Friday, April 30, 2010

Death - Take a Holiday!

Every evening I call my mother, and as much as we try to keep the conversation jolly and light, lately the news she imparts has to do with death. My mom will be 87 in May. She has outlived many of her friends, but the older she gets, the more frequent death visits those she loves (all of whom have been dear friends of our whole family). The other day, after our usual greeting, she told me, "We have another one down." It was, I believe, the third one in three weeks.

You have to understand that death is not something my mom likes to talk about. She has great faith, and is not afraid of death, but she gets very nervous talking about something that has always made her awkward and uncomfortable. After her terrible car accident a couple of years ago (has it been that long?), Rachel and I flew down to be by her side in the ICU, joining my sister who had been there from the first moment, and instead of feeling comforted, Mom started crying. When we asked her why, she said, "I think y'all are all here because you think I'm not going to make it." I was shocked she even mentioned it. We tried to reassure her. Occasionally after that, she would say things like "I wish the wreck had just taken me," but on the whole, Mom has always preferred to talk about other things - anything - rather than death.

Of course, death is something that, on the contrary, fascinates me (maybe it's partly the medical aspect that it is interesting). Even in my twenties, I remember buying a book about the history of body-snatching (grave-robbing). Later I read an expose of funeral industry and another book on the physical aspects of death - in what order the cells and organs die one by one. This week I'm reading a book called Stiff, detailing how cadavers have helped science research and therefore humanity as a whole (its very gory details don't even bother me when I read it during lunch). I have already written my obituary; after all, I'm the only one who knows what I want included in it.

What about death is not intriguing? I can't find anything. The whole process of one minute a body has a soul inside and then next minute the soul has moved out is fascinating to me. One minute you're a living, breathing, feeling being, then you die and your empty shell can be a research instrument to help scientists learn how to build safer cars - or your organs, all of a sudden useless to you, can be used to donate to living humans who need them to survive or thrive. Of course, I can be intrigued by death and not like it at the same time. I have lived through the normal number of deaths in my circle for one my age, I suppose - grandparents, an elderly aunt, etc. My dad died at a younger age than expected (64) when I was only 26, so that was difficult. My close friend Bernie died of hepatitis before she turned 50, and my first cousin Mike died unexpectedly in his 40s also. I have had several friends and acquaintances from high school who are gone.

But then, I'm only 55. Mom is 87, and she has had visits by death to loved ones many, many times over. I remember when a gifted organist (and close family friend) in Memphis died years ago, Mom bemoaned the fact that her funeral was not well attended only because "so many people who knew her and appreciated her had already gone before." You don't live to be 87 years old and not think of death, whether someone else's or your own, on a frequent basis. It's coming to all of us at one time or another. I am entirely comfortable - even eager - to discuss it. It's one thing we all have in common, and it's the great Unknown.

But after hearing of these three friends of Mom's (and mine) who died this month, and after seeing prominent local folks in the obits column, I am a little weary of death right now. Like the wonderful old movie "Death Takes a Holiday," I yearn for a little break. I'm tired of thinking about losing people I love. I'm empty from missing "those who have gone before," who have left a big hole in my heart. Oh, I certainly believe the soul lives on, and Ed reminds me that my dad, for instance, is now with me in a way he could never be physically on earth, but it doesn't make me stop aching for one more time to give him a big hug and kiss.

Death fascinates me, intrigues me, transfixes me. It is reality for us physical beings. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. Sometimes I just think it should just give us a break.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Of Pigs and Dogs and Undying Love

We weren’t supposed to get her. The breeder handed us a boy, a black and brown Australian shepherd puppy that we immediately named Pippin. Pippin seemed to be a playful pup at the breeder’s house, frolicking with his siblings, but when Ed and I took him home, he was withdrawn and seemed sad. Pippin was not interested in toys or other games. He wanted to lie silently in the foyer. His eyes were cloudy. His walk was slow. The ride to our house even made him carsick. After a few days, we thought Pippin must be ill, and we sadly took him back. The minute he returned to his brothers and sisters, his whole personality changed and he was happy, running around and playing. We then realized Pippin was not sick; he was just not content to be by himself, and was meant to live in a house where there were other dogs to play with.

At this point, we saw another Aussie puppy in the room - a dog with blue merle coloring, with patches of black, gray, white, and touches of tan. The first thing that stood out was her nose, which was almost totally pink with a few tiny black spots. The second thing was her one blue eye and one brown eye. We fell in love at first sight and took her home. The car ride did not bother her at all. We called her Pinky.

She didn’t bark for a few weeks. She just grunted. We even thought maybe she had a physical inability to bark. One day on the porch, Ed, who was outside trying to housetrain her and trying to hurry her up, said quickly, “C’mon, Babe.” The puppy’s ears perked right up and she stopped in her tracks and looked up at Ed. Ed thought, “She likes the name Babe.” Her breed of dog was bred to herd sheep, and we remembered that wonderful movie, Babe, about a pig who thought she was a dog, who became a champion shepherd. This puppy would be our Babe, our pig-dog with a pink nose who only grunted for the first few weeks. She would be our constant companion for 7 years. She was Ed’s special friend, keeping him company while I was at work. I can’t tell you how many times I came home from work, and he’d say, “Babe and I were talking and we came to a decision. I need to cut down on my pipe smoking/I don’t really need to buy a new pair of jeans/I need to drink more tea and less coffee....” When she’d come in with mud and gravel attached to her fur, Ed would smile and say, “We need to clean you up, you dirty little pig!”

