Harvey

Things are heating up here in the Lakeside area. Believe it or not, May is the hottest month of the year down here. According to everyone we know, it should cool off in June once the rainy season starts.

That’ll be nice. I think it’s rained once since November, and there have been a thousand fires in the last month or so. It’s so smoky/hazy now, there are days when you can’t see the other side of the lake.

* * * *

If you’re a classic movie buff, I don’t need to tell you about Harvey. 1950. Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dodd, an eccentric man whose best friend is a pooka named… what else? Harvey is Elwood’s best friend, and he’s a six foot three and an half inch tall invisible rabbit. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. It’s a darling movie.

I knew a guy named Harvey. He was maybe five foot four. He had kind of a weather-beaten appearance, and he wasn’t invisible. Harvey was an older guy. He was in his seventies when I first met him. I can’t remember if he was bipolar or schizophrenic. He might have been both. If he was bipolar, he was the quietest manic guy I’ve ever met. And if he was schizophrenic, he kept his psychosis to himself.

Harvey was pretty much an enigma. He was more imp than pooka, and was, at least once, like unto a gremlin that had been fed after midnight. That’s how I remember him. One of our patients at the MVAMC was a guy we called Forrest Gump’s Smarter Brother. Harvey was probably their grandfather.

And I should add this: The female nurses loved him. They thought he was cute.

I probably first met Harvey around the year 2000 or so. He came up the nursing station one day and said, “I want to call my mom. My mom. My mom!”

I took a long look at Harvey and seriously wanted to ask if his mother was still alive, but I asked a different question.

“Do you know her phone number?”

“Yeah. Yeahyeahyeah.”

So I set a phone in front of him, and he dialed a number.

“Hi Mom. It’s me. Harvey.”

I decided to look up Harvey’s contact information in the computer. His mother, Olive, was listed. As near as I could discern from his file, his mother was still alive. She had to be in her nineties.

Harvey had a very nice conversation with someone, and a few hours later, a frail little old lady who smelled of cat urine, walked onto the unit with a man whom, I think, was Harvey’s brother.

They brought in a bag of clothes for Harvey, and his glasses. When Harvey was showered and shaved and wearing his own clothing, he looked like he could’ve been a college professor.

All the female nurses wanted to talk to Olive–they might have seventy year old sons to raise someday, and they wanted all the information they could get about Harvey. I can’t remember what he did for a living anymore–if he ever had a job, or if he was on some sort of disability, or if he had a place to live, or much of anything else about him.

There was a lesson for me to be learned. Just because I didn’t think something could be possible, didn’t mean it wasn’t true.

For example, The Guy Who Knew Milton Berle. His name was Steve. He was a local radio personality/comedian who had relapsed on alcohol. His detox was uneventful, and we were getting him set up with follow up care.

For those of you who don’t know who Uncle Miltie was, he was a comedian, and one of the pioneers of early television. He might have been a pooka, but he stood only five feet ten inches tall, and he wasn’t invisible.

Steve was talking on the phone at the nursing station one Saturday morning, and when he hung up, one of the nurses I was working with asked who he was talking to.

“Milton Berle.” he replied, and all of the nurses started laughing. So Steve went to his room and returned with a photo album that contained dozens of pictures of him with none other than Milton Berle.

Yeah, who’s laughing now, nurses?

The sad fact is most psych patients lie about almost everything, so as a psych nurse, you tend not to believe practically anything they say.

“I’m the hair dresser to the stars.”

“No kidding! If you don’t mind me asking, who are some of your clients?”

“Stevie Nicks. Victoria Principal. Morgan Fairchild.”

“Wow. When was the last time you were in Southern California?”

“I’ve never been there.”

“So, they fly here, to Minnesota, so you can do their hair?”

“Yeah. Pretty much.”

“By the way, I love what you do with Stevie’s hair.”

“Yeah, she’s beautiful. Thanks!”

I met at least two guys who were the hair dresser to the stars, and neither of them had ever been to California. And then there were the guys who were mysteriously drugged at their local watering hole.

“Well, I was at the bar, and then I can’t remember anything. I think they ​slipped me a mickey!”

“Yeah, that’s why I quit going to bars. I got tired of getting drugged, too.”

“See? This guy knows what I’m talking about!”

I always got a kick out of that story. Fictional private detectives from the 1940’s, like Sam Spade and Mike Hammer, were always getting slipped a mickey, but I don’t think it ever consistently happened to anyone in real life. Until Ruffies became popular, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it was mostly girls who were the target of Rohypnol. Even the girls had their tales of misfortune.

“We just discharged you two days ago. Why are you coming back today?”

“Someone on the bus stole all of my meds!”

“Even your Xanax?”

“No, that’s the only thing they didn’t steal!”

“What happened to that?”

“Oh, I accidentally dropped the bottle in the toilet!”

Well, there are a lots of fun filled activities to do on the bus, so it’s easy to see how that could happen…  And toilets clearly can’t be trusted anywhere near controlled substances. But every now and then, you meet someone who actually tells the truth. So, try to remember that.

* * * *

Unfortunately, I don’t have a whole lots of Harvey stories. He was a mostly benign, very quiet guy, who sometimes looked quite professorial.

He did have his Harvey moments. He would randomly bolt down the hallway as fast as could, for no apparent reason. I think that was Harvey. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.

