It was a pleasant surprise to find your letter in the mail! I don’t even know the last time I received a letter. Such a treat!
I have given much thought to travel to Florida, because I have other friends (besides you) encouraging me to visit, too. I had to think through why I was resisting the idea. Part of my reticence is that I traveled for work for 15 years and likely got travel out of my system, and it’s difficult to leave the animals for more than a couple of days. Also, I figure that if my friends and I can’t make time for one another when we are in proximity, then it’s silly to spend all that money to travel to be together. My snowbird friends can’t imagine that others wouldn’t want to escape northern winters, but that is the case. I decided a few years ago, that if I were going to long for 70-degree days, I would only be happy about 5 days out of 365. I decided to embrace the weather, whatever it is. I decided that if I were miserable with the Michigan weather conditions, I wouldn’t live here. Even though I just love long, sunny summer days, I am content here in every season – love something about them all – and although I would love to see more of you, there is something to be said for making time for what is important to us – one another. It’s all about priorities, huh?
Your dental bills sound nightmarish. Jeff has said about dentistry, “Pay a little regularly or pay a lot later.” I guess you are the living embodiment of that?
I have my life pretty much categorized into winter activities and summer activities so I can stay organized and (somewhat) peaceful, and still get LOTS of garden time in the summer. In the winter, I clean out cupboards, purge closets, complete household projects, attend dental and doctor appointments, run errands, touch base with friends I have neglected, complete mundane paperwork like wills and taxes and budget. I cook more in the wintertime. Jeff and I usually watch a video series on winter evenings and play board games. In the summer, I am mostly outside and in the garden. My volunteer work keeps me busy, as well as my rabbit breeding and competition, and writing. I am always busy, rarely frantic, and I am productive.
When you are in town and if you have time for lunch or dinner, please let me know.
A friend told a friend who told a friend who told me that the first friend thought I was mad at her. Despite the scenario, I’m not 12 or 13; I’m 66, and I have learned a few things about relationships during oh these many years… If you are concerned that a friend is mad at you, ask her. She may tell you that she is indeed mad, and give you the opportunity to listen (otherwise known as repairing the relationship). She may lie that she isn’t mad, but at least she’ll know you care. Consider this: maybe it isn’t about you at all; maybe she has her own struggles that have nothing to do with you! Perhaps you don’t even know about those struggles, because you have not asked. If this is the case, deciding she’s mad and then gossiping about it, doesn’t support her or heal the friendship (IF there is something to heal), so consider if your concern is for yourself or for your friend. I have had enough relationships to know that the lasting ones are between two people who are not needy and who do not keep score. I have had enough relationships to know that they ebb and flow depending on circumstance, and distancing doesn’t have to mean anger. If you are hurt or lonely or missing your friend, look in the mirror, and then REACH OUT. 🐩
I can remember when being very, very, wealthy was something to which people aspired. Now, being very, very wealthy is seen as a fault and is touted as a reason to despise. If it isn’t okay to discriminate against someone simply because he or she is poor, it isn’t okay to discriminate against someone simply because he or she is wealthy! My mother would call that “sour grapes.” Beware the sour grape Kool-Aid.
Charley was already nine the summer Mr. Detroit came into our lives. We were doubtful about himtolerating this skeletal, battered pup, or any dog for that matter. A dominant male, neutered late in life, Charley had always been an only poodle, and although Barb campaigned from the beginning for Charley to have a friend, we agreed that the only future possibility would be a female. Little did we know…
Mr. Detroit was rescued from a dog attack in inner-city Detroit. His age was unknown, but he was a young dog. When he arrived at Detroit Animal Control, it was obvious that he had been on the street for awhile. It was obvious that he was badly injured and starving. It was not obvious that he was a Standard Poodle.
The story goes that somebody at Detroit Animal Control recognized him as a standard poodle and called Barb at The Michigan Standard Poodle Rescue. Transport from Detroit was arranged, and within hours he was on his way to a better life. He desperately needed veterinary care to treat his many injuries, but the long, filthy, matted hair precluded anything but a cursory medical exam, so Mr. Detroit went straight to the groomer. I’m told he cooperated quietly for over two hours while Santana transformed him into a poodle – a skinny, frightened, injured, beautiful standard poodle.
Mr. Detroit was treated for his injuries and needed substantial after-care. When asked, Jeff and I agreed to foster him. We had the time and experience to give him the care he needed, and I was curious to see if fostering poodles could be my calling. From the beginning, it was agreed that if Charley couldn’t tolerate this interloper – an intact male, to boot – Mr. Detroit would have to move to someone else’s care. We certainly didn’t want Charley to hurt him; he’d been through enough, and Charley had a spotty history with other dogs.
By the next day when Mr. Detroit arrived at our house, his name had been changed to Romeo. It fit, because it was impossible not to fall in love with him. He was eager to please, stood quietly for his hydro-therapy and wound treatment, and quickly learned to take food from my hand without trying to take my fingers, too. He didn’t need a leash, never once pottied in the house, didn’t chew, counter-surf, or get into any kind of trouble. He learned quickly and was eager to please. Romeo would quietly “sneak” into my arms or my lap, any time I settled down for even a moment. Also, he had an unusual and endearing way of expressing affection. Standing on his hind legs, he put his front legs around me in a “hug.” He wasn’t really jumping; it was an embrace. It wasn’t dominance, because he stood quietly and rested his head against my chest. I had never seen anything like this hugging behavior. I wouldn’t allow it, because a habit like that would not endear him to people. I wouldn’t allow it, but it was adorable. I immediately began to teach him his name by calling him “Ro.” He learned it in one day.
From the beginning, it was hard to keep him in check. With each meal, his energy grew, and he exhibited what can only be called joie de vivre. He ran circles around Charley, and lapped our property long before his exercise restriction was lifted.
Charley didn’t know what to make of this unabashed upstart who rolled around on the ground and tried to gnaw his legs. He found Ro alarming, but although Charley had no idea how to play with another dog, he tolerated even the most outrageous behaviors. When Ro sashayed over and helped himself to Charley’s dinner, it was surrendered immediately and peaceably.
In the beginning, Ro would occasionally just walk away from us. It happened three or four times. He would start down the driveway, determined to leave. He wasn’t running away, exactly. He was just leaving. If I chased after him, he didn’t run, he just ignored me and allowed himself to be caught. At these times, he was oblivious to recalls, and early on Barb wondered if he was deaf. She and I agreed it was likely, since we’d never before seen this odd behavior. We soon realized that there was absolutely nothing wrong with Ro’s hearing, and Jeff and Mary still mock us about that, today. Privately, we roll our eyes and laugh at our own folly. To tell the truth, from day one he minded better than Charley. He always came instantly, the first time he was called – unless he was intent on a walkabout.
Despite overdoing it, Ro took his medicine, tolerated his hydrotherapy, and improved. He began to put on weight and his hair began to grow so that it could be fashioned into an (almost) poodle cut. We had him neutered. He chased squirrels endlessly, lapped our property easily, and he gave Charley the wonderful gift of play.
I loved that Beau’s behavior contrasted Charley’s. Charley wants to be in the room with me; Ro wanted to be in my lap. Charley would easily surrender some of his rightful attention; Ro could not abide anyone else getting petted. Charley is independent; Ro was dependent. I had my lap dog and my friend, and it was a perfect balance for me, so I began to worry about surrendering him to a “forever home.” I wondered how I was going to give up this dog who stole my heart. It was a perfect match and after all he’d been through, I was fiercely protective. I never considered changing the deal with Jeff, though. He had bargained to foster in good faith, and I wouldn’t have dreamed of putting him in the position of the bad guy. Then, one beautiful summer morning, Jeff put himself in the position of the good guy. It is one of those life moments, where you remember exactly where you stood and how the world looked and smelled. I was standing in the yard, watching the dogs play. Ro would streak in a wide circle around the yard, then dive-bomb Charley and they would wrestle and growl “fiercely.” Jeff stepped out of the garden shed with a cup of coffee and we stood, watching. Quietly, Jeff said, “I really don’t see you giving up this dog.” Magic words! Jeff and I bargained about care and guidelines of a two-dog household and agreed that the name Romeo wouldn’t do, so “Ro” became “Beau.” I called Barb and gleefully announced that the foster had failed.
Throughout the next year, when Barb and I talked, our conversation would usually include some marveling at Charley’s transformation since Beau had arrived. We had been worried about Charley accepting another dog, yet they were always together, and they were becoming a team. Beau was shy and tentative in any new situation; Charley was self-confidant and fearless. Beau taught Charley how to play, and Charley became the instigator of wrestling and tag. Beau loved the hunt, but had no interest in the kill; Charley loved the kill, but couldn’t manage the chase. Outings in the car are Charley’s favorite pastime; Beau was never comfortable in the car, but would do as his buddy did. Beau breathed new life into an old dog, and Charley gave Beau the self-confidence he needed to enjoy each day worry-free.
