Blessed is the Quiet

I turned the monitor off Sunday morning not knowing it would be the last time.

For three and a half years I have slept with one ear open, listening to the monitor, learning the sounds of the different creaks of the hospital bed in the room below me.

One creak meant he was getting up. It was followed by the shuffle-thud of him walking with his walker into the bathrooom.

A different creak meant he was getting back into bed. I could hear the soft rustle of the bedding as he rolled onto his side and pulled the blankets up above his shoulders.

If I didn’t hear the back-to-bed creaks but heard the click of the light switch, I knew I needed to go down and redirect. He would be heading to his closet to choose clothes for church — no matter what day of the week it was. Sometimes that happened at 11:30 PM and sometimes in the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes it was every hour throughout night.

The monitor sat on my bedside table where its yellow light showed me it was on and its faint buzz served as a secondary reminder.

Now I hear the deep breathing of my husband sleeping beside me.

Just the other day I had been telling someone that I hadn’t heard the coyotes all summer. With the monitor off and the insomnia on, I could hear them, their long lonesome howls coming from somewhere farther away than previous years, but still there.

I hear a bird I can’t identify.

I hear gentle rain hitting the wide leaves of the hydrangea.

I hear the obnoxious sounds of vehicles driving on wet road. I can identify the milk truck, the speeding pick-ups, the cars. I can tell it’s foggy because everyone drives so much slower.

It’s so quiet, though, without the monitor.

Too quiet.

I want to hear the bed creak and the shuffle-thud.

My father passed away Sunday night.

He had dressed himself Saturday morning and eaten a bowl of cereal. Mid-afternoon he vomited brown-black — a sign of a GI bleed. He went to bed before dinner, and never got out of it again. The next day he was gone.

Thomas Merton said, “Prayer and Love are learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone.” (Seeds of Contemplation)

Prayer and love are learned in the quiet of a monitor that been turned off.

Merton also said, “The monk faces the worst, and discovers in it the hope of the best.” (Contemplative Prayer)

I’m facing the quiet.

I’m looking for the blessing.

Blessed Are Those Who Grieve

It has been three and a half years since my mother passed away.

A few weeks ago my father wanted to visit my mother’s grave. In the first year after she passed, I had tried several times to get him to go.

His way of dealing with grief was avoidance.

I would ask him if he wanted to bring flowers to her grave. He wouldn’t hear me.

I would ask again. He would change the subject.

I would ask again. No response.

On the first anniversary of her death, I bought a small pot of pansies and asked Bud to drop my father and I at the cemetery before church. Slowly we started down the path, but when it came time to turn towards the Columbarium, my father picked up his pace and headed straight for the church.

Alone I set the flowers I had bought for her at the base of the Columbarium,

The Columbarium

Blessed are those who grieve.

Jesus said, Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

The difference between grieving and mourning is this: grief is private, but mourning is the outward expression of grief that allows a person to move forward.

Grief is the emotional reaction to a loss, while mourning is learning to live again.

Grief muddles the mind, but mourning begins to put things back in place.

Grief is the raw emotions that say things will never be right again.

Mourning reflects on what was and what will never be again, and then works to  deal with that void.

About a month ago, my father asked to bring flowers to my mother’s grave.

“Can I see where she’s buried?” he asked.

He didn’t remember ever going there before, so I showed him pictures from her interment.

The avoidance had finally passed. He was ready.

I purchased a bouquet and tied an orange ribbon on it. My mother always liked orange.

We drove to town and I parked as close as I could to the Columbarium. He picked his way along the dirt and gravel path that led there, struggling with his walker, while I struggled to hold the bouquet and keep my arm supporting him.

Silently we stood before the gray granite corner of the Columbarium.

“Is this it?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, and showed him my mother’s name carved in the granite.

He wept.

“Can you take a picture of it?”

I did.

 

Blessed are those who grieve, for they have loved deeply.

And blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

The Brindle Boxer

When I pulled in to the veterinarian’s office, the red-bearded man with the brindle boxer was standing out front.

Maggie was fluctuating between ecstasy and fear. She had been delighted when she got to go for a ride in the car, but she recognized the building when we pulled in. The dog out front delighted her — Maggie is very social — but the door just beyond terrified.