He was one of those guys that randomly uttered words of inestimable profundity, most of which I can’t remember, but he did say this:

“Ooh, shiny!”

It became our catchphrase whenever someone went off on a tangent, or for someone with a short attention span who was easily distracted. Like me.

And then there was Harvey’s hallmark admission. And like so many hallmark moments, it happened in the dark of night.

It was probably around 2005. Harvey had been a patient on my unit a couple of times. None of his admissions had been especially remarkable. We stabilized him and sent him home, or somewhere, until the next time.

On this particular night, it just after midnight. Harvey was admitted once more. We got him changed into VA pajamas and settled into his room by the nursing station. There wasn’t much point in trying to do a thorough admission assessment because Harvey wouldn’t answer any questions, so we got all our information from his old charts and our previous knowledge about Harvey.

Most people admitted in the middle of the night just want to go to bed, but that night, for no apparent reason, Harvey decided to demo his room.

I think he started with the baseboard molding, and ripped it all off of the walls. One of the nurses I was working with asked me what we should do. He wasn’t harming anyone, but he was systematically tearing his room apart.

We tried medicating him with Haldol and Ativan. The meds didn’t touch him.

After he removed all of the baseboards, anything that Harvey could disassemble with his bare hands was fair game. We would check on his progress periodically, and remove all the debris from his room from time to time.

When he started to take his bed apart, we rolled the frame out of his room, leaving the mattress and bedding on the floor. By 5:00 AM, the only thing Harvey hadn’t demolished was the light fixture on the wall where the head of his bed had once been.

Around 5:30 AM, we heard a loud crash. Harvey had somehow ripped the monster light fixture out of the wall, leaving behind a few live electrical wires. We were forced to move him across the hall into one of the seclusion rooms. I can’t remember if we locked him in or not, but we probably gave him another cupful of meds, that would have no more effect than an handful of Tic-tacs. Then I entered a whole lots of work orders into the computer so the maintenance guys would start putting the room back together again.

* * * *

It took the VA Corps of Engineers at least five days to repair what Harvey had done in roughly five hours.

I had at least one day off between getting off of Nights and transitioning to Days. I asked the night nurses how Harvey was doing when I returned to work. He hadn’t demolished anything else, but he hadn’t slept since he was admitted.

I have a couple of clear memories of that day. One, I was assigned to do Meds. Two, it was the first time I met Darrell. He was an LPN, and a new hire. He had never worked in a Psych setting before, and my boss asked me to show him the ropes.

“I’ve been doing this job for a long time. I can play this song in any key. I can tell you how you’re supposed to do this job, or I can tell you how I do it. If you do it my way, you’ll work smarter, not harder.”

“I was hoping I’d meet a nurse like you.” Darrell replied. I was going to like working with this guy.

I spent the first couple of hours explaining my unorthodox philosophy to Darrell, and then I decided to show off a little to the new guy. I pulled Haldol and Ativan from the Pyxis, and told Darrell to follow me. And we went hunting for Harvey. He was standing in the hallway by the dayroom.

“Harvey hasn’t slept since he got here. I’m going to send him to the Land of Nod.” I told Darrell.

“Yeah, the nurses tried like hell to put him down for the count yesterday, but nothing touched him.”

“Hey, little buddy. I’ve got a couple meds for you.” I said, and handed Harvey a med cup with a couple pills, which he readily took. Then we escorted Harvey back ​to his room, and laid him down on his bed.

And I started singing, softly.

“Lullaby, and good night. Go to sleep lit-tle Harvey. Close your eyes, count some sheep, a-and go to fucking sleep…”

I didn’t know many of the actual lyrics, so I kind of made them up on the fly. I sang a few more verses of my impromptu lullaby, and when we tiptoed out of Harvey’s room, he was snoring.

“I don’t know what you just did, but I can’t believe what I just saw.”

“Smarter, not harder.”

“Well, I hope you don’t expect me to sing a lullaby to every one of these guys, because there’s no goddamn way I’m doing that!”

“Nope. It’s probably the only lullaby I’ve ever sung.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, how did you know that would work?”

“I didn’t. It was a gut feeling. Always follow your gut. It’s never wrong.”

* * * *

I know some of the stuff I write is hard to believe, but that actually happened. And as weird as it might sound, I had no doubt my intervention would work. I probably didn’t even need the meds.

However, I didn’t have any qualms about giving them to Harvey. I figured if my lullaby worked, the meds would help him stay asleep, and that’s probably what my little buddy needed more than anything.

Almost every field of Nursing is a science, except Psychiatry. At best, it’s an imprecise science, but it’s mostly an art. Only the really good psych nurses understand this.

The essence of psych nursing is guiding people out of the maze of darkness or whatever else they’ve created inside their minds, and teaching them a few new coping strategies, so they can try to avoid having to repeat it again in the future.

It sounds good in theory, but the reality is the majority of the patients we took care of weren’t all that interested in doing anything different.

You can lead a horse to water…

That part of the job was frustrating, but every now and then, someone would come along, and all they wanted was a second chance. And every now and then, you could sing someone a lullaby.

It was those moments that made the whole thing worthwhile.

In Memoriam

Mother’s Day is almost upon us. I decided I’d try to write about my mom, but it hasn’t been easy. I have a million memories of my mom, but I’m thinking mostly about her death today. She died at the end of this month in 2007, and this year will mark​ ten years since her death.

