they’d be up to a barter—dark chocolate for a sandwich, say, or a couple of mangoes for a muffin and a cup of coffee.  Dang it, though, this is the very thing I came here to get away from.  The constant rubbing up against other people.  The “making nice” when you’d really like to ask them to lower the volume in their apartment from which sounds emanate that could only be created by a birthday party of 3-year-old squealers overridden by someone’s uncle practicing the clarinet.  God, I don’t miss that.  Nor do I miss the rush, rush, rush to the subway, waiting for the elevator at work, listening to cell phones and their individual songs/tunes/sounds that go off all day.  Why couldn’t we have stuck to Ma Bell’s universal ring tone?  OK, I am such a grump.  But this vacation is supposed to cure that.  So why couldn’t I have known to have some food in the cottage for Sunday? 
OK, here goes.  I’ll just go over and politely ask about trading some food and get through this day.

Oh, a guy’s outside at the grill.  “Hello, there.  I’m your neighbor next door.” 

  “I know,” he says to me. “We see you walking by here to dining hall.  You no have food with you?  You should tell us.  We have plenty.  Here, come here, have a seat.” He calls inside “Honey, lady is here.”   

His wife comes to the porch.  “Hello” she says to me. Her husband says (in his limited English, for my benefit, I know) “lady no has food in house.  Make her plate, OK?”  His wife disappears inside. 

“Would you like some of my dark chocolate and some mangoes?” I ask.  

 “No, no, no, you keep,” he replies.  “You need food.  You too small, you know? Not fat.” 

His wife appears again with a large platter laden with all manner of things, covered with plastic wrap.  It looks like fruit salad and some rolls, a fried chicken breast, something mysterious with onions in it, and a large piece of some kind of berry pie.  “This is too much,” I protest.  

 “No, no” he says again.  “You be here next week? Come eat with us.  It just Mama and me and we get lonesome. You by your own self?  No husband? No man?”

“No man,” I say.  “Just me. I like it that way. Well, thanks for everything.  You’re too kind.  I’ll bring the dishes back tomorrow.”  I walk back the short distance to my cottage, carefully balancing the platter so that nothing spills.  Just me, I like it that way, I think to myself.  Maybe I’ve been a little inflexible about that.  Maybe a vacation isn’t for getting away from everything.  Perhaps there’s something to be said for meeting new people. 

Well, now, next week may go a lot better.