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My hernia operation, Part Four (and final) . . .

I awoke while I was being moved from the recovery room to an area where my daughters could gather and watch my coming out of that place of darkness into the bright light of overhead searchlights, all of which appeared to be focused on me. I was awake, but I was not completely in control of my facilities—oops, I mean faculties. I made ridiculous uncontrollable grimaces, rolling my eyes and asking pertinent questions such as where am I, is it over, you’re cute, who are you, did I tell you that you’re cute, and I asked the doctor, if it was alright to tell the nurse she’s cute.

His reply? “You can say anything you like until the anesthesia wears off, and then you must assume responsibility for anything you say.” He said it with a smile, but it was a serious smile and that dramatically reduced the lasting effects of the anesthesia. I believe the last dumb thing I said that the guy across from my cubicle was taking my picture. That’s something I learned from my sainted mother. When someone, whether male or female, sat with knees apart and facing her, she would say that they were taking her picture. In all fairness, I must admit that the patient opposite my cubicle, although wearing a hospital gown, had apparently been allowed to retain his under-shorts, or perhaps his surgery did not require them to be removed.

However, I doubt that. I had cataract surgery some years ago, left eye first and right eye one month later, and in each instance I was required to wear nothing but the hospital gown and yes, they checked to determine that I was in compliance and if not, the eye surgery would not have been performed. Go figure!

I was moved from the gurney to a not-so-comfortable hospital chair that had a host of features, bounded by a wall with technical-looking things on it, drawable curtains on each side, and a host of people gathered in front completed my recovery cubicle. Everyone seemed very pleased with my condition, all smiling and offering compliments and suggestions. My three daughters were there along with the doctor, a couple of nurses and several aides, all apparently focused on me.

I felt like Timmy probably felt when awakening after Lassie ran home and barked that Timmy had fallen in the well and he went under and didn’t come back up but they reached Timmy in time and got him to a strategically placed hospital and he got over his ordeal and continued to star in 321 episodes (1954-1973).

Incidentally, and in no way germane to this series of postings, Lassie was not a girl dog. Lassie was a boy dog because boy dog’s coats have a brighter sheen and color than girl dog’s coats and are far more presentable on screen. Had Lassie been a Pit Bull or a Great Dane or even a Chihuahua, movie-goers would have seen that subterfuge and would have insisted that directors stop shaming Timmy’s friend  with a wrong-sex name. A better name would be Sirius, the ancient’s name for the Dog Star, very appropriate for an earthy dog star and far more manly.

Patience, be patient, I’m almost finished with my quadrilogy. I walked out of the hospital under my own power, sans wheelchair, sans two burly attendants, one on each side to keep me on my feet. I wanted to walk through the parking lot to my car, but my daughters insisted that I stay at the entrance and wait for the car to come to me. In all honesty, I did not protest strongly, nor did I protest when they escorted me into my home, fed me and tucked me in—actually, I enjoyed all the attention, but it waned rapidly and everything returned to normal.

That’s it. That’s my quadrilogy of my hernia surgery, and I’m sticking to it.

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Posted by on May 1, 2012 in health, Humor, pit bulls, surgery

 

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I remember Mama—thoughts of my mother . . .

Countless times over the years I heard my mother say that she was not afraid to die, that she had lived her life with love for her Maker and in deference to Him, and that she was ready to meet Him at any time He called her. My mother believed that if one had faith, even though that faith be no larger than a mustard seed, then everything would be alright regardless of the situation, whether it be sickness or hunger or severe weather or any other danger looming on the horizon. And if you’ve ever seen a mustard seed you’ll have a good idea of how much leeway that gives one regarding the amount of faith one must have as one travels through life in this realm—let’s just agree that the size of a mustard seed leaves a lot of room for error, for straying from the straight and narrow path.

In late November of 1980 my mother was hospitalized with an embolism near the heart and was scheduled for surgery. She was so thin and the embolism was so large that it was visible under the skin, expanding and contracting with every heartbeat. When I arrived at the hospital late in the afternoon she was in the Intensive Care Unit, scheduled for surgery early the next morning.

She was understandably fearful of the pending surgery, and I told her that her fear was normal, that anyone would be afraid, and then I reminded her of the oft-quoted power of the mustard seed, the seed that if faith were no larger than, then everything would be alright.

My mother’s answer? With tears flowing freely she said, I don’t want to die, and I don’t want to hear any more about that mustard seed!

My mother was a heavy smoker, beginning in her teenage years and continuing through adulthood and middle age and later. She never really became old—her body took her into old age and reflected that long journey, but her mind and her thoughts and her outlook on life remained young, right up to the end of her time here on earth. Somewhere around the age of fifty she enrolled in a course of mail order studies and eventually became an LPN, a Licensed Practical Nurse. She often nursed persons rendered helpless after years of smoking and she was well aware of the dangers of the habit.