Jeff thinks that Beau displaced Charley. I see it differently, though I can understand Jeff’s point of view. In the beginning, Beau required a lot of time and care. He was always very demanding of affection. The way I see it, Beau took the heat off Charley. I’m a snuggler and Charley is not. Beau was a fanatic snuggler, so Charley didn’t have to put up with it so often. (Charley likes cuddling first thing in the morning, and that is non-negotiable.) Actually, I think Charley displaced me a little, so he could connect to another dog.
One thing those poodles had in common was their love for an outing to the groomer. They knew the route and grew excited when we neared Pet Pals. They loved Becky and loved being groomed by her. Poodles living in the swamp can be a messy business. Every five weeks I would deliver stinky, tangled poodles to her, and she would magically transform them into beauties. It is of note that on the last day of Beau’s short life, we dropped Charley off to Becky on our way to the vet. Bless his heart and Becky’s, as ill as he was, Beau wanted to go with her.
The months passed, and the poodles bonded more and more. They began to occasionally share a bed. They traveled together, ate together, slept together and played together. Beau’s life was playing, hunting, eating, sleeping and cozying up to anybody who would pet him. His only dark moments came during thunderstorms or fireworks, and the vacuum cleaner was his own personal demon. In quiet moments, Beau could be found on his corner of the couch, or draped over me, wherever I landed. He had a knack for lying in walkways, so we would have to step over him. His preference was to sleep in my arms, in the bed.
One day, a little over a year after Beau came to us, I noticed he had a nasal discharge. He had no other symptoms, but in all my years with all of my dogs , I had never seen anything quite like it. We high-tailed it to the vet, and thus ensued nearly four months of the slow and steady decline of my beautiful standard poodle. Despite antibiotics, the mucous turned to blood. Despite steroids, his nose ulcerated. Despite anti-fungals, he stopped eating. He sometimes tripped on the stairs. These were weeks and weeks of worry, guilt, indecision, financial stress, and dashed hopes. He’d be better, then he’d be worse. He wouldn’t eat, then he would. He wouldn’t run, then he would be seized with a burst of energy. He would curl up, oblivious to the world, then he would chase a squirrel. We would try a new medication and we would wait to see if it would work. Gradually, he lost his spark and even stopped playing with Charley.
Charley’s behavior gave me a sinking feeling, early on. Uncharacteristically, he began jumping up on the bed to sleep with Beau and me. Then, he began sleeping in Beau’s spot on the couch whenever Beau wasn’t there. If Beau was in his spot, Charley would join him. It broke my heart to see Charley try to engage Beau in play. He couldn’t understand why his buddy avoided him.
I regret the last two weeks. I think Beau was suffering, by then. We were trying one last medication and it needed time to work. It didn’t. There was a final trip to the vet where Beau was at last released from his misery, his head resting quietly in my lap.
After weeks of lamenting, “Poor Beau!,” there has been an abrupt switch to, “Poor Charley!” My heart goes out to Charley; he has had some pretty devastating losses in his life. Charley’s best friend, the elderly man who raised him, died. Then, Charley was moved with the man’s wife to a new home in a new state. After a few months, he was surrendered to the standard poodle rescue, losing the only people he had ever known. Almost immediately, he came to live with Jeff and me. I feel so sad for Charley! Another loved-one disappeared, and this time it was one of his own. Am I anthropomorphizing? Maybe, but as I write this, it has been exactly a week since Beau died. Charley is bored and needy. He won’t let me out of his sight and he is underfoot. He had brought a beat-up old bear with him when he came to live with us, which he would stuff in his mouth as a soother for sleeping. Once Beau arrived, that old bear began to make his way to the bottom of the toy basket. I hadn’t seen it in months, but he has fished it out, and he comforts himself with it, again. I had worried from time to time about how Beau would react when Charley, his rock, got old and died. I wondered if Charley would grow old enough to give that little guy the self-confidence he would need to be an only dog. It never once occurred to me that Charley would be mourning Beau.
I know Jeff is anxious about the probability of me broaching the subject of another poodle. It hangs in the air between us, the elephant in the room. I know he thinks one dog is enough, and the thing is, I don’t disagree. Right now, I feel like it would be a replacement poodle, and Beau is irreplaceable. The problem is that I have learned that standard poodles need each other. I spent sixteen months watching a developing relationship that I could never be a part of. I saw Charley get a new lease on life when Beau came into our lives, and I see him now, bereft and adrift. Maybe I owe it to him. I wonder if the right dog would give Charley more time with us. Charley is an old dog, so maybe it’s better for me to have one in place in my heart when Charley’s time comes. I know that Jeff and I will eventually have a conversation about getting another dog, but right now I’m worn out and I just want the one I can’t have.
My friends have comforted me by reassuring me that Beau’s life was at its best during his time with us. I have no doubt about that, but when friends tell me that I did the best I could for him, I wonder. I don’t know if I did right by him. I don’t know if I did right by him, at all! Where did my responsibility to him begin and end? The truth is that I may have been able to save him, had I spent enough money, and while the guilt of my decision tortures me, I guess I wouldn’t do it differently. The diagnostic procedures would have run in excess of $5000 with no guarantee of a diagnosis. Even with a diagnosis, I can’t imagine the cost of treatment – financially for Jeff and me, and physically for him – if there was a treatment. Would it mean surgery on his face? What suffering would that entail? At what point is pursuing treatment for my pet, actually for myself at the expense of my pet? How do I balance hope, practicality, effort, suffering, selfishness?
If my child were ill, I would know what to do. We do what it takes for our children, no matter the cost physically, emotionally, financially. But as much as I loved this dog, he was not my child. I was not his “mommy” and he was not my “baby,” and that people vehemently assert the notion that their pets are their children, doesn’t make it so. To go deeply into debt or to financially bankrupt a family, in the hopes of saving a pet, seems irresponsible. Just because I could, doesn’t mean I should. And yet…
Many years ago, my dear cousin Brett died of a rare disease, the name of which I had never even heard: AIDS. When I found out that Brett was dying, I called my aunt, his mother. I was beside myself, but she told me something that she had learned from caring for her dying son. I have never forgotten her words and they have shaped my world view and have influenced many grave decisions I have made. “Nancy,” she said. “There are far worse things than dying young.”
Beau, of unknown age and background, was easy, eager to learn, and eager to please. He was well-behaved and obedient. He was filled with joy and gentleness. He was soft. He was beautiful and affectionate and athletic, and if he had a bad habit, I don’t know it.
It is odd that at our house we have already returned to some of our old ways – how it was before Beau came. Charley and I go about our day together, quieter, a little sadder, a little needier. In some ways it seems like Beau was never here, and yet something is definitely missing. I guess the joy is missing, because the imp is gone; the jester, the clown, the comedian. I can almost see him wading in the pond, or “attacking” Charley, or flying through the grass with his ball. Such a happy guy.
Barb was wonderfully supportive through the whole long ordeal of Beau’s illness. She never once second-guessed me. When I told her that he was gone, she immediately made plans to bring over her dogs, Coach and Molly, for a “cheer up Charley” romp. As we walked along in the woods, I talked so much about Beau that I began to feel guilty about Charley. For some reason, I felt the need to assure her that even though I grieved terribly, the loss of Beau, Charley was the love of my life. “Of course!” she said. “Charley is your dog. Beau belonged to Charley.” And although it really doesn’t feel that way, I guess that’s how it was.
The Rainbow Bridge
There is a bridge connecting Heaven and Earth.
It is called the Rainbow Bridge, because of all its beautiful colors.
Just this side of the Rainbow Bridge there is a land of meadows,
hills, and valleys with lush green grass.
When a beloved pet dies, the pet goes to this place.
There is always food and water and warm spring weather.
The old and frail animals are young again.
Those who were sick, hurt, or in pain are made whole again….
We get very few visitors back here in the swamp, so I was curious when the doorbell rang, and I opened the door to a middle-aged lady, alone on my stoop. She didn’t greet me so much as gush at me. She said she was with a community group that offered services to the elderly and she’d like to meet Hal. I mostly accepted her overture, since the social malady du jour, that year, was the elderly. I asked to see identification, which revealed that she was from the department of social services, not the community. I was alarmed that she misled me, so I balked when she tried to enter. She changed her story and her tone. A complaint had been filed against me for elder-abuse. That got my attention! I let her in. Hal was in his room watching TV, but when I called him, he came scurrying out. She greeted him with the condescending baby-talk tone so often used with the elderly. They chatted. She was friendly, though disingenuous. She misrepresented her visit to him, as she had with me. I explained the real reason she was there and alarmed, he invited her to sit with him in the living room. She dismissed me, saying that she wished to speak privately with Hal. I wasn’t about to leave this stranger unattended with him, but I needed time to think, so I stood out of sight to listen, unnerved and in shock.
