In the wee small hours

My daughter telephoned me at work to let me know that the elderly woman she had been caring for had died in the night.

She was staying with the woman and her husband in their home. The woman had liver cancer; the man suffers from dementia. My daughter cooked them breakfast, helped them bathe and dress, drove them to medical appointments, made sure they got their medications on time, kept the larder stocked.

She heard the woman moan in the night, turned her over on her side, heard the rattle in her throat. She called the hospice nurse first thing in the morning. The nurse came to the house, pronounced the patient, and signed the death certificate. Then she and my daughter bathed and dressed the body.

I could hear the exhaustion in my daughter’s voice as she related these incidents over the phone. I was certain that she had learned quite a lot while taking care of this couple, much more than she would have learned sitting in class at nursing school.

These thoughts ran through my head as I sat listening to an old Frank Sinatra LP recording after dinner. The album belongs to our next door nonagenarian neighbor; the old turntable was a gift from the elderly woman who died.

I sipped my coffee as Sinatra belted out the words to “All the Way” and softly crooned “In the wee small hours of the morning.”

In the wee small hours of the morning
While the whole wide world is fast asleep
You lie awake and think about the girl
And never ever think of counting sheep.

When your lonely heart has learned its lesson
You’d be hers if only she would call
In the wee small hours of the morning
That’s the time you miss her most of all.

Literary critic George Steiner opines that “Death is closely related to what I call real music: a certain sense of the end of time and of personal life.”

“When somebody asks how one can have an intense meaning which one doesn’t understand, music is the one place to turn for an answer.”

Right now those words seem to make infinite sense.

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Farewell, My Lovely

Not all old friends die hard. For some it’s as easy as a cough, a sputter, a sudden surge in temperature, a brief episode of cheyne-stoking, and then the end. The body is cleaned and dressed; the final appointment is made. Papers are duly signed and dated. The hearse arrives to collect the body, now spent; a eulogy forms in the mind, a hand raised in final salute.

In this case the friend to which I refer is an old lovely, a vintage legacy no longer manufactured in this country. She appeared before my house one morning eight and a half years ago with a shout from the street: “Isn’t she a beauty? I saw the color and I thought of you.”

The speaker was my auto mechanic. The beauty under discussion was a 2000 Subaru Legacy GT AWD wagon, standard transmission, grey upholstered seats, console cassette player, AM/FM radio, dual moon roofs: a second-hand dreamboat from Florida. The golden pearl exterior reminded me of the lining of seashells cast upon the shore. I took it for a spin and fell in love; this was the car I had waited for, now dropped fortuitously at my doorstep.

And so began a relationship that lasted nearly nine years. We traveled everywhere together: back and forth to work, the daily mundane commute; several long treks to the wilderness regions of Pennsylvania; a semiannual rendezvous on the porch of an inn at the square of an old town in the northeast. Periodically, we ferried family to Logan Airport outside Boston and JFK in New York. She ran like a charm in overdrive across the long stretch of interstate highway from Brewster to Port Jarvis. Altogether we logged over 177,000 miles with barely a complaint along the way.

Regular oil changes and servicing helped maintain her health. A leak in the moon roof resulted in a sizeable payment for what turned out to be unnecessary repairs suggested by an unscrupulous dealer no longer in business. She ran well on a diet of regular unleaded gasoline during a decade when gas prices were relatively cheap. All told, we had a good run.

Even good runs eventually wind down. I knew there was a problem when the needle on the temperature gauge began to fluctuate and the coolant levels dropped. The thermostat was replaced; the radiator fluid replenished. The water pump was changed along with the timing belt. Still the problem persisted.

One morning the engine overheated on the way to work. By that time I had learned to carry a jug of diluted antifreeze in the car. Quickly, I pulled off to the side of the road and shut the engine down. I waited a few minutes before I cracked the radiator cap to allow the steam to escape. She ended up taking nearly two quarts of fluid to complete the resuscitation.