In response to admonitions to quit smoking, she always said that she would quit smoking when she was eighty years old. She smoked her last cigarette on her eightieth birthday in 1977, and her death came in November of 1980, almost four years later. Her surgery was one of those instances, according to her doctors, in which the surgery was a success but the patient died—her heart was not strong enough to endure the invasive and intensive surgery.

One of her doctors told us that her lungs were remarkably clear, particularly considering some six decades of smoking. I’ve never believed that—his comment was probably meant to be some sort of balm in an attempt to keep her survivors for blaming her cigarette habit for her death. It was not necessary—none of us placed any blame on her—our blame was aimed at the cigarette makers.

That’s it—that’s the story of my mother’s surgery and her death, the only time that I was present when a member of my family died, although I was privileged to attend the funerals of several relatives during my boyhood days. One by one my family members fell—mother, father, brother, five sisters and my stepfather, not necessarily in that order, of course. From the age of sixteen I was far off from home and was able to attend only a few of the funerals, whether my immediate family or those of assorted relatives—brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, aunts, uncles, cousins—all gave up this realm for another as the result of accidents, disease, old age and in one instance, suicide—none was murdered, at least none of which I am aware.

Of my immediate family I am the last one standing. I’m not particularly proud of that, but I’m not disappointed either. I remain, I exist, perhaps due to the luck of the draw, the roll of the dice, or the turn of the wheel, or perhaps because of divine providence. Perhaps the Creator has a special purpose for me.

Hey, it could be—perhaps some day my WordPress musings, my ramblings, will be consolidated in a pseudo autobiography and published world-wide in numerous languages, and perhaps my tales, my escapades, my foibles and my frolics will influence someone to turn away from a life of sin and pleasure and become a monk and one day become the Pope, the holy keeper of the Catholic faith, the only living link with St. Peter, an apostle of Christ and the rock on which He built His house.

And perhaps not.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Postscript: I’ll be back later with more thoughts of my mother—stay tuned.

 
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Posted by on May 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Revisit: I still like prunes—a story of my Miss Mary . . .

This is a revisit to a post I made in August of 2010. It has languished in the Stygian darkness of prior posts and in that period of seven months it has garnered an astonishing total of three comments—one from a blogger in Virginia, a person that combines the talents of a writer, blogger, painter, wedding planner, party planner, sculptor, photographer, desktop publisher and gardener—and two comments from her father, the King of Texas. Yep, that blogger is the second-born of three beautiful girls that unashamedly admit to the world at large that I am their father.

I  take an enormous amount of pride in the story of Miss Mary—writing it was a labor of love and reading it is, for me, a return to a gentler world, one without nuclear energy, atomic weapons or rap music. Miss Mary influenced my life to such a degree that I still adhere to most—but not all—of the principles she taught me, her efforts aided substantially by her use of an 18-inch wooden ruler.

This story is true. I wrote it in 1987 when I lived for six months—an eternity—in Houston, Texas. The story has appeared in sculptor Tom Clark’s Cairn Studio quarterly issue, a publication that is distributed to dealers and collectors of the artist’s work in every county in every state in our United States, including Hawaii and Alaska.  Please note that any use of this document, other than brief excerpts, is prohibited by US and international law—it cannot legally be used in any other fashion without my permission.

Yes, ma’m, I still like prunes

On a special September morning in Mississippi many years ago, the air was crisp and clean and cool, and the woman standing in the doorway folded her arms against the chill. Her deep-set eyes, startlingly blue in a heavily lined unsmiling face, were fixed on a small boy as he neared the steps.

To a casual observer she presented a normal picture. A portrait from an earlier time, perhaps, than 1938, a time of black high-buttoned shoes and ankle length skirts, black and thickly pleated. Her white cotton blouse, high-necked and long-sleeved, was relieved in its starkness only by lace at the neck and wrists. Her hair was tightly plaited and shining in the early morning light, the heavy braids coiled and crossed in an intricate crown of silver.

I was that small boy, and I was not a casual observer. For me the picture was very different as my dragging steps brought me closer to my first full day of school. Fear of the unknown made me forgo any shortcuts between home and school, choosing the longer way to delay the inevitable. I was late, and as I squared the final corner the tardy bell rang. From the bottom step the black-skirted figure loomed gigantic, conjuring up visions of darkness, of beating wings, of things seen only in dreams.

I would come to know the woman as a pioneer educator that brought many innovations to her state and city educational systems. And I would come to love her. On that day I found a friend, and that friendship would be broken only by death.

Although past retirement age, she continued her position and her duties as an elementary school principal, and remained a dynamic figure and force in state and local school administration. In a career that spanned three-quarters of a century, she gained the respect and love of all that knew her.

We called her Miss Mary. She had another name, Stokes, but few of us knew it and none of us used it. She was simply Miss Mary. I spent my first six school years in the square two-story red brick building, my attendance broken only by the unpredictable moves of an itinerant carpenter stepfather.

Miss Mary ruled her school with an iron hand, and meted out corporal punishment on the spot. Always present in one wrinkled blue-veined hand was a wooden ruler. With deadly precision the eighteen inches of supreme authority landed on miscreant knuckles, shoulders and backsides of boys and girls alike.

