For Whom the Bell Tolls, Part III

It was a sad week last week.

It was the eight year anniversary of my father’s death. It was also the eight year anniversary of the death of Lea’s father. He died exactly one month before my dad. Hard to believe that much time has passed by so quickly.

I lost both of my parents in May. My dad at the beginning of the month. My mom at the end of the month. It’ll be twelve years this year.

My mom was diagnosed with cancer in October of 2006. Eight months later she was dead. My dad had suffered from a laundry list of ailments for years. He had stuff standing in line waiting to kill him. In the end, it was his heart. It was the only thing we didn’t expect.

I miss talking to my dad. He was a funny guy. But I miss everything about my mom.

* * * *

If you live long enough, you might reach a point where you have more friends that are dead than living. I might be there right now. It’s hard to say. I have a long list of people I knew who are no longer among the living.

One of my former patients had that happen to her. She had four great female friends. They went to school together. They stayed close even after they all got married, and had kids. And all that stuff.

They had a catchy name for themselves, but I can’t remember it anymore. They had Girl’s Night Out. Girl’s Weekend Getaways. Sometimes they took vacations together to get away from their families and decompress.

“We used to have so much fun together. And then I woke up one day, and I realized that I was the only one left. That was five years ago. I’ve been depressed ever since. Then I started drinking. I hardly leave my house now. That’s why I decided to come to the hospital. I just don’t have the energy to fight it anymore…”

* * * *

Last week, Jim Ryan passed away.

When we came here the first time to visit Phyllis, she introduced us to her circle of friends. From my perspective at the time, she was the common thread, so I called her group The Phyllistines.

There’s another name for the group. The Usual Suspects.

That’s how we met Jim and his wife, Ronni. Well, that’s how we met almost everyone we know here.

Jim was an interesting man. People who knew him better than I did might say he liked to argue. He was an attorney, so it’s what he did for a living. Arguing creates the wrong impression in my mind. Jim liked to debate.

“Hey, I ran into a friend of yours the only day.”

“Really? Which one? I have a lot of friends.”

“He was a short guy. Kinda bald. He had a camera. I think his name was Mark.”

“Yes, I know a guy who matches that description. He’s been over to our house several times. I’ve been to his house a couple of times. But are we friends? That might be open to speculation or interpretation. We don’t really know each other that well, so…  How do you define friendship?”

That conversation is a figment of my imagination, but I know this would have been true: If I somehow found myself in a situation that I couldn’t handle on my own, Jim would’ve been the first person to say, What can I do to help you, my friend.

He had also been a political lobbyist. Unlike me, when Jim talked politics, he knew what he was talking about. He was probably the only man I know that when he talked, I felt I should be taking notes.

Jim was a wise and wonderful man. He loved dogs and children. Anyone who has that on their resumé should get a warm welcome at the Pearly Gates. Jim was incredibly generous, especially when it came to children. He used to buy Christmas presents for all the children at one of the local orphanages every year. He opened the doors to his house and hosted celebrations for everyone in his neighborhood.

Jim’s health started deteriorating about a year and a half ago. He never really fully recovered once that process started, but he didn’t let it stop him. He adjusted and adapted to the things he could no longer do, and kept doing the things that he could.

In true fashion, he was pragmatic about the whole thing.

“Forty is a tough age for men. Lots of us drop dead when we hit forty. If you survive your forties, you’ll probably live to be sixty. That’s another tough age. But if you survive your sixties, you’ll probably live to be eighty. And after that, you’re just living on borrowed time.”

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I think Jim was 79. He knew that his time had come, and chose to exit with grace and dignity. As the song goes, he did it his way.

Vaya con Dios, amigo. Maybe we’ll meet again someday. I’d like that.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

It’s been a quiet week here in the Lakeside area. My golf wife, Phyllis, is in Phoenix, so it’s even quieter than usual. She’ll be back on Friday, so maybe we can get a couple of rounds in before she takes off on her next adventure.

Thank God I have Facebook to keep my life interesting.

One of my real friends is getting married in about a month. She’s been having wedding showers, and she’s really happy and excited! I used to work with her. She was one of the best nurses I ever worked with, but I won’t be going to her wedding. She’s getting married in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, which is almost impossible to get to from where we live in Mexico.

Seriously. If we took the bus, it’d take three days to get there. If we drove, it’d be about a fourteen hour drive. Neither my lovely supermodel wife nor I have any desire to spend that much time in a car on Mexican roads.

The easiest way to get there from here is to fly to Phoenix, then drive back down into Mexico to go to the wedding. Then we’d have to drive back up to Phoenix to fly back to Guadalajara. At any rate, it’s too complicated and too expensive for us this year. I waited until the last possible minute to call her to let her know we weren’t coming. I think she took it better than I did.

Back when I was a nurse, if I needed some extra cash all I had to do was pick up an extra shift or two. Now that I’m retired, I suppose I could pick up an extra shift of doing nothing, but I don’t get paid anything extra for it…

Another one of my real friends just broke off her engagement. I think she found out her fiance cheated on her. On the bright side, I won’t have to call her to tell her I won’t be coming to her wedding…

Yes, it is all about me.

That’s actually kind of funny because this blog is probably the only area in my life where my opinion is actually a factor.

Two of my virtual friends are traveling in Africa. One is in Nigeria, the other is in Ghana. Well, they were my virtual friends. They asked me to send them money, and I had to say no to them. I did what any good virtual friend would do, and wished them the best of success. And I added I’d say a prayer for them. Neither of them were very pleased with my response, so I suggested they learn how to speak Swahili.

I haven’t heard from either of them since.

One of my virtual friends is a nursing student who was possibly being evicted from her apartment. She also wanted money from me, and I haven’t heard from her either ever since I told her no.

One of my virtual friends is working in the Ukraine. His wife died from cancer, and his daughter is in school in England. We probably aren’t virtual friends anymore either because he wanted me to buy him an iTunes card so he could talk to his daughter, and I don’t do that either.

Why not? You can buy them at any store all over the world! he replied. So I pointed out to him there were probably a lots of stores in the Ukraine. He could buy one himself.

I’m pretty much immune to these kinds of requests from people I don’t actually know. I was a psych nurse. I’ve heard every sob story known to man. And woman. Twice. And there was a very interesting thing I learned about people. People lie, or at the very least, distort the truth all the time.

As a result, I tend not to believe anything my virtual friends tell me until it can be corroborated by a second party. We used to do that all the time in Psychiatry. We were like unto cops. We would call family members, employers, landlords, roommates… Seeing how I can’t easily do that now, I’m probably not a very good virtual friend to have if you actually need any help.

Another one of my virtual friends got dead. She was about ten years younger than me. She has a daughter who is probably twelve or thirteen years old. Alicia worked at a healthcare facility on an Indian reservation in Montana. She was being treated for a heart condition, and had been posting about all of her frustrations regarding her treatment and how lousy she felt, and how she just wanted to feel better and live her life again.

Vaya con Dios, Alicia. I hope you’re finally at peace.

* * * *

We put our kit-ten down a couple of weeks ago. Her advanced age finally caught up with her, so we asked Dr Betty if she would make a house call. We didn’t want to put Samantha through any more stress than necessary. Dr Betty graciously agreed.

That was a very sad day.

I think we’re getting used to the fact that we don’t have a kit-ten anymore. I cleared out Sam’s office, removing her litter box, food bowls and water fountain. But we still look for her, and Lea misses her, especially at night.

Like a lots of cats, Sam slept in our bed. She would cuddle up next to Lea and rest her head on Lea’s arm like unto a pillow. She would purr contentedly and they would sleep like that all night.

Back when Lea used to travel for work, Sam would sleep in bed with me, but she never rested her head on my arm. We were friends, but we weren’t that close.

I sat on the couch next to wife the other day. I hadn’t done that since we moved to Mexico. Sam had essentially claimed the other cushion of the sofa as hers. Maybe one of these days I’ll remember there’s no longer a cat sleeping on the couch and sit there again someday.

We won’t have to share our food with the cat anymore, and Lea won’t have to wonder if what she’s cooking is something kit-tens will like. We won’t have to make sure we bring something home for Sam if we go out to eat.

We’ve talked about getting another cat. Lea even went to the Cat Orphanage in Ajijic last week to look at cats. She’s not ready for another kit-ten yet. Probably later this year, maybe in October. That’s my prediction.

* * * *

I know I react differently to death than normal people do. Part of the reason for that is what I did for a living. Nurses have to deal with death more frequently than most people do on a daily basis.

Yeah, you kind of get used to it in a way.

This is not to say that I haven’t been deeply affected by losing someone in my life. I have been a total emotional basketcase because of a loss for extended periods of time. Like, you know, a decade or more. The extravagance of my reactions has given me reason to question my sanity more than once.

Another part of the reason is my Christian beliefs. If we’re all going to resurrected someday, then I’ll see all of my dead family members and friends again eventually. And then I can tell them how pissed I was at them for dying. In all honesty, I still want to kick my mom’s ass for dying the way she did.

But mostly, I think it’s the whole grieving process. I fucking hate it. And that’s the most honest reason I can give you.

I’m not comfortable feeling uncomfortable. It just doesn’t work for me anymore. I’m not sure if it ever worked for me, but I know enough about me to know I’m a total wuss when it comes to being overly emotional about…anything. I can work through all five steps in the Grief and Loss process in about twenty minutes. And then I’m done.

Be that as it may, I still miss Samantha. I see her sometimes out of the corner of my eye. But it’s not her. It’s something else, and that sucks.

Last night when we were going to bed, I turned off the lights in the living room. And I found myself in front of Sam’s cushion on the couch. I reached down to pet her, and there she was, lifting her head, craning her neck so I would scratch the right part of her ears. And she purred contentedly.

She seemed to be happy and healthy once more. That made me smile.

Vaya con Dios, Samantha Rachel. You really were the best kit-ten buddy ever. I hope there are a lots of lizards to chase in Kit-ten Heaven. And maybe I’ll see you again someday, too.

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It’s been cold here in the Lakeside area this week. And for those of you who live in Northern climes, I get it. This isn’t really cold. -30°F. That’s cold!

But cold is a relative term, and 57°F with overcast skies and a cool wind down here feels like the onset of the next Ice Age. The Mexican locals dress like Minnesotans in January. Big down-filled parkas. Winter hats and caps. Scarves wrapped around their faces. Gloves. And if you ask them, they will tell you they’re fucking freezing to death.

Ten years in Phoenix has effected the way my body reacts to and adjusts to the weather. I haven’t broken out my winter parka and scarf yet, but my reaction for the last couple of days has been to turn on the gas fireplace, camp out in the living room, and try to stay warm.

That’s not entirely true. I went golfing on Monday with my golf wife. Phyllis and I decided we don’t need wind and cold to impact our game. We’re bad enough on good days. And I went to my golf lesson with Tom yesterday. It was even colder and windier, and even less fun.

It’s supposed to be back up in the 70’s next week, and that will be a welcome change. And everyone can talk about how they survived the Winter from Hell in Ajijic. According to people in the know, this has been the coldest winter in recorded history in the Lakeside area.

* * * *

Euthanasia is one of those words that doesn’t mean anything close to the way it sounds. It sounds like you’re talking about children in China. Or anywhere else in the Oriental East.

Just in cases you don’t know what euthanasia means, here’s the definition: Euthanasia (from Greek: εὐθανασία; “good death”: εὖ, eu; “well” or “good” – θάνατος, thanatos; “death”) is the practice of intentionally ending a life to relieve pain and suffering.

It’s kind of like the Spanish word disfruta. In English, the prefix dis is associated with bad things. Dis-ease. Dis-tress. In English slang, if you diss someone, you’re saying not very good things about them.

In Spanish, the word for fruit is fruta. So if you try to Spanglish the hell out of the word disfruta you come up with bad fruit. And you’d be totally wrong because it means enjoy. 

Yeah, go figure.

You might be wondering where I’m going with this. Given my style, that’s a good question to ask. The central figure in the beginning of this story is our very old kit-ten, Samantha. Sam is going to be twenty years old in April. We’ve had Sam in our house for roughly one-third of our lives. She has survived three moves with us.

Like unto most any creature of advanced age, Sam isn’t doing as good as she did when she was younger. She used to run and frolic and hunt lizards. Now, she mostly sleeps and eats, and goes back to sleep. She had a couple of days when she couldn’t keep food or  water down, and that was very disconcerting. She has arthritis in her hips, and when she moves she does so slowly and deliberately.

I’m not sure, but I think she’s developed a cataract in her right eye, and she’s probably developing some degree of deafness as well. Maybe she can still hear as well as she ever did, but she simply cares less about what people are saying.

Who knows? She’s a cat, and cats are, well, mystical.

I don’t know if it’s her limited mobility, or possible vision problems, or something else entirely; but Sam has developed some issues when she uses the litter box over the last month or so. The biggest problem is she doesn’t appear to be actually using her litter box. I think she’s still trying, but she’s developed some serious accuracy problems.

I have a couple of plastic mats in front of the litter box that generally gather and corral her errant urine, and we have ceramic tile floors, so clean up is a breeze. I used to be a nurse. I’ve cleaned up a lots of urine and other body fluids in my lifetime. Still, it’s not a task I can say I relish doing, no matter how much I love our kit-ten.