I knew who did it. I knew it was my rabbit club’s secretary who I had just voted to remove because of improprieties. This was someone with whom I was very friendly, and she had decided to get personal and retaliate for her removal by filing a complaint against me for elder-abuse. She had done it to people before and had bragged about it. I stood quietly and listened to the adult services worker interview Hal, and I began to come apart at the seams.
She told Hal that she was there to make sure he was okay, and he told her that he was appreciative. She asked him how he liked it in our home and he told her that he loved it. She asked him what he did there, and he told her about gardening, reading, writing, walking, and practicing his music. She asked if anyone had ever slapped him, hit him, or pushed him. He was shocked, and he stammered, “Of course not!” She asked him why someone who was not his relative would take him in, and he told her, with some surprise, “Because they love me!”
Amenities over, she told him that to make sure he was okay, she would need his social security number, his bank statements, and his tax return. Ever trusting, he began to rattle off his social security number. I snapped to my senses and burst into the room to interrupt him. “That’s enough,” I said. “That is completely inappropriate. It is time for you to leave.” She threatened to call the police, but I held my ground.
At this point, she handed me an official-looking piece of paper that forever changed my politics and my peace of mind. Included in this document were “General Legal Principles:”
A. No interview should be conducted, in the presence of the perpetrator, whenever possible. With no investigation yet underway, they had labeled me a “perpetrator,” (not alleged or accused perpetrator) thus setting the tone and direction of the investigation and implying permission to impugn my constitutional rights. What about my right to be considered innocent until I am proven guilty?
C. The identity of an Adult Protective Services (APS) referral source is confidential unless DHS/APS is given written consent of that person or by judicial process. I am supposed to have a right to confront my accuser. Although this was not yet a criminal proceeding, I was being accused of a criminal act.
D. If admission to an adult’s dwelling is denied, the county DHS may seek the assistance of law enforcement to secure a search warrant…” Evidently, officials may lie their way into my home and my home can be invaded by my government without just cause. We would never accept this from law-enforcement, but a well-intentioned social worker is not accountable?
The adult services worker misrepresented herself to gain access to my home, lied to Hal about why she was there, and manipulated him to get private documents to which she had no right, by using against him the same tactics from which she is sworn to protect him: she attempted to take advantage of him because he was old.
For most of my adult life I have been a mandated reporter, so I know all the arguments that attempt to defend the actions of the DSS, and I mostly agree with them. I understand the need to protect the elderly; the whole reason we asked Hal to live with us was to protect him. I understand the need to protect the complainant, too, so witnesses aren’t afraid to come forth. I understand that where abuse is taking place, entry may be denied to those seeking to protect, and that authorities may need to press the issue, and I understand that workers with the department of social services are regularly lied to and daily see deplorable living conditions for elderly people who really do need help. I believe that elder-abuse is a real and present problem in our culture and that we all have a responsibility to prevent it. Believe me, living with an elderly man for eight years and experiencing his growing vulnerability and naivety, has only strengthened my conviction that the elderly are at risk. But the ends do not justify the means if the means include compromising citizens’ constitutional rights by cherry- picking which rights are important.
My household was immediately plunged into anxiety and anguish on that day. Jeff worked for the state; even though he was not mentioned in any of the accusations, what would be the implications for his job? How would this change our plans to care for Hal until his death? Could we dare continue with this living arrangement, regardless of the outcome? What if they took him away? What would happen to him? Did it leave us vulnerable? What were we risking? Would we be forced to spend our retirement funds paying to defend ourselves? Would our privacy be invaded if this became public knowledge? Would we be the source of hateful gossip? I felt frantic and disgruntled. No good deed goes unpunished.
The specific accusations were twofold: 1) I was stealing Hal’s money and 2) Hal had not been seen for quite some time. Hal took it upon himself to write a six-page (longhand) response to the accusations, in which he outlined his resentment that not one specific example of abuse had been provided. He chastised social services for ageism, stating that his mind was clear at 90 and had he been 50, they would not have questioned his judgement. He outlined and enumerated all the ways his life had been enriched by living with us, and he was very specific. He responded to the first accusation by stating, “It would not be possible for Nancy to abuse me financially, because she would be welcome to any or all of my money, any time she wanted it.” To the second accusation, he requested that the agency contact his church, his music group, his friends, and even his barber and grocer, all of whom saw him on a weekly basis. He requested a written account of the details of the alleged abuse and the evidence that had accrued. He demanded a written apology for misleading him and treating him like a child.
The worst part of this debacle was Hal’s anguish that my good deed was being called into question. Hal knew full well that once someone is accused of something deplorable, reputation and peace of mind are forever tainted. Hal had unerring trust in Jeff and me and was offended and horrified that our honor was being called into question, because of him. He felt guilt and anguish, and he was afraid for himself; afraid he would lose his home. Helping people who do not need or want help is what my son calls “unintended consequences.” In this case, one unintended consequence of the good intentions of lawmakers was that by passing a law to help people like Hal, they had instead hurt him.
I took immediate action. I consulted an attorney. I sent a letter to social services, detailing the information about the person who I knew had made the false complaint. I made a call to a long-ago former colleague at DSS, to unofficially confirm the name of the complainant (thus, by the way, stepping on her legal rights). Meanwhile, I provided references including the mayor, two priests, a deacon, a professor, and Hal’s own doctor.
The principles I saw in the “legal principles” section of the papers I was handed, showed me that my government can invade my domicile on a whim. This flies in the face of my rights as a citizen of the United States of America. That middle-level bureaucrats have the authority to supersede the fundamentals of our democratic society, the right to due process of law (the principle that the government must respect all the legal rights that are owed a person according to the law of the land, instead of respecting merely some or most of those legal rights) and the right to confront our accusers, is unconscionable. Citizens would never stand for the police invading their homes, but it is somehow acceptable for social workers to lie and misrepresent themselves to gain access, because they are seen as angels of mercy. Lawmakers and citizens alike, should think very hard about the unintended consequences of proposed laws. Laws that protect some innocent citizens by persecuting other innocent citizens are unacceptable. Intentions do not justify means.
Eventually, we received a letter saying the investigation was completed, the findings were without merit, and the case was closed. It would be permanently filed with the State of Michigan, even though the complaint had been found to be without merit. (Please let this sink in: there is a file in my state government, forever, labeling me an accused perpetrator of elder-abuse, even though I did absolutely nothing wrong and was, in fact, a victim myself.) The case worker called to say that she didn’t need a home visit and could finish up over the phone. Not on your life. I would rather have met with my accuser, but since she was hiding behind the skirts of the county legal system, I would have to settle for their front man. An exit interview was scheduled. To ameliorate my sense of powerlessness and assuage my indignation, I lectured her for half an hour about the Constitution of the United States of America and how she had violated my rights as a citizen. I imagine she just thought I was an ignorant kook, but when I told her how she had harmed this little old man who had never harmed anybody, I got to her a bit. I had no illusion that my preaching would change her mind about anything, but it is healing to speak your mind, and my conviction is that each of us has a responsibility to speak out against injustice. I was pleased that I had not allowed her to write us off, and I enjoyed even the most meager sense of revenge that came from torture by lecture. Hal knew that she had not bothered to read most of his hand-written, single-spaced, six-page letter, so he asked to read it to her. She tried half a dozen ways to weasel out of it, but he held firm, and I eventually told her she at least owed him that. It took nearly an hour as the old university professor read aloud every paragraph and engaged her in conversation all along the way. He insisted on an apology. It did my heart good.
My perpetrator experienced no negative consequences for her frivolous and reprehensible deed. She did however, create devastating consequences for everyone in my household, exactly as she intended. My accuser impacted me, Hal, my family, my local government, and persons in actual need. Officials should err on the side of the alleged victim to ensure safety without stepping on a citizen’s constitutional rights. Charges found to have no merit, should be immediately expunged. That troublemaker should not be protected under a curtain of legislative obscurity, because it opens the door to witch hunts in whatever areas have captured the public’s fancy, important or not. Our well-intentioned fervor to protect the innocent, should not implicitly condone irresponsible or malicious accusations without accountability. If the charges are found to be vindictive, the whistleblower should be punished.
Over the years, as Hal’s mind began to fail, he forgot about that miserable episode in our lives together. That was a blessing for him, because it was still haunting me last summer, when a bad-guy entered my home uninvited and unwelcome and stole from me. He stole my mother’s wedding ring, Hal’s mother’s silver flatware, a pot full of coins, and nearly all my jewelry. The loss of things that were precious and irreplaceable was unsettling and upsetting, but I wasn’t shocked. I’d been through it before, when the consequences were far more devastating. The shock occurred the first time, when my feelings of security in my sanctuary were forever compromised, and I experienced that sacrilege as utter powerlessness, because the first time it wasn’t the bad-guys who did it; it was the good-guys.