I am so sorry to say that Babe developed epilepsy about 4 years ago. At first it was mild, then it progressed into cluster seizures, 9 in 24 hours, 15 in 24 hours. The electrical storms in her brain was starting to do damage. After this last round of 15 seizures, finally, it affected her ability to walk without stumbling, her ability to recognize us. She forgot how to move her back legs to stand up from a sitting position. She forgot how to tell us she needed to go out. She would get into a tight spot and forget how to back up to get free. She even forgot how to climb into the car. The seizures had done their work and taken our beloved Babe to another dimension. We made the agonizing decision to have her put down on Friday.

It was not an easy decision, and we will never be totally assured that it was the right one. But she had suffered so much. We had all suffered so much, because love will do that to you.

We were in line at the grocery store shortly thereafter, trying to hold the tears inside, when I heard the customer in front of me tell the cashier she had just had surgery and had beaten breast cancer. She was understandably overjoyed. There we were - the happiness of life and health, and the overwhelming sadness of grief and loss - side by side in line. I realized I was in the midst of the very cycle of life. Our third grandchild, a boy, will be born this summer, a few months after Babe will have been gone. Death and birth, within months of each other. Losing and gaining, and experiencing life, as they say, “In sickness and in health, to love and to cherish ‘til death us do part,” - and life goes on.

We weren't supposed to get her. But it turned out we were supposed to get her. The hole she has left never gets completely healed. The memories will stay forever in our minds and hearts. But in the ebb and flow of this earthly existence, we pray to experience acceptance, reassurance, gratitude, and grace, thankful that we were blessed with such a dog as Babe.

Friday, April 02, 2010


I've written frequently in this blog about making memories. Today I want to talk about preserving memories.

Part of the journey to simplicity is clearing out useless stuff and saving important things. Lord knows that is one of the most difficult and time-consuming parts of the process. One only has to revisit my early posts from 2005 (has it been that long??!) to understand the heart-wrenching details of our trying to weed out the clutter as we struggled with what to save and what to trash at the beginning of our journey. At that starting point, it was hard enough to make the decision of whether to save something, let alone worry about how to save something. But, as my sister and I have come to learn last week, without the proper preservation, the initial decision to save becomes irrelevant.

I spent last week in west Tennessee visiting my family, and during my visit, my sister Joy and I spend some time cleaning out our mother's house. Mother has done marvelously recuperating from her auto accident (and her subsequent broken hip and ankle) at Joy's house, but Mother's own house still needs some attention and maintenance, and we took the opportunity to do just that.

The old attic, of course, proved to be the worst part. Our beloved childhood family church, Harris Memorial Methodist, has been officially disbanded for decades, but our choir-director/church-leader father saved every bulletin and every canceled check from that congregation. We laughed when we came across choir attendance record books from the '40s - if you were a choir member of Harris Memorial and your life depended on knowing whether you attended choir practice on a certain Wednesday in 1942, just contact us! Dad died 3 months before age 65 and his planned retirement, so we figured he would have spent some time up in the attic had he lived in order to sort out some of this stuff himself. But it fell to us to do that for him. Some things we easily discarded, but we were bewildered with old magazines and newspapers, most of the time not having a clue as to why they were saved.

So lesson #1: If you save something for future generations, please put a note with it about why it is important! Your kids and grandkids will not be mind-readers. A birthday card is easy enough to identify, but what about that old fountain pen? How are we to know it was a gift from a special person on a special occasion? What was the article in the yellowed magazine that you wanted to save and why? Who's the wise guy behind the old textbook that on the flyleaf says, "Turn to page 102," then on page 102 says "turn to page 14," then similar random page-turning instructions until you come to the message of "You're a damn fool for doing this!"? Who is that unidentified old lady or little girl in the black-and-white picture? Is this baby dress mine or my sister's?

Summary: If you take the time to save things for future generations, please label, label, label!!!

Lesson #2: Consider your chosen method of saving your important things. Time, moisture, insects, dust, sunlight - they all do their best to destroy your precious memories. As a quilter, I have always been aware that, for instance, a wooden chest is not an appropriate way of saving a quilt unless you use special acid-free paper to wrap the quilt in, because the acid in the wood will ruin the fabric. Baby clothes, old embroidery, tatting - anything that is made of fabric - needs to properly stored. Especially photographs! Hint: Storing photographs under what would become mildewed curtains is not a good plan. A box like that could easily have been misidentified as trash and thrown out without even sorting through.

Summary: If you take the time to save things for future generations, please store carefully! If necessary, do some research on the method that will be the most appropriate for your treasures!

Lesson #3: Don't let the family stories die. This one is tough. When you're a kid, the last thing you want to do is sit with some old family characters as they ramble on for hours about this and that from their childhoods. You're too young to realize the importance of this moment. Even in young adulthood, you're usually busy with raising kids and making your own memories that you forget to sift through and salvage the irreplaceable memories of your parents and grandparents before dementia or death takes them away. Our mom doesn't talk that much about the past, and to get her to give us details is like pulling teeth, but our Uncle Tommy, bless his heart, likes nothing better than to tell story after story, and he is a treasure trove of family history. Only now do we appreciate this. The time will come when, unless remembered and preserved, those stories will be lost forever. Let your relatives talk, and listen carefully. Write it down, retell it, make a video - whatever it takes to preserve something you can't see or touch but which is irreplaceable.

Summary: Preserving these memories is just as important as preserving those baby shoes. Take every opportunity to appreciate and pass on.

And there you have it - my three "journey to simplicity" lessons I learned last week in my childhood home in Memphis. Some of the most wonderful things we possess are memories. Be careful with your family history or one day you won't be able to locate and identify your great-grandfather's photograph or even be able to retell the story of Aunt Bessie as a girl with her dog whose eye barely hung on by a thread (those lovely stories always told at mealtimes)!