I had the dubious distinction of being Miss Mary’s pet. Apparently to refute that notion, she punished me for the smallest infractions of a bewildering array of rules. The taps were delivered with love, but became painful through sheer repetition.

Lunch was closely supervised. With military precision we moved through the line, plates on trays, collecting helpings from long-handled spoons along the way. Everyone received the same items in identical portions. Conversation was kept to a minimum with Miss Mary moving among the tables, scolding here, praising there, coaxing us to eat everything on our plates. Probably the most disliked food was spinach—in spite of Popeye’s efforts—and stewed prunes ran a close second.

How I loved stewed prunes! At a time when happiness for other little boys was a Buck Rogers ring with a built-in compass, happiness for me was a third helping of stewed prunes. Served almost daily, they were usually eaten only through Miss Mary’s insistence. Not me—I needed no encouragement. I ate the prunes before I touched the main course. Seeing the affinity that developed between me and stewed prunes, Miss Mary told the ladies on the serving line to give me as many of the wrinkled dark delicacies as I wanted. My taste for prunes and Miss Mary’s indulgence probably made me the most regular kid in town.

As with all activities at Miss Mary’s school, playtime was highly regimented and closely supervised. Boys and girls were separated and each grade had its own area for recreation. If one of us strayed into another zone we were reprimanded and returned to our own.

There were exceptions. Miss Mary felt that in sports and at play children should be evenly matched. If one of us was appreciably smaller than our classmates, or lagged behind in muscular development and coordination, we were assigned to an area where we could compete more effectively and where the chances of injury were reduced.

I was smaller than most of my classmates—perhaps because of the prunes—so I spent my playtime with the next lower grade. There were some advantages. I was better coordinated than the younger boys, and I often spent the entire play period at bat by intentionally hitting foul balls. The rule was, “99 fouls and you’re out.”

Miss Mary ended her career in education at the same time I began mine in military service. Our friendship endured as the years passed, but our visits became infrequent because of my duty assignments. Returning to my hometown after several years overseas, I learned that Miss Mary, nearing the century mark in age, lived near the sister I had come to visit. After a call to her nurse and a short walk to the house, my sister and I were ushered into Miss Mary’s parlor. In the cool dimness of the room with its heavy drapes drawn against the bright fall sun, we saw the tiny figure seated in a massive rocker.

Her frail shoulders sagged under the weight of a thick brown shawl. She sat slumped forward, head down and eyes fixed on skeletal folded hands. Silhouetted against the single dim lamp she had an ethereal quality, her skin almost translucent, the diffused light a halo for her bowed head with its wispy strands of white hair. She seemed unaware of me, and paid no heed to my gentle reminders of the past. The nurse said that long periods of withdrawal were common, that Miss Mary might not recognize me or correspond in any way. I tried several times to talk to her, but there was no indication that she knew me or even heard me. Feeling awkward and ill at ease, and filled with a deep sense of loss and sadness, I told the nurse that I would come back later. I stood and moved toward the door and then I heard it.

“Do you still like prunes?”

Each word loud and clear, the voice deep and strong, lightly dismissing the long years, pushing back time and space to another day when a small boy found an unexpected and lifelong friend. Memories flooded over me as I turned back, sat down and replied, “Yes, ma’m, I still like prunes.” But that was all. Not another word. She remained silent and unmoving, head down and hands folded, and did not respond to me or to the nurse. Throat swollen and blinded by a scalding rush of tears, I stumbled to the door and out of the house.

I never saw her again. She died several months later, peacefully in her sleep according to newspaper accounts. Tribute was paid in eulogies by leading citizens and educators from all over the South, and the press detailed her long career and her many accomplishments. All the pictures in the newspapers were of a stranger. Not one was of the woman I remembered. Not one of them was of my Miss Mary. And not one of them was the Miss Mary in my strongest memories, the first time and the last time I saw her.

My sister did not hear Miss Mary ask me the question that day. She heard my answer that I still liked prunes, but thought I was trying to bridge the gulf with another reminder of the past. Nor did the nurse hear the question. She heard only my answer. Did Miss Mary speak to me? Did she remember me? Did the other two people in the room simply fail to hear the voice I heard so clearly? Could I have wanted recognition so badly that I imagined she spoke to me? Or did Miss Mary somehow transcend the need for speech and reach out to me without words?

My old friend spoke to me that day. I did not imagine her voice. I heard it. She knew me and in order to show that she remembered, she asked the one question that would identify me among the many thousands of people whose lives she had touched and shaped and strengthened.

“Do you still like prunes?” She knew me and she spoke to me and she heard my answer.

I have no doubts, no misgivings. I know it.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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A brisket for Nephrology . . .

This is a letter to my wife, one of the purest and sweetest beings that God has ever created. Her immortal soul returned to its Creator on Thursday, the eighteenth of November, 2010 at 9:15 in the evening. Immediately after joining Him she left His presence, and anointed with the divine influence of His grace she returned to our mortal world for a few brief moments. Her return is documented and discussed here.