In 1993, I was traveling the national speaker circuit, delivering keynote speeches and training teachers. Because of like careers, Jack Canfield was a casual friend, and sometimes we would meet up at conferences. Jack and his friend, Mark Hansen had the idea for a book called, Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit. Jack and Mark wrote to all their speaker friends and asked them to submit personal stories for the book. I obliged with “A Simple Touch.” It was not chosen for the book, which turned out to be wildly successful. A year later, when plans for A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul were in the works, the publisher contacted me and asked to use the story. That was nearly 25 years ago, and this morning I reread the story for the first time in a long time. Times have changed! The vignette is still an example of the gravity of sexual assault, but it turns out to have foreshadowed a disappointing outcome in education (one that the “MeToo” movement will exacerbate), and as I reread the old story, I was flooded with memories surrounding it. It occurred to me that the back story is nearly as interesting as the story, itself. So here, as they say, is the rest of the story…
“A Simple Touch” was written when I was speaking part time and still teaching full time. It was written during “process writing” with my fifth graders. First thing every morning, the fifth graders and I would sit together and write. For the first 15 minutes, no one could speak or ask any questions. I wrote to model the process, and students were not allowed to interrupt. For the second 15 minutes, we paired up and shared our stories with one another, soliciting and dispensing literary advice. Then, students were invited to share their stories with the class and receive constructive comments. From time to time, I shared my own story. Those kids were brutal! 😊 My students were my only editors, so when I submitted that story for publication, absolutely nobody had seen it besides my students. (If you have ever worked with me on any piece of written material, you have heard my mantra, “Everybody needs an editor!” I developed that mantra during the classroom critiques of my fifth graders.) When the story was rejected by the publisher, I shared that sad bit of news with students. When “A Simple Touch” was eventually published, the students were all in middle school and I was a full-time speaker, so I sent them each an autographed copy, thanking them for editing so meticulously. To this day, I can’t imagine a better learning experience for my students.
The other person to whom I sent a copy (besides my mother), was the Charlie in the story. He shared the book with some of his colleagues and word got out that a story about him had been published. One day I entered his kitchen, and the counters were filled with congratulatory greeting cards. He was a celebrity in his community, because his unconscious heroism appeared in the well-known Chicken Soup series. I was amused that it didn’t occur to anyone that somebody had accomplished authoring that story and publishing it. No greeting cards for Nancy!
Years later, I discovered that a writing professor at a local community college made it her habit to teach “A Simple Touch” every semester for years, and to host Charlie to talk about the story. The author (me) was never considered or contacted. At first when I heard about this, I was incredulous, then baffled, then testy. Eventually I decided (tongue-in-cheek) that the story must be so well-written that only the hero was even noticed. Anyway, that was how I decided to frame it. Most days.
Sometimes, I would receive phone calls from across the country, asking me if I was the author of “A Simple Touch.” I would confirm that I was indeed the author. Then, the caller would ask me to settle an office wager: was the story true or did I make it up? The caller would inform the office personnel that the story was true, and there would be raucous laughter in the background. The caller would thank me and hang up. This scenario repeated itself at least twenty times, over the years, and I always got a kick out of it.
Following, is a re-print of “A Simple Touch.” I am putting the story in italics to avoid confusion. If you look up the story in the book, A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul, you will notice that my last name has changed and that I changed a few random words in the story. These changes were to improve the writing, not the story. If I remember correctly, I hold the copyright, so the changes should be legal. I hope.
A Simple Touch
My friend Charlie let himself in, back door slamming. He made a beeline for the refrigerator, searched out a Budweiser and slid into a kitchen chair. I regarded him with interest. He had that shaken, look of someone who had just seen a ghost or maybe had confronted his own mortality. His eyes were rimmed with darkness and he kept waving his head from side to side as if carrying on a conversation inside himself. Finally, he took a long swig of the beer and made eye contact. I told him he looked pretty awful. He acknowledged that, adding that he felt even worse; shaken. Then he told me his remarkable story.
Charlie is an art teacher at a local high school. He has been there for many years and enjoys the envied reputation of one who is respected by colleagues and sought out by students. It seems that on this particular day he had been visited by a former student, returning after four or five years to show off her wedding ring, her new baby and her budding career.
Now that you have the flavor of the story, I’ll share an amusing bit of the back story. My son, Geoffrey was in my class the year I wrote “A Simple Touch,” so he was one of my editors. He was adamant about one particular editing, and was indignant that I wouldn’t make the change. He insisted that I change the beginning of the story from, “My friend, Charlie…” to “My ex-husband, Charlie…” He thought the change would somehow give his dad the proper credit, and he would not be dissuaded by my protests that it would detract from the story, weaken the story, and sound weird. “We are friends,” I told him. “Besides, it’s irrelevant.” These conversations took place in class (where they were a bit embarrassing) and at home (one of the few drawbacks to teaching your own kid). I did my best to use the critique to model for my students that while everybody needs an editor, in the end, it is the author’s choice.
Charlie stopped talking long enough to taste his beer. So, that was it, I thought. He had confronted his own mortality. The years fly past for a teacher and it is always disconcerting to blink and find a woman where only yesterday there had been a child.
“No, that wasn’t it, exactly,” Charlie informed me. “Not a lesson in mortality. Not a ghost.” It had been a lesson, he explained, in humility.
The visitor, Angela, had been a semi-serious art student nearly five years earlier. Charlie remembered her as a quiet, plain girl who mostly kept to herself, but who welcomed friendly overtures with shy smiles. Now she was a confident young woman, a mother, who initiated conversations instead of responding to them. She had come to see her former art teacher and she had an agenda. She had begun after only a few preliminary amenities.”When I was in high school,” she explained, “my stepfather abused me. He hit me, and he came into my bed at night. It was horrible. I was deeply ashamed. No one knew.Finally, during my junior year, my parents went away for the weekend, leaving me home alone for the first time. I planned my escape.
“They left on Thursday evening, so I spent the entire night preparing. I did my homework, wrote a long letter to my mother, and organized my belongings. I purchased a roll of wide plastic tape and spent an hour taping all the outside doors and windows of the garage from the inside. I put the keys in the ignition of my mother’s car, put my teddy bear on the passenger’s seat and then went up to bed.
“My plan was to go to school as usual on Friday and ride the bus home, like always. I would wait at home until my parents called, talk to them, then go to the garage and start the engine. I figured nobody would find me until Sunday afternoon when my parents returned. I would be dead. I would be free.”
Angela had held to her plan until eighth-period art class, when Charlie, her art teacher, perched on the stool next to her, examined her artwork and slipped his arm around her shoulder. He made small talk, listened to the answer, squeezed her lightly and moved on.
Angela had gone home that Friday afternoon and written a second, different letter of good-bye to her mother. She removed the tape from the garage and packed her teddy bear with the rest of her belongings. Then she called her minister, who immediately came for her. She left her parents’ home and never went back. She flourished, and she gave Charlie the credit.
The story nearing its end, Charlie and I shared some quiet conversation about schools that warn teachers not to touch students, about the philosophy that social time in schools is wasted time, about how sheer numbers of students sometimes preclude this type of encounter. How many times, we wondered, had we flippantly related to students in need? We sat in silence then, soaking up the intensity and implications of such a story. This type of encounter must happen thousands of times in schools and churches and shopping malls every day. It was nothing special. Adults like Charlie do it naturally, without thinking.
Then Charlie gave his interpretation. Angela had decided in that moment, in that art class, that if a casually friendly teacher cared enough about her to take the time to stop, make contact, look at her and listen to her, and then there must be other people who cared about her, too. She could find them.
Charlie put his head in his hands while I rubbed the goose-flesh from my arms. He looked up at me, armed with his new lesson in humility. “Nancy,” he said very quietly, very emphatically, “what humbles me the most is that I don’t even remember the incident!” And all these years later, she had come back to tell him that she credited him with saving her life.
This morning, when I reread “A Simple Touch,” I thought about Angela. Her own courage saved her from further assault, and in her teacher, she found the strength to be courageous. As I said in the story, good teachers have that type of caring encounters with students, every day. But things have changed. I know that elementary teachers are encouraged to “high five,” instead of hug, these days, and I doubt that any high school teacher would dare to put a caring arm around a student. That would risk their careers, their reputations, and their freedom. It’s too much of a risk, and refraining from touching students is probably necessary. However, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened to Angela if that one detail had been missing from her encounter with her art teacher. I don’t know the answer, but I know that we have lost something dear.