“If the lines are soft when the engine is running, it’s most likely not the head gasket.” “If there’s no white smoke from the tailpipe at startup, it’s not the head gasket.” “A good number of those 2.5L engines go over 300,000 miles without a head gasket leak.” That’s what I read in the forums online; those were the words of trusted friends. I’m sure they meant well. In the end it was my auto mechanic who pegged the telltale sign: “Check the oil. If it looks like a milkshake, it’s the head gasket.”

She overheated again one Sunday morning on the way home from the filling station. I had just topped off the fuel tank in preparation for another week. Once again I pulled off to the side of the road; once again I checked the fluids. The coolant was down a quart from the previous day. The oil on the dipstick looked like a chocolate milkshake.

In the end I elected not to trade her in on a newer model. I donated her to charity instead. Early one morning I cleaned her out and placed the title and the keys in the glove box, running my hand over the dashboard one last time.

When I returned home from work that evening, she was gone.

The days were golden, the nights were dim and strange. I still recall with trembling those loud, nocturnal crises when you drew up to a signpost and raced the engine so the lights would be bright enough to read destinations by. I have never been really planetary since. I suppose it’s time to say goodbye. Farewell, my lovely!    —E. B. White

A still small voice

I listen to the recent spate of voice mail messages on the home answering machine, methodically deleting all but two:  the one from Eleanor informing my wife that her open heart surgery would be postponed, and the other from Eleanor’s niece the morning after Eleanor’s surgery.  I tap the play button and listen to both voices again, one right after the other, even though a week has elapsed between the two.

“Let them be,” my wife calls from the other room.  “Don’t delete them.”

“I wasn’t going to,” I say; then as an afterthought I add:  “I’m heading out for a walk in the woods.  Be back later this afternoon.”

I drive half an hour to a friend’s house and we strike out into the nearby forest.  It’s a steady climb to reach the ridge.  The vernal pools at the top are teaming with mosquitoes.  We hurry on past the tall stands of mountain laurel not yet in full bloom and descend to the trailhead on the opposite side.  There, nestled among the pine needles that carpet the forest floor, pink lady’s slippers bask in the soft afternoon light.

“I know where there’s a stand of them,” my friend tells me.  “Down by the lake.”  He explains how to find them.  Perhaps I might be able to get there later next week, I think; but I know that soon they will be gone.

We strike out on a new trail through the tall pines.  Vireos call from the tops overhead.  The distant note of a wood pee-wee drifts in on the warm forest air.  We pass another vernal pool and turn onto a new trail that crosses a wooden footbridge just below the beaver swamp.  Up ahead we encounter the massive stone foundation of a colonial farmhouse hidden in the old growth forest.

Further along the path, deep in the woods, a veery trills his flute-like riffs.  At Beaver Brook we pick up the narrow road again and follow it out to the country road.  Shortly, we are surprised by an owl perched in a tree high overhead.  It stares down at us with coal-black eyes for a full minute before dropping down silently into the forest.

Back home, seated by my wife, I click through the day’s digital photos.  “The pink lady’s slippers were over a foot high,” I tell her.

She musters a nonchalant nod.  I know she is thinking of other things.

It’s rather an odd thing to have the still small voice of a newly deceased neighbor bottled up in voice mail coupled with the announcement of her death the day after surgery from her niece.

A walk in the woods only serves to distract the mind temporarily.  By the end of next week the pink lady’s slippers will have dried on their stalks, delicate ephemeral blossoms withered away in a woodland underworld.

Web and Flow

On the morning of the day prior to departing for Atlanta, where I was scheduled to give a formal presentation about a pig and a spider, I rolled out of bed early—it was my Saturday to cover the office.

While toweling off after my shower, I noticed a grey spider descending from the light above the bathroom sink. Her spinnerets formed a nearly invisible silken thread as she dropped down to hang motionless before the mirror. Shortly, she retreated up to the light and selected another point from which to begin a new descent. This time she dropped down to the shelf below the mirror and crawled behind my toothbrush. Gingerly, I nudged it to the side to reveal the spider resting by a tiny puddle of water.