As a result, my lovely supermodel wife and I have had several End of Life conversations about her beloved kit-ten. These are not easy conversations. Lea really loves her kit-ten, and she always starts crying. I really hate seeing her cry. We’ve had to say farewell to other kit-tens, and those were painful events.

When the day finally comes that we have to put our kit-ten down, that will be a very sad day in our household. On the bright side, that day will not be today. Sam only vomitated once today. She’s still having trouble in the litter box, and I’ve come to the conclusion that’s probably not going to get any better, not that any of her other problems are likely to improve either…

I think Lea has decided to take Sam to our veterinarian, Dr Betty, tomorrow to get her opinion on Sam. Dr Betty is a cute young Mexican woman. She looks like she’s thirteen years old, and barely stands five feet tall. I like standing near her because even I look like a giant compared to her. I’m going to go to the vet, too. Just in cases…

* * * *

When it comes to End of Life decisions, we have much better options with our pets than we have with ourselves. Lea and I have had this conversation, and several variations on it a few times. We’re not interested in the quantity of our lives, only the quality. Lea has often told me she doesn’t care about living to be one hundred. I’m not sure I’ve told her this, but there are days when I’m not sure I want to live another ten years.

You might think that odd, seeing how I’m retired and living in paradise with a supermodel, but it’s a vast improvement over the days when I did didn’t want to live another ten minutes.

Living Wills and Advanced Directives are legal documents where you can outline what types of medical treatments and interventions you would like in the event that you become incapacitated and can’t tell anyone that you don’t want to be placed on a respirator. Or that you don’t want any heroic measures taken to save your life.

My lovely supermodel wife and I have Living Wills in both the US and in Mexico. All we want is comfort meds to control pain. And that’s it. No CPR. No intubation. Nothing. Nada.

But you can’t request that a lethal combination of drugs be given to you when the quantity of your life exceeds the quality of it. And that’s where our pets have us beat all to hell. Their lives can be ended for humane reasons.

When it comes to our pets, we have the option of essentially putting them out of their misery and ending their suffering, an option that we, as people, do not have.

Pets can be euthanized.

* * * *

My youngest daughter, Abigail, once told me a story about her friend and his hamster. The average lifespan of a hamster is somewhere around two years, give or take six months to a year. So I’m guessing Herbie the hamster was around two years old, roughly, when her friend approached his dad one Sunday morning. And for some context, the kid was probably nine years old.

“Dad, something’s wrong with Herbie! We have to take him to the vet right away!”

Well,  it was only a hamster…  I mean, who takes a hamster to the vet? Hamsters are like unto goldfish, with fur. When they die, you flush the old one down the toilet and you buy a new one. And it was Sunday. The Vikings game was going to start any minute.

So dad did some quick thinking and explained the concept of Life and Death to his son, and the fact that the veterinarian’s office was closed, and emergency veterinarian services are very expensive.

“I think we need to do the humane thing, son.”

The humane thing dad came up with was gassing his son’s hamster. He pulled a kettle out of the cupboard, blew out the pilot light on one side of the stove top, placed Herbie under the kettle on one of the unlit burners, and turned on the gas.

“Are you sure Herbie’s not going to suffer?” the kid asked.

“No, he won’t suffer. In fact, this is how the vet would do it…” And he went into a detailed explanation of oxygen, carbon monoxide, hemoglobin and maybe even Krebs Cycle. That last part is something I vaguely remember from nursing school. It might have something to do with this topic, but don’t quote me on that.

Dad might have had the right idea to humanely terminate Herbie. He might have even been incredibly kind while he carefully described how death in the absence of oxygen occurs. But he was very stupid about one thing.

He forgot to blow out the pilot light on the other side of the stove top.

So, while dad was patiently and compassionately going through his explanation, gas fumes were traveling across the top of the stove to the burning pilot light. When they became concentrated enough…

You know what happens when propane gas fumes hit an open flame, don’t you?

There was a small explosion on the stove top. The kettle flew to the ceiling with a BANG! then clattered across the floor, followed by the shape of a hamster with patches of fur on fire flying through the air. Herbie the Flaming Hamster landed on the floor right in front of dear old dad, and he did what any guy would do when he sees a hamster on fire on his kitchen floor.

He stomped on the hamster.

Well, that reflexive reaction put the flames out. It also killed Herbie, if he hadn’t already died to death from being old, then gassed, kind of exploded, and sort of set on fire.

Okay. This might not be the best example of humane euthanasia for a pet. However, I thought this was one of the funniest true stories I’ve ever heard in my life, and it popped into my mind as I was writing.

I tend to go where my Muse takes me when I write. This is probably the only story I’ve written lately that I’ve given any thought to for more than half an hour, actually giving my Muse an opportunity for input. I should probably be more mindful when I write. A couple of my latest posts are incomplete because I forgot to write half the things I wanted to. Maybe I’ll go back and finish them someday…

I can only speak for myself, but I like the results much better when I listen to my Muse. Or Muses. Seeing how this may turn out to be tragic, Melpomene will be involved. But it’s also kind of funny, so let’s give Thalia a warm round of applause.

* * * *

If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that I have wanted to be a prophet for quite some time. And you also know it’s something I’ve essentially failed to achieve. So I doubt that I could predict the exact circumstances surrounding my death even if I wanted to.

Be that as it may, it doesn’t stop me from speculating about them.

I used to read the obituaries when I was a psych nurse, mostly to see if any of my former patients had died. Especially the ones I didn’t like very much.

There were a lots of people that died from an “unexpected heart attack.” Does anyone ever expect to die from a heart attack on any given day? And if you expected a heart attack, wouldn’t you do something to prevent it?

“Hey! Do you want to go golfing?”

“Okay, but we better go early. I’m planning on having a heart attack around two o’clock today…”

A lots of people died after a “courageous battle with cancer.” You won’t be able to say that about me. Nope. That sonuvabitch pretty much gave up when he found out he had cancer, and just surrendered to his fate. No chemo. No radiation. No surgery. He just wanted morphine.

In the event that the quality of my diminishes greatly before the quantity of it does, I’ve come up with a scenario to effect an humane end for my life. It involves my two darling daughters, Gwendolyn and Abigail, and a dog costume. And it goes something like unto this:

Gwen and Abi will come down here to Mexico, dress me in the dog costume, then take me to the veterinarian’s office.

“Buenos dias, I’m Doctor Ramirez. How can I help you ladies today?”

Abi: “It’s our dad, I mean, dog.”

Gwen: “Yes. Our dog is very old, and he’s in a lot of pain. He needs to be put down.”

Abi: “We thought about doing it ourselves, but I don’t think the stove top is big enough.”

Gwen: “And we don’t have a kettle big enough.”

Abi: “And we might accidentally blow up the house.”

Gwen: “And we really don’t want to do that…”

Abi: “It’s a rental house. The landlord probably wouldn’t appreciate that.”

Dr Ramirez: “I see, I think. How old is your dog?”

Abi: “He’s, like, eighty…”

Gwen: “In dog years.”

Dr Ramirez: “Yes, of course. He is old, then. What sort of symptoms is he having?”

Abi: “Well, he isn’t eating.”

Gwen: “He mostly sleeps a lot. And he’s incontinent. Can dogs be incontinent?”

Abi: “He doesn’t enjoy any of the things he used to do anymore. He doesn’t even watch football.”

Dr Ramirez: “Your dog watches football?”

Abi: “He used to watch it…with our dad…”

Gwen: “Back when he watched football. They did a lot of stuff together.”

Dr Ramirez: “Okay, can I see your dog? This doesn’t look like a dog! This looks like a man in a dog costume!”

Abi and Gwen: “No! He’s really a dog! He’s really old! And sick. He used to look better when he was younger! He really did!”

Abi: “And he spent so much time with our dad, they kind of started looking like each other, maybe.”

Dr Ramirez: “Well, yes. I have seen this before. Dogs and their owners can be very similar sometimes…  What’s your…dog’s…name?

Abi and Gwen: “Mark.”

Dr Ramirez: “This is a very strange name for a dog.”

Abi: “Well, he…has a cleft palate!”

Gwen: “Yes! And that’s the noise he made when he barked!”

Abi: “So that’s what we called him. Back when he used to bark…”

Gwen: “Yeah, he doesn’t even enjoy barking anymore.”

Abi: “He’s really old, and sick.”

Dr Ramirez: “Yes, and he needs to be put down. I get it. What kind of…dog…is he? I’ve been a vet for thirty years, and I have never seen a dog like this before.”

Abi: “Well, he’s Irish, so maybe Irish Setter?”

Dr Ramirez: “That is not an Irish Setter, I can assure you.”

Gwen: “No, he’s more of a mixed breed, right? He isn’t very big, so maybe he’s more of a Cocker Spaniel…”

Abi: “Those weiner dogs are short, too. Maybe he’s part weiner dog…”

Gwen: “Labrador?”

Abi: “Beagle?”

Gwen: “Collie?”

Abi: “Poodle?”

Gwen and Dr Ramirez: “What?!?”

Abi: “Well, everything is part poodle now, right?”

Gwen: “So, he’s an Irishcockerweiner…labra-boodle.”

Abi: “Probably.”

Dr Ramirez: “Okay! Let’s go into the exam room.”

Abi: “Come on, daddy, I mean, doggie. Get up on the table!”

Gwen: “You can do it, dad! I mean, boy. Good boy!”

Abi: “Oh! And he used to be an alcoholic, so you might have to double the meds when you put him down.”

Gwen: “Yes! He might have a greater tolerance! We don’t want to take any chances.”

Dr Ramirez: “Your dog…was an alcoholic?”

Abi: “Well, kind of…”

Gwen: “Um, yeah. He used to drink beer with our dad…”

Abi: “And watch football.”

Gwen: “You know, before he became old.”

Abi: “And sick.”

Gwen: “And stuff.”

Abi: “Okay. Let’s get this over with. Goodbye, da–doggie.”

Gwen: “Goodbye! We love you and we’ll miss you!”

Abi: “You were the best Irishcocker–  Oh, fuck it! You were the best golldarn dog we ever had. Vaya con Dios!

* * * *

And that’s how I’d like to go. As if I were in a skit by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It would only be fitting.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Part II

Two people I know, or knew, have died in less than a week. There’s a saying that these things tend to happen in threes, so I’m almost afraid to breathe right now. If that’s true, there’s one more to go…

On Saturday, I found out my cousin, Jimmy Clark, had been killed to death. He had been hit by a car while crossing the street in Rapid City, SD. He was 64 years old.

But getting hit by a car? Cancer, I get that. Heart attack or a stroke, I’d understand those. Getting hit by a car, in Rapid City? That just seems to be the most unlikely way a person can get dead.

I guess they knew what they were talking about when they told us to look both ways before we crossed the street when we were kids.

Jimmy had a great sense of humor. I’m sure he’d see the irony in that if he were still alive to talk about it. And then he’d laugh. He had just about the greatest laugh of anyone I’ve ever known.

Jimmy’s family lived in Wall, SD. It’s arguably the most famous town in the US with a population of less than one thousand people. And its’ notoriety has everything to do with an advertising gimmick, and one small pharmacy.

Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Wall Drug?

Wall Drug hasn’t always been world famous, but it started becoming famous because of a billboard sign campaign advertising free ice water to tourists heading to Mount Rushmore. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I think it was Jimmy who told me there were two kinds of people in Wall. Tourists, and people who hate tourists.

The once humble pharmacy is now a tourist magnet drawing in a couple of million people a year. The drug store has become a mall that includes a cowboy department store, an art museum and a chapel, I think. It’s been a while since I’ve been there. In fact, I’m not sure there’s even a drug store there anymore.

Wall is pretty much in the middle of fucking nowhere, South Dakota. It’s on the edge of the Badlands, and if there was ever an apt name for a terrain, that’s a good one.

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, I just saved a couple of dozen paragraphs trying to describe the Badlands. It’s a wild land that has been shaped by wind and water for centuries. Not much of anything grows there, meaning not much of anything can live there. And that’s where my family would go every year or two when my dad wanted to see his sister.

When we were kids, we’d play King of the Hill in the Badlands with our cousins while our parents sat around the kitchen table drinking a lots of highballs, smoking cigarettes, and laughing their asses off. The hell with Disneyland®. When I was a kid, Wall, SD was the happiest place on Earth.

I was always sad when we had to leave Wall and head back to wherever we were living. And once I grew up, I lost contact with my cousins. Its probably been over thirty years since the last time I saw Jimmy. Maybe longer.

Vaya con Dios, primo. The world will be a sadder place without you. With your passing, I think I become the oldest male on the paternal side of our family. Another reason I’m afraid to breathe. I might be next.

* * * *

The other person I knew was one of my virtual friends. We had never met in person, and now, we never will.

Mercedes was young. And pretty. She was from Canadia. Facebook suggested I send her a friend request, and she accepted. I liked her posts. She seemed to have a lots of energy, and she posted a lots of photos of herself smiling as she traveled around the Great White North. She had a pretty smile.

