Author Archives: Breaking Free

Broken Links

There are a few good things about being present as someone dies.

1) You encounter caring and professional people in the nurses and other caregivers.  It’s easy to feel cynical about everything in the world these days, so interacting with compassionate people who know their stuff was restorative.

2) You get to spend a lot of time with family and friends.  How often do you get to spend days with your relatives?  This may be some people’s worst nightmare, but I enjoyed and found comfort in it.

My cousin Molly, my mom, and I spent an afternoon going through old family photos.  There was this gem:

“Who is he?” I asked my mom.  “He looks like a US Marshall, or maybe a wild west sheriff.”

“He’s a … food … he’s … uh … oh darn it!” said my mom helplessly.  She’s always had learning disabilities but since she had a stroke she has found it more and more difficult to get her words out.  It’s called aphasia.

From her hospital bed, my aunt croaked, “That’s our grandpa, William Dudley.  He’s the one who got the letter from a London solicitor about the Dudley inheritance.”

“The Dudley Inheritance” is family lore that was newsworthy enough to be chronicled in the St. Paul newspaper.  William, a hapless, dirt-poor farmer, received a letter from a London solicitor informing him he had inherited £500,000.  He went to London—no small undertaking—but the story goes that he had to return because World War I broke out.  He would never talk about it later.

“But he returned in 1911,” I said, as I Googled “world war i, dates” on my phone.  “World War I didn’t start until 1914.”

It was probably a scam, and I would love to know more about how it was perpetrated.  In 1911 there was no Internet.  How did the “London solicitors” find William, and why did they target him?  He didn’t have any money to scam.

“After the farm failed, he moved to St. Paul and was a health inspector,” my aunt continued. “That’s when that photo was taken.  It wasn’t much of a job.  He had to live with us.”

“Poor grandpa,” my mom said mournfully. “He died in our house.  He had cancer, and Daddy used to take us out for walks at night to get us away from the sound of his screaming.  He was in agony.  We could still hear his screams a block away.”

I diverted the conversation.  “This is cool!”

It was the naturalization papers of the Ur Dudley, Robert, who immigrated to America in 1854.

“He had ‘to renounce all allegiance to any prince, potentate …’” I read aloud.

“I love that word, potentate,” Molly said.

“… in particular ‘Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.’”

A few days later, I was going through more family papers with my mom.  “Who was John Geisen?” I asked her, handing over a marriage certificate.

“John Geisen … Jacob?  That was Daddy Jake.  No, it was … Joe?  John?  Oh, I don’t know!” she hissed in frustration.  “I can’t remember it all.”

By this time my aunt was still breathing but had spoken her last words.  The last person who knew the answers to the family history questions was gone.

My poor mother.  She’s the last sibling standing.  When I called to relate the funeral details, I had to repeat them over and over. Her abilities are especially strained when she’s tired or stressed.

“My penmanship is terrible now,” she said, exasperated.  “The funeral is at night?”

“No, mom, at eleven in the morning,” I said.

“At night … no, morning … 10 o’clock?”

“No, eleven o’clock.”

“Oh, Jesus H. Mary!” she exclaimed.

My mother never swears except for the occasional “shit.”  I have no idea what Jesus H. Mary means except that she was at the end of her rope and it provided some comic relief to Molly and me.

Speaking of comic relief, here is my favorite Japanese hotel website so far.

 

I’m afraid it’s hard to read, but I did not book here.  Since one must indicate one’s gender when reserving a Japanese hotel room, I was afraid my reservation might signal an unhealthy interest in the “multifunctional shower heads popular with female guests.”

Good Bye

It’s been a month since my last post.  I was going to get back into regular writing about travel—specifically my upcoming month in Japan—but life intervened.

Two nights ago I felt my aunt’s wrist and neck for a pulse while she took her last breaths.

She chose to start hospice services after a year of chemo, radiation, and immunotherapy didn’t cure her cancer but only stripped everything out of her life that made it worthwhile—she stopped reading, attending ladies lunches, knitting, and over-posting on Facebook.

And so a month ago a nurse and an aide started coming to her home once a week, then twice, then 3-4 times, and in the end it was every day plus a private carer.

