A short list

A bucket list can be long or short, simple or more intricate. Some bucket lists carry expensive price tags; others not so much.

The bucket list of a young boy is understandably different from that of an old man. Boys look up to contemporary heroes; old men tend to look back to boyhood heroes long gone. Who can say what wishes might wash through the mind of a young boy as he nears the end of his short life?

I know of such a lad who, weak and wounded, had voiced a burning desire to see the original Declaration of Independence. In his debilitated state a trip to Washington, D.C., wasn’t feasible; he could barely sit up in bed at home. But somehow the word went forth, contacts were made, officials were informed, with the upshot that the curator of the National Archives arranged to close the public exhibit for a short period of time, long enough to skype a private showing for this youngster lying in bed at home several states away.

I’m told that the curator himself had been handed a terminal diagnosis, although in his case it would be some time, certainly much more time than had been granted the young boy; but time resides in the moment, and one moment lived in the now is priceless compared to hours or days of dulled awareness.

The curator explained the history of the document to the boy: the discussions that formulated the radical ideas that underpinned it, the drafts done by Jefferson, the changes by Adams and Franklin, the appended signatures giving approval and consent. The camera focused on the text of the parchment itself, penned in Timothy Matlack’s fine hand, punctuated by John Hancock’s signature centered among the other fifty-five below.

I am not certain how long this private showing lasted: perhaps several minutes, perhaps half an hour, perhaps an eternity; but in the end the boy’s wish was granted, and an invisible check mark was placed next to the item on the short list, signifying its completion.

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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.

The bend in the great river

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever. The sun also riseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to its place where it rose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to its circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full. Unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. Ecclesiastes 1:5-7

“He’s had fever for two days. He’s been so fussy, he won’t let me put him down.”

This mother looks exasperated, exhausted as well. And she’s not a new mother. This 7-month-old infant was her caboose. Up until today, she’s only brought him in for well-child care.

“Has he been eating?”

“Not well. I could only get him to take 4 ounces all day.”

“Vomiting?”

“No, no vomiting—just extreme fussiness.”

“How high has his fever been?”

“102 to 103.”

I study the infant in her arms while we talk. At this point he seems comfortable. He even smiles at me, always a good sign in my book of clinical diagnoses.

“Any one else at home sick?” I ask, reaching for my stethoscope.

“No, not at home. But we did take him to see my husband’s grandfather in the nursing home a week ago. He was bedridden with pneumonia.”

I nod and listen to the baby’s back and chest. Nothing but normal breath sounds greet my ears, another good sign.

“Let’s lay him down,” I say, standing at the head of the exam table with otoscope and tongue blade in hand. The mother pins her infant son’s arms at his sides while I peer into his ears and throat. The tympanic membranes appear pearly grey, but the throat is red and swollen with a small amount of exudate on the tonsils.

“He’s got a sore throat,” I announce. “Let me swab it and run a quick test.”

“I knew he had a sore throat from the way he was acting,” the mother muses. “He cried every time he tried to swallow.”

Even without running the test, I know that this infant has contracted a virus. It’s exceedingly rare to see strep throat in such a young child. But I need confirmatory evidence to prove it.

By the time I return with the news that the results show no strep, the baby has calmed down. Even his fever has dropped — another good sign. I tell this seasoned mother that in all likelihood her little boy will turn the corner in 24 hours. “Give him some acetaminophen, hang in there and call me tomorrow morning to let me know how he’s faring.”

“By the way,” I say, “what did his great-grandfather think of him?”

“He was pleased to see him. Could the baby have picked up pneumonia from him?”

I pause to ponder her question. “Do they know what sort of pneumonia he had?”

Tears fill the mother’s eyes. “Terminal,” she says. “He wanted to see his great-grandson before he died.”

Pneumonia, the dying man’s friend. It settles into the lungs of the exhausted aged bedridden patient and whisks him away in the night.

“When did he pass away?”

“Ten days ago.”

“I doubt that the baby contracted pneumonia from him,” I say. “The incubation period is too long, and there are no signs of a lung infection on exam.”

The mother seems reassured. She will follow my instructions and call me in morning.

One generation makes its entrance while a former one fades away. Standing at the bend in the great river, I look upstream and marvel at how the new white water cascades down over the smooth rocks as downstream the current meanders around the far oxbow and silently slips from sight.

“Pine Creek” 2011 © Brian T. Maurer

Focal Points

As cancer, that insidious conniving guest,
Silently invades the body,
Making no pretense in devouring its host,
It focuses the mind.

From morning’s waking moment,
In lieu of schedules and daily schemes—
Early aerobics, a suitable outfit,
Slipstreaming down the interstate,
Lunch, enjoying a chapter in early afternoon,
Home for dinner, an evening walk, bed—

She now hears the clear notes of chickadees.
Morning light unfolds, revealing
Ruby red carnations potted by the backyard fence.
The bedroom fan cools her sallow skin.

Ultimately, such moments are all she has—
Has it always been thus?—
Just so, just enough.

Copyright 2012 © Brian T. Maurer

Night Landing

Night Landing

Above her toes, from where she lay
Reclining at bed’s edge,
She glimpsed a light pass through the night
Above the window ledge.

The plane began its last approach,
A beacon locked it in—
The landing gear would next descend
And brace against the wind.

Blue lights would then come rushing up—
The runway in the night
Would suddenly materialize
Within the captain’s sight.

The plane would drop down at the last,
Wheels screech against the earth;
Air brakes up, flaps hold fast,
Into its final berth.

She wondered how the end would come—
She prayed she would take flight
As wheels against the tarmac run:
A knock, a lurch—then light.

Copyright 2011 © by Brian T. Maurer