You’d think this subject would get easier over time. I thought it would, until I started writing about it. I’ve had to chop this into very small bites, with a whole lots of breaks in between. At the rate this is going, I might be finished by Mother’s Day. Next year.

* * * *

It was in October of 2006. I think it was a Friday. I got a phone call at work from my youngest sister, Julie. My work day at the MVAMC was almost over, and I was checking my notes at the nursing station. Our mom had been visiting our oldest sister, Colleen, in Montana. Julie had gone to the airport to pick up our mom, but there was something wrong with our mother.

“She’s really confused and acting strange.” Julie said.

“Is she drunk?” I asked. My mom had been sober for at least ten years, but she could have had a relapse. I did, maybe a month before all of this happened.

“No. She’s just weird. I want to take her to the ER.”

“Do that. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I replied, then called my lovely supermodel wife to let her know we’d be taking an unplanned trip to St Cloud. I’m sure my memories of this are muddled, but I know I had a bad feeling about this situation, and I’m sure I tried to tell Lea that as we raced up Highway 10 to the St Cloud Hospital.

I think this is what I really said.

“My mom has cancer.”

* * * *

I wasn’t an Oncology nurse, or even a Med/Surg nurse. I was a Psych nurse, so you might think I would’ve thought my mom had had a psychotic break, not cancer. And you might wonder how I came up with that diagnosis when it was so far out of my wheelhouse, so to speak.

My mom smoked cigarettes, and she had smoked for something like unto sixty years. You hardly have to be a medical professional to know that smoking is bad for you. And I might be wrong about this, but one of the first major lawsuits against Big Tobacco was filed by a nurse, and in her sworn testimony, she stated she had no idea that smoking was harmful. If that is correct, she has to be the most stupidest fucking douchebag nurse, ever.

I already knew what the ER doc was going to say before I ever saw him. Be that as it may, I have to admit I was stunned to hear his pronouncement when he showed me my mother’s CT scan.

The first stage of the Grief and Loss process is denial…

“You’re the nurse in the family, right? Okay, well, the news I’ve got for you isn’t good. Your mother has lung cancer. She has a nodule in her lung, right there. Normally, we’d need to do a biopsy to be sure, but that’s not all. There’s another one right here, in her liver. Once cancer metastasizes there, well, I probably don’t have to tell you how bad that is. The oncologist can tell you more, but from my experience, your mom has about six months to live. Probably less.”

“What’s causing her confusion?” I asked. I think I saw my mom before I met with the doctor, and my sister wasn’t joking about mom being confused. She didn’t seem to have any idea where she was.

“Oh. That’s from SIADH.” he replied, like I’d know what the hell he was talking about. I didn’t.  So he tried explaining it to me. I tried to comprehend what he said, but even after his explanation, I still didn’t understand what he was saying. I would have to call my nursing buddy, Don Nelson, for some clarification. He had worked in ICU, and he was the only person I could think of who might be able to translate this into understandable terms, but even his explanation left me confused.

If you want to try to understand this, you’re going to have to Google it, and even that may not help. I don’t think it helped me much. This surpassed me, and it confused me almost as much as it did my mom.

Even now, I doubt I’d understand it any better. The only thing I’ve been able to come up with is something like unto this: it’s probably similar to what happens when an elderly person gets an UTI. Somehow, a bladder infection more or less scrambles their brains. Treat the infection, and they’re better in a couple of days. So, I figured that would happen with my mom.

It didn’t.

* * * *

My mom was admitted to the hospital so she could be monitored and treated with Lasix to get rid of some of the excess fluid in her body, and then, hopefully, she’d be less confused. That’s what the nurses said, and they were confident she’d be better in a couple of days.

I can’t remember how many of my siblings were at the hospital that day, but we helped mom get settled into her room. She didn’t seem to be the least bit concerned about being in the hospital. All she cared about was her purse, and going to the bathroom, and the first thing she did once she was in the bathroom was light up a cigarette.

She was so pissed when I took her cigarettes from her and gave them to the nurses, she wouldn’t let me kiss her goodbye.

I probably had to work that weekend. I had every other weekend off, and I know I would’ve been with my mom if I wasn’t working. She was released from the hospital on Sunday. I think Lea and I took another trip to my parents’ house. The Lasix didn’t appear to have made much difference. My mom seemed to be every bit as confused as she had been on Friday.

I have a vague memory of my mother when she returned home. She was sitting on the couch, so I sat down next to her and held her hand. Then I smiled, and said softly, “You realize that you’re fucking up everything, don’t you.”

“Yeah, I probably am. Your father was supposed to die first.”

* * * *

I know my dad asked me to be present when they met with the oncologist. After all, I was a nurse, and if anyone would understand what was going to be said, it was probably me. My dad wasn’t very medically attuned. He rarely listened to his own doctors, so why would he start listening to his wife’s doctor? Plus, my dad was essentially deaf in one ear, and he couldn’t hear so good out of the other one.

The oncologist was a nice guy from India. He outlined his plan of attack, but what surprised me the most was he seemed to think he could save my mother’s life, which I thought was a total crock of shit.