She measured a centimeter in length, double that if you included her front legs. I could see the array of her black eyes and mouth-parts moving as she drank from the miniature pool.

I exited the bathroom to dress, and when I returned I found that the spider had struck out in a new direction, cantering across the wall to the shower stall, where she tucked herself in behind the aluminum molding.

Here is E.B. White’s description of Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web: “Stretched across the upper part of the doorway was a big spiderweb, and hanging from the top of the web, head down, was a large grey spider. She was about the size of a gumdrop.”

I’ve seen plenty of spiders around our place, but never a solid grey one like this one in the bathroom. Uncanny!

With the exception of a minor glitch in the sound system (thankfully, there was a savvy tech in the room to remedy the situation), the presentation at the Georgia World Conference Center in Atlanta, What Charlotte’s Web Can Teach Us about Caring for Critically Ill Children, came off well.

When I arrived at the lecture room 10 minutes before we were scheduled to start, I counted 8 tables with 10 chairs at each table, and no one to fill them. I needn’t have worried—within minutes the hall was packed to standing room only. One group actually huddled on foot at the back for small group discussion over the entire two hours. (I found out afterwards that we hosted 125 attendees.)

I told a story as part of the introduction, then proceeded to show the video clips from Charlotte’s Web, pausing intermittently for discussion and feedback.

Several folks gave us two thumbs up afterwards. One fellow who works in interventional cardiology asked me if I might be able to give the same presentation at the institution where he works—Children’s Hospital in Dallas.

I also met a fellow who, after he learned who I was, told me that he’s read every column I’ve written for the past two years. Now what are the odds of that happening?

When I returned home, after I unpacked my bag and stowed my paraphernalia in the proper places, I retired to the bathroom. As I stood outside the shower, reaching in to test the water temperature with one hand, once again I glimpsed the grey spider. She descended from the storage shelf by a single silken thread, hanging motionless for a moment in the air, before continuing down to light upon a purple plastic box lying on the floor.

I bent down to have a closer look and studied her carefully. I was certain she was the same spider that I had seen that day before departing for Atlanta. The color and body size were identical, right down to her tiny facial features. Then there was the fact that she inhabited the same small room as before.

But what clinched it for me was when she said, “So tell me: how did the presentation go?”

Evening, After a Spring Rain

Spring is a season of transitions.

After a full day of steady soaking rain, the air cools considerably; so much so that you can see your breath on this late April evening.  I wait until the rain has tapered off to take the dog out.

Together we pad down the shiny wet street, past the flowering crabapple trees in the church yard, around the corner to the top of the hill, where yellow forsythia blossoms lie scattered on the sidewalk.  Wild violets hang in clusters over the curbing at the edge of the cemetery.  Sentinel rhododendron pods are swollen with the promise of spring.

As we descend the forest path to the river, the dog straining at the leash, the lonesome call of a mourning dove erupts—a haunting hallowed echo that resonates through the cool evening air.

In the village at the end of Main Street where the gravel road turns off toward the park there sits a tiny shingled house.  At one time this structure served as the village train station, back when the railroad was in its heyday.  The tracks are long gone; only a berm marks the former bed.

The man who lives there now works as a repairman.  Occasionally, I see his old van parked outside the village auto shop.  Sometimes I pass the man coming out of the post office, his work shirt pocket stuffed with a plastic sleeve of pens.  His wife died earlier this month.

The auto mechanic told me that the repairman had approached him about dispersing his wife’s ashes out on the sound.  The auto mechanic has a boat berthed at one of the marinas along the shore.  The repairman has the old van, but no boat.  The auto mechanic said he would do it.  They would take off early one morning in the old van and drive down to the coast to where the boat was moored and head out to sea with the urn of ashes and cast them out over the water in the morning sun.

The mourning dove calls again, and I think about the repairman and his old van and his newly deceased wife and the matter-of-fact neighborliness of the auto mechanic.  The dog strains at the leash as we walk along the path by the river to the pond in the park, then back up the gravel road to Main Street, where the tiny shingled house sits silently in the damp evening air.