One of her posts was different from all her other posts. No pictures. No smiles. She stated she was fighting a battle against depression. She said she was okay. She had a lots of friends and family, and was taking antidepressants. She was going to be okay. She just needed some prayers and support.

That was about a month ago, maybe two. I told her I would say a prayer for her, and I offered my services, such as I could. After that, her posts always showed her smiling, apparently having a great time and enjoying her life.

Someone who probably knew her in person posted an update about her for all of her virtual friends today. She was found dead yesterday from an apparent overdose. She was 23.

* * * *

It’s hard to end on a high note when you’re writing about a topic like unto this. Death will come for us all, soon or late. But twenty-three is too goddamn young to die, and it’s even worse when the cause of death is suicide.

Please, think twice before you chose that as a final option. There is help available. All you have to do is ask. I know it’s hard, but do it anyway. It’s only by doing the hard things that you can truly grow.

And look both ways when you cross the street.

Viva Las Vegas

I love Las Vegas. My lovely supermodel wife and I have been there several times, and we’ve always had a blast. We don’t go there to gamble. And now that I’ve quit drinking, we don’t go there to party. We like staying in the luxurious hotels. We love the shows, and fine dining, and the people watching.

But the other day, something happened in Vegas that didn’t stay in Vegas.

Dear God, where were you that day? There are a whole lots of hurting people down here who could have really used your help and protection.

On the offhand chance you haven’t seen the news, a lone gunman opened fire on a crowd of people attending a concert in Las Vegas with multiple automatic weapons, killing over fifty people and wounding something like unto five hundred.

And while we are left feeling stunned and shocked, and filled with dismay; there’s one thing none of us are.

Surprised.

It’s a sad fact of our lives that these occurrences have become all too commonplace. If a mass shooting can be described as four or more people, do you have any idea how many of those have happened in the last ten years? I don’t know the exact number, but I know there have been hundreds of them.

Hundreds. Let that sink in for a moment.

And the even sadder fact is almost all of us have come to believe that nothing can be done to change it. I am one of those people. And there’s a reason for that. The most obvious solution to this problem is the hands of our elected officials in Congress.

Need I say more?

It’s a gun issue! No, it’s a mental health issue!

Both of those arguments have merit, but the solution, if there is one, is hardly that black and white. So let’s take a look at them.

* * * *

It’s a gun issue.

We need better gun control.

That seems like the most obvious solution, doesn’t it? But there’s that whole Second Amendment thing. And the icing on that cake is the NRA. There are many powerful lobbyist organizations at work in America, but not many of the them have the political clout and power of the NRA.

What seems to be missing in this issue is another inalienable right, and that is all about not having to live in fear that you might got dead going to the movies, or to a concert, or going out to dinner.

If there weren’t a multitude of reasons for term limits in Congress, this issue in and of itself should be enough to mandate its implementation.

Guns don’t kill people!

Oh yes, Virginia, yes they do. And in the violent country of my birth, they kill a lots of people on a daily basis.

Personally, I’m not sure gun control is the only answer, and I don’t own a single gun. I know a lots of people who do, and none of them have killed so much as one person. And that’s true for the majority of gun owners. If this were strictly a gun issue, the gun owners living in an area as small as Northern Idaho could’ve killed everyone in the US already, twice.

That said, I can’t think of any reason why anyone would need to own an automatic assault weapon unless they needed to kill a whole lots of people to death at once in a very short amount of time. Without the arsenal he had, the guy in Las Vegas would’ve been hard pressed to kill even one person attending the concert from where he was.

Should there be a ban on the sale of assault weapons in the the United States? In my opinion, yes there should be. Will that be enough to stem the tide of future occurrences like what just happened in Las Vegas?

Good question. Let’s find out.

* * * *

It’s a mental health issue. 

I used to be a psych nurse, and this argument pisses me off so much I want to kill someone. If it’s only the crazy people killing everyone else to death, then working in Psychiatry would be the most dangerous job on the planet, and pysch nurses would have gone extinct years ago.

Most of the craziest people I’ve known have been too disorganized to figure out how to turn on the fucking shower, let alone plan and carry out a massacre of dozens of people.

There’s a whole lots of people working in law enforcement right now who are trying to figure out why the shooter in Las Vegas did what he did. Why don’t we ask him?

Oh. That’s right. He’s dead.

And that’s what has happened to almost every person who has chosen to take this course of action, so we’re never going to know exactly why he, or any of them, did what they did.

Was he mentally unstable? We’d certainly like to think so. Sane people don’t do these kinds of things, do they? No, they most certainly don’t! When trying to put the pieces of an investigation like unto this together, law enforcement officials generally find out the person they’re investigating is:

Well, he was a quiet guy. He kept to himself. He seemed like a normal person, you know. He liked to eat pizza. And burritos. No, he never said anything about wanting to kill anyone. I didn’t know he even owned a gun…

In other words, there were no warning signs, nothing that even hinted at any danger. In general, most mass murderers don’t seem to be anything beyond nondescript, until they do something that isn’t nondescript. It’s too bad because they’d be a whole lots more easier to stop if they were more up front about their intentions.

Oh yeah, he was always talking about killing people. In fact, that’s just about the only thing he talked about.

And did you take any actions to stop him?

We sure did! We got rid of all the hammers! And his mother hid the cheese grater in her underwear drawer in the bedroom!

For some reason, that part about the cheese grater seems to be something that actually happened with one of my former patients, but I might be wrong about that…

I have a theory about why people decide to kill a whole lots of people to death before they kill themselves, and Andy Warhol summed it up when he said, “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.”

We can’t all be Paris Hilton or one of the Kardashians…

Let’s suppose for a moment this actually is a mental health issue. What are we as a society doing to combat this crisis? Has there been an increase in resources to provide better care?

Um, no.

In fact, Congress has been trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And if you follow that logic, it’s probably because the NRA told them to do it.

* * * *

I felt like dying yesterday. If my lovely supermodel wife’s birthday wasn’t today, I would’ve been happy to check out, but that probably would’ve ruined her birthday today, so I’m glad to still be alive and be together with her.

The horrifying events that happened in Las Vegas will fade from our memories, and in a few months we’ll probably be collectively shocked and dismayed by another equally terrible and senseless event.

And nothing will be done to prevent it from happening again.

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.

The Long and Winding Road

I come from a big family. Two parents, Les and Sally Rowen. Four brothers, three sisters.

ColleenMarkJohnTomDeniseBruceBobJulie. My dad would say that when he was talking to one us and he couldn’t remember which one of us he was talking to. That happened more often than you might think. My dad seemed to be in a perpetual state of confusion when we were growing up.

One my younger brothers had a friend sleep over on a Friday night. We were eating breakfast in the kitchen the next morning when my dad walked into the kitchen looking like unto a bear that had just awakened from hibernation.

“Are you one of mine?” he grumbled at the kid, who froze, with a Cheerio hanging from his lower lip. The kid shook his quickly. “Okay. Real good then.” my dad said in relief, and poured a cup of coffee. “You had me scared there for a minute.”

My dad had worked for the ICBM Defense Program for most of my childhood. We moved roughly every two years from the time I started grade school until I was in the eighth grade. In 1968, my dad quit working for the missle guys, and we moved to Missoula, MT  My dad said we were going to live in Missoula for the rest of our lives.

We had all  heard that line before, many times. I doubt any of us believed it, including my mother. But two years came and went, and we didn’t move. And then another two years passed, and we were still in Missoula in 1972.

What do you know? Miracles do happen.

My sister Colleen is three years older than me. My brother that got dead from SIDS was born and died in between us. I think Colleen had graduated from high school 1971, but that’s where she met Rod Sanderson.

Rod was a year older than Colleen, and like unto a lots of guys, he fell in love with my sister the moment he saw her. Back in the day, Colleen was what was referred to as a stone cold fox. She was maybe 5′ 4″ tall, long light brown hair, and according to all my classmates, she looked like an angel. Actually, all of sisters are very attractive, except when they’re pissed off. Then they’re fucking scary. Real scary.

Colleen used to drop me off at school in the morning, and some of the guys in my class would hang around the front of the school, hoping to get a glimpse of her, or if God was truly benevolent, a word or two with her. All of my friends were in love with my sister, but she wasn’t interested in any of them. She already had a boyfriend.

Rod was an okay guy, I guess. He was the baby of his family, and I don’t know if spoiled is the correct term to describe him, but it’s the best term I can think of. If there was an easy way out of something that Rod didn’t want to do, he would find it. That didn’t make him a bad guy, but it hardly made him a stellar role model.

Rod’s parents, Vern and Jackie, doted on their only son. Like me, he had an older sister, but I didn’t really know her. Rod lacked nothing when he was growing up, and Rod liked toys. So, when he got older and his parents stopped buying him toys, if he saw something he liked, he bought it whether he could afford it or not.

All of Rod’s friends had hot muscle cars. Rod bought a Fastback Boss 302 Mustang. Dark blue. It was a beautiful car. He liked to hunt, and bought himself an arsenal of guns and rifles. And he bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

It wasn’t a big old good one kind of Harley hog, it was a 300 cc bike. As far as Harleys go, it wasn’t much of a street cruiser, but it was a street bike. Rod used it to cruise the backroads in the mountains to scout for good areas to shoot deer and elk and stuff. And he bought my sister an 80 cc Yamaha so she could ride the backroads with him. That was nice, but my sister didn’t really care for it much, and rarely rode it, but I loved it. Rod and I probably bonded riding the mountain roads outside of Missoula.

I know he also bought helmets, but we never used them.

Helmets were for fuckin’ sissies.

* * * *

Rod might have been a poser/wannabe all around he-man outdoorsman kind of guy, but his dad was the real deal. Vern was nothing short of legendary in certain circles. He was a hunter/fisherman/guide kind of guy. He had a lots of firearms and a whole lots of rods and reels and fishing tackle. And a boat.

Vern had a garage full of tools, and he knew how to use them all. He was a woodworker/carpenter.  He was a stonemason and a bricklayer. He was a plumber and an electrician.

Vern was essentially the opposite of my dad. Les didn’t hunt or fish. He wasn’t an outdoorsman. He probably would’ve gotten lost in our huge backyard if it hadn’t been fenced in. Les wasn’t an handy man. He had maybe seven tools, and he didn’t know how to use any of them.

Be that as it may, as Colleen and Rod’s relationship progressed, so did their relationship with each other’s family, and Vern and Les became pretty good drinking buddies. It was probably the only thing that they had in common.

Well, and they both loved Colleen. Seriously. I think Vern once asked Colleen what she saw in his deadbeat son.

Because she was the oldest daughter in my family, and the first girl to start dating, my dad spent a fair amount of time threatening to kill Rod to death for a list of infractions both real and imagined.

Getting drunk with his buddies. Getting my sister drunk. Getting me drunk. Bringing my sister home late. Bringing my drunk sister home late then passing out in his car in the driveway.

Rod eventually gave my dad a nickname: Ornery. And despite the fact that my dad did everything he could to make Rod’s life a living hell, Rod asked Colleen to marry him. And she said Yes!

* * * *

That’s probably enough of the backstory leading up the events that were about to unravel.

It was the Memorial Day weekend in 1972. Saturday, May 27th, to be precise. I had just completed my sophomore year of high school. I was sixteen years old, and I had just started working at the Go West Drive In.

My family went to a state park a few hours out of town to celebrate the holiday weekend. My mom cooked enough food and made enough sandwiches to feed an army. We were joined there by Rod and his parents. Vern had brought the motorcycles along in the back of his truck.

You never know, they might be fun, he said. And because Vern was anything but a fuckin’ sissy, he didn’t bring the helmets.

* * * *

I know I was reluctant to go with my family that day. I had to work, and I didn’t trust my dad when he said he’d drive me back to town in time to get to work. But Rod said not to worry, he’d drive me back in his Mustang. I quit arguing after that.

I know I drove out to the park with Rod and Colleen. We listened to one of my 8 track tapes on the way out. The Stylistics, a Philadelphia soul group that hit the top of the charts in the early 70’s. Rod was more of Country/Western guy, but even he liked their music.

“They’re pretty good for a bunch of niggers.” he said.

I can’t remember the name of the park anymore. I’m not sure I knew the name back then. It was a very scenic green valley at the foot of some mountains. A creek ran across the valley floor. There was a lots of room to run and play Frisbee. A rocky gravel road led up into the mountains. And the motorcycles turned out to be a flash of genius. Rod or Vern rode the Harley while me and two oldest brothers, John and Tom, took turns riding Colleen’s Yamaha up and down the road with one of our younger siblings as a passenger.

The road probably wasn’t all that different from any other mountain road in Montana. It had been blasted out of the side of the mountain in the 1940’s, maybe. The rock and boulders that been blasted loose building the road were moved to either side, forming a guardrail of granite. Some of those boulders were the size of a house.

I’m going to guess I spent roughly four hours or so out at the park, and then I had to go. As I was hugging my mom goodbye, my dad and Vern were climbing aboard the motorcycles. John and Tom were sulking because they couldn’t ride along on the bikes. True to his word, Rod drove me back to town, driving as fast as he dared down the curving road that cut through the mountains back into Missoula. And we listened to The Stylistics again.