She jumped willingly out of the car. The boxer squared off in the middle of the sidewalk.

It was a big dog, solidly built. She laid claim to the sidewalk, blocking our way to the entrance. The man made no move to move her. I nudged Maggie to my right side so I would be between her and the boxer. I knew Maggie would want to give an exuberant hello and I wasn’t the boxer shared the sentiment.

The man watched me shift Maggie.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “she can’t see nothing.”

I had already launched into my usual Maggie’s-biggest-problem-is-she’s-overly-friendly line when I heard him add as we passed, “She’s dying anyway.”

His words seeped in as I took Maggie through the door.

I should go out and say something, I thought, as I sat on the bench in the waiting room, but Maggie had already started her shiver-and-shed routine. She really doesn’t like visiting the vet.

Maggie at the vet

While calming Maggie, I made small talk with a woman who had worked with my father. Her cat waited quietly in a red backpack cat carrier on the bench next to her. We waited and chatted while people dropped off and picked up their cats, mostly. Through a window, I could see the man with the brindle boxer standing outside, still owning the sidewalk, although it looked a lot less like ownership now.

A technician came out and called a name. Three people, a woman roughly my age and two young adult children, stood. The girl went outside and came back in with the man and the boxer.

“We have a private room here,” said the technician as she opened a door behind her.

I couldn’t see the other faces, but I could see the man, pressing his lips together, the corners of his mouth turned down, as he slowly led the boxer in. A few minutes later, the girl came out again, her eyes red and puffy. She went outside and came back with an older man, who walked very slowly.

The door to the room opened.

“Pop, we’re in here,” said the red-bearded man. His voice broke.

The girl followed her grandfather. She was openly weeping now. With her back to me, I saw the large sparkly letters on her gray hoodie — “LOVE LOVE PINK.”

I wished I could magically change it to read “LOVE LOVE BRINDLE” because I knew that’s what she was feeling.

The small talk ended. My father’s friend and I both watched the drama with heavy laden eyes as the family closed the door to their private room at the vet.

“So hard,” she whispered to me.

Yet, we were witness to a well-loved dog surrounded at the end by three generations.

Sometimes the most terrible things are also the most beautiful.

Peeps and Pictures

My husband’s youngest brother, Ken, passed away last September in Kansas. The New York memorial service was held this past Friday.

Bud’s sister, Jeannie, gave a eulogy. It reminded me a little of my own words about my brother Stewart — how we all carry pieces of our loved ones with us.

In her eulogy, Jeannie said, “[Ken] was the kind of person who would buy a huge roll of paper, paint, a palette, and not brushes, but Marshmallow Peeps for his kids to paint with for Easter.” I loved that image of Ken — fun, creative, involved with his kids.

The day after Ken’s memorial service, we had a Zaengle family reunion. Bud is number two of thirteen children — plus a cousin came to live with them when her mother died.

So Bud’s parents raised fourteen children.

In a tiny house.

With one bathroom.

But I digress.

His father passed away over 10 years. Bud’s brother, Jack, passed away in 2007, and then Ken in 2017.

On Saturday I tried to sneak a photo while a real photographer was taking a group picture of the remaining nuclear family. Clearly, I am NOT a photographer — Tom’s face is hidden behind Jeannie’s pink hat, Don is half hidden by Joe, and Mary is all but obliterated by Anne. But here they are:


Maybe when the big group pictures are available, I’ll post one here.

I left the party early on Saturday to bring Mary to a “thing.” (Trust me, there WILL be a post about that at a future time.)

The next morning, Bud was telling me about what I missed in the evening.

“Ellie did the cutest thing,” he said. Ellie is Ken’s daughter.

Ellie

Bud said, “She had a box full of little squares of yellow paper. She had drawn a picture on each one, and the picture told a story. She was handing them out and I got one of the last ones.”

He pulled it out of his pocket to show me.

“The person on the right,” Bud explained, “loves candy. He’s standing outside a candy store and looking in the window at all the candy. And he’s drooling because he wants to eat it all.”

I laughed.

And looked for the Peeps in the candy display.

Clearly, Peeps would not be found in the candy store though. They would be in the art store. With all the brushes.

I could see Ken in Ellie and in her picture.

Thank you, Jeannie, for that reminder to look for Ken. It’s a beautiful way to remember those who have gone before.