Part 3: Hal’s Death and the Celebration of Hal’s Life
On Tuesday, March 14, 2017, in the wee hours of the morning, my phone lit up with a text. Surprisingly, it was Jerry. He asked if I was still at the nursing home. I replied that I was, and that Hal had just that minute died. Jerry responded, “I know. I felt it.”
On the Friday before Hal’s death, I received a call from the education department at Saginaw Valley State University. I had been sitting on an RSVP to the annual Harold W. Peterson Excellence in Teaching Award, and they were following up. I wasn’t ready for the word to spread about Hal’s condition, so I had waited to respond. It turned out that the kindness and genuine caring of the education secretary was a great comfort. I’m so glad I answered the call!
On the Saturday before Hal’s death, he was agitated, picking at his bedclothes, removing his gown, moving continuously. He wanted the covers “just so.” He asked to use the bathroom every hour or so. His mind wandered. It was a difficult day.
On the Sunday before Hal’s death, he was awake and waiting for me with renewed energy. The day was filled with lengthy narratives and (seemingly) endless questions. For as long as I knew him, Hal was known for his “stories,” and he took a sort of pride in the fact that he told them over and over. He seemed oblivious that people wandered off when he began a repeat. By the time Hal had lived with us for a couple of years, I had developed an uncanny ability to avoid the “stories.” On this last Sunday, he seemed determined to repeat every story he had ever told, and I was pretty much a captive audience. He was speaking really well, which made it easier on both of us. He always told his stories as if it was the first-ever telling, and that day was no different. The only thing different was me. I listened with relative patience, knowing that I would not hear them, again. He told them with unfailing accuracy. The stories were interspersed with questions, which I did my best to answer. During that one day, I reiterated why he was in this health predicament, who I would notify, what was happening with Lizzie, plans for his garden, his quilt, the donation of his body, and on and on. When the questions and the stories were exhausted, he began to tell me, in chronological order, the story of his life. Sometimes, he would quiet and I thought he might be sleeping, but each time it turned out that he had been thinking hard and remembering. He would rally, but express confusion about the chronology of some life-event. Then, I would take up the narrative and tell the event and he would correct my mistakes. His mind was alert all day, and it was churning. He seemed determined to tell it all and to tell it all correctly. I wondered if “his life was passing before his eyes.” By the time he finally settled down, eight hours had passed in steady conversation, and we were both exhausted. It would turn out to be our last conversation, and I was so glad that he got to tell those damned stories one more time.
On the Monday before Hal died, I pretty much kept a vigil at his bedside. Nurses came and went, checking Hal’s vitals and rearranging him in the bed. Jeff came and went with food for me. Lizzie checked in via text. Friends called. Hospice came. Hospice left. Hospice came, again. Sometime in the afternoon, he settled down and slept deeply, and sometime in the early evening, the hospice nurse told me that she doubted he would wake.
I was pretty much at a loss, that night. I sat with him and held his hand. I read. When I left his room for even a few moments, I felt compelled to return. I talked to him a bit. I watched him. Around midnight, the nurse showed me that Hal had some of the physical signs of impending death. It occurred to me that I should be doing something. I figured the appropriate thing to do was pray. I couldn’t find my prayer book, so I looked up the Book of Common Prayer on my Kindle and turned to Ministration to the Sick and Ministration at the Time of Death (sort of the last rites of the Episcopal Church). I read from the prayer book for nearly an hour, endlessly rerunning those two Pastoral Offices. It felt awkward and a little embarrassing, and I felt a bit impertinent, reading the priest’s lines. Eventually, I just recited The Lord’s Prayer over and over and over until I ran out of energy and voice. I laid my head on the nightstand and dozed.
At about 1:30 AM, I sat up abruptly when Hal’s breathing changed. Moments later, as quietly and unobtrusively as he had lived, Hal died.
Over the years Hal and I laughed about the reluctance of people to say that someone “died.” We laughed about all the words and phrases people come up with to communicate death and still avoid the words” dead” or “died.” We used to take turns coming up with alternatives. We’d hoot with laughter! “He departed. He left us. He bid farewell. He passed. He went to eternal rest. He finished a long and useful life. He made his exit. He yielded his spirit. He went home. He bid adieu. He left this world. He went to Heaven. He went to a better place. He met his maker. We lost him (Hal’s favorite; he thought it was so dumb). When he heard that if a pet died it was called “crossing the Rainbow Bridge,” he added it to our repertoire. Somehow, we settled on “croaked,” and when we were alone, this is the word we used to describe death. Just now, as I was writing, “Moments later, as quietly and unobtrusively as he had lived, Hal died,” I thought it sounded more literary to say, “Hal slipped away.” It seemed like betrayal though, and since I couldn’t say that he croaked, I settled on the simple truth: Hal died.
Hal’s memorial service wasn’t exactly what he wanted, but the main elements were there. He had wanted our friend, The Reverend Mary Jo, to celebrate communion and preach, but the resident priest was a bit territorial, so we settled for Mary Jo preaching the sermon. She had known Hal for a few years, so the sermon was personal and heartwarming, but also religious. That would have been important to Hal. He had listed about three hours’ worth of music for the service, which naturally was not do-able, but we were able to feature a tape of his wife singing, and that was most important to him. He wanted the choir, and they were willing to sing some of the hymns that he had chosen. The organ and the choir were first rate, always so important to Hal. His son had mailed a eulogy, which the priest read. It was beautifully written and memorialized the old Hal, before age had limited him very much. (The tribute certainly didn’t set well with me, because it was obvious to me that he didn’t know his dad, anymore. It was heartwarming to those who didn’t know any better, but patently dishonest. I was angry that he didn’t come to the funeral, even though I didn’t want him there.) The church was beautiful – filled with flowers and friends. Even the new dean of the college of education at SVSU was there with other university representatives, which surprised and delighted me, as it would have delighted Hal.
Hal wanted to host a small luncheon, in absentia, after his memorial service. His world had become very small in those last couple of years, but he seemed most comfortable that way. He had dictated a guest list for his funeral luncheon that included the people who had befriended him and supported him in the recent past: Mary Jo and husband Jim, Jerry (with wife, Julie), Gail and John, granddaughter Lizzie, and my kids, Allison and Geoffrey, Jeff and me. We sat in a private dining room at a local seafood restaurant, where Mary Jo prayed over our meal. We shared good food, great wine, and conversation about Hal. We toasted him. He would have loved it.
Part of the recreation at lunch that day was the usual (considerable) ribbing about how pushy I was with Hal. I organized his life and told him what to do and scolded him when he didn’t do it. I ran a tight ship, partly because of the need to organize a busy household that catered to an elderly man, partly because I am a control freak, and partly because I had done my research about the elderly, who need routine, accountability, to exercise their cognition, and above all, safety. Hal was meek – a real Caspar Milquetoast – and he was unlikely to challenge me very much in disagreements. While I believe I possess the characteristics of bravery and integrity, it seems most people consider me brash and audacious; thus, the teasing. After an hour or so of laughter and tears, I excused myself to use the facilities. I slipped and fell, and it turned out, broke my knee. Jeff and Jerry tried to lift me, but the pain made me nauseous and faint. There was a bit of chaos as the restaurant manager hovered, and hands were wrung about how to proceed, and sometime during the ensuing drama, Jerry said, “Well, Hal finally got the nerve to kick you in the ass.” I just had to laugh and was certainly willing to consider that possibility!
Once home from the hospital, I ensconced myself in an armchair in Hal’s room. It was as appropriate a setup for an invalid as it was for an elderly man: no stairs, kitchen and bathroom nearby. The room was a mess, because Lizzie and I were in the midst of sorting and boxing Hal’s things. It was an odd time, because of the crutches and inactivity, and because of the absence of the minutiae surrounding his care, that usually filled my brain. It seemed that he had just vanished. It was good for me to be in that space alone for much of the day and begin to absorb the prodigious changes that would encompass my life in the wake of Hal’s death. I had some time to absorb the fact that an era had ended.
It’s been nearly a year since Hal died and people sometimes ask me about my grief. I have realized that I did most of my grieving during the years when Hal became dependent and helpless, when our friendship gradually buckled under the weight of the responsibility of being his caregiver, and his declining ability to hear and speak and think. I had mourned our equality, as I became more and more the parent. Sadness was only one aspect of this grief, so it was hard to recognize. This kind of grieving was slow and insidious and could only be recognized in retrospect. Part of me was reticent to recall those difficult years and weeks before Hal died, so I could write about it. The surprise has been that recalling those events has somehow helped me to think more expansively about Hal, and to remember how he was before age started taking its toll. The anxiety and mental fatigue that result from caring for the elderly have begun to fade away, and I can again remember my friend.