I know I made it to work on time, and I know it was pretty much the same as any other night at the Go West. It was probably around 11:00 PM. We were cleaning up the concession stand and checking inventory when one of my gay bosses came out of his office and said, “Umm, Maark, could you come here? Your mother is on the phone…”

I walked to the office, and my other gay boss handed me the phone. I heard my mother crying.

“Mark? Oh, God! I don’t know where to begin, but right after you left, there was a terrible accident…”

* * * *

What follows is what I can remember hearing from the people who were there, and I also have to admit I have repressed, suppressed and denied these memories for so long it’s almost as if I had completely forgotten it even happened. But when I was writing my last post, Melpomene whispered in my ear, and the memories came flooding back.

* * * *

My dad wasn’t a outdoorsman/sportsman guy. He wasn’t handy at fixing anything. And he wasn’t very good at riding motorcycles either, so in that regard, it’s fortunate he didn’t take a passenger when he and Vern went for their ride on the bikes that Memorial Day weekend in 1972.

I don’t think my dad was drunk when I left. He’d been drinking that day, but my dad was Irish, and he could knock down some beers without outwardly appearing to be impaired. And to be fair, Vern had had his share of beer that day, too.

Vern drove Rod’s Harley. My dad drove Colleen’s Yamaha, and away they went, climbing up the mountain road. I have no idea how far up the road they went, no idea how long they were gone. I’m not even sure if they were driving up the road, or back down it when my dad lost control of his bike.

And sadly, the details I remember are sketchy. He was either going too fast and braked too hard, or he wasn’t going fast enough and lost control when he gunned the engine to increase his speed. He kind of weebled and wobbled, but didn’t fall over, then careened off the road, running headfirst into a pretty goddamn big boulder. The impact crumpled the front wheel of Colleen’s Yamaha like it was made of tin foil, and sent my dad flying over the handlebars.

The boulder my dad hit was big, but it wasn’t especially tall. The way I understand it, my dad essentially did a somersault over the boulder, just kind of kissing the top of the boulder with his forehead enough to sustain a couple of superficial cuts to his scalp. If he had collided with a taller boulder, he would’ve taken the top of his head off, and if he had been wearing an helmet, the only thing he would’ve injured would’ve been his pride.

Well, and the front wheel of my sister’s bike.

As I nurse, I can tell you that your scalp is a very vascular area, and even a small cut can bleed like the dickens. My dad was essentially uninjured, save for a couple of superficial cuts that bled like hell, creating the illusion that my dad had been mauled by a fucking Grizzly bear, and was about five minutes away from dying to death.

Vern possibly knew my dad wasn’t badly injured–he wasn’t unconscious, none of his bones were broken–but he was bleeding like a stuck pig, and that’s probably all Vern saw. He told my dad to lay still, and apply pressure to the cuts on his forehead, then Vern jumped on the Harley and tore off down the mountain.

Rod used his motorcycle to cruise up and down the mountain roads, but it wasn’t modified in any way to be a mountain bike. It was a street bike, and if you’re curious about the differences in the way the bikes look, you can do a Google search.

Even still, some explanation is required. Off road bikes have a beefed up suspension, and the engine and foot pedals are set on higher the frame for better clearance over things, like, rocks in the road and stuff like that.

I stated earlier this mountain road was probably much like any other mountain road, meaning it was dirt with rocks of varying sizes imbedded in the dirt, covered with varying levels of loose gravel. It was never designed to be driven at an excessive rate of speed, and certainly not a motorcycle designed for street use.

I doubt any of those things occurred to Vern on that day. His buddy had been injured, and was bleeding, a lots, and he needed help. Fast! Vern was a very good motorcyclist, but even good cyclists make mistakes, especially if they aren’t being careful, and Vern had thrown caution to the wind. I’m sure he never saw the rock sticking up out of the road, sticking up just high enough to catch the brake pedal on the unmodified bike he was driving, turning low to make that corner, racing down into the valley to get help for his friend.

* * * *

I don’t know how long my dad waited for Vern to return. I don’t think he even knew, but he did as he was told until he started thinking it was taking Vern an overly long time to return.

“I really wasn’t injured,” he told me later. “There was a little stream running along the side of the road. I soaked my handkerchief, and held it to my head. Once the bleeding slowed down, and Vern still hadn’t returned, I started walking down the mountain. I figured I would meet him on the way.”

And he did, only it wasn’t the way he had imagined. Instead of finding Vern leading a motorcade of vehicles coming to rescue him, he found Vern laying face up in the middle of the road, a large pool of blood under his head. Rod’s Harley was piled up on the boulders lining the side of the road about thirty feet away from Vern, the brake pedal bent at an impossibly acute angle.

Vern was breathing, but that’s all he was doing. He was unconscious, and he would not awaken. My dad checked to see where all the blood was flowing from. The back of Vern’s skull felt like a bag of loose change.

“I started running down the road, for maybe for a quarter of a mile,” my dad said. “And luckily, a car was coming up the road. I flagged them down, then we put Vern in the backseat, and drove down the mountain. When we got back to the valley, Jackie climbed in the car with him and they took off like a bat out of hell. Your mother and I packed up everything and the kids and followed them to the hospital.”

* * * *

One of my gay bosses volunteered to take me back to town immediately. The Go West was something like twenty miles outside of Missoula, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It was further out of town than the airport. It was probably closer to Frenchtown than it was to Missoula. The only thing remotely close to it was the paper mill where Vern and Rod worked. Vern had gotten his son a job there after Rod graduated from high school.

I was in a state of shock, and it took me a minute or two to respond.

“I don’t think you need to do that. It doesn’t sound like I need to be anywhere immediately. My dad’s okay, but it doesn’t sound like Vern’s going to make it.”

Vern had been rushed to the hospital. His condition remained unchanged once he reached the hospital, he was breathing on his own, but still unconscious. The doctors told Jackie there wasn’t much of anything they could do. Vern had suffered a massive injury to his occipital lobe and cerebellum. The back of his skull had caved in like unto a broken eggshell. He might wake up, and then again…

“If he had only been wearing a helmet…” the ICU doctor said.

* * * *

My gay bosses dropped me off at the hospital around midnight, and gave me the rest of week off. If I needed more time, all I had to do was ask. I went up to the ICU waiting room where everyone else had gathered–Rod’s mother and sister, my mother and sister–and the person they had gathered around was my father. A couple of steri-strips had been applied to the cuts on his forehead. I think his clothes were dotted with his blood, and smeared with Vern’s, but I’m unsure about that. He probably changed when he took my brothers and sisters home before returning to the hospital.

My dad was beyond inconsolable. He blamed himself for the accident; placing full responsibility for what had happened squarely on his own shoulders. He kept saying he wished he could trade places with Vern. The women were trying to comfort him. I went over to talk to Rod. He told me everything he knew about what had happened, and he kept saying this,

“I wish to God I had never bought those goddamn motorcycles.”

After that, I sat down, and waited. There was nothing else to do, but wait.

That’s when I saw the book. It was small, rectangular black book, less than fifty pages, very plain in appearance. It was titled, The Impersonal Life. I picked it up and started reading. I finished it in less than half an hour, then started re-reading it from the beginning, slowly. I slipped it into my pocket, and took it home when I left the hospital. I hid it in my bedroom like it was a Penthouse® magazine. I’ve read it thousands of times over the years.

It was the book that would eventually lead me to believe that I was going to be a prophet someday.

* * * *

You can look it up online if you’re interested. You can even download a copy of it if you like, in PDF format. I have a copy on my Galaxy Tab S2®. And while I could probably wax philosophic about the contents of the book for hours, all I will say about it is this: it either contains the most sublime, simple truth about God and His Purpose ever written, or it’s the most convincing complicated lie about life and everything ever told. And to be sure, a very convincing lie has to contain at least some small measure of the truth

I’ve never been able to decide which of those two statements are correct.

Maybe they both are.

* * * *

I spent all day Sunday and Monday at the hospital, sitting with Jackie. She was surprised to see me there, and it wasn’t as if she had no one else to lean on during that time. Dozens, maybe hundreds of people dropped in to see her at the hospital and hold hands with her and cry.

On Monday evening, there was a change in Vern’s condition. He started having trouble breathing on his own. He was intubated. By Tuesday, he was no longer breathing on his own. Jackie decided to take her husband off of life support Tuesday evening, and Vern stopped breathing. He died on May 30th.

Little Known Footnote in History: both of my parents died in May. My mom in 2007, my dad in 2011.

Vern’s funeral was probably on Friday, maybe Saturday. I can’t remember when it was, I have no memory of even being there, but I know that I was. I remember how quiet it was in our house during that period of time, and our house was never quiet.

I remember sitting up in the living room with my dad after the funeral. It was late. Everyone else had gone to bed. We didn’t say much. We didn’t talk to each other much during that time, and that is all on me. But my dad finally spoke, and this is what he said,

“I can’t for the life of me figure out why this had to happen.”

“This might help.” I said, and I gave my dad the little black book I had taken from the ICU waiting room, and he read it. It would be just about the only thing we had in common for the next fifteen years or so.

* * * *

Rod took me along when he and his buddies went back to the park to pick up the motorcycles. They were still laying on the side of the road. The rock Vern hit with the brake pedal had a noticeable dent in it. Thirty feet away was another large rock in the road, this one covered with dried blood.

Rod attacked the bloody rock with tools and his hands, screaming and crying until he got it loose, then threw it as far as could down the side of the mountain, leaving a crater in the road. We drank a beer, and everyone said some words of farewell to Vern, then Rod gave me my 8 track tape back.

“I’m sorry, Mark. I can’t ever listen to it again.”

I left it on the side of the road.

I know the mangled motorcycles languished in Vern’s workshop for a very long time. I think Jackie finally made her son get rid of them, and he sold them to someone for parts. He never bought another motorcycle. And he traded his Mustang in on a four wheel drive pick up.

* * * *

Colleen married Rod in June of 1973. Maybe it was July. She was a beautiful bride, and Rod was happier than he had been in an year. I’m sure they loved each other, but as Colleen told me when her marriage was falling apart, “I just had to get out of the house. I couldn’t fucking take it anymore. I would’ve married the milkman if he had asked me. But I almost felt like I had to marry Rod, you know, especially after Vern died. Dad wasn’t the only one who felt responsible for Vern’s death. I did, too. It was my motorcycle!”

About ten years later, Jerry would be standing under a falling telephone pole, and I would learn the hard way that grief is the wrong reason to get involved with someone. Nancy and I stayed for maybe a year and a half before we called it quits. Colleen and Rod stayed married for maybe three years before they got divorced.

I think even Rod realized they had made a mistake. I talked to him a couple of times on the phone during that time, but I was fucked up on every drug on the planet, and I was drinking. My memories of this aren’t the best, but I have a vague, hazy, whisper of a memory of Rod saying that Colleen was just another toy in his collection. He didn’t value her for who and what she was, and he didn’t blame her for divorcing him.

* * * *

A lots of time has passed since Vern got killed to death, and a whole lots of stuff has happened since then. I have traveled a very long and winding road to get where I am, but my journey is not yet over. There may be a lots more twists and turns I’ll have to encounter before it ends. Life will do that to you in the blink of an eye.

I can’t say that I’ve spent much time thinking about this story. It’s a story that I’ve rarely told, if ever. Hell, until last week I had pretty much forgotten it even happened. But there is one issue that always rises to the surface whenever I think about it, and it popped into my head as I was writing this.

It’s probably why I’ve tried so hard to forget it.

My dad felt responsible for Vern’s death because he was a lousy motorcyclist, and Vern had gotten dead trying to help him. My sister felt responsible because our dad had crashed her motorcycle, and Vern had gotten dead trying to help our dad. Rod felt responsible because he had bought those goddamn motorcycles in the first place…

But I have my own what if in this story. What if God recycled Vern’s energy because He knew I would see that little black book in the ICU waiting room, and it was the only way He could think of to get it into my hands?

If that what if is true, then Vern’s death rests on my shoulders, and mine alone.

The Lord works in mysterious ways, does He not? I’ve always thought that was just another way of saying, isn’t that ironic? And yes, He does work in ironically mysterious ways. I don’t know anyone who believes in God that would argue against that statement.

And there’s this: what if I failed to achieve the qualities God requires of a prophet? What if I had my chance, and choked? What if I missed the critical free throws at the end of regulation, and I lost the game? If that is true, then Vern’s death was wasted, and God made an huge mistake, inflicting many people with unnecessary grief and loss for no good reason. And He should have recycled my energy long ago, rather than keeping my stupid ass alive when I was so determined to die young.

That’s a possibility, but it’s also possible that the time for me to assume that role is yet to come. The fact that I’m still alive and pondering this is enough to keep my hope alive that my delusional dream could still come true.

And finally, it’s possible that I misunderstood everything and my desire to be a prophet is nothing more than a delusion, as my lovely supermodel wife insists. And if that is true, then I have nothing do with any of this, and Vern died to death simply because he got careless when he was riding a motorcycle too fast for the terrain and road conditions. And I can go back to forgetting any of this shit ever happened.

Maybe The Horne was right about me when he nicknamed me Wrongway…

A lots of questions, not many answers.