Dr. Purple’s Fall

Those who know me well know that I have spent hours researching Dr. William Purple from Greene. He was a fascinating man who lived a long life in service to his family, his community, and his profession.

The following story is based in fact; I’ve tried to tell it with Dr. Purple’s voice.

William D. Purple lived from 1802 to 1886. He and his wife, Julia, had four children: Julia, Agnes, William, and Mary.


October 4, 1864

Ah, William. You are my Icarus. How I longed to see you fly to safety!

When you registered for the Civil War draft in June of 1863, my heart nigh burst with pride and broke for sorrow. And when your name was called to serve, you readied yourself.

But you began a cough. With the date fast approaching for the regiment to leave, your cough grew worse. When I saw the blood in your sputum, I knew.

Consumption.

I had heard of soldiers leaving for the war and being sent home with consumption, but far more tales were of young soldiers who died away from home from that dread disease. I wanted to be sure of your care.

We scraped together the $300 to pay the commutation fee and release you from service. $300, dear Icarus, for wax and feathers, and, through friends, a bank job in the north, where the air is fresh and clean and curative. I had hoped that you would carve a place for yourself in the banking world.

You had not the heedless hubris of the ancient Icarus. What did Mr. Averell, the bank president say in his letter? “William was a man of great simplicity of character, purity of purpose, confiding and generous in his feelings. He will be missed.”

Yes, you will be missed by no one more than me. I missed you the moment I put you on the stage for Canton, daring to hope that it would not be the last time I would see you alive. Yet, one year later those waxen wings, the escape that I, your Daedalus had planned for you, dipped you toward the netherworld before allowing you to soar to Heaven itself.

I walked last night as if in a dream. It was a moonless night and I had not brought a lantern. As I passed the open doors of  the Chenango House, light streamed out. I could hear laughter and music within. Once passed, I walked in darkness and all I could hear was the flowing water of the Chenango River. It beckoned me, like the Icarian Sea.

“Come,” it said, “I can reunite you with your William, your Icarus.” I walked toward it, my thoughts lost in heavy grief. “Come,” whispered the river.

I remember approaching the bridge. The night was cool and I hadn’t worn an overcoat.

The next thing I remember was August Willard kneeling over me, his lantern held aloft by my Mary. My left arm, cold and wet, draped into the river. My feet felt tangled, and rested up the steep embankment that was strewn with leftover canal stone dumped there years ago. My head ached; the rocky pillow upon which it rested was coarse, cold, and damp.

“William,” August said, whilst shaking my shoulders, “Julia is so worried. We must get you home.”

Mary set the lantern on a rock and assisted August in getting me upright and to level ground. I leaned heavily on the two of them as we slowly made our way home. My whole body was bruised, but my left side – my shoulder, arm, hip and leg – was badly abraded as well. Blood from a gash in my head continued to trickle down my cheek as we walked. Julia paled as she saw us enter the house.

“I’ve been so frightened for you, William,” she cried, gently placing her hand on my bloody cheek before hurrying into my office for some medical supplies.

The story unfolded to me as August tended my wounds. I had been gone for hours. Julia had sent Mary across the street to August’s house. She roused him and he willingly searched for me. But, how long had I lain below the bridge? That was a mystery.

Had I accidentally stumbled?

The night was so very dark, and my thoughts occupied by one thing, my only son’s death.

Or, had I heeded the river’s call?

“Come, Daedalus. I will give you wings to fly to your son.”


The Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus can be read here: Icarus and Daedalus

Consumption is better known as tuberculosis. During the Civil War, an estimated 14,000 soldiers died from tuberculosis. In the Union camps, it was treated with “fresh air” and lung surgery. Outside the war, tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the 19th century.

It’s November 3rd, That’s Why

Two years ago this — Helen and I kept vigil through the night with my mother. Helen had snapped this picture while I was dozing.

Three generations of hands

I went home in the wee hours, grabbed a little sleep, then went back to the hospital to relieve Helen.

After struggling so much the day before, making terrible gurgling sounds as she tried to breathe, my mother finally slept peacefully. I think the atropine helped.

Atropine gets its name from Atropos, one of the Fates, the one who chooses the mechanism of death and ends a mortal’s life. I find that both strange and interesting.