“Your mother needs this treatment, and she’ll get better as long as she stays on it. If she doesn’t agree to the chemo, or if she decides to stop treatment, she’ll be dead in two weeks.” And then he left the room while I discussed the options with my parents.

“Realistically, the best this guy’s gonna be able to do is extend her life for a few months.” I told my mom and dad.

“Well, I’m not ready to let her go.” my dad said.

“I don’t think any of us are ready for that, but it’s not your decision, or my decision. It’s her decision, as long as she understands what she’s doing.” I said, then turned to my mom.  “Mom, do you understand what the doctor said?”

“Yeah, I think so. I have cancer, and I’m going to die.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much it. The only question is, do you want to go through chemo or not. It’ll keep you alive a bit longer, but there are a whole slew of potentially serious side effects from the treatment. This doctor thinks he’s going to cure you, but I don’t think he’s being very realistic. I think the best he’ll be able to do is keep you alive a bit longer, and you might spend most of that time feeling sicker than a dog.”

“But the doctor said he thought he could cure your mother,” my dad said. “And you’re just a psychiatric nurse.”

“Fair enough.” I replied. “But if this guy thinks he’s going to cure Mom, he’s fucking crazy. Mom has metastatic cancer, it’s already in her liver, and God knows where else it’s spread to. This is not going to be a life saving intervention, Dad.” I looked him squarely in the eyes until that sunk in, then turned to my mom. “But it’s your decision, Mom. I hope you can understand your options, and if you do, we’re going to support you, no matter what you decide.”

“What do you think I should do?”

“I can’t advise you what to do.” I replied, and I turned my gaze to the floor. I may have held my breath. She turned to my dad. “What do you think?”

“I don’t want to lose you, ever.”

“Okay. I think I know what I want to do. I’ll try the chemo.”

* * * *

To be honest, I’m not sure if any of that actually happened, other than the visit. I don’t have any clear recollection of the conversations we had. Whatever it was that was actually said, my mom seemed to be able to understand the situation, and she opted for the chemo. That was good enough for me. We called the doctor back into the office and let him know.

* * * *

If you never had the opportunity to meet my mom, you would have loved her. Sally as a good old gal. She’s one of the few people I’ve known that everybody loved. She was smart and sassy, and sharp witted. She was a dynamo, always doing something, always working a project or two.

And then, in seemingly one day, that person vanished, like unto a magic trick gone terribly wrong. The person she once was made sporadic visits over the following months, but those visits were brief. What I remember most was my mom sitting silently on the couch, staring out the window at nothing, or playing with the remote control, flipping through the channels without watching anything.

One of the local hospice programs came over to do an assessment, and they were critical in helping us manage my mother’s care at home. I cannot thank them enough for everything they did for us.

They set up a pain management program for my mom that was miraculously effective. Prior to that, it was a goddamn nightmare. We had to buy a lock box to put her pain meds in, or she would’ve taken all of them at once. The hospice program also set up an adjustable bed in the living room, and that’s where my mom slept. She would fall asleep watching TV, and that was the only time she stopped clicking through the channels.

According to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, there are five stages in the Grief and Loss process. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I know we all got together as a family to discuss what we going to do once we all found out our mom was ruining everything by dying. I didn’t have a lots to say, but I offered a brief rundown of Grief and Loss, and asked everyone to remember that our emotions were going to be all over the map.

“It’s not a linear progression, you bounce back and forth, and it can take a long time to work through.”

As a family, we decided to do whatever we had to to take care of our parents. My mom had taken care of our dad forever. Healthwise, my dad was pretty much a trainwreck, and all of us thought he’d be the first to check out. Even him. There was no way he could suddenly become mom’s caretaker.

We had a meeting in the dining room at our parents’ house to discuss our plan of attack. It led to the most memorable reappearance of ​my mom that I remember during those days. As we were discussing how we were going to care for Mom and Dad, and make sure they could stay in their house, my mom got up from the couch and walked into the dining room.

“If you’re planning on putting me in a nursing home, I’ll kill each and every one of you fuckers!” she said. There was real fire in her eyes.

“Mom, we’re not going to do that. We’re trying to find a way to take care of you here, at home.” everyone replied at once.

“Oh. Well, okay then.” she replied, and returned to staring aimlessly out the window from the couch.

After we all stopped laughing, two of my sisters, Denise and Julie, would walk point, so to speak. They lived the closest to our parents. They would manage everything Monday through Friday. The rest of us would fill in when we could, and on the weekends.

* * * *

Sally would go through two rounds of chemo before she decided enough was enough. It would take seven months for the cancer inside of her to kill her to death, but my mom essentially died in October, leaving a shadow figure of the person she’d once been.

We got to spend one last Thanksgiving together, one last Christmas. One more New Year’s Eve, and we got to celebrate her birthday in February. I wish I could say these were happy, joyous occasions. I don’t remember them that way. I’m not sure anyone in my family does.

My mom was drastically different in personality, and then in physical appearance. The chemo changed her so much. By the time she got dead, she was hardly recognizable as the person I knew as my mom.

It’s beyond ironic. I know people who suddenly lost their mother who wish they would’ve gotten an extra six months of time. For me, I’d probably swap places with them.

* * * *

My mom loved Perry Como. I bought a couple of his CD’s, and played them over and over on the weekends I spent as caregiver in Little Falls. Taking care of my parents wasn’t physically demanding. Our duties as caregivers mostly entailed cleaning the house, doing laundry, and cooking meals–and making sure my mom didn’t accidentally walk out the door and wander off.