Hal was a scholar, a father, a teacher and a musician. He grew up in a tiny tourist town, the hot-housed youngest son of an over-protective older mother. He played trumpet in his own band (for which he chose the moniker, Hal). He graduated from a prestigious music college and went on to teach there. He earned a PhD. in educational administration from Yale. He married a woman who would become a world-renowned soprano. He sang with the real Von Trapp Family and lived in the real-life home of Maria von Trapp. He directed choirs, taught graduate students and created respected musical arrangements. He played recorder in an early music group at the university until he was 93 years old. He traveled the world. He trekked Tibet. He was the founding dean of the school of education at Saginaw Valley College, now Saginaw Valley State University.
Hal felt blessed to have lived a long and interesting life, and he was quietly proud of his accomplishments. He was friendly and caring. He was understated and sweet, and very naive. He was self-centered, but never selfish. He was extremely practical and endlessly curious. He was physically strong and tough as nails. He was neat as a pin, but he just didn’t see dirt or consider germs. Hal was the quintessential absent-minded professor. He was an adventurer. He was a true pacifist. He was a bit of a snob. He was politically very liberal and personally very loyal. He was devout. He was a voracious reader. He wrote poetry and prayers. He was stingy with himself and generous to others. He was a talker. He was a pleaser. He was a giver.
One thing Hal liked to do is imagine the contrast of the life he actually led with the life he might have led, had certain events happened differently or if he had made different choices. He would pick one of his life events and change it in his mind, then spin it out to a possible outcome. How would his life have been different if he hadn’t sold that puppy (which gave him the application money to sing with the Trapps)? What if he had chosen music over education (and therefore never come to Michigan)? What if he hadn’t studied at Oberlin (and never met Char)? What if he had not followed his dream to build a cabin in the wilderness, after retirement (and created a wonderful “second” life with its endearing friends and opportunities)? He used to write these prognostications in detail and explain them to me. I told him that I couldn’t imagine how my life would have been different if Dr. Peterson hadn’t decided to teach that new graduate class, my very first graduate class. That pleased him.
In his last years, when Hal was very dependent, he would sometimes get overwhelmed, and he would say to me, “My God! Think of it! I don’t know what I would have done without you!” And I would respond, “My God! Think of it! I don’t know what I would have done without you!” And he would relax, because he knew it was true.
By the time Hal entered the care facility, he hadn’t eaten for a couple of days, but I’m pretty sure he felt better than he had for a long time. His speech had improved drastically, and he had almost completely stopped coughing – both inestimable blessings. His attitude was remarkable, his mind relatively clear, and everyone saw surprising wit that was delightful, if disconcerting. The first morning when I arrived for a visit, Hal was eager to tell me what he called a great irony. “The first thing you see when you walk in the door of this place is the dining room, and it’s the biggest room in the place, but most of the people here don’t eat.” He chuckled, “Isn’t that something?”
The in-house salon was open for business, and Hal wanted a haircut. He chatted away with the stylist and when she asked if he wanted to make another appointment, he told her, “No. This is my last one.” I guess she assumed that he would be going home, because she wished him luck. He sent me a knowing smile.
When I met with the hospice social worker, she wanted to know the plan for after Hal’s death. I told her that he had long wanted to donate his body to science and that I had made arrangements with Wayne State University. She seemed unsatisfied and kept questioning me. Was I sure that was what he wanted? Why Wayne State instead of the University of Michigan or Michigan State University? She didn’t seem to like it when I told her that we chose Wayne State because it was free, and Hal loved free. I finally suggested she speak to him. Hal assured her that donating his body to science was something he had always wanted to do, and he was gratified that I had been able to work it out. She asked him what benefits he could see in donating his body. He thought for a moment, then replied, “I don’t really know, but that has to be more worthwhile than sticking it in the dirt or burning it up.” A bit shocked, she continued and asked him if he preferred UM or MSU over Wayne State. He was amused. “You know,” he told her. “It isn’t a football game!”
Hal had some company during his first week in the nursing home. Jeff and Jerry were regular visitors, granddaughter Lizzie arrived from Texas, and my kids came to say goodbye to “Uncle Pete.” I remember when my kids visited, Hal hosted them in the front parlor. They chatted for a couple of hours and eventually Geoffrey said, “Uncle Pete, we have to leave, soon.” Hal quipped, “Yeah, me too.”
Lizzie was Hal’s only grandchild. She was precious to him because of her sweet spirit, and because Lizzie’s mother, Hal’s only daughter, had died suddenly when Lizzie was just a little girl. It had always amazed me that grandpa and granddaughter were so close, because in all of Lizzie’s 20 years, they had seen each other only once each year. Lizzie had planned a surprise visit to her Grandpa Pete on her birthday, but moved the trip up a couple of weeks when apprised of his situation. Hal and Lizzie adored one another, and it was fitting that they were together during many of his last days. They spent hours and hours together that week, reminiscing, and perusing diaries and photo albums. Lizzie tenderly cared for Hal emotionally, as well as medically. She did for him things I couldn’t bring myself to do, and she stayed all day, so I could “get organized” at home. She entertained him, and tended him with great love and gentleness and devotion. On the night Lizzie said her final goodbye, I stayed away until she called for me to fetch her. I held her across the car console while she poured out her sorrow. I felt so sorry for her, because she was losing her last real link to her mother, as well as her Grandpa Pete.
By the time Hal entered his second and final week at the care facility, I started to get protective. I made a “no visitors” policy, because I noticed that whenever somebody was around, he wore himself out with his need to entertain. The visitors that second week were mostly hospice personnel: the nurse, the nursing aide, the social worker, etc. One of the few complaints from Hal came when the hospice aide gave him a bath. He was a bit frustrated, because he couldn’t seem to make her understand that he wanted hotter water. He never once complained about hunger or thirst. In fact, a new caregiver put a glass of water in front of him, by mistake, and he told her that he wasn’t allowed to have it. One morning when I arrived, I was met at the front desk by several alarmed caregivers. Hal had put himself into a wheelchair and wheeled himself down the hall to physical therapy, where he had asked to use the exercise bike. This seemed so bizarre to the caregivers that they were even questioning the medical plan. I asked if they had let him ride the bike and they looked at me like I was crazy. “He could fall!” they cried. I couldn’t help but wonder, “What does that matter, now?” I asked Hal about his rogue run in the wheelchair. He was dismissive. “I was bored. I just wanted something to do.” Well, buddy,” I told him. “You totally freaked out the staff.”
One of my most difficult tasks during the last two weeks of Hal’s life, was what to do about his only son. I spoke on the phone to Hal’s son just twice during all the years Hal lived with us. The first time was before Hal had even moved in. He told me he couldn’t fathom that Jeff and I would move Hal into our home. “What about your privacy?!” I responded that it was a big house and we didn’t do it on the kitchen table, much anymore (eye-roll). The other time I spoke with him was years later when I called to say that Hal had a setback with his new hip. Never once, in all the years Hal was with us, did his son contact me to ask how his dad was doing.
During those years, Hal’s son visited three times. All three were tremendously disheartening. The first time was for Hal’s 90th birthday celebration. We had a big party for him and many people came to wish him well, even relatives from New York and friends from West Virginia. Hal’s son was flying in for a week, and naturally, he was staying with us. He arrived halfway through the party. Hal knew that he had been due to arrive the day before the party, and had been watching for him, but there was no way to make contact. A couple of hours after the party ended, Hal’s son left to visit some friends and that began the week’s routine: he’d stop by around 5:00 for a beer with his dad, shower and change, eat dinner, leave. I guess visiting his dad for an hour each day was the price he had to pay for free food and lodging (and alcohol) while he visited his friends.
The second time he visited, someone dropped him off at our house. Father and son enjoyed a beer together on the porch. Hal showed off his packages of new socks and underwear, which his son admired, saying, “Hey Dad, you don’t need all these,” and then promptly helped himself to four pairs of socks and four pairs of underwear. He spent a few hours with his dad that afternoon, and after dinner asked if he could borrow my car to visit some friends. The next time we saw him, three days had passed. No contact (no cell phone). No car. The third night, we locked the house up tight and I determined to report my car stolen the next morning. But when Jeff left for work, my car was in the driveway, Hal’s son asleep at the wheel. He offered no explanation or apology. I took back the underwear.
The last time Hal saw his son, more than two years before Hal’s death, was during another week-long visit to Michigan. According to his itinerary, he was in Michigan for three days before he visited his dad. Naturally, he wasn’t invited to stay with us (fool me once…), and on the only day he visited, I was polite, but made myself scarce. Father and son played Scrabble and went through photo albums. They perused the gardens and talked and laughed and reminisced. They went out for lunch. When I fixed Hal’s dinner that evening, I asked how it had gone. He told me how happy he was to see his son and what a great visit they had. He said he felt sorry for his poor son, though, who was just coming down with a terrible cold and was feeling really “rough.” That stopped me in my tracks: I was livid. What kind of idiot spends the day breathing all over a 91-year-old man when coming down with a terrible cold?! How could a 53-year-old man not have more sense?! Sure enough, two weeks later Hal was in the hospital with pneumonia.