My cousin Molly, who lives nearby, was there almost 24/7; her brother came from Madison and stayed for the last 10 days. My sister and I made the one-hour drive every other day and alternated overnights.

After two weeks, a hospital bed was installed in the livingroom.  She gradually stopped eating and drinking.  As the pain advanced she receded.  Tylenol and oxycodone were bolstered with morphine and fentanyl.  I know there’s an opioid epidemic, but believe me if you are dying and in pain they are miracle drugs.  She had said she preferred to be lucid over being drugged-up, but that’s easy to say in the beginning.

As her conscious moments became fewer, I admired her practicality and acceptance.  There was no drama, philosophizing, or protesting.  I think I might be a quivering mass, crying and pissed off and asking, “Why! Why?”

She suffered anxiety as death neared—who wouldn’t?  But it was manifested in physical restlessness, and for that there was another drug, and yet another drug for nausea.  She would have hated that other people were performing functions for her that she could not—like applying balm to her lips and swabbing the inside of her mouth.

One of the hardest things was hearing other people cry, like my aunt’s 80-year-old cousin, a former cop.

Molly, on whom the lion’s share of the care had fallen, found inner resources to do things she had sworn she would never do.  We all did.  It takes a village to help someone leave this life.

When our anguish over her suffering peaked, we would consult a brochure provided by the hospice team.   Turns out, dying is a predictable process—except for the timeline.

At the last moment, I had turned off the oxygen pump that had been producing a steady kah-khoosh … kah-koosh soundtrack.  My cousins and I were standing in the kitchen talking about who would want such-and-such household items: the memorabilia from my aunt and uncle’s long careers at a private college, the cut-glass pickle boat, the bisque statuette of a shepardess who had stood on the mantel for decades.  We managed to laugh a bit, probably from sheer exhaustion.

Suddenly we realized she wasn’t breathing.  We watched, frozen, as seconds ticked by.  She gasped and inhaled.  We moved to her bedside and I took her wrist, then felt her neck for a pulse.  She took a few more breaths, then stopped.  I wanted to cry out, “Don’t go!” but my boy cousin was saying, “It’s okay mom, you can go now.”  And of course he was right.

These thoughts run through my head: “She was 89, she lived a good life.  She was your aunt, not your mother.  This shouldn’t hit you so hard.”

But our families grew up three houses apart.  My aunt and mother shared a job for a while and alternated child care. We ran in and out of each other’s houses and went to the same schools. As an adult, I drove up to spend a night or two with my aunt and uncle and cousin on a regular basis.

During her “wave of energy” (see booklet), I told her I had always appreciated how I was able to just be myself around them.  She said, “You’ve been like a second daughter to me.”  I didn’t’ say it but I thought, You haven’t been like a mother to me.  You’ve been a great aunt. 

Never underestimate your value as an aunt or uncle or cousin.

Upside Down

Last night I dreamed that the whole world was—literally—turned upside down.  I was stumbling along the ceiling, with books and coffee mugs falling past me, when someone pulled me into a building where everything had been glued or attached to the ceilings by Velcro. This meant we could hang out on the ceilings, which were the new floors, and everything would feel normal.

But the person who’d brought me along cautioned, “Don’t look out the window.  It’ll remind you that everything is really upside down.”

Like a toddler, I think I am going through a phase.  I left full-time employment three and a half months ago.  Up until now, I’ve been busy with contract proposal writing, working part-time at the Y, and boosting my exercise levels—as long as I’m at the Y twice a week.  I was constantly shoveling and moving my car and scraping my windshield and batting icicles off the roof.  I did about 30 hours of CPR and other training as part of my Y orientation.

Everything was new and different and I didn’t have time to think about whether this was permanent or what.

I stand in the child care center at the Y, watching a group of four-year-old boys play with toy dinosaurs. Their names are Milton, Kash, Zacques and Denzel—Denzel Zhou.  A mom enters and checks in a new boy.  I look at his name on the monitor: βӕrәӦn.

“Umm…” I stammer.  “Baron?”

The mother gives me a withering look as though I am a moron.

“No,” she says very slowly and mock-patiently, “It’s ber-on, the ancient Slovenian god of moss-covered river rocks.”