As a nurse, I had cared for a lots of patients who were dying, but none of them had been my mom. I had no idea how emotionally exhausting it would be. I remember returning home from those weekends being too exhausted to even cry.

I remember one weekend clearly. I was semi-asleep on the couch. My mom was sound asleep on the hospital bed. It was about 3:00 AM, when I heard this:

“BILLY MAYS HERE, FOR OXICLEAN!” 

I just about had a fucking heart attack. I leapt off the couch, and fumbled around, trying to find my glasses. Once I could see again, I located the remote and turned the TV off.

“Hey!” my mom said, sitting up in bed. “I was watching that!”

* * * *

Times of crisis bring out the best, and worst, in people. And sometimes within five minutes of each other. It’s a good thing I had quit drinking before this happened. Otherwise, my reactions wouldn’t have been pretty…  As it turned out, the collective reactions of my family certainly had their ugly moments.

Watching our mother die took a toll on all of us. My youngest brother, Bob, couldn’t take it, and asked to be taken out of the caregiver rotation. My brother, John, couldn’t even come to grips with the fact that our mom was going to die. I can’t remember if he ever attempted any caregiver roles.

I don’t hold that against him. It wasn’t an easy task. I don’t hold what he couldn’t do against him. It’s what he did, and what he did was criticize everything the rest of us did while he drank himself into an ambulatory coma. I don’t hold his drinking against him. Drinking was pretty much the only coping strategy my family had. There was a whole lots of drinking going on during that time. If I hadn’t quit drinking before my mother died, I might be drinking still.

I remember spending a lots of time trying to reason with my unreasonable brother. And I was not always gracious, nor very professional, in my sometimes not so private interactions with John.

For that, I am eternally embarrassed, and very sorry.

About the time that my mother was dying, my lovely supermodel wife got a job offer in Phoenix, AZ. I encouraged her to accept the offer. If the position worked out, it would be a great opportunity for her. As for me, I needed to get as far away from my brother as I could.

For the longest time, all I wanted to do was kill him.

I’m better now, and I probably won’t kill my brother if I ever see him again. But I’m not going to lie. It’d probably be better if we never saw each other again.

* * * *

My mother endured two rounds of chemo. I think the side effects were worse for her the second time around, maybe. They certainly were for me. My mother no longer resembled herself. She had gained what looked like one hundred pounds on her tiny frame, and her face was bloated. As terrible as this is going to sound, she looked like Jabba the Hutt’s wife.

Her oncologist was right about one thing. She died two weeks after stopping her chemo treatments. Her condition rapidly deteriorated. Lea and I drove up to Little Falls to see her before she died, but she had already slipped into something like unto a coma by the time we arrived.

I held her hand, and told her all the things a mom would want to hear. And then we drove home. And went back to our life, and our respective jobs. And waited.

* * * *

My mother died early in the morning on May 28, 2007. It was the Memorial Day weekend. I worked a twelve hour shift on Friday, a double shift on Saturday and Sunday, and another twelve hours on Monday. I was at work when my dad called at around 5:00 AM.

“I just wanted to let you know your mother is gone. And I knew you’d be awake.”

We talked for a few minutes, there wasn’t a whole lots to say. I wasn’t the only person on my unit that lost someone that weekend. One of the nurses lost her mother-in-law. Another lost her cousin. Bad things happen in threes…

I took a break after talking to my dad. I went outside. The birds were chirping, the sun was starting to come up, a gray-blue light filled the sky. I looked up, and three Canada geese flew overhead. They honked, as if saying goodbye, and disappeared from view.

* * * *

I did my mother’s eulogy. I’m not going to repeat it here, but it was beautiful. Lea and I stayed at the Country Inn Suites in Little Falls. I had a dream about my mom the morning of her funeral.

She was driving our old car, a faded green 1963 Chevy Impala station wagon. My mom learned to drive when we were living in Modesto, CA. She drove that station wagon when we moved from California to North Dakota. When we  arrived in Grand Forks, she handed my dad the keys and never drove again. As the car neared me in my dream, she rolled down the window, and waved as she drove past. And then I woke up.

“Really? That’s how you’re going to say goodbye!” I said to the ceiling of our room. “Couldn’t you have at least stopped? At the very least, couldn’t you have found a nicer car?”

* * * *

It’s been almost ten years. I miss my mom. I’m sure I always will.

Wherever she is, I hope she’s at peace. And I hope she’s driving a better car.

Blogger Vance

I went golfing for the first time in a decade the other day. After I had to take three swings at my ball before I finally hit it on the first tee, I knew why I could take a ten year hiatus from the game and not miss it in the least, which is probably going to sound a little weird because I love the game of golf.

There are a few of reasons why I decided to play golf again. First of all, I have an endless amount of time on my hands now that I’m retired. I have a set of golf clubs, and I already confessed my love of the game.

Most of my irons were my dad’s at one time. I bought his old clubs after he had custom made clubs built. My woods used to belong to Don Nelson. He sold them to me when he upgraded to metal woods. My woods are actually made of wood, not metal. I’ve never liked the sound a metal wood makes when it hits a ball. And I have a random assortment of clubs that I bought at Goodwill for a couple bucks a piece.