Hi, sweetheart,

I know you’re watching and I’m sure you were part of the annual get-together in the Nephrology Clinic at Brooke Army Medical Center, but I’ll recap the luncheon for you just in case you overlooked some of the folks that attended. It was held on Thursday, December 16, the day that would have been your day for dialysis. You’ll remember that Thursday is the least busy day for the unit. There was only one patient that morning, and I believe that was an in-hospital patient.

All the nurses were there: Gracie, Linda, Irene, Gloria, Jackie, Tammie, Jim, Carver, Henderson and Patti, the Head Nurse, along with Kathy, the dietitian, and Dr. Reynolds, the officer-in-charge of the Clinic. Many of the dialysis patients were there, including the Big Colonel and the Little Colonel. The Big Colonel expressed his sadness at learning of your death, and offered his condolences to me and to our daughters, saying that we and you would always remain in his thoughts and prayers.

Dr. Reynolds welcomed us to the event and asked that we never forget those that are longer with us, specifically naming you and Mrs. Kirk, that beautiful little lady with the short gray hair and the ever-present smile, always commandeering a wheelchair and chauffeured by her husband. She followed you from this realm just a few days after you left us.

Dr. Reynolds introduced the chaplain, and following the chaplain’s brief prayer with blessings on those present and those not present, we lined up at the trough for lunch, and what a spectacular trough it was. The tables stretched at least thirty or forty feet along one wall and each table was loaded—the staff should be enjoying leftovers for several days, probably through the weekend and into next week.

You should be very proud of me because with you beside me, coaching me at every step, I prepared a seven-pound brisket, from HEB of course, and brought it still hot on my arrival at the clinic, along with sauce, chips, bread and four gallons of sweet tea from Bush’s Chicken in Converse—incidentally, there has apparently been a complete change of personnel at that location—I recognized none of the staff there.

Rita met me at the entrance of the hospital with a handcart to help carry everything. I also brought another large framed piece of art to add to our gallery in the clinic. That makes a total of fourteen pieces lining each side of the hallway from the entrance all the way to the dialysis section. I’m told that your “art gallery” is an attraction for other hospital staff and patients and visitors. I know that you and I did not make the donations as a memorial, but it doesn’t hurt that it serves as a memorial to you.

Cindy helped me create gold foil stickers for the pieces, and I placed one on the lower right corner of the glass of each, and I also placed a label on the flat-screen television you donated to the Nephrology Clinic to replace that little dinky tube television that was there. Each of the gold stickers reads, Donated to Nephrology by Janie and Mike Dyer. And just in case you are wondering, Rita still watches The View every morning with religious fervor.

I wish the hallway were a bit longer so I could expand the gallery in your name. I also wish that I could create another Taj Mahal to honor your name and your life, but I’ll have to be satisfied with the Taj Mahal that resides in my heart and in my memories of you and of my life with you. Just as is the original Taj Mahal in India, the Taj Mahal in my heart and memories is a symbol of our eternal love.

I helped the nurses set up the banquet tables (Irene made me don plastic gloves before I could help sanitize the tables). When the signal was given to Come and get it! I joined the long line, loading far more on my plate than necessary, but I admit shamefully that very little was left when I finished. I shared a table with Ernie, his wife and his daughter. You’ll remember Ernie as the camera-bug transplanted to San Antonio from El Paso so his severely handicapped wheel-chair-bound daughter could receive treatment here. He is still following Cindy’s blog and working on his photographic skills.

Unless you were preoccupied in another area, you probably noticed that I visited you in the cemetery that Thursday afternoon. There were few visitors that day, but the machines and their operators were present as always, hard at work maintaining and enhancing the grounds, watering and grooming and planting and preparing new communities for military wives and husbands and for the orphaned children of military families. The perpetual care provided by our government for those families ensures the beauty and the future of one of the largest such cemeteries in the nation.

My visit with you that Thursday afternoon was bitter sweet, as all future visits will be. I accept the sadness that cloaks and permeates each visit, but I exult in the knowledge that the sadness is temporary, because I know that at some time in the future I will join you and our immortal souls will be reunited.

And I know that, in the glorious morning of the Resurrection our bodies will be raised, and become as incorruptible as our souls.

Sleep well in heaven, my darling. I love you more today than yesterday, but less than tomorrow.

Mike

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2010 in death, Family, flowers, health, marriage, television, Writing

 

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From grimace to grin, from pain to peace and from earth to Eden . . .


Janie,
my wife and the mother of our three daughters, for eleven years was a long-time ovarian cancer survivor dating from 1999. In recent months the cancer had metastasized to her lungs and other organs, a spread so severe that surgery and chemotherapy were no longer options. She was also a long-time dialysis patient with a schedule of two days each week, Monday and Thursday, for two hours each day. She had dialysis on Monday, 8 November but because Thursday was November 11, Veteran’s Day, her dialysis appointment was shifted to Friday. We did not take her to dialysis on the following Monday, and she died just three days later on Thursday, November 18 at 9:15 in the evening.