There’s only one thing that’s clear to me. No matter how much I want this, I’m no prophet, and I know that to be the undisputed truth.

That’s one bit of truth I don’t have to do any seeking to find.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

If you don’t die to death from SIDS, you’ll probably live long enough to lose someone you love to death. A friend, a sibling, a parent, grandparents, someone. Death is out there, waiting. Sooner or later, it will come calling for us all.

As a nurse, I was exposed to a fair amount of death. People are generally hospitalized because there’s something wrong with them, and sometimes that thing can kill you to death. As a result, people tend to sometimes got dead when they check into the hospital to be treated for whatever ailment they happen to be being treated for.

I couldn’t tell you how many of my former patients got dead during my career. A whole lots. That’s a guess. And as a nurse I can tell you, you get used to death. Some of those deaths were shocking, and saddening. Some of them were not.

But death isn’t always part of the job, and then it’s personal. And those are almost always very saddening.

The first person in my family I remember dying to death was my mother’s dad. My grandfather woke up one summer morning in 1972 complaining of a severe headache. My grandmother gave him a shot of brandy, her cure-all for everything, and then he collapsed to the kitchen floor. He died in the hospital a few hours later of a massive stroke.

His funeral was the first funeral I attended.

Death has taken a lots of my friends and family members over the years. The first of my friends was a girl I knew in the seventh grade. Judy Kostelecky. She was one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. Blonde hair, blue eyes. Yeah, I fell in love with her the moment I saw her. She might be the first girl I fell in love with. She died of leukemia in 1973.

Lou Ann Dougherty was one of my classmates in high school. She died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1974. She was one of my high school sweetheart’s best friends. Lou Ann’s death was an enormous collective shock to my entire class.

There was nothing I could’ve done to save any of them, but I might have been able to save Mike Perkins, the clerk of court at my court-martial, if I had believed Roy Bowman when he said he was going to kill Mike to death.

* * * *

Roy was a low-level drug dealer on Fort Sill when I met him, but he wanted to be an higher level drug dealer. I had made a few transactions with Roy in the year or so I that had known him. He sold a little bit of everything, weed, speed, PCP. His weed wasn’t the highest quality, but everything else he sold was top-notch.

Roy dropped in at my room in the barracks a few days before Mike’s murder. Roy was upset, and was venting to me as we got high and drank beer, and was hoping to gain some information from me.

Roy wanted my opinion on who had ratted him out. I’ll never be able to figure out why, but I was the guy a lots of guys talked to when they were trying to figure out certain aspects of their lives. Like I was so well put together or something.

“Roy, what you do is a supply and demand business. And you can supply what a lots of us are demanding. I can’t think of anyone, especially anyone in this barracks, who would rat you out.”

He told me he thought it was Mike, but I can’t remember why. I replied it could just as easily have been anyone else, but it most definitely wasn’t me. And then Roy said something like unto this, “Well, I know this. As soon as I find out who it is, I’m gonna kill that motherfucker!”

I’ve heard a lots of people say that line when they were upset, but the thing is, I doubt any of them would’ve actually killed anyone to death, even if they had the means and the opportunity. It’s something people say, but they rarely ever mean it. So I wasn’t overly concerned by Roy’s statement at the time.

As a matter of fact, I pretty much forgot all about it.

Four days after my court-martial proceedings, Roy  ran into Mike at one of the stripper bars in Lawton, the Play Pen Lounge. One of the fabric free shoe models I dated danced there. The place was a dump, and that’s a generous description of it.

There was a confrontation in the parking lot, and a lots of yelling and cursing and stuff. Roy shoved Mike into his car, and drove about twenty miles outside of town to Rush Lake. He beat Mike to death with his fists and a tire iron, then threw Mike’s body in the lake. Mike’s body was found the following day by a fisherman.

I was a little freaked out by Mike’s murder when I heard about it, but only because he had been murdered, and he was the first person I knew who got dead by being killed to death by another human being. I didn’t put two and two together until Roy was actually arrested.

I remembered my conversation with Roy when one of the guys in the barracks told me Roy had been arrested for murder, and I told him what Roy had said, but I didn’t think he would really kill Mike to death!

“Wow! You’re lucky Roy didn’t kill you, too!” he said. That was an unsettling thought, but in a few months I’d be too busy fucking up my life to give any thought to how Roy had fucked up his life.

* * * *

When I was a surgical technician in Elbow Lake, I worked at Grant County Hospital. It was maybe a thirty bed hospital, and it would close its doors a few years after I left. But while it existed, it provided a valuable service to the people in the community.

It was good for me, too. I had completed my alcohol rehab at the St Cloud VA in December of the previous year, and that was the only lengthy period of sobriety I would have for the next twenty-five years.

One of the people that I became friends with was a lab technician named Nancy. We were about the same age, and we had similar interests. Her parents lived just outside of Little Falls, just like mine. Nancy was married to a guy named Jerry. He was a biker guy and a professional house painter. They bought an old  farm house outside of Elbow Lake, and Jerry was systematically renovating the interior.

I helped him prep a couple of the rooms upstairs. He had a bad knee from a motorcycle accident, and kneeling was difficult for him. I would’ve helped him paint, but Jerry didn’t trust anyone else enough with a brush to accept any help with that.

About a week after he finished his renovations, one of his neighbors needed help erecting an utility pole in the yard of his farm. He wanted better lighting in his driveway, so he bought a telephone pole. All he needed to do was stand it up in his front yard.

Jerry was one of those guys that would do anything for a friend, and he volunteered to help. He held one of the guide ropes while the forty foot post was slowly raised. The operation was going smoothly, and then it wasn’t. A gust of wind caught the beam just right, it shifted and wobbled, then teetered and tottered, and then it fell. Everyone went running for cover, everyone but Jerry.

According to the neighbors, he stood where he was, watching the pole as desended toward him, and did not move. The pole hit him on the top of his head, killing him to death instantly.

* * * *

I was working in the OR that day. There weren’t any surgeries scheduled for that afternoon, so I was doing some random dusting and cleaning, and looking for something to do. I eagerly responded to the call for any available staff at the ambulance dock. When I saw who the passenger in the ambulance was, I had to sit down. The right side of Jerry’s head was unharmed. He looked like he could’ve been sleeping. But the left side of his head was a total fucking mess.

Jerry looked like he’d been beaten to death with a truckload of sledgehammers.

Nancy wasn’t in any shape to drive home, and I wasn’t in any shape to stay at work. My boss gave me the rest of the day off. I took Nancy home and stayed with her until her mother drove up from Little Falls. Then I went to the nearest bar, and ordered a beer. I had been sober for nine months. I didn’t get drunk that night, but I would a few nights later, and many, many times after that.

It was grief and loss and bereavement that brought Nancy and I together. Not exactly the things that are the foundation of most relationships. So, probably not a big surprise that our relationship went down the drain.

We moved to Wyoming, and we somehow managed to stay together for a year and an half. I moved out of our apartment in Lusk at least twice, but decided to give it another try or two before we both finally agreed staying together would be the worst thing we could do.

* * * *

Death can change your life. Ask Mary Todd Lincoln. Ask Lyndon Baines Johnson. And it’s impact is even more severe if you happen to be the person that gots dead.

Death is what it is. It’s a part of life, not an especially fun part, and its effects can be devastating. But life goes on, and it doesn’t stop and wait for you to catch up.

Life doesn’t care about death, no matter how intimately intertwined they might be. Life doesn’t care how torn up you are because of death, or how unready you might feel about getting back into the race.

Life only cares about what’s going to happen next, and that’s all. Life never stops to look back down the path. The vital force that is Life knows only one direction, and it only has one gear.

Forward.

When it comes to death, the only thing that eases the pain is time. And the amount of time required for each person to adjust to the loss caused by death can vary greatly. And for some people, not even time can heal those wounds.

A very good friend of mine just lost her mother, and she is in a world of pain right now. She happens to be a nurse, so she’s not a stranger to death, but it was her mother, and you only have one Mom.

I grieve with my friend, and feel her pain. I lost my mom nine years ago, and I miss her still. I lost my dad six years ago, and I miss him, too.

I’m getting to the point in my life where the generation that preceded mine has mostly passed on. My generation is now on the front line, and death is starting to pick us off, one by one. In another twenty years, most of us will have passed on. My nieces and nephews will become the Old Guard, and if we’re fortunate, they’ll remember us, and speak kindly of us, and maybe shed a tear or two.

And life, will go on.

Andy

Before I get started, a couple of things.

I need to fill in the back story about my lovely supermodel wife’s family dynamics before she shoves a garden hose down my dick and makes me cry a lots.

As you may know, my wife is the baby of her family. Her sister, Leslie, is eight years older than her. There was a brother in between them, David.

He killed himself when he was twelve.

Leslie and Lea were never best friends when they were young, simply because of their age difference. Leslie was more of a surrogate mother to her little sister than she was a friend, or even a sister.

I’ve made some references to the fact that my father-in-law wasn’t any easy man to like. He had a short fuse on his temper, and was prone to fits of rage, which I attribute to his untreated PTSD.

Dave had mellowed somewhat with age by the time I met him, but my wife told me stories about what he used to be like, back when she was a girl. Dave was downright mean and scary. He yelled and shouted, a lots. He broke stuff, on purpose. And he punched people, mostly his wife. And his son.

My parents spanked my ass a lots when I was young, but that was the extent of their discipline when I acted out.

Young David probably wouldn’t have dared to act out. A simple mistake would result in a beating. The penalty for intentionally misbehaving might well be death. And that’s probably what led to his decision to take his life at the tender age of twelve.

Lea and her family were living in Cannon Falls, MN when it happened. Dave and Wanda had gone to work. Leslie was fourteen at the time. David was twelve, and Lea was six. I can’t remember the circumstances, but they were all at home on that winter’s day.

The kids were horsing around as kids will do, and as is often the case, a piece of furniture sustained some damage in the process. The coffee table in the living room. It took me at least fifteen years of almost begging before Lea agreed to let me buy the table we now have in our living room.

David knew what was going to happen when his father got home, and decided he couldn’t take one more beating. He got his .22 rifle out of the closet, loaded it, and pointed the barrel at his head.

Lea sat next to her brother on the couch and pleaded with him to stop. Leslie stood on the far side of the room and said nothing, watching.

I didn’t think he’d actually do it, she would say during the one and only time I remember the sisters discussing what had happened in my presence.

And I knew he would, was Lea’s response.

I can see her, almost as if I had been there myself, a terrified little girl running through the snow in stocking feet, running down the street to flag down the first passing motorist she saw, tears running down her face.

And there was blood.

I may have fallen in love with Lea the first time I saw her, but it was the stories she told that sealed the deal for me. That she could pass through a fire so immense, a storm of such intensity, and survive…

* * * *

When viewed from this perspective, the weird dynamics of Lea’s family don’t look quite as weird. The fact they had any dynamics is probably some kind of miracle.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention while my wife was fighting her lengthy battle with Crohn’s disease, Leslie was also fighting for her life against a different opponent. Breast cancer.

Those Covington girls. You don’t want to mess with them. They are survivors, and so much more.

Lea and Leslie have grown much closer since the death of their mother, and father. They’ll never be best friends, and they both know that, and they are both at peace with that. But they are sisters now, and they call each other from time to time.

We used to go Bill and Leslie’s farm on a semi-frequent basis before they sold it, and before we moved to Arizona, then to Mexico.

Bill and Leslie came to visit us once in Arizona. I hope Bill and Leslie decide to visit us down here in the beautiful Lakeside area someday.

I can show Bill where the goats live.

* * * *

Okay. Where was I?

This happens to me more than I would like to admit. Last night, I walked into the bedroom to help Lea turn down the bed, and I forgot why I went into the bedroom before I got there. I went into my closet and started changing into my pajamas.

“Hey! Aren’t you going to help me?” Lea asked. So I went back to the bedroom to help with the bed, then forgot I had been changing into my pajamas.

So. Where was I?

Oh yes. I had helped my lovely supermodel wife escape from the local hospital where my father-in-law lived, down in the bottom of Texas. She had survived her bout of the Philadelphia flu, and she had survived the doctor who couldn’t believe she had Crohn’s disease, despite the fact she’d had four major abdominal surgeries, an ileostomy, and least two doctors in Minnesota that didn’t have any questions about her diagnosis. And she had also survived the fat slob of a nurse who had been too busy to take care of her.

There would be no adverse reactions for Lea from sneaking barefooted out the front door of the hospital in broad daylight, wearing little more than an hospital gown. Once the stomach flu passed, all she needed was her regularly scheduled meds at the times she was supposed to regularly receive them, and Lea could do that without any assistance from anyone.

Lea told her family what had happened to her during her brief but endless stay at the hospital while I more or less told the hospital administrator to go fuck himself, and then it was Leslie’s turn.

She also had a story to tell.

At the time my wife started feeling the first assault of the Philadelphia flu, my sister-in-law had been on the phone with her husband, Bill, the man who would unintentionally infect us all with the GI bug he had picked up on his last business trip to the City of Brotherly Love.

I’m not sure just where in the world Bill was when he called, but he wasn’t on the farm in Wisconsin anymore. And that was why he had called. Something had gone terribly wrong, back on the farm.