“Ah, I see!” I reply, trying not to sound too much like Basil Fawlty, and immediately forget how to pronounce it.  I will have to avoid using his name for two hours.

I do love the kids.  I like pivoting from proposals about torture to observing children at play.

My days are also punctuated with emergency room trips for my mother, her husband, and my aunt.

One day I spent three hours at the Y playing with an adorable Hmong baby named Howard, then rushed to the ER because my mom’s husband had fallen and they discovered he had a giant boil on his abdomen he’d been keeping quiet about, hoping it would just go away.

It didn’t.  They had to lance and drain it, and the smell almost caused me to pass out.

So I get to see humanity on both ends of the age and health spectrums every day.

Now the contract work has slowed.  The Y is routine.  The battle with snow and cold is over, for now.

As I sit and watch Howard drool and gnaw on a block, or wait endlessly in windowless ER rooms, I have hours to ask myself, “Is this it from here on out?  Taking care of babies and old people?  Am I taking a break from full-time work, or am I an early retiree?  My sister is moving to Oregon next month.  Why aren’t I planning a move to Belize to escape next winter?  Will I ever have any more adventures?  Shouldn’t I use this time to learn Chinese or write a novel or apply for one writing workshop per day?  Shouldn’t I be setting some goals, instead of reading and doing crossword puzzles and walking in the woods in my spare time?  Damn, I’m so lazy!”

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t feel sorry for myself.  I know I’m super lucky to be able to take this time out.  Or whatever it turns out to be.

And so I have procrastinated on blogging because I just haven’t known what to write about.  Normally I’d be posting up a storm about my trip to Japan in June, but I have also been procrastinating on that.

Here are two last photos from winter.

Can you spot my car?

And here’s a big ol’ nasty possum I encountered on my walk in a city park.  It appeared to be eating a wiener, or maybe a baby rabbit.

Ugh.  Thanks for reading; it feels good to get some thoughts out of my head.

Next post, the Japan plan.

Despair Down Under

I can’t stop thinking about the mass shootings in New Zealand.  I won’t use the real name of the shooter; I’ll just call him the Little Man.

The professors and pundits on the News Hour had this to say about it: This is just the latest and it won’t be the last terrorist attack that is part of an international “White Power Movement.”

This is the issue of our age.  There are 25 million refugees in the world right now—more than at any time since the end of World War II.  That doesn’t include displaced people (40 million), who are those who are still in their own country but who have fled their homes due to war or natural disaster.  It doesn’t count economic migrants (untold millions) who have left their countries to seek work elsewhere.

All this movement brings people into contact with others who are different from themselves.  Or it just creates the impression of it; we all see caravans and individual refugees, immigrants, and migrants in our newsfeeds.

People like Little Man aren’t crazy.  They don’t spring up at random.  They don’t have any original ideas or philosophies.  They may not know one another personally, but they connect online and read each other’s “manifestos,” as LM called his.  They’re just plain racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic, Islamophobic men.

And there’s the demographic commonality—they’re all men.

I think about the little boys I tend at the YMCA child care center.  There’s the three-year-old who waits by the front door, wearing his Superman cape, saying, “Mommy come back?” over and over in his plaintive, squeaky voice.  When mommy does come to pick him up, he exclaims, “Mommy here!” as though she is even more exciting to see than Superman.  There are baby boys and toddlers who want to be picked up and held, and rocked, and hugged.  Until they get to be about five, they play with girls as easily as boys, seemingly unaware of any differences.

Eighteen years from now, will they be punching their girlfriends, slapping their kids, kicking their dogs, and charging into houses of worship or college campuses or government buildings with assault rifles?

One night another three-year-old boy came to me, pointed to another boy, and whined, “That brown kid took my ball!”  I told him to go get another ball.  I didn’t try to lecture him about his use of the word “brown” because I knew he was being literal and descriptive, not racist.  And he was only three.  In 20 years, will he be marching in White Power parade with a torch, yelling hateful slogans?

What happens between four and 20?  There must be experts who know how we could interrupt the transformation of innocent children into hate mongers.