One of my former golfing buddies said he had one club in his bag that cost more than all of my clubs combined, plus the clothes I was wearing, and if I ever beat him, he’d beat me to death with his very expensive club.

Given my level of play, I doubt I was ever close to that type of death.

Another reason I took up golf again is there are no bowling alleys in Mexico, not that I’m an avid bowler. There are basically two types of bowlers, the kind who have their own balls and shoes and stuff, and the kind who don’t. Most of the latter probably love bowling. The remainder go bowling in lieu of committing suicide.

I think I’ll kill myself…  Well, I guess I could go bowling…

I probably fall into that spectrum when it comes to bowling.

Golf, on the other hand, is something I love doing even though I suck at it.

* * * *

Golf is a good walk spoiled. Mark Twain may or may not have said that about golf. And for me, the quote has no bearing on my game. I ride in golf cart. Unlike many people who play the game, I’m not interested in exercise or fitness. A guy named Merle Williams is credited with inventing the modern, motorized the golf cart, and all I have to say to Merle is, Thank you!

After some of my drives, I don’t need a cart to transport myself ten feet to hit my ball again. Other times, I need an ATV or a bulldozer, not a cart, to get to my ball. Most of the time, I don’t even bother looking for those balls. I’ve gotten very skilled at taking a stroke and hitting another ball. I have hundreds of golf balls. I’m not afraid to lose one. Or ten. Or twenty.

The game of golf was invented by the Scots back in the 1400’s apparently because living under the repressive rule of the English just wasn’t frustrating enough. And like any sport, the rules of golf have been renovated and modified over the years, not that I’ve ever read them. I’m confident if I ever tried to play golf the way it was intended, I’d never play.

I am a mostly terrible golfer. I have about five good shots a game, and they’re rarely consecutive shots. I rarely play the fairway, but not by design. I think it’d be safe to say that nothing I do on the golf course is by design. When I hit the ball, the best I can do is hope it’ll go in the general direction I want it to. If there is a tree within one hundred yards of my ball, in any direction, I will probably hit it. If there’s a water hazard on the course, I will find it.

There are three skills essential to golf: driving, chipping and putting. I’ve never been very good at any of them. If I’m having decent drives, I can’t chip. And vice versa. My putting skills are somewhere in the abysmal range. I totally suck at putting.

You might then wonder why I play? I certainly do. And the answer to that is simple. It’s my dad’s fault.

My dad was an avid golfer, and he pretty much lived on the local courses around Little Falls. That’s why I started playing. Well, that, and the fact that I could drink beer and smoke cigarettes while I played. Those two things were really the only two things I liked about golf in the beginning.

* * * *

Rannulph Junuh: Now, the question on the table is how drunk is drunk enough? And the answer is that it’s all a matter of brain cells.
Hardy Greaves: Brain cells?

Rannulph Junuh: That’s right, Hardy. You see, every drink of liquor you take kills a thousand brain cells. Now, that doesn’t much matter ’cause we got billions more. And first the sadness cells die so you smile real big. And then the quiet cells go so you just say everything real loud for no reason at all. That’s okay because the stupid cells go next, so everything you say is real smart. And finally, come the memory cells. These are tough sons of bitches to kill.

* * * *

I’m not a great golfer, but I was once a great alcoholic, if that’s an achievement that can be considered great. Like any great alcoholic, I had a plethora of reasons why I drank, and like any haunted human, I had a closet full of ghosts and skeletons and traumas that could only be kept at bay by drinking them into oblivion.

In retrospect, my ghosts had the ​power to terrify me only because I gave them that power. If I only knew then what I know now…  I could tell Rannulph Junuh that it didn’t make any difference how much you drank, you could never kill those memories. Those sons of bitches never die.

* * * *

There was another reason why I decided to start playing golf. It was the only way I could talk to my dad. I wasn’t all that keen to talk to my dad when I was in my teens and twenties. We didn’t have that much in common. And then I married my lovely supermodel wife, and if we didn’t have anything else in common, we were both married men, so there was that.

And there was golf. Golf is a beautifully​ simple, frustratingly​ complex game. Much like bowling, you either love it or hate it. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground when it comes to golf.

I love golf. Golf courses are almost always scenic, green and serene. There might be some competition between players, but it’s essentially you, the course and your skills, or lack thereof, and that’s all. You don’t need anyone to set a screen for you. You don’t need anyone to block a defender.

I know my dad loved the game of golf, but I don’t know if he actually enjoyed playing golf. You wouldn’t know by playing with him. He was intense on the golf course. He rarely displayed that level of intensity anywhere else in his life.

For example, we were golfing at the Little Falls Country Club one summer weekend. My dad hit a shot he wasn’t pleased with, and then he hit the roof.

“Jee-sus Christ! Why in the hell did I ever I ever take up this goddamn game? Son of a bitch! I should take all of my clubs and throw them in the fuckin’ river!”

“Hey, dad. It’s just a game. Lighten up, man. Have a little fun.” I said. That’s more or less my philosophy about golf, among other things.

“Who the hell asked you? Shut the fuck up!”

Clearly, that wasn’t my dad’s philosophy, nor would he ever embrace that kind of attitude. Not when it came to golf anyway.