And that something was Leslie’s once cute miniature horse, Andy, whom was no longer cute, nor even remotely miniature anymore.

Andy had inexplicably morphed out of being a darlingpreshadorbs little horse about the size of one them Buttweiler dogs, into a bad tempered teenaged mutant medium-sized thug of a horse. Andy grown to roughly the size of an adult deer, and probably weighed close to three hundred pounds. And to prove how much of a badass he’d become, Andy had killed a goat just before we jumped in the car to start our trek to the bottom of Texas.

Bill figured Andy’s sudden behavioral changes could be attributed to the fact that he was transitioning from a colt into an young stallion. What Andy needed was the calming presence of an older father figure horse that could kick his ass when he got too boisterous. Or, he needed his balls cut off.

Unfortunately, there was no such horse living at Pfaff’s Happy Acres, just a bunch of dwarf goats, and they were clearly no match for Andy when he decided he wanted to be a bully. Nor was there any time to have Andy gelded. Bill was a business consultant, and he had consulting to do.

Bill had made arrangements with one his neighbors down the road. They had a teenage farmer’s daughter, I’ll call her Muffy, who was on spring break from college or something, and for a few dollars a day she would swing by the farm and take care of the tiny goats and the mutant miniature horse, and the cats that lived in the barn, and the mangy looking dog Bill had adopted.

It was only for a week. Bill would be back on the farm on Friday or Saturday night.

I don’t think I ever met Muffy, but just because I can do this, let’s say Muffy looked like Christina Aguilera, back when she was a genie in a bottle. And because Muffy was so cute and adorable, Bill warned her in all seriousness to be careful around Andy, given his predilection for unpredictable behavior.

That last part really did happen. And then Bill flew off to go take care of business.

Earlier on the day that Bill called, as Team Covington was returning from Mexico, Andy had somehow gotten out of his pen in Wisconsin, and had trotted down the driveway into the road. And he decided he would claim that part of the road as his own.

There wasn’t a whole lots of traffic on the road that ran past the farm, but there was some, and on that day, a school bus full of students needed to drive past Pfaff’s Happy Acres to drop off some kids a bit further down the road.

But in the middle of the road, stood a horse. It’s not an uncommon occurrence in the country. Livestock get out of their pens all the time, and the locals know how to deal with it. The bus driver honked the horn, that usually worked, but Andy shook his head and stood his ground.

As in all small towns, the bus driver knew Bill and Leslie, and everyone else up and down their road for that matter. She told her passengers to stay on the bus, then went out to put Andy back in his pen. She was a middle aged country gal, and she knew how to handle large farm animals.

Andy allowed her to walk up to him and grab his halter, and he even cooperated with her when she started leading him back to his pen.

And then, he changed his mind. Andy had evidently grown tired of the whole domesticated horse thing, and decided to become a lion, a tiger and a bear, all at once. And he became fierce!

I’m a little uncertain about the details, but Andy knocked the lady bus driver off her feet, then tossed her around a little as she struggled to regain her footing and keep her grip on the halter. As she regained her balance, Andy pushed her up against a large fence post with his not so miniature body. Forcefully. By the time Andy was done showing the bus driver where she could get off, he had broken her hip and one of her legs in two or three places.

The kids on the bus had all been raised on farms, and they raced out of the bus to save their driver, but Andy chased them all back to the bus, and he wouldn’t let them leave.

More vehicles arrived to find themselves stuck behind a school bus being held hostage by a terrorist horse. The sheriff and the fire department were called to save the kids trapped on the bus, and to rescue the bus driver whose leg had been broken into several pieces.

It’s hard to negotiate with a terrorist, but it’s impossible to negotiate with a terrorist thug horse, straight outta Oshkosh.

The sheriff couldn’t get anywhere near the bus, or the horse. Andy had no intention of peacefully returning to his pen, and charged the sheriff when he approached. He chased anyone away that tried to approach the bus, or the injured bus driver laying on the ground nearby with one leg bent in at least two impossible angles. Andy had taken prisoners, and he wasn’t willing to let any them go.

The sheriff had a dilemma. Neither Bill nor Leslie were home, and he had no idea how to contact them. Their horse had become a menace to society. It had taken a bus full of children hostage, and had seriously injured the bus driver. He had to act, and he had to act quickly.

He got his shotgun, and walked toward the renegade horse. When Andy charged the sheriff, the sheriff pulled the trigger, and a shot echoed loudly across the fields and woods surrounding the farm. The children ran out of the bus. The fire department flew into action and rescued the bus driver. And some scientist guys from Madison showed up because the sheriff called them after he killed the psychotic terrorist horse. By Wisconsin State law, any crazy horse had to be tested for rabies.

And then the scientist guys had a dilemma. The rabies virus lives in brain cells, and nowhere else. The scientist guys could have taken all of Andy’s remains, but they didn’t need all of Andy to run their required tests, just his head. And Andy, well, he wasn’t a small horse anymore.

Seeing how Andy was dead and wouldn’t be needing his head anymore, and that was the only part of his body they needed…  It’s much, much easier to transport the head of a dead horse than it is to transport the entire dead horse, so that’s what the scientist guys decided to do. They left most of dead Andy laying in the driveway, and then drove back to Madison where their tests would eventually reveal Andy did not have rabies, nor did he have the Philadelphia flu.

He was just a misunderstood youth, an over-amped adolescent, a rebel without a cause. He was the Headless Horse of Trempealeau County.

And that would be the end of this story, except for a few small details.

You may remember that Bill had hired Muffy, the perhaps cute and adorable college coed farmer’s daughter that lived down the road to keep an eye on the farm while he was out of town.

I’m not sure where Muffy was on that day, or what she was doing, but she was nowhere near the farm when Andy decided to go rogue and terrorize the community. As she was driving home, cute and adorable Muffy decided to drop by the farm to check on the animals entrusted to her care, and found the headless body of a dead horse laying in the driveway. She pretty much shit her pants.

I don’t think she went back to Bill and Leslie’s farm. Ever. Her dad ended up taking care of the goats and cats and dog, and he probably made the arrangements to have the rest of Andy’s body disposed of.

I’m not sure if Muffy called Bill first, or if the sheriff did, but one of those two called Bill and told him about the demise of Andy the militant mutant miniature horse, and then Bill called Dave’s house to let his wife know her wicked horse was dead.

As for the bus driver whose leg had been broken into several pieces, she ended up having several surgeries to put her back together again. And that was good. However, she had no health insurance, and that was bad. She ended up with a whole lots of medical expenses she had no way to pay, and ended up sueing Bill and Leslie for an enormous amount of money.

It would take a few years for all the legal wranglings to sort themselves out, and as both parties were walking into the courtroom, a settlement was reached.

Bill had wisely added an umbrella policy to his home owner’s insurance when he had purchased the farm, and the however many hundreds of thousands of dollars they settled on was paid by his insurance company.

Lea and I would also incur some medical expenses while we were deep in the heart of Texas. Our health insurance covered the majority of it, but we were billed for the balance. And Lea was given the opportunity to tell the hospital administrator to go fuck himself, too.

* * * *

“Sonuvafuckinbitch!” I probably said something like unto that when Leslie finished telling us about Andy. And the bus driver. And the kids. And the sheriff. And the fire department. And the scientist guys. And Muffy. And her pants. It was probably the most exciting thing that had happened in that part of Wisconsin in the last fifty years. “Man, I told Lea I had a bad feeling when Andy killed the goat, but I had no idea it’d turn out this bad!”

See? Not a prophet.

To say our plans would require some renovations would be an understatement. Leslie had to fly back to Wisconsin as soon as possible. She would not be able to drive our car while I drove the truck we were going to rent to get all of Wanda’s stuff back to the top of the country from way down at the bottom of the country.

“I’m really sorry.” she said.

“Don’t worry about it. We’ll figure something out.” Lea replied.

There was one bright spot. Leslie and Lea had gone through Dave’s house like a pair of stormtroopers, and everything had been sorted, separated and mostly packed. Lea and I would finish that, and load everything in the truck we would rent. We would take care of the stuff to be sold or donated. Leslie suddenly had more than enough stuff of her own to deal with.

* * * *

Leslie flew back to Wisconsin the very next day to take care of the shitstorm of events related to her mutant miniature thug horse from Hell, and all the havoc he had unleashed.

We rode along as Dave drove her to the airport. Leslie and Lea went through a checklist to make sure they hadn’t missed anything. The last thing either of them wanted to do was make another trip to Texas.

We drove back to the house afterwards. I was going to miss Leslie. She had a way of handling Dave that neither Lea nor I possessed, not that Dave was a terrible management problem anymore.

But he did have his moments still, and Lea didn’t have the same technique her sister did. I was a pysch nurse. I wasn’t yet the elite nurse I would eventually become, but I was confident I could handle Dave if I needed to. And the tall Texas blonde ER nurse had just shown me a new intervention…

“Man, I still can’t believe what happened with that crazy horse!” Dave said, as he drove. He spoke for all of us. That was pretty fucking wild, no doubt.

“It’s been quite a trip so far, Dave. I think I’m going to need another vacation to recover from this vacation.” I said. And we all laughed.

Yeah, it was funny then. But in less than a week it wouldn’t be. Remember that thing I said about life? There might be times when things can’t get any better, but things can always get worse.

Yes. They could.

And, yes, they would.

The Worst Week

October, 1994.

Lea was once again hospitalized at Fairview Medical Center. She had taken another turn for the worse. Abdominal Surgery Number Three had been in the summer of 1993. Ninety-five percent of her colon had been removed. Abdominal Surgery Number Four was on deck, and I was beginning to wonder what the endgame was going to be with this.

I mean, how much more of Lea’s gut were they thinking about removing? How much more could they remove?

It was early Monday morning, around mid-October. The phone rang at our house. It was my father-in-law, David Covington. He and his wife, Wanda, were living in San Benito, TX. They had retired down there years ago. Lea and I had visited them a year or two earlier during one of Lea’s periods of relative stability, all the way down at the bottom of Texas.

My father-in-law wasn’t an easy man to be around. He was a combat veteran of World War II and Korea. He had been wounded in each conflict, earning two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for bravery in battle. He had a short fuse on his temper, and tended to yell a lots of the time. Dave had one bitch of a case of PTSD that he had never sought treatment for.

My mother-in-law was on the fast track to sainthood, in my opinion, for staying with her husband as long as she did.

“Hi Mark. It’s Dave. Say, I just wanted to let you know Wanda’s in the hospital. She’s actually in the same hospital that your wife is in.”

It took me a moment to process that. I was working a stretch of Nights at the MVAMC, and the ringing phone had awakened me.

“Why is she in the hospital. In Minneapolis.” I said. I don’t think it sounded like a question.

“Oh, well, she wanted to see her baby girl, and that’s Lea, you know. So, we drove up here over the weekend. And when we got here, Wanda had a small heart attack. So she’s in Fairview Hospital, on the fourth floor.” Dave may have even chuckled.

Dave was fairly nonchalant about it, but he was like that. When he told me the story about how he earned his Bronze Star, he made it sound as though he had been walking through the park. Except he and his men were being chased by an army of Nazis. Through a minefield. And the Nazis were desperately trying to kill them.

It was no big deal then, and this was likewise no big deal. The doctors wanted to run a couple tests, but Wanda was okay. She was resting comfortably. He thought she’d be well enough to travel back to Texas by the end of the week.

“Let me jump in the shower. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

I met Dave in Fairview’s main lobby. He had visited both his wife and his daughter; Lea knew her mother was in the hospital, two floors below her. Lea’s room was on the sixth floor. Dave hadn’t had any sleep. He wanted to go to his hotel, take a nap and get cleaned up.

“Go ahead. I got this.” I said.

Lea was excited and very chatty when I got to her room. She had already talked to her mom on the phone, and wanted to go see her mom, of course. She had gotten all dolled up; hair, make up, everything. The sixth floor nurses had dropped everything else to help her. Those nurses had  become part of our family  through the multiple admissions and surgeries Lea had had over the previous couple of years.

Lea looked great. I wheeled her and all of her IV pumps and bags of IV fluids down to the fourth floor and Wanda’s room. Wanda also looked great. The fourth floor nurses, who didn’t know Wanda at all, had also given Lea’s mom every possible assistance to help her get all dolled up. The sixth floor nurses had called the fourth floor nurses and had explained the unique situation to them.

Those sixth floor nurses, they were total rockstars.

Lea and Wanda hugged and kissed and talked and talked. It had been Wanda’s idea to drive to Minneapolis. She felt an intense need to see her baby girl before this upcoming surgery. Her gut told her she needed to be here.

This would be my life for the next few days: Work nights at my hospital. Catch twenty to thirty winks of sleep. Shower. Eat something. Go visit my wife and her parents at the other hospital. Repeat.

I informed my boss of this latest wrinkle in the seemingly neverending saga that was my wife’s healthcare nightmare. Marj was actually supportive, verbally, though not enthusiastically so. I was too tired to give much thought to my boss’ reaction. I was pretty sure my life couldn’t get much worse.

On Day Three of my new routine, Wanda’s heart specialist doctor wanted to talk to Dave about his wife’s prognosis. Dave wanted me to be there when he met with the doctor. It turned out Wanda’s condition was much worse than Dave described.