Early in the morning on the Saturday after her last dialysis I was at her bedside and we were talking about going to dialysis on the following Monday. She was very quiet and I was doing most of the talking, and at one point when I paused she said, softly but very clearly, It’s time. When I asked time for what, she again said softly but clearly, It’s time to go. I broke into tears, just as I am now doing while writing this. Choking back my sobs I said that it was not up to her, that God would decide when it was time, not her, and that she should keep fighting until He made that decision. She smiled slightly and sweetly and made no response.

I stumbled on blindly, sobbing and speaking in broken tones and told her that I didn’t want her to leave me, that she couldn’t leave, that I wouldn’t let her leave, that I needed her and our girls needed her, that we would complete almost six decades of marriage on December 13, and that her birthday would be the day after Christmas. I told her that we had 58 years together, all beautiful except for one, and for that year I desperately needed her forgiveness, and I begged her to forgive me—I begged her for forgiveness that I had not earned and did not deserve.

She looked into my eyes for a long moment, then speaking slowly and softly she said, I forgive you, and then she said, You’re a good man. I told her that if she left me I would follow her and be with her, not knowing when but that I would definitely follow her, and I promised her that from that moment on I would make every effort to live my life towards that goal. Her eyes were closed when I told her that and I wasn’t sure whether she had heard me, but then she said, I’ll wait for you, and a few seconds later she said, I’ll tell Jesus you’re coming. I don’t remember any conversation after that. She lapsed into sleep and except for a few precious times that she acknowledged me and others when we spoke to her, she was silent up to the moment she left us.

I had asked her earlier if she wanted a chaplain to come in and she shook her head, but early in the evening on Thursday, November 18, I asked for a chaplain to visit us. Hector Villarreal, a Protestant chaplain, arrived at six o’clock and prayed with her and for her, and for me and our three daughters. He told her that God loved her and wanted her to be with Him, and that He was waiting for her.

The chaplain said that she would draw her last breath on earth, but that she would draw her next breath in heaven. We were at her side when she took her last breath on earth, and we truly believe, then and now, that she took her next breath in the presence of God, and that her spirit, her marvelous soul, never judgmental and so perfect in every other respect, is now complete and happy and whole again, untarnished by toil, trial and tribulations encountered during almost 79 years of life, years that she lived and loved to the fullest—born in 1931, she died just 38 days short of her 79th birthday, December 26. We would have celebrated our 58th wedding anniversary on the 13th of December.

The hospice nurse noted the time of her last breath as 9: 15 PM on Thursday, November 18, 2010. She had lapsed into a coma the day before, and her breathing had become labored, with her mouth sagging open and each breath an audible gasp for air. She was on oxygen, with the maximum allowable flow of oxygen to her nostrils from a bedside tank.

From time to time, depending on whether she seemed to show pain either by sound or movement, the hospice nurse administered liquid pain medication, placing it under the tongue with a syringe. The nurse assured us that the hearing is the final sense to go, and that Janie could hear every word we spoke, so we talked to her right up to that final breath with our hands on her, on her face and smoothing her hair and softly stroking her arms and hands and feet and adjusting the bed covers, each of us in turn professing our love, recalling our favorite times of our lives with her, with all our words interspersed and muffled by sniffs and sobs.

When our daughters left the room, I asked the nurse if she could do anything about the way Janie’s mouth drooped open, twisted and misshapen, drawn down and to the left from the way her head was turned to the side for so many hours. The nurse said that nothing could be done, that it had to be done at the funeral home.

I insisted that we try, and I began trying to place her head differently in an effort to restore her features to a more natural position. The nurse assisted by folding a hand towel and placing it under Janie’s chin, and that helped slightly. Her mouth, however, still sagged to the left and her lips were open and peeled back with her teeth showing. The nurse said that was all we could do, that the rest was up to the funeral home staff.

Everyone except the nurse left the room, but I stayed seated beside the bed with her while the nurse was completing her report, and several minutes later I spoke aloud, saying that my eyes must be playing tricks on me. I thought I had seen a fold in the blanket high on her left chest rise slowly but perceptibly, as if she had slowly inhaled. I watched it intently and after a brief period it appeared to lower.

The nurse either did not hear me or perhaps simply ignored me, and continued with her work. I felt that the blanket fold had moved, but I knew that I could have imagined it, that I was perhaps trying to will my wife to take another breath. The air in the room was very still. The overhead ceiling fan was not on because she never wanted it on.

A few seconds later I again spoke aloud and said that my eyes were still playing tricks on me. I saw the same fold that had moved a few seconds earlier move again, rising ever so slowly but perceptibly and after a brief period I saw it lower. Again there was no response from the nurse. She may have felt that I was so stricken with grief that my imagination was running wild, and that perhaps I was trying to will my wife to breathe, to return to me, to return to life from the other side.