I played many rounds of golf with my dad. There was a time when I didn’t totally suck at golf, and I merely kind of sucked. I challenged my dad a couple of times, and almost beat him once. It wasn’t until age and poor health had taken away most of his skills that I actually had a lower score than him. But I hardly count that as a win.

On the day I almost beat my dad, I was playing the best round of golf I’d ever played, and my dad was playing one of his worst. I had a two stroke lead heading to the ninth tee.

My drive was right down the middle of the fairway. I had about one hundred yards to the green. All I had to do was chip my ball onto the green, and sink a putt. Even if I two putted the green, I’d still beat my dad. His tee shot was mediocre, and his  second shot landed in a sand trap. I could almost taste victory.

If that was a day that I had temporarily found my swing, I lost it when I tried to chip my ball onto the green. I hit that ball so fat. It didn’t float through the air and drop neatly onto the green. It tore off down the fairway about a foot off the ground, moving at the speed of light.

I knew it was wrong the moment I hit it. I turned to my lovely supermodel wife, and asked if she saw where my shot landed. I knew it wasn’t going to land anywhere near the green.

“It’s still rolling across the parking lot.” she replied. The parking lot was on the far side of the ninth green. “And it just rolled down the hill. That’s where the eighteenth green is, isn’t it?”

Yes. Yes it was. And that’s where my ball ended up, and any chance of ever beating my dad ended. My dad chipped out of the bunker and sank a long putt. I left my ball sitting on the eighteenth green, and shook my dad’s hand. And then we drank a lots of beer, laughed and talked about how I almost beat him.

Almost a decade ago, I golfed with my dad for the last time. He died the following year. I hadn’t been golfing since, and when I went golfing last week, I became acutely aware of his absence, and how much I missed my dad.

And then I hit a tree with one of my many errant shots, and I smiled. My dad would’ve gotten a kick out of that.

* * * *

I talked a lots about going golfing before I retired. People asked what I was going to do after I quit working, and I figured I’d need to do something. Golf seemed like the perfect retirement activity, and a lots of retired guys spend their time on the golf course. My dad did. If he could do it…  And I secretly kind of hoped if I spent enough time hitting a golf ball, I might actually get good at it someday, many years from now. I suppose that’s still theoretically possible.

There have been many movies made about golf. Caddy Shack. Hard to find anyone my age that doesn’t love that movie. There are so many great lines from that movie, and none of them have anything to do with golf, except one.

* * * *

Ty Webb: I’m going to give you a little advice. There’s a force in the universe that makes things happen. And all you have to do is get in touch with it, stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball.

* * * *

Billy Madison. The only thing I like about that movie is the scene where Bob Barker beats the shit out of Adam Sandler. I don’t like Adam Sandler. Or his movies.

The Legend of Bagger Vance. My personal favorite golf movie. It’s a beautifully filmed Zen movie about golf, and the most important thing about being Zen isn’t whether you win or lose, just that you look cool in the attempt.

I am just about the coolest looking golfer you’ve ever seen, until I actually play golf. I have a beautifully smooth swing. You’d think I’d be a much better golfer than I am. I have no real idea what’s wrong with my golf game, other than almost everything. I lift my head, I don’t keep my shoulders square. If I do manage to accomplish those two things, I certainly don’t do either of them consistently. Perhaps, like unto Rannulph Junuh, I just need to find my my swing.

* * * *

Bagger Vance: What I’m talkin’ about is a game… A game that can’t be won, only played…
Rannulph Junuh: You don’t understand…
Bagger Vance: I don’t need to understand… Ain’t a soul on this entire earth ain’t got a burden to carry he don’t understand, you ain’t alone in that… But you been carryin’ this one long enough… Time to go on… lay it down…
Rannulph Junuh: I don’t know how…
Bagger Vance: You got a choice… You can stop… Or you can start…
Rannulph Junuh: Start?
Bagger Vance: Walkin’…
Rannulph Junuh: Where?
Bagger Vance: Right back to where you always been… and then stand there… Still… real still… And remember…
Rannulph Junuh: It’s too long ago…
Bagger Vance: Oh no sir, it was just a moment ago… Time for you to come on out the shadows Junuh… Time for you to choose…
Rannulph Junuh: I can’t…
Bagger Vance: Yes, you can… but you ain’t alone… I”m right here with ya… I’ve been here all along… Now play the game… Your game… The one that only you was meant to play… The one that was given to you when you come into this world… You ready?… Strike that ball, Junuh, don’t hold nothin’ back, give it everything… Now’s the time… Let yourself remember… Remember YOUR swing… That’s right, Junuh, settle yourself… Let’s go… Now is the time, Junuh…
* * * *

The movie is sort of about golf, but it’s mostly a movie about redemption and restoration. Being who I am, I’m pretty much a sucker for stories like that. In my case, I wish golf was an integral part of my recovery process. It might imply some sort of personal proficiency at the game. For that to be true, I most definitely would need a Bagger Vance in my back pocket.

If you didn’t read the book, Bagger Vance, and the story of his legend, are based on the Hindu epic and scriptural poem, the Bhagavad-Gita. In the epic, Bhagavan is the Supreme Personality who helps his follower, Arjuna, understand life.

In the movie, Bagger Vance is a caddy who appears in the middle of the night to help Rannulph Junuh find his golf swing again, right after Junuh agrees to play a golf tournament sponsored by his totally hot former girlfriend. And there was that whole World War I thing, too.