Wanda’s family suffered from heart disease. In short, my wife comes from a long line of people that died young from heart attacks. Wanda was in her sixties. She had serious coronary artery disease, and already had one coronary bypass surgery about a decade earlier. She saw a team of heart specialists on a regular basis in Houston. Dave wanted to stabilize his wife enough to take her back to Houston for treatment.

“Yeah, you could do that,” Wanda’s Minnesota doctor said. “But she probably won’t survive the trip.” The results of Wanda’s angiogram showed an eighty to ninety percent blockage in three of her major coronary arteries. “She needs another bypass, immediately.”

Fairview Medical Center might not be the Texas Heart Institute, but it wasn’t the worst place to go to be treated for heart disease either. The hospital had an eighty percent success rate with their coronary bypass surgeries. Dave asked me what I thought.

“This is a decision for you and Wanda to make. You could call her team in Houston, and see what they think, if you have any major objections. And this isn’t my specialty area…  I haven’t worked in Cardiac Care for… six years. But if this were me, and this was my best option to save my wife, I’d have the surgery here. This is a good hospital. They’ve kept your daughter alive three times already when she could’ve died.”

And they’d be getting a chance at Number Four very soon.

“I’ve got to talk to Wanda…” Dave said.

It was a no-brainer for Wanda. She consented to the surgery. It was scheduled for Friday.

When Friday came, I slept almost all day, which was unusual for me, even when I worked Nights. I called Lea around 5:00 PM. Wanda had been the last case of the day. She went to the OR around 3:00 PM. There hadn’t been any recent updates, but everything had been going smoothly. The fourth and sixth floor nurses had talked to the OR staff, and they would keep everyone in the loop.

Sleep deprived and feeling foggy, I ate some leftovers and went back to bed. I woke up around 11:00 PM and went to work.

At around midnight, I got a phone call.

“Hi Mark. This is Dave. Say, the surgery went well, but then something happened.”

I felt my heart stop beating.

“The doctors haven’t been able to get Wanda’s heart to start beating on its own again. They’ve had her on life support since the end of the surgery…”

“How long has that been?”

“Oh, I think since about six o’clock.”

“Okay,” I tried to get my brain working. “Now what? Do they have any idea what they’re going to do?”

“Well, yeah.” he stammered. “They want to take her off life support. They’ve done everything they can, but Wanda’s heart just isn’t strong enough…  I think I’ve lost my co-pilot.”

I hung up the phone. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. I told my co-workers. And I called my horrible boss, Marj, to let her know I was leaving work and that she needed to come in and take my place.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can.” she said. Marj walked on the unit about an hour later. She didn’t look pleased. I could care less what she thought or felt, but I briefly thanked her for coming in to relieve me, then drove like a bat out of hell to Fairview Medical Center.

I met Dave in the main lobby one more time. Wanda had been taken off of life support right after we had talked on the phone.

“Wanda’s gone…” he said. He was holding back his tears.

“I’m so sorry for your loss.”

We hugged each other for a long time. Dave was saying something, I can’t remember what he said anymore. I wasn’t really listening anyway. I was thinking about my wife.

“Does Lea know?”

“No. No. I was waiting for you. I can’t tell her her mother is dead.”

I have no clear recollection of most of what followed. I think Dave went to call Lea’s ex-husband, so he could tell their daughters about their grandmother. I went to the sixth floor. The nurses came running up to me when I got off the elevator. All of them were crying. I hugged them all, they tearfully expressed their condolences.

“What does Lea know? Did you tell her?” I asked the sobbing nurses.

“No. You have to tell her.” one of the nurses said, drying her tears with a Kleenex. Her name was Mary, and of all the incredible rockstar nurses that took care of us, Pretty Mary was our favorite. We called her Pretty Mary because there was more than one Nurse Mary on the sixth floor, and she was the prettiest.

God, give me strength, I thought. I was sure I’d rather die than be the messenger bearing this news. I talked to Lea’s nurses for a moment, telling them how I heard the news and what my horrible boss had done. They knew all about my toxic relationship with Marj.

“Okay…” I said more to myself than anyone else, and headed down the hallway to Lea’s room.

“Oh my God! What time is it? Why are you here? What happened?” Lea said in a rush, the moment she saw me in her room in the dead of night.

“I don’t know any other way to tell you this. Your mom’s heart wasn’t strong enough…” I didn’t have to say anything else.

“Oh, no!” Lea cried. And I held her for the longest time as she started grieving the loss of her mother. “I want to go see her!”

The nurses were ready. They flowed into the room, and hugged Lea. Through their tears they checked all of Lea’s IV bags, helped her change into a fresh gown and robe, transferred her into a wheelchair and brushed her hair.

Dave and I were waiting in the hallway when the nurses rolled Lea out of her room. She cried with her dad for a time. He told her how much Wanda had wanted to see her, and how much Wanda loved her. And then he told Lea how much he loved her. Lea later said that was the most surprising thing that happened that night.

Lea’s daughters arrived at the hospital swiftly. Dave led the way to where Wanda’s body lay in state. The OR staff had cleaned her up, and left her body in the OR suite. No one was able to speak, so I said something appropriate for the situation– what a wonderful gal Wanda was, how much we loved her and how much we were all going to miss her…

The staff told us to take as much time as we wanted. We stayed with Wanda for at least half an hour, maybe an hour. There’s only so much crying you can do at one time. I don’t think the girls wanted to leave their grandmother alone in that room. But the transport crew was waiting to take Wanda’s body to the funeral home, and the cleaning crew still waiting to scrub the OR suite down.

I don’t know how long I stayed at the hospital. I took Lea back to her room after her dad took her daughters home. We talked about her mom.

“I didn’t go see her before her surgery.” Lea said. We were laying in her hospital bed, her head was on my chest. “You usually come in, and I thought I’d wait until you came in. But you didn’t, and I didn’t want to inconvenience the nurses. They’re always so busy…  So I didn’t go see my mom, and now I’ll never be able to see her again.”

Sometimes it’s the things you don’t do that you end up regretting the most.

I know I eventually went home and slept. I may have actually had the weekend off because I don’t have any memory of going back to work until after Wanda’s funeral.

I called Marj on Monday morning, and view of the tragic circumstances, I requested the week off. Marj told me I’d have to talk to her boss, Mary Erdman. I called Mary and explained my situation to her. She already knew what was going on with my wife, but she didn’t know about my mother-in-law. In view of the circumstances, I thought requesting a week off was very reasonable.

“Do really you think you need the entire week off?” Marj’s boss asked me.

“No, I don’t think I need a week off. I need a month off, but I’ll settle for a week!” I replied, and slammed the telephone receiver down on the base without waiting to hear Mary’s response.

This, I thought, means war.

But first, I had to bury my mother-in-law.

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

I don’t know what the problem is, but I’ve been having trouble sleeping ever since I retired. It’s not like I have a lots of stuff on my mind. The two most pressing problems in my current life are, Where did I put whatever it is I’m looking for? I just had it! And, where should we eat today?

This may not sound serious to you, but me not sleeping–it’s like Guy Fieri having problems with his appetite. It’s like Hillary Clinton not having problems with integrity, or Donald Trump not saying something stupid.

I don’t usually make political references, but I used to facilitate a lots of groups, and one of the things I used to examine was how people tend to stereotype things. Now, stereotypes rarely stand up to rigorous examination, except this example: Are all politicians crooks? And everyone always said, Yes! It was true every time.

So, now that I’ve retired, I can’t sleep. Well, it couldn’t have happened at a better time. If I failed to sleep and I had to work the next day, it would surely effect my performance. I’d most likely run out of gas sometime in the afternoon, and probably sputter to the finish line.

Now that I’m retired if I can’t sleep, I can take a nap any time during the day I finally feel tired enough to actually doze off. It doesn’t have any impact on my productivity because, well, my entire lifestyle has changed. My boss is…me?

Well, technically, my wife’s the boss, then the cat. But they’re pretty easy to please, especially the cat.

Back in my nursing days, I had a lots of bosses. Administration. Management. Supervisors. Co-workers. And finally, my patients. I used to let some of them think they were my boss. It made life easier for everyone. And not all of my many bosses were easy to please.

One of the most common complaints by unhappy patient/bosses was this: I can’t sleep!

As a nurse, you have options. You can do nothing. Tell them to back to bed, stop trying so hard. Relax, you’ll fall asleep. This is generally seen as an inefficient response by the patient.

“I tried that! I’m still awake! That’s why I came out here to talk to you!!”

I would always ask my patient/bosses what they did when they weren’t in the hospital. Smoke. Drink. Take a pill. Yeah, well, we can’t let you smoke. We sure as hell can’t let you drink. Which pill did you take and what dose?

Benadryl. Ativan. Klonopin. Valium. Xanax. I don’t know. The green pill. You never knew what you were going to hear.

If there was a med order, I would dispense meds. The unhappy customer would take his or her medicine and go back to bed. Most of the time it was as simple as that. If there wasn’t a standing order, I could call the POD, Physician On Call, and usually get an order because I had a teacher that taught me how to get what I needed from almost any doctor.

It probably stands to reason that most of these urgent calls for sleeping pills occurred at night, right? Because that’s when it always happened. And I had a different name for the Physician On Call. In my terminology, POD stood for Prince/Princess of Darkness. As odd as this might sound, most of the docs I called in the middle of the night liked that term. Some of them identified with it. And you can get almost anything you want from the Prince of Darkness.

So, there was this guy at the MVAMC. Edison. He was an older guy, late fifties, early sixties. I can’t remember if he was depressed or schizophrenic, but what I can remember is he was the guy that couldn’t sleep.

I worked a rotating Day/Night shift at the VA. During the time in question, Edison was a patient on my unit, and I was working a stretch of nights. He was generally a quiet guy, kept to himself; makes me think he heard voices now. Because he couldn’t sleep, Edison didn’t even try to pretend to go to bed. He sat up in the lounge listening to whatever it was his voices had to say.

Edison didn’t complain about his insomnia, well, not at first. I offered him meds, but he declined. He said meds didn’t work. He just sat in the lounge every night for maybe four or five nights.

Edison started coming up to the nursing station. He still wasn’t sleeping, but maybe he’d try some meds. And that’s when the problems started. Edison wasn’t lying. Medications did not work.

I called the Prince of Darkness, he gave me an order for Trazodone. It’s an antidepressant, but it has one helluva sedative side effect. We used it for sleep all the time.

Didn’t do a thing.

Next night, get an order for an extra dose.

Didn’t do anything.

Next night, Edison says he hasn’t slept at all during the entire time he’s been in the hospital. I have to admit, I didn’t believe him. No one can stay awake that many days straight and not go crazy, or in his case, crazier, I suppose. I got a higher dose of Trazodone, plus a repeat dose if needed.

Didn’t do a thing.

We tried other meds as the nights progressed into Week Two. Haldol. Benadryl. Combos of Haldol and Benadryl. Add Ativan. It didn’t matter what we did, the meds did nothing. Edison asked me to get a big hammer and hit him over the head with it. I told him we already tried Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, and it didn’t do squat.

At some point in time around here I had a night off. Maybe two. I didn’t have any problems sleeping on my days off. When I went back to work again it was for another stretch of nights.

As for Edison, it was allegedly Night 11 of no sleep at all, day or night. I wasn’t the only skeptical person when it came to believing Edison’s claim of total sleep abstinence. No one did. We all figured he had to have gotten a few minutes of sleep here and there.

I couldn’t stay awake that many days in row. I’d nod off for at least a few minutes, if not more, especially between 3:00-5:00 AM. It wasn’t called the dead of night for nothing. That two hour timespan was a killer for me. If I could make it through those hours, I could make it through the night.

It just so happens there’s a threshold/drop dead timeline when it comes for how many days you can survive without any sleep whatsoever.

Anyone want to guess how many days that might be?

I returned to work, and there was Edison, still not sleeping. Also there on this night was my nursing bud and all around best friend, Paul Anderson. This was going to be a great night, I thought.

Edison was becoming more vocal in his claim of not sleeping, not even a goddamn five minute catnap, for Christ’s sake! His voice was starting to incorporate a kind of annoying whining tone.

I checked his medication record. He’d already received everything he could for sleep. I gave him a couple Tylenol and a shot of Maalox, and encouraged him to lay down and try to relax. Edison whined as he walked down the hallway, but he didn’t go to bed, he went back to the lounge.

Paul and I had a great time that night. We told jokes and said funny stuff. And we were working with Gail Sebesta, an uniquely talented LPN who could run with the wolves, and by wolves I mean Paul and myself.

The night seemed to fly by. We were having a minor great time inside the nursing station. I looked at the clock. It was almost 3:30 AM already! This was going to be the best night ever. And that’s when Edison came up to the nursing station.

“I still can’t sleep!” he kind of whined.

“Yeah, I know. The problem is, I don’t know what to do about it.”

“Can’t you call the doctor?”

“Sure, I can call him, but then what? Edison, I’ve gotten orders for enough meds for you to put this entire unit to sleep for a week. I’m pretty much out of suggestions. You guys got any ideas?”