Each Fall, it had been Hal’s habit to visit his son in Washington. By the time he was in his late eighties, his age made the trip unwise. He was getting a bit confused every now and then, and could no longer figure out a reasonable solution to even the smallest problem. I disapproved of the week-long diet of Lean Cuisine he was served there, and I worried about a potential medical issue like a stroke or a broken hip. What if he got stranded in an airport? What if I couldn’t get him home so I could care for him? I told him that he had visited his son for years, and that now it was time for his son to visit him. He agreed, but sadly admitted that he didn’t think it would happen. Hal was right, and to say that I held his son in contempt, is an understatement.
When Hal first entered the nursing home, I didn’t call his son. I was overwhelmed already, and I worried he’d make trouble. The two of them had a routine call on the third Wednesday of each month, so I figured if Hal didn’t make the call, I would get a text checking up on him. The third Wednesday came and went before Hal had even entered the nursing home. After Lizzie arrived, I was reticent for Hal’s son to show up and interfere with their time together. Lizzie and I discussed, at length, whether to call her uncle. We were both disgusted with him for his neglect of his father. We were afraid he wouldn’t have Hal’s best interests at heart. Neither of us trusted him. We decided to leave Hal’s phone accessible and check often for messages. If his son called or texted any of our phones, I would return the call and bring him up to date. Of course, if Hal asked for him, we would summon him, immediately. Hal never once mentioned his son during the last two weeks of his life, and no message ever came. By the time Lizzie left, I believed that Hal needed peace and solitude to let go. Right or wrong, I was single-minded in my purpose to do what I believed was best for Hal, everyone else be damned. Once Hal was unconscious, a visit would have benefitted only his son, and I wasn’t feeling very charitable about anybody but Hal. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t behave myself if his son did show up. I left it alone.
After Lizzie left, things started to get serious. Hal was much weaker and napped quite a bit. He spent a lot of time giving me lists of certain possessions for certain people, but most of it he had already disseminated. I stayed with him most of the time then, going home only to sleep.
One evening, as I prepared to leave for the night, Hal told me that he wanted me to do something for him. He wanted me to stop at “that big slab near the front door where people hang around in wheelchairs.” Ah – the reception desk. He said, “I want you to stop at the front desk and tell them that you have had it. Tell them you are all through. Tell them you have done your part and I’m their responsibility, now. Tell them you wash your hands of it. They can call you after I die.”
I was incredulous. “Hal. I’m not going to do that.”
Hal was testy. “But, I want you to.”
I was firm. “Well, I’ll do almost anything, but I’m not doing that.”
Hal tried to guilt me. “Even though I want you to?”
I was adamant. “Yep. Not doing it.”
Hal was whiney. “Why not?”
I was firm. “We need to see this through, together.”
Hal was weepy. “Oh, good.”
From time to time over the years, people have made Jeff and me out to be saints for taking Hal into our home. We were not saints, and it has always embarrassed me, because it couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I have always been very up front about the fact that I am no good with old people. I simply don’t have the disposition for the elderly. It was always kind of a private joke between my sister and me. I was always all about the babies. Before I was old enough to babysit, I was a mother’s helper for neighboring toddlers. When other teens were at the high school football games on Friday nights, I was babysitting for a teacher’s family. In college, I earned spending money babysitting professors’ kids, and later I was director of a daycare center, then a kindergarten teacher. My sister, on the other hand, was never comfortable with kids. She had one child, undeniably precious to her, but the truth is Kerry loved old people. She visited nursing homes and volunteered to serve on boards and committees serving the elderly. She was happiest visiting with her husband’s grandmother and later his mother. We always laughed about how life turns out: she got the grandchildren and I got the old man. Jeff and I were not saints. For more than half of his time with us, Hal pretty much took care of himself and had his own life. He sang in the church choir and played in an early music group at the university. He helped in the garden, cooked his own breakfast, emptied the dishwasher, and cared for the dogs and rabbits when I was traveling on business. He paid his own way, and sometimes he paid our way. We were not saints. The reason we invited Hal to live with us is that we were it. There was nobody close to him who even noticed that he was in need, and that he should not live alone, anymore. That’s it. That’s all. I remember Jeff’s mother was horrified when we told her that we had invited our elderly friend to live in our home. She shrieked, “Nancy, do you have any idea what you are getting yourself into???” My reply was simple and honest. “Of course not.” I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I signed up to be Hal’s power of attorney, either, but here I was stumbling and bumbling my way through it. Many times, during those two weeks, I felt equal parts of horror and amazement, but if Hal could take this journey with such grace, I sure could support him.
A couple of days before Hal died, he asked me, “Is this it?” When I asked what he meant by that, he wondered if he was just going to lie there in that bed for months and months, no use to anybody, wasting my time, bored to death. (It had never occurred to me that dying could be boring!) I told him that he was down to days, not months, and he said he was glad. He asked me how it would all come down. How would he die? I told him that I didn’t really know, but I figured he’d just take a nap at some point, and not wake up. He brightened. “Okay!” he said. “I’m going to take a nap now and not wake up. This is it. Good-bye.” I watched, bemused, as he folded his hands over his chest, made himself comfortable, and closed his eyes. I mean, I really didn’t think it could happen that way, but I had never imagined any of the circumstances of the recent past, so what did I know? In about thirty seconds, one eye popped open and Hal peered at me. He said, “I have always loved you, even when you yelled at me.” I burst out laughing. “I have always loved you, Hal, even when I yelled at you.” He smiled and tried again. Again, one eye opened. He fidgeted. I assured him that he would die in God’s time and that he should not try to hasten it. He told me that when he had awakened in the morning, he had felt wonderful: no pain, no cough, no sticky mouth, and he thought that maybe he was in Heaven. “I hated to open my eyes to check,” he said. Then, he settled down for just a regular nap.
Since my friend Hal died, I have intended to write about his passing. It has taken me nearly a year to process his death and dying, and to gain some perspective. When I finally began writing, I quickly realized that the task was enormous and that just one post would be so long that nobody would read it. And Hal would certainly want people to read it. How he loved to be the center of attention!
So the topic doesn’t overwhelm, I have settled on three installments. Part #1: Hal’s Diagnosis Part #2: Hal’s Journey to Death Part #3: Hal’s Death and the Celebration of Hal’s Life
Hal was an academic and a musician. First and foremost, he considered himself a teacher. It would tickle him no end to think that somebody learned something from the fact that he chose to die the way he lived – with humor, acceptance and childlike trust.
Part 1: Hal’s Diagnosis
When Hal moved in with Jeff and me, he was already old. He updated his will, and I agreed to be medical power of attorney. I assumed it meant that if he were comatose after a stroke or something, I would be the one to make the decision to “pull the plug.” Pretty daunting, but Hal was very clear about his wishes, and I was the obvious choice. What I never imagined is that I would be called upon to make a decision that would actually facilitate the end of his long life, and that many daunting and controversial decisions would be required of me until the end. While I had wondered about how the end would come for Hal, I had never really thought about the process of his dying.
Hal was 94 when the beginning of the end commenced. I had just discovered that he was eligible for VA benefits and I needed his discharge papers for the application, so after breakfast I went into his room to get them. He was at his desk, writing a letter. He acknowledged that his perpetual nagging cough had tortured him throughout the night, but he seemed stoic. I asked about the discharge papers and he rose from his chair to fetch them. Right away, I could see that something was terribly wrong. Usually spry and scurrying, he clung to furniture to hold himself upright as he made his way across the room. I was alarmed and asked him what was wrong. Uncharacteristically, he snapped at me, “Is this a problem!?” I helped him sit down, and once he was seated, I plopped down into the chair he had just vacated. Even before I spoke, I was distracted by the sight of his letter. It was completely illegible, not even words, but an array of symbols trailing down the page. I asked him about it and he told me that his penmanship had been “going downhill.” I noticed that his hands were shaking, and as I tried to discuss his balance and his hands, he really didn’t seem to register that anything was amiss. I called his doctor, and so began the remarkable 2 ½ week journey to the end of Hal’s long and exceptional life.
The trip to the doctor’s office led to the emergency room and eventually to an outrageously ill-advised discharge. I drove home in darkness, amid wind and freezing rain, with no idea how to get him out of the car, much less into the house. Jeff was away, I needed the prescription filled, and Hal needed some dinner. I called Jerry.