Before the war, Rannulph Junuh was a very good golfer living in Savannah, Georgia. He had a beautiful girlfriend, a life of privilege, and a future that could only be described as bright. After the war, he was a drunken gambler living on the fringes of society. He had no one in his life, and his future could only be described as bleak.

Bagger takes Mr Junuh under his wing for the price of five dollars, guaranteed, and what follows is one of the most beautiful movies ever made. For a caddy, Bagger rarely spoke about golf in golfing terms. He described the game in esoteric terms. “The rhythm of the game is just like the rhythm of life,” he says, and describes the game as one that “can’t be won, only played.”

For me, that is is an undisputed truth. For my dad, it would probably be the biggest crock of shit he’d ever heard. My dad played golf like he was landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Perhaps life was a battle for my dad. I don’t know if anything came easily to him. My dad became a very good golfer not by talent, but by determination, and a ridiculous amount of practice.

See? I told you we didn’t have much in common.

On the other hand, I’ve become the lackadaisical duffer that I am by not applying myself to master the game to any great degree, which I’m afraid is also the way I’ve lived most of my life. Almost everything I’ve ever done came easily to me. The biggest battles in my life were the ones I created.

When I first started playing golf, I was far more interested in keeping my beer cold on the course than I was in the game, and one of the most surreal experiences for me was golfing sober for the first time.

* * * *

Rannulph Junuh: I can win Adele… I can beat both of ’em… Look into my eyes and tell me what you see…
Adele Invergordon: Determination… Pure determination…
Rannulph Junuh: Panic, Adele… Pure panic… I’m eight strokes behind two of the greatest golfers in the sport, they’ve never blown a lead in their lives and I’m gonna win… Ya know why?
Adele Invergordon: Panic?
Rannulph Junuh: That’s right…

* * * *

I’m trying to think of one thing I did once I quit drinking that didn’t evoke a sense of panic inside me. I can’t think of any. Fear can certainly be a great motivator, but it’s hard to even breathe when you’re in panic mode.

Making any great change in your life can be a terrifying prospect, even if it’s a change for the better. And for many, the greatest hurdle to overcome is that fear, that overwhelming sense of panic you feel. Rebuilding your life requires a whole lots of hard work. It’s so much easier to maintain the status quo, however much it sucks, than it is to try something different.

* * * *

Bagger Vance: You wanna quit, Mr. Junuh? You know you can just go ahead and creep off somewhere, I’ll tell folk you took sick… Truth be told, ain’t nobody gonna really object… In fact, they’d probably be happy as bugs in a bake shop to see you pack up and go home…
Rannulph Junuh: You know I can’t quit.
Bagger Vance: I know… Just makin’ sure you know it too…

* * * *

Bagger Vance wasn’t around when I decided to quit drinking. Sobriety wasn’t an easy thing for me to achieve, and I had a major relapse just before I reached one year of sobriety. That had to have been one of the lowest points in my life, and that’s when I realized the full extent of what I was doing, and that it would be a lifelong task.

That’s when I had to make a decision. Was I going to see this through to the end, or would I quit trying and settle for a life I had nothing but loathing for.

Once I was able to see quitting wasn’t a viable option, my path suddenly became clear, and I felt at peace for possibly the first time in my life since I was seven years old.

I live an incredibly idyllic life now. I am truly at peace, and generally at one with the universe. I feel the rhythm of nature, and life, and I am content on level that I never would have dreamed was possible.

* * * *

Bagger Vance: Yep… Inside each and every one of us is one true authentic swing… Somethin’ we was born with… Somethin’ that’s ours and ours alone… Somethin’ that can’t be taught to ya or learned… Somethin’ that got to be remembered… Over time the world can rob us of that swing… It get buried inside us under all our wouldas and couldas and shouldas… Some folk even forget what their swing was like…

Put your eyes on Bobby Jones… Look at his practice swing, almost like he’s searchin’ for something… Then he finds it… Watch how he settle hisself right into the middle of it, feel that focus… He got a lot of shots he could choose from… Duffs and tops and skulls, there’s only ONE shot that’s in perfect harmony with the field… One shot that’s his authentic shot, and that shot is gonna choose him… There’s a perfect shot out there tryin’ to find each and every one of us… All we got to do is get ourselves out of its way, to let it choose us… Can’t see that flag as some dragon you got to slay… You got to look with soft eyes… See the place where the tides and the seasons and the turnin’ of the Earth, all come together… where everything that is, becomes one… You got to seek that place with your soul Junuh… Seek it with your hands, don’t think about it… Feel it… Your hands is wiser than your head ever gonna be… Now I can’t take you there Junuh… Just hopes I can help you find a way… Just you… that ball… that flag… and all you are…

* * * *

I’m not overly anxious about improving my golf skills. I figure I’ll get better if I play more often, and even if I don’t, it won’t be the end of the world. I’ll still love playing golf as much as I ever did. And the world will still be just as beautiful.

Perhaps it will happen this year. I’ll step up to my ball. The leaves in the trees will be dancing on the wind, and laughing​ in the sunshine. The birds will be singing, and then everything will grow quiet. And still.

I will see it, and know it, and there will be no mystery.

I will find my swing, and be the ball. And great things will happen.