The old van is parked in the driveway.  In the shadows of the arbor vitae to the left of the house the side yard is blanketed in a soft wave of sky-blue Forget-Me-Nots.

A Life or Death Decision

Her father is sick, again—but this time she’s asked to choose.

The will of the father; the wishes of the daughter.

His body is spent; and intuitively, he knows it. Still he clings to life by one thin thread of hope.

She’s become the designated caregiver.  Emotionally exhausted, she has no energy left for family and friends.  Her career has suffered, and she wants her life back.

Suddenly, she has been charged with making a decision on his behalf:  to intervene or not to intervene, knowing full well that intervention will ultimately only prolong her father’s suffering.

It would be so easy to say: “No, don’t intubate; let’s end this folie a deux right now and get on with our lives.”

Yet for him, that is not the right thing to do.

As his daughter, she respects his will to live.

In this case, technology is a curse. If we didn’t have ET tubes and ventilators, life would take its natural course. We have created our own demons, and they constantly come back to taunt us: in this case, six additional months of ventilator dependence, dialysis and a feeding tube before death from heart failure.

What a pity this whole scenario could not have been discussed with the father during one of his more lucid moments! Perhaps then he could have made a more rational decision.

But then, death is never rational, is it?

A Winter Walk with Jackie

“Please take the dog out before you go to work,” my wife says.

I look up from the book I’m reading in bed.  “I thought you just took her out?”

“I did.  But if you take her out for a walk before you go into work at noon, I won’t have to take her out again when I get back.”

My eyes drift down to the book in my lap.

“Such a hard life you have—the life of Riley,” she says, pulling on her coat.

I hear my wife’s feet pad down the stairs.  Below, the dog barks in a frenzied fit when the back door closes.  Soon she appears at the side of the bed, leaps up onto the covers beside me and buries her nose under my book.

“Okay, okay,” I laugh, stroking her pink belly.  “Let me get dressed.”

Head cocked slightly to one side, she watches as I shed my pajamas and pull on my heavy pants, fleece and vest.  I hunt for a pair of woolen socks in the chest of drawers.  Judging from the movement of the branches in the tall pines behind our house, the wind is up.  The clear blue sky portends a biting cold.

The puppy precedes my step on the stairs; she bounds through the parlor to the kitchen door where, tail drumming, she waits.  “Okay, okay,” I say, pulling on my heavy gloves and reaching for the leash, “let’s go.”

We step outside into a cold so sharp that it burns the nostrils.  The wind has blown bits of recyclables from the back porch, scattering them about the yard.  I retrieve the items and hurriedly toss them back into the bin before heading out.

The snow has hardened in banks by the side of the street.  We push ahead, the dog straining at the leash into the wind which cuts at my throat.  Instinctively, I reach for the zipper at my neck and close the collar of my vest.  Soon we are off at a trot down the tarmac.  At the end of the street we turn the corner and don’t stop running until the end of the block.

Microscopic windswept pins prick the skin of my thighs through my corduroy trousers and sting my face.  Despite the gloves, my fingertips tingle.  We cross the intersection and head down the street.

At the bottom of the hill two crows rise up from a snow bank and pull their wings like black oars against the oncoming wind.  The puppy pauses to sniff the air.  Shortly, we are off again, running down the road.

We make our traditional loop in record time and ascend the hill, past the stand of grey maples sparsely clothed in remnants of bittersweet.  The dog stops abruptly at the row of pines behind the church, nose to the ground.  “Come on, Jackie,” I say, tugging at the leash.  “Let’s go.”  Thankfully, she responds, and we race back down the street to our driveway.

Inside I push the door to, hang up the leash, pull off my gloves and stocking cap and pour a cup of hot coffee from the carafe.  The heat from the cup permeates my hands; the coffee percolates down my throat.

Garrison Keillor once remarked that winter is the only season of the year that is actually trying to kill you.  Not that I have beaten Death—but only once more succeeded in postponing that final inevitable rendezvous.