Our daughters had been out of the room since their mother took her last breath, but Kelley, the youngest of the three, asked them if they wanted to come in to see her again. They declined and Kelley came in alone, and as she entered I glanced at her mother’s face and my heart began to pound wildly.

I told Kelley to look at her mouth—it was no longer contorted and sagging. Her lips were closed and her mouth showed a hint of a smile, an uplift at the corners—just a hint of a smile but enough for any observer to see that she looked calm and peaceful and perhaps a bit amused. Kelly told the others that they needed to come in, that there was something they needed to see, and we all marveled at the transformation of Janie’s face—from a grimace to a grin, from a sagging mouth to a smile, and from pain to peace.

When I felt that my eyes were playing tricks on me I was wrong. They were not playing tricks. I believe—no, I know—that I saw the blanket fold move up and then drop back down after a few seconds, and I saw it repeat the movement a bit later.

She did indeed draw her last breath on earth, and it is my honest belief that she then drew her next breath in heaven. I believe that our Creator allowed her to return and draw another last breath on earth, a breath that enabled her to live again, albeit just long enough to correct the awkward position of her lips and her mouth and begin that beautiful smile that she shared with me and with our daughters and with others throughout her 78 years of life on earth. I truly believe that she heard me ask the nurse if anything could be done with her mouth, and I believe—no, I know—that after she took her next breath in heaven, she asked God for a favor and He granted it.

I believe that through the power and grace of God my wife was allowed to return to this life just long enough to slough off all the pain and misery of years of surgeries and chemotherapy and dialysis and several days gasping for breath while under medication for the pain caused by ovarian tumors that almost filled both lungs. I believe the Master sent her back to earth to occupy her body for the brief time she needed to complete the metamorphasis from a chrysalis to a beautiful butterfly, to return that smile to her lips for us before returning to Him. He knew that I needed that, that we needed that, and He gave her the power to do it for me and for our daughters.

Her return to the world of the living, though only for a very brief period, is a miracle because of the miracle it wrought in her appearance. It is for me the epiphany I have longed for and sought for many years. I have always wished for a sign, an unworldly experience I could view as an indication that life does exist after death, that there is a divine presence, that God exists and is responsible for all the good in mankind. That smile on Janie’s face on her last night on earth has given me that sign, and for that I thank God and I thank her.

Sleep well in heaven, my darling.


Postscript: Janie is buried in Fort Sam Houston’s National Cemetery. She lies among military veterans of our wars, many of whom are cited by our nation for bravery and duty performance. Janie is just one of many there, but she is one that deserves every commendation and medal that may exist to commemorate her exemplary life as a wife and mother. Her obituary appeared in the San Antonio, Texas Express-News on Monday, November 22, 2010—click here for the full publication.

The request below appears at the end of the obituary. Perhaps some of the readers of this posting will find it in their hearts to support these or similar organizations with donations, and join in the search for prevention and cures for ovarian cancer and kidney disease, two of the deadliest and most debilitating afflictions known to mankind.

From Janie’s obituary: In lieu of flowers, please consider a contribution in her memory to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, P.O. Box 7086, Dallas Texas 75209, http://www.ovarian.org or the American Kidney Fund, 6110 Executive Blvd., Ste. 1010, Rockville MD 20852, http://www.kidneyfund.org

 
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Posted by on December 4, 2010 in death, Family, friends, funeral, health, marriage, Military

 

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About my uncle Dalton . . .

This post is about my Uncle Dalton, one of my mother’s younger brothers. I never knew him, and I saw him for the first and last time at his wake. I can’t pinpoint the year he died, but my best guess is that it was around 1940. I know it was before 1942, the year my mother unwisely brought a stepfather into our family, and when I picture myself standing at my uncle’s coffin and listening to my mother explain how he died, I appear to be somewhere around the age of seven or perhaps eight years—hey, don’t laugh—I said it would be a best guess, right?

My Uncle Dalton died in the old Bryce Hospital, an institution for the insane located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. You can Google it here if you like—there’s lots of info on the Internet.

According to my mother and other family members, Dalton was the victim of a beating rendered by a fellow inmate, a not-so-gentle man that attacked Dalton with a metal bedpan and the beating proved to be fatal. I have a vivid memory of standing beside my mother and watching her lift the departed’s right arm and the hand dropping limply, indicating, as voiced by my mother, that the wrist was broken. I know now that the hand dropping, or drooping, was normal and did not indicate a break. Had the body been in the maximum stiffness of rigor mortis,  the hand would not have drooped when the arm was lifted.

In humans, rigor mortis commences  about 3 hours after death, reaches maximum stiffness after 12 hours, and gradually dissipates until approximately three days after death. I am reasonably sure that Uncle Dalton had been dead for at least three days before he lay in state at his wake prior to his burial. Therefore it was natural for the hand to drop, or droop, when the arm was lifted. If you like, you can click here to confirm my findings concerning rigor mortis.