But my mother slept.

And we took turns sleeping.

At the end, Helen was sleeping when my mother passed away. My siblings were all there, but Helen, who had been so close to my mom, so faithful and present in so many ways, was not. In retrospect, I should have called her. But I didn’t know when the thread of life would finally be severed. None of us really do.

November 3rd feels heavy, like a weight on my heart.

My friend, Michael McNevin, wrote a song we play every November 4. The first few lines run through my mind unbidden.

Thinking of the cold to come…

It was 61° this morning — not very cold, but I shivered anyway. Today my father goes for a physical as a step toward entering an adult home. I am so unsettled with this decision. Ah, the cold to come.

From what I hear it will make me numb…

I remember the numbness after my mother died. I don’t want to feel that again, and yet, it is inevitable. My father walks more slowly now, shuffling along with his walker. His pacemaker paces 90% of the time. His thinking is muddled at an unquantifiable percentage.

Two of his peers took him to lunch the other day. When his friend brought him home, he pulled me aside. “Your father really couldn’t follow any of the conversation today,” he said, “And he fixated on one small thing. That was all he could talk about.”

Yes, I’ve noticed that, too. It makes me sad.

Look at how the wind goes by…

A breeze refreshes, but the wind is the wind. It blows through our lives – pushing us along, trying to hold us back, knocking dead branches out of trees, grabbing loose items and skittering them away.

Two years ago my mother died on a cold November day.

I can remember walking up the hill to the hospital that last time when she was still alive. It was still dark, maybe 5 AM. I wanted to give Helen a chance to sleep. The wind blew tiny raindrops against my cheeks — portending tears to come.

It’s November 3rd, that’s why.

 

Mr. Hanson

Image from ALLOTSEGO.com from Veteran’s day 2016 — Mr. Hanson on the right

I don’t think he was there the first time we visited the Methodist Church a few  years ago, but he was the second or third time we went back.

“Sally,” he said to me in his strong deep voice. I was flattered that he remembered me. It had been 40-some years since I sat in his 7th grade math class.

“Hi, Mr. Hanson,” I replied.

“You can call me Dick, you know,” he said, smiling. “You’re an adult now.”

“I don’t think I can,” I said to him.

Teachers, especially good ones, have a special status. When I hear kids today calling teachers by their first name, or, worse, just their last name, I cringe a little inside.

Sunday after Sunday he would engulf my hand in his while he greeted me. If I called him Mr. Hanson, he would give me a look and then say, “Dick, please,” so I took to calling him nothing.

“Good morning!” “Good to see you today!” “Merry Christmas!” I avoided the naming, and he allowed me to, until one Sunday, he said, “C’mon. You can say it.” He held my hand and waited.

I took a deep breath, and said, “Dick?” in the smallest of voices, and quickly followed it with “I don’t think I can.”

He looked at me a long time, then let go of my hand. “Okay,” he said, and he smiled at me but never mentioned the name thing again.

Mr. Hanson was one of those larger than life teachers. A former marine. Physically a big guy. A booming voice. A great smile.

I said something to another woman at church who had had him as a teacher. “I just can’t call him anything but Mr. Hanson,” I told her.

“I know,” she said, ” but let me tell you something about him. Do you remember when I was in the hospital?”

I did. When we were in school, she had been in a tobogganing accident that resulted in a broken neck, broken jaw, and months in the hospital. I spent many afternoons sitting in her room with her. Her jaw was wired shut. A device that resembled tongs attached to her skull and held her neck in traction via weights that hung down over the end of the bed.

“My mother was taking a mandatory First Aid class for teachers on Monday nights,” she said, “and she must have mentioned something about it to Mr. Hanson because he started showing up in my hospital room on Monday nights to visit. He never said anything to her about it, and it took me a long time to figure it out, but on the one night she couldn’t be with me, he came by.”

I wondered how many other Mr. Hanson stories are out there.

Therein is greatness.

Not doing big things that draw attention and bring accolades, but in doing the small things, unnoticed and unseen, but not unimportant.

Mr. Hanson died last week.

I’m sorry (not sorry) that I could never bring myself to call him Dick. I’ll miss his strong handshake, resonant voice, and warm smile. I’ll miss his presence.

Rest in peace, sir.