Jerry was Hal’s companion. He visited two mornings every week. Hal and Jerry played Scrabble, put together puzzles, went for haircuts, lunch and “field trips.” They gardened. When I called Jerry on that terrible night, he must have heard my panic. He said to give him an hour. Meanwhile, I picked up a McChicken and stopped for the medication. Once we arrived at home it got more difficult. I was sure I couldn’t get Hal from the car into the house, so I pulled partway into the garage and positioned a chair facing the front passenger door. Then, I eased Hal out of the car and pivoted him to sit in the chair. I used a table as a barrier to falling, backed out the car, and closed the garage door. I explained to Hal that he would have to stay in that chair in the garage until Jerry arrived. He was cooperative and seemed content. Even though our garage is heated, I kept him bundled up. I washed off the little table and put his dinner in front of him. He thanked me, admitted he was “starving,” and asked about the dog. I brought Charley out to keep him company and sat down with him to wait for Jerry. Then, I watched with alarm, as Hal disassembled his chicken sandwich and began to methodically wipe the entire tabletop with his bun. He said he wanted to clean up before dinner. This took a long time, but once satisfied, he ate what was left of his dinner. I waited with terrible apprehension.
At last, Jerry arrived. We quickly made a plan to move Hal into the house, bathe him, and put him to bed in an easy chair in the living room, so he would be upright for relief from his cough. Jerry would sleep on the couch next to him, because Hal couldn’t be trusted not to get out of the chair. Jerry half walked, and half carried Hal to the bathroom and sat him down to remove his clothes. As I helped, Hal reached out and carefully unfastened the buttons on my sweater. He thought he was unfastening his own buttons. My heart sank.
Hal hated that shower! He hollered that Jerry was “killing him” with freezing water (it was hot), but once he was settled, the night passed quietly, and in the morning he seemed much improved. He could walk under his own power and was lucid. When I got up, Jerry had him tucked into his own bed with instructions to call me when he woke. While Hal napped, I called his doctor. She was furious about his discharge the night before and alarmed by his condition. She ordered a visiting nurse, who immediately called to say she was on her way.
By the time the nurse arrived, Hal was awake. As she interviewed me, he arrived in the kitchen under his own power. She took his vitals, and all were normal. She interviewed him, and he responded appropriately. The two of them decided to enjoy a cup of coffee in front of the fire, but before he took even one sip, Hal began to sort of curl forward until his head was nearly on the table. He seemed to be sleeping. The nurse took his vitals, and with a look of dismay, called an ambulance. This time, I chose a different hospital.
While hospitalized for the next two days, Hal experienced varying degrees of awareness. Except for the cough, he was comfortable enough, but doctors couldn’t find anything really wrong with him. As usual, everyone raved about his perfect blood pressure and strong heart rate. The cough remained a mystery. Then, on the second afternoon, a speech pathologist happened to be passing Hal’s room and heard him coughing. She asked the attending physician if she could do some tests and just like that, after 15 years of specialists, there was a diagnosis. Hal had age-induced dysphagia: the inability to swallow.
Hal’s dysphagia was permanent and progressive, but treatable. Within minutes I was given helpful tools, like thickener for his food and drink. Eventually, they took him for more tests, and I snuck out to run some errands. As I checked items off my to-do list, I felt a profound sense of relief. Finally, some answers! Finally, somebody was telling us what to do about that damned cough. I returned to the hospital a bit rejuvenated, but when I swung open the door to his room, I faced an entire medical team. They instructed me to sit.
The attending physician was clear: this was the worst case of dysphagia the hospital had ever seen. Nobody could understand how he had managed, since 90% of his food was going into his lungs. The situation was dire. Hal could no longer make decisions. The power of attorney was being invoked and I had three terrible choices. I could take Hal home, continue as before, and very soon he would develop pneumonia and die, or I could order a feeding tube to be inserted and he could live out his natural life. The third choice was shocking: food and water could be withheld to hasten his death. As the doctor outlined the choices, the rest of the team nodded agreement. Hal looked on, unaware. The doctor expected the decision to be made on the spot. I stalled by asking question after question. It was surreal.
Eventually, I told the team that I needed a little time to think it through. They gave me half an hour. I tried to talk to Hal, but he just wasn’t “there.” I called his own doctor and she assured me that the attending physician was one of the best, and the team he had assembled was top-notch. Based on the information I gave her, she agreed with the choices. When the team returned, I asked about the feeding tube. If I made the decision to have a feeding tube inserted, could it be removed if I changed my mind? Yes. Okay, I decided. Go with the feeding tube. Buy some time. Arrangements were made for the surgery to insert the tube at 7:30 the following morning.
Driving home that night, I suddenly realized that I had made a terrible mistake. The feeling of wrongdoing was overwhelming. I thought, “What am I doing?! Hal would hate this! What am I thinking?! He has been very clear all along! Am I really going to put him through that? He always said that he picked me, because he knew I had the guts to do the right thing for him. He’s counting on me!” I called a friend who thankfully, just happens to be a priest. She told me she would pray, and she told me to wait five hours. If I still felt this overwhelming sense of wrong about my decision after five hours, I could simply call and cancel the surgery. That calmed me, and I was able to think it all through. The sinking feeling never left. I took it as an omen when, in exactly five hours, I received an unexpected call from the surgical team. I canceled the surgery.
I cannot adequately describe my mind-boggling personal ordeal of literally choosing death for someone. This was someone I had known and loved for more than thirty years, and I was called upon to separate feelings from practicality and do, as best I could, what Hal had wanted and what was best for him. Both Hal and I had practical views of death. Though sad, I don’t necessarily see death as a tragedy and neither did Hal. Obviously, it’s tragic if a baby dies or a young person, or one of our own children, because that seems unnatural to us, and is at odds with our deepest expectations of how life is supposed to work. It “rocks our world,” in the worst way. But years of tending perennial gardens and raising animals, generation after generation, has shown me that nature is part of God’s vast plan. Living things are born and when they get old, they die. These are seasons that are repeated infinitely. Sickness and death are as natural a part of life as birth. I don’t believe God has a personal hand in what happens to each of us, so I think when we are tempted to cry out, “Why me?!” we could just as well cry, “Why not me?!” Much of what happens to us, we bring on ourselves; much is a random result of living in the world. In other words, in the grand scheme of the physical world, sometimes shit happens. Like dysphagia.
Hal believed that it was luck that had taken him into his nineties. He didn’t pretend to understand and he didn’t take it personally. He was at the end of his very long life and he didn’t believe that people should live so long that they can’t contribute to the world in which they live. Every day that I knew him he prayed, “Thank you, God for love and life and work to do.” He was grateful for the quality of his long life, because his greatest fear was burdening someone, but recently he missed the satisfaction of a day’s hard work. He wasn’t afraid of dying; he was curious about it. He didn’t want to die, but he was ready.
Still, it was too much for me. On Tuesday he was writing a letter to his friend, Lorelei and just two days later I was choosing to hasten his death. I had a terrible time wrapping my brain around it. I still do.
On Friday morning the hospital loaded Hal into my car for the drive to the care facility that would support him as his life ended. I drove the “back way,” through the country. It was a cold, sunny day. For most of the trip, Hal was silent, but suddenly he said, “Where are we going?” I looked at him and saw immediately that his mind had cleared. He was back, at least for the moment. I took a deep breath and responded. Thus ensued a conversation that ended with what was to be the first of Hal’s many noteworthy responses, commentaries and observations during his two-week journey to the end of his life. Some were poignant, some hilarious, some profound. All were significant. I sent up a quick prayer that I would handle this important conversation well. Hands gripping the wheel, heart pounding, I responded.
“We are going to the nursing home where you recovered from your hip surgery. You know, right around the corner from our house.” “Oh, that’s a wonderful place! Why am I going there?” “Well, the doctors diagnosed your cough and it is very grave.” “Eureka! FINALLY! A diagnosis! What is it?” “It’s called dysphagia and it means you can’t swallow, anymore.” “Do you have a pencil? I need to write that down. Spell it. Can it be treated?” “D-Y-S-P-H-A-G-I-A. No. It’s going to kill you, Hal.” “Oh. Okay. Well, I’m so relieved to finally know. How long will I be at the home?” “You are going there to die, Hal. You are not going to be eating or drinking anymore, and over time, you will die from that.” “Nothing? Not even a drink of water?” “No. Nothing.” “Oh.” “The alternative was a feeding tube or pretty much coughing yourself to death.” “Oh, I wouldn’t want that.” “No, I didn’t think so.” “How long will it take?” “To die?” “Yes.” “Likely under two weeks.” “Oh. That’s not very long.” “No.” “I guess this is it.” “Yes.” Suddenly, Hal sat up in the car seat and smiled. He gave a great clap of his hands and exclaimed, “Well then, I guess we’d better get organized!!!”