My mother told me that Uncle Dalton was a perfectly normal young adult until he unwisely dived head-first from a tree limb into shallow water and lost consciousness when his head struck the bottom—her expression was, I believe, that his head stuck in the mud. He remained unconscious for several minutes and was finally revived, but was never quite the same after the accident, and some years later was committed to Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, an institution for the mentally disturbed—insane, if you will.

My mother visited Dalton numerous times during his tenure at Bryce, and she had interesting stories to tell about those visits. She said that he loved chewing gum, and she always took him gum on her visits. Patients were not allowed to shave themselves, and Mama said that he invariably removed a stick of gum from its wrapper, then reconstructed the wrapper and  pretended to shave with it. She told me a joke that she claimed Dalton told her—I seriously doubt the origin of this joke, but I must admit that it’s funny!

The joke my Uncle Dalton supposedly told was of a mental patient that had been told that after thirty years in the asylum he could go home, so he was given a razor and told to shave. As he faced the mirror and began shaving, a nurse stopped in the hallway to congratulate him, and he turned away from the mirror for an instant, and while he was turned away the mirror slipped of its hanger. When he returned to face the mirror he exclaimed, “Damn, thirty years in this place and the day I get ready to leave I cut my head off!” If that story is true, I have some doubt as to the severity of Dalton’s insanity.

One more story about my insane Uncle Dalton, and I’ll leave this posting for posterity. An official from Bryce Hospital called Dalton’s family to tell them that Dalton had wandered away from the institution and was believed to be returning to his home. A couple of days later his mother noticed that a shotgun that normally hung over the fireplace was missing. A report was made to local law enforcement, and a search began for Dalton in that area. While the search was in full swing, Dalton appeared at the house with the shotgun and several squirrels he had bagged. He said that he left the hospital with the intention of going squirrel hunting and having his mother make squirrel stew for him. As the story goes, the local law officials arrived to take Dalton back to the hospital, but waited until he had finished a meal of squirrel stew.

Possible? Yes, but plausible? No, but it makes a good read, especially as told to me by my mother, and I would like to believe it. Well, why not? It’s all in the past, and whether true of false it’s an indication of the frailty and the goodness of human nature, and our acceptance of both attributes.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Postscript: I overlooked a memory of my uncle, something my mother told me and was confirmed by at least two of her sisters. One manifestation of his separation from reality was his insistence that the air was filled with clocks, all manners of timepieces—clocks large and clocks small, all showing the same time of day or night, and he couldn’t understand why others could not see them.

Was that proof of his mental imbalance? Perhaps, but according to my mother and my aunts he never carried a pocket watch and never wore a wristwatch, yet when someone asked, he could give them the correct time, at any moment of the day or night. Such a gift has its advantages—assuming that the clocks required neither winding nor batteries, the absence of maintenance costs and physical effort would mount up over a lifetime.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2010 in Humor, hunting, insanity, law enforcement

 

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I still like prunes—a story of my Miss Mary . . .

This story is true. I wrote it in 1987 when I lived for six months—an eternity—in Houston, Texas. The story has appeared in sculptor Tom Clark’s Cairn Studio quarterly issue, a publication that is distributed to dealers and collectors of the artist’s work in every county in every state in our United States, including Hawaii and Alaska.  Please note that any use of this document, other than brief excerpts, is prohibited by US and international law—it cannot legally be used in any other fashion without my permission.

Yes, ma’m, I still like prunes

On a special September morning in Mississippi many years ago, the air was crisp and clean and cool, and the woman standing in the doorway folded her arms against the chill. Her deep-set eyes, startlingly blue in a heavily lined unsmiling face, were fixed on a small boy as he neared the steps.

To a casual observer she presented a normal picture. A portrait from an earlier time, perhaps, than 1938, a time of black high-buttoned shoes and ankle length skirts, black and thickly pleated. Her white cotton blouse, high-necked and long-sleeved, was relieved in its starkness only by lace at the neck and wrists. Her hair was tightly plaited and shining in the early morning light, the heavy braids coiled and crossed in an intricate crown of silver.

I was that small boy, and I was not a casual observer. For me the picture was very different as my dragging steps brought me closer to my first full day of school. Fear of the unknown made me forgo any shortcuts between home and school, choosing the longer way to delay the inevitable. I was late, and as I squared the final corner the tardy bell rang. From the bottom step the black-skirted figure loomed gigantic, conjuring up visions of darkness, of beating wings, of things seen only in dreams.

I would come to know the woman as a pioneer educator that brought many innovations to her state and city educational systems. And I would come to love her. On that day I found a friend, and that friendship would be broken only by death.

Although past retirement age, she continued her position and her duties as an elementary school principal, and remained a dynamic figure and force in state and local school administration. In a career that spanned three-quarters of a century, she gained the respect and love of all that knew her.

We called her Miss Mary. She had another name, Stokes, but few of us knew it and none of us used it. She was simply Miss Mary. I spent my first six school years in the square two-story red brick building, my attendance broken only by the unpredictable moves of an itinerant carpenter stepfather.