“Hey, Edison.” Paul said. He went through the Mark’s a good nurse and he’s done everything he can think of speech. Maybe more medication wasn’t the answer. It hadn’t seemed to have been very effective so far. Paul was a master of redirection, and when that didn’t work, he was a master at setting limits. All I had to do was sit back and relax.

“But I haven’t had ANY sleep in almost two weeks!” Edison cried, his voice was more whiny, and he was getting louder.

“It’s more like eleven days, isn’t it?” I thought that sounded better than two weeks.

“No. That’s not possible.” Paul disagreed. “It’s physically impossible for you to go that many days in a row without any sleep. Your brain will automatically shut down all by itself.”

“Mine just shut down right now,” Gail added. I laughed. Edison did not. He got louder.

“Why won’t anyone believe me?!? I haven’t slept since I came in here! I. Can’t. Sleep!!”

Other patients were coming to their doors to see what was going on. This was suddenly becoming a nightmare. No night shift nurse wants to take care of a bunch of cranky people at 3:45 AM.

“Hey, bud. Can you turn down the volume a bit, you’re starting to wake everyone else up.” I said.

“I DON’T CARE! I CAN’T SLEEP AND IF I DON’T GET SOME SLEEP SOON, I’M GONNA DIE!!”

“Hey, Edison!” Paul jumped back into the fray. He voice was stern. “You’re gonna have to trust me, man. No one has ever died from a lack of sleep.”

There are moments in every life when everything happens in slow motion, right? Have you ever felt that?

Paul finished his pronouncement. Edison started making these strange creepy-croaky noises in the back of his throat. His eyes rolled back inside his head, and he turned a kind of beet red color. He fell to the floor without even a hint of muscle tone or control. He landed face-first with a smacking sound like unto the sound a beaver makes when it smacks its tail on the water.

“Holy shit! Call a code!! Gail said, running for the crash cart.

There was a phone right in front of me. I called the Operator as Paul went flying by me to try to save the life of the man he’d just assured there was no way he was going to die.

And then everything became a blur. We started CPR, the Code Team flooded onto the unit and took over. But despite Paul’s promise, Edison was DRT.

I haven’t been awake eleven straight days, so there’s no chance I’ll die from Terminal Insomnia. My condition is probably a cumulative effect of all the profound changes I’ve gone through lately that have upset my sleep pattern. Life seeks equilibrium. We’re usually the cause of most of our own turmoil. It’ll all balance out again, soon…

I usually try to wrap these vignettes up in a nice, neat bow, and add a moral or something. But what do you say about a guy that was telling the truth, only you didn’t believe him, and then he got dead? My gut had no extrasensory messages for me, and my head was telling me that guy was full of it.

Maybe Gail summed it up best as we were walking off the unit when our shift was over.

“This only goes to show me what my mother told me as a little girl is true.”

“What’s that?” I asked. Paul wasn’t talking.

“Never trust a man that says trust me.”

Life and Death

You get to learn a lots about these subjects when you’re a nurse, but one of the fair things about life is you don’t have to be a nurse to become familiar with either of them. You simply have more exposure as a nurse.

There are two things I’ve learned about life and death in my nursing career. One, when it’s your time to go, nothing will save you. I’ve had patients come up to the nursing station to get their scheduled meds, collapse as they’re going back to their room, and were dead by the time they hit the floor. They had no complaints, no apparent concerns–and then they were DRT. Dead right there.

Conversely, when it’s not your time to go, you will live through everything. I’ve had patients that had shot themselves in the head with a .357. A .22. A .45. I’ve had patients that sliced open their bellies like a samurai committing seppuku. Patients that had deliberately collided a motor vehicle into a bridge abutment, a tree, another vehicle. Patients that had jumped into traffic, off of a building, off of a bridge. I’ve lost count of how many of them tried to overdose or hang themselves. But they had at least one thing in common: they were all walking around talking about it.

Go figure.

My wife has Crohn’s disease. It’s an autoimmune disease where the body essentially attacks itself, resulting in sometimes massive inflammation and ulcerations throughout your entire GI tract. It can result in nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and pain something like unto that scene in ‘Alien’ where the spooky monsterbeast pops up out of that guy’s chest.

That was what Lea was experiencing when she started the first of her serial admissions to Fairview Medical Center in 1991. Over the next three years she would spend roughly half that time in the hospital connected to so many IV’s she usually needed two IV poles to hold them all, and two or three–sometimes four–IV pumps.

TPN, total parenteral nutrition. That’s two separate components right there. One is a huge bag with yellow fluid that Lea and I called her margarita bag. The other is a small glass bottle filled with creamy white lipids–her Piña Colada. The nurses that took care of Lea liked that and started calling them those names, too. A bag of normal saline with a morphine drip became her martini bag. Shaken, not stirred. No olives. Lea couldn’t eat ANYTHING during these times.

All of her nutritional needs were met by IV’s. She had to have a PICC line for that, plus one or two ancillary lines in her arms. She was on IV antibiotics; we didn’t even try to get cute with that. There were more, many more. If Lea had put a flower in her hair, she could’ve been a float in the Rose Bowl Parade.

And for the record, the real nurses that cared for my wife during that time–you all were rockstars–we loved those nurses, they were all so amazing. They. Were. Un-fucking-real.

Her GI doc, James Kromhout, had no idea what to do anymore because nothing he had tried was working, and Lea only got worse. He sent a consult to a surgeon, Dr John Something… And we waited. And waited. And waited some more.

I ended up writing him a ten page letter, explaining our situation and our frustration. Dr John actually read it. He offered this explanation: Once you open someone up and start taking things out, you can’t put them back in again.

I understood that, but I also knew if he didn’t operate on my wife, and soon, a monsterbeast was going to tear her guts apart. We waited another week. Or two. I started writing Lea’s eulogy. I would get a lots of practice with that literary piece over the next few years…

Her doctors had decided to try high doses of prednisone as a last ditch effort to stem the massive inflammation in her guts. Lea’s condition continued to deteriorate. Dr John finally decided there was no other option and scheduled her surgery.

Prednisone is a ‘dirty’ drug. It’s a very effective anti-inflammatory drug, but it has a lots of nasty side effects. Moon face, weight gain, mood swings, insomnia, mania–even psychosis–plus about a hundred other things.

Lea had all of them, and a bag of chips, on the night before her surgery. I spent that night at the hospital with her. I tucked her into bed, told her a bedtime story, sang her a lullaby–and she closed her eyes. I turned to sit in a recliner in her room, and by the time I got to the chair she was in the bathroom trying to figure out who the person in the mirror was, and how did that person get into her room? I have no idea how she managed to get her IV poles into the bathroom without knocking them over or disconnecting her tubing.

I might have gotten five minutes of sleep that night. My wife had maybe five minutes of sleep that week.

Lea was the first case on Dr John’s schedule that morning. Most abdominal surgeries run about an hour, maybe two at the most. Lea was in the Operating Room for four hours. When Dr John’s scalpel cut through her abdominal muscles and the peritoneum, Lea’s intestines flew out of her body like someone had opened a prank can of worms.

Dr John told me this after her grueling surgery. He removed about half of her large intestine. It was so swollen it looked like the Metrodome. He spent at least two hours stuffing my wife’s guts back into her body, and closing her up before anything could jump out again.

“I think you were right. About the surgery. I should’ve done it sooner.” he said. I think the only thing I could do in response was shake my head.

Whether late or early or whatever, Lea had finally had the surgery I felt she needed to have to save her life. The only question that remained was the Big One about time.

Was it her Time?

God Save the Queen

My favorite patient of all time has to be Fiona. I met her at Aurora. She started out as a patient on another unit, but was transferred to my unit because her behavior was too disruptive. She needed to spend some quality time on the Canyon. My unit had a reputation for taking care of ‘problem’ patients.

Fiona’s reputation had preceded her arrival. We had all heard stories about her. She was bipolar, totally manic, and pretty much a hot mess. In fact, the day I met her she was screaming at the top of her lungs when I walked onto the unit. I walked in her room, sat down on her roommate’s bed, and waited for her to come up for air. She screamed for about another forty-five seconds.

“Who the hell are you?” she demanded, once she caught her breath.

“My name is Mark. I’ll be your nurse today.”

“Excellent. I suppose you have some shots to shoot in my ass, don’t you, Mr. Maark?” And she showed me her ass. She had a funny way of saying my name.

“Nope.”

“Then what the hell do you want!”

“I want to know what you’re so afraid of.”

Fiona ran a hand through her tangled hair, and sat down on her bed. “What am I NOT afraid of! People are trying to KILL ME!!”

“Why?”

“Because…I’m the QUEEN OF THE BLOODY WORLD!”

Fiona was from England, so she had that whole British royalty accent thing going on.

“Your Majesty,” I said, and bowed to her. “I am here to protect you. I am here to keep you safe. I will not allow any harm to befall you while you’re under my care.”

“Really. Would you take a bullet for me, Mr. Maark?”

“Only one?” I gave her a little smile.

“Oh, thank God!” Fiona sighed. “It’s about time I get some decent help in this dump.”

I wish I could say that’s all it took. Fiona was a handful. Team Canyon had to scramble to keep the peace. I ended up giving her shots in her ass, probably more than once.

“Man, that gal’s a trip! She thinks she’s a queen!” one of my techs said, laughing.

“I know.”

“What do you do with someone like that?”

“Treat her like one.” I said.

“For reals?” he asked, and he stopped laughing.

“Yep, for reals.”

So, Fiona got the royal treatment while she was on my unit. We changed the name on her door to Queen Fiona. One of the evening shift staff brought in a plastic tiara for her to wear. She steadily settled down; her mania wasn’t as tenacious as some I’d encountered, and she was a whole lot better by Day Three.

The Queen also liked to hang out near the nursing station and chat, but she didn’t monopolize the counter. She had other subjects, and they needed to see her, too. However, she was quite taken with me, and even offered to make me her personal Beefeater.

“Do I get a hat? I like those hats.”

“We shall see. You have to earn it.”

Once the Queen was stabilized, we discharged her. It was a sad day for me. However, she did return to Aurora at least once afterwards, maybe twice. But she had graduated with honors from the Canyon, and she would never be my patient again. She’d stop by and chat briefly as she walked past my unit.

“Mr. Maark,” she would say, and extend her hand.

“Your Majesty,” I held her hand, and she would flash her crooked smile. Half of her teeth were missing, but she still managed to look regal somehow.

“I haven’t forgotten about the hat!” And she’d have to dash. “Ta ta for now, Mr. Maark!”

I wasn’t present on the day she died, but the story goes something like this: She went to a Psychiatric Urgent Care, begging for help. There was something wrong, she claimed. The staff at the Urgent Care disagreed, gave her a bus pass and more or less pushed her out the door.

I can imagine her, distraught and crying, walking to the bus stop, then screaming for help as she collapsed. Someone on the scene called 911, but by the time the ambulance arrived, Fiona, the Queen of the World was dead.

She always said people were trying to kill her, maybe she was assassinated. More likely, she had a heart attack. Either way, part of me felt like I had failed in my duty as Queen Fiona’s personal Beefeater.

But the other part of me felt God had taken her out of her imagined kingdom, and had welcomed her with open arms into his Eternal Kingdom.

It’s only fitting. After all, she was a queen.

The Piano Man

We had a piano in one of the day rooms at the Minneapolis VAMC. And we had a patient that played it whenever he was in the hospital. He was an old guy, so he played songs from the 40’s and 50’s, and he even sang the lyrics. He was really good! Everyone loved him.

The last time he was admitted, there was something distinctly different about the Piano Man. For one thing, he repeated everything I said, really loud.

“THE PACKERS ARE GOING TO LOSE ON SUNDAY!”

And it wasn’t just me. He repeated everything anyone else said.

“NO! THE VIKINGS ARE GOING TO LOSE ON SUNDAY!!”

I figured the guy had had a stroke, so we ordered a Neuro consult, and he was transferred to a medical unit. And he stayed there.

A couple weeks later, my gut asked me whatever happened to the Piano Man? I looked him up in the computer and found the unit he’d been transferred to. My shift would end in about half an hour, it was ‘pink’ on the unit–nurses never use the Q word–so I went upstairs to see him.

The Piano Man did not look good. He was shiny and sweating. He breathing was labored and irregular. And he looked terrified!

“I’M SCARED!!” he gasped. I reached out and took his hand.

“It’s okay. I’ll stay here with you.” I said. His breathing calmed down a bit, but he still looked afraid. His eyes darted all around the room, as if he were trying to locate the source of a spooky noise.

“Maybe we could sing a song,” I suggested.

“NO! I DON’T WANT TO SING!” he said. But I started singing.

“Every time it rains, it rains…” I started.

“Pennies from Heaven…” the Piano Man chimed in, his voice returning to a normal volume. It was the only song I remembered from the songs he used to sing. Despite his reluctance, the Piano Man and I sang two verses of the song. He relaxed a bit with each word of the song.

“There’ll be pennies from Heaven for you and me…” We finished the song. I smiled at the Piano Man. He smiled back. He wasn’t afraid anymore. He closed his eyes…and he died.

I went back to my unit. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened. The Piano Man had left this world, but he had done so unafraid, with a song in his heart.