Miss Mary ruled her school with an iron hand, and meted out corporal punishment on the spot. Always present in one wrinkled blue-veined hand was a wooden ruler. With deadly precision the eighteen inches of supreme authority landed on miscreant knuckles, shoulders and backsides of boys and girls alike.

I had the dubious distinction of being Miss Mary’s pet. Apparently to refute that notion, she punished me for the smallest infractions of a bewildering array of rules. The taps were delivered with love, but became painful through sheer repetition.

Lunch was closely supervised. With military precision we moved through the line, plates on trays, collecting helpings from long-handled spoons along the way. Everyone received the same items in identical portions. Conversation was kept to a minimum with Miss Mary moving among the tables, scolding here, praising there, coaxing us to eat everything on our plates. Probably the most disliked food was spinach—in spite of Popeye’s efforts—and stewed prunes ran a close second.

How I loved stewed prunes! At a time when happiness for other little boys was a Buck Rogers ring with a built-in compass, happiness for me was a third helping of stewed prunes. Served almost daily, they were usually eaten only through Miss Mary’s insistence. Not me—I needed no encouragement. I ate the prunes before I touched the main course. Seeing the affinity that developed between me and stewed prunes, Miss Mary told the ladies on the serving line to give me as many of the wrinkled dark delicacies as I wanted. My taste for prunes and Miss Mary’s indulgence probably made me the most regular kid in town.

As with all activities at Miss Mary’s school, playtime was highly regimented and closely supervised. Boys and girls were separated and each grade had its own area for recreation. If one of us strayed into another zone we were reprimanded and returned to our own.

There were exceptions. Miss Mary felt that in sports and at play children should be evenly matched. If one of us was appreciably smaller than our classmates, or lagged behind in muscular development and coordination, we were assigned to an area where we could compete more effectively and where the chances of injury were reduced.

I was smaller than most of my classmates—perhaps because of the prunes—so I spent my playtime with the next lower grade. There were some advantages. I was better coordinated than the younger boys, and I often spent the entire play period at bat by intentionally hitting foul balls. The rule was, “99 fouls and you’re out.”

Miss Mary ended her career in education at the same time I began mine in military service. Our friendship endured as the years passed, but our visits became infrequent because of my duty assignments. Returning to my hometown after several years overseas, I learned that Miss Mary, nearing the century mark in age, lived near the sister I had come to visit. After a call to her nurse and a short walk to the house, my sister and I were ushered into Miss Mary’s parlor. In the cool dimness of the room with its heavy drapes drawn against the bright fall sun, we saw the tiny figure seated in a massive rocker.

Her frail shoulders sagged under the weight of a thick brown shawl. She sat slumped forward, head down and eyes fixed on skeletal folded hands. Silhouetted against the single dim lamp she had an ethereal quality, her skin almost translucent, the diffused light a halo for her bowed head with its wispy strands of white hair. She seemed unaware of me, and paid no heed to my gentle reminders of the past. The nurse said that long periods of withdrawal were common, that Miss Mary might not recognize me or correspond in any way. I tried several times to talk to her, but there was no indication that she knew me or even heard me. Feeling awkward and ill at ease, and filled with a deep sense of loss and sadness, I told the nurse that I would come back later. I stood and moved toward the door and then I heard it.

“Do you still like prunes?”

Each word loud and clear, the voice deep and strong, lightly dismissing the long years, pushing back time and space to another day when a small boy found an unexpected and lifelong friend. Memories flooded over me as I turned back, sat down and replied, “Yes, ma’m, I still like prunes.” But that was all. Not another word. She remained silent and unmoving, head down and hands folded, and did not respond to me or to the nurse. Throat swollen and blinded by a scalding rush of tears, I stumbled to the door and out of the house.

I never saw her again. She died several months later, peacefully in her sleep according to newspaper accounts. Tribute was paid in eulogies by leading citizens and educators from all over the South, and the press detailed her long career and her many accomplishments. All the pictures in the newspapers were of a stranger. Not one was of the woman I remembered. Not one of them was of my Miss Mary. And not one of them was the Miss Mary in my strongest memories, the first time and the last time I saw her.

My sister did not hear Miss Mary ask me the question that day. She heard my answer that I still liked prunes, but thought I was trying to bridge the gulf with another reminder of the past. Nor did the nurse hear the question. She heard only my answer. Did Miss Mary speak to me? Did she remember me? Did the other two people in the room simply fail to hear the voice I heard so clearly? Could I have wanted recognition so badly that I imagined she spoke to me? Or did Miss Mary somehow transcend the need for speech and reach out to me without words?

My old friend spoke to me that day. I did not imagine her voice. I heard it. She knew me and in order to show that she remembered, she asked the one question that would identify me among the many thousands of people whose lives she had touched and shaped and strengthened.

“Do you still like prunes?” She knew me and she spoke to me and she heard my answer.

I have no doubts, no misgivings. I know it.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2010 in Childhood, education, friends, Writing

 

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