A faster intervention would be changed gun laws.  Little Man is Australian.  I’m guessing he moved to New Zealand because guns are easier to be had there.  There are three guns for every human in New Zealand. After a mentally-ill gunman killed 35 people in Tasmania in 1996, Australia restricted ownership of semi-automatic rifles and  shotguns and pump-action shotguns and reformed licensing.  The government held a mandatory gun buy-back in which Aussies handed in 643,000 firearms.

I have many friends and relatives who are a lot more liberal than I am.  I have never heard any of them propose that we rescind the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which says, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

This is the “slippery slope” smokescreen used by the NRA and its members to block even the smallest, most sensible gun law change.

I idealized Australia. I thought it was kinder and gentler than the US.  But out of 25 million people there are bound to be those who believe being white makes them superior.

It’s easy to despair and feel powerless.  This is when I remind myself of the words from the Talmud: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  In other words, no one expects you, personally, to change gun laws or teach all boys empathy, but you can and should do something.

Showing Up

Close to home, in real time, I attended a news conference at the state capitol about a bill that would restore the right to vote for 52,000 Minnesotans who have a prison record.  That’s right—they’ve done their time, they are out, but they still can’t vote—sometimes for years.

I didn’t want to go.  I didn’t want to go. It was first thing in the morning.  It was cold.  The parking would be a pain.

But I went, and as usual with these events I’m so glad I did.  There were a dozen speakers.  I was there with two other Jewish Community Action members, one of whom is an ex offender, and we stood in the back and listened.

The first speaker was a white guy around my age who I assumed—before he opened his mouth—was an elected official.  He was wearing a suit.  Turns out he is an ex offender who owns a business.

“I pay taxes—a lot of taxes,” he said.  “Our country was founded on the idea of ‘no taxation without representation.’  I’m going to pay my business’s property taxes after this but I am not allowed to vote, even though I’m no longer inside.”

An African-American preacher spoke about redemption.  The head of a nonprofit that helps violent offenders stop being violent spoke about how that’s possible.  A member of the Republican Party’s Independent caucus talked about how this is an issue of freedom.

A fellow who looked like Andy Warhol moved to the podium and introduced himself as “your only State Representative with a prison record.”  He had been an addict and was in jail for burglary when he was thrown into solitary confinement and decided to get clean.  That was 43 years ago.

Both county attorneys spoke in favor of the bill.  So did the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections.  Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul told of speaking with a lifelong St. Paul resident in his office.  The man said, “You all told me to reintegrate when I came home from prison.  You said you wanted me to be part of the community again.  But no one will rent me an apartment.  No one will hire me, and I can’t even vote.  I am shut out of my own community.”

The head of the coalition that’s sponsoring the bill said that one of the reasons it failed last year is the impression that all ex offenders will vote Democrat.  Hey, that’s an easy 52,000 votes for Republicans to keep blocked. But 70% of ex offenders live outside of the cities, and rural and suburban voters tend to vote Republican.

There was mention of how African American, Latino, Native, and poor people are disproportionately represented among the prison population, and therefore the fact that they cannot vote is a new kind of Jim Crow.

Vince, my son, was unable to vote in 2016 even though he’d been out of prison for a year.  I know he’s looking forward to voting in 2020.

There was mention that North Dakota has the same voting language in its constitution but it allows ex offenders to vote.  North Dakota!  Similar to how New Yorkers consider Minnesota flyover country populated only with farmers muttering Uff Dah, Minnesotans think of North Dakota as an empty Nowheresville, populated with a few range-roaming, gun-toting cowboys.  For North Dakota to have a more forward-thinking policy was like a dare.

Ninety-five percent of JCA members live in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Our representatives are as liberal as we are, so they won’t need convincing to vote this bill up.  There’s not much we can do except show up and be bodies at these events.

If you happen to be a Minnesotan who lives in a conservative district, and you “get” the need for this reform, please contact your representative and urge him or her to vote Yes on Restore the Vote.

The event made the evening news, at least on the one channel I watched, but it was overshadowed by much blather over the next impending snow storm.

Tail End of Australia

In real time, in positive news, my son was featured in a nice article in his local paper.

How can I complain about the weather, or anything, when he is doing so well?

Back at Auntie Margaret’s flat, it was time for packing and laundry for the both of us.  But first, Heidi locked herself out.  The laundry room is outside, she didn’t take the key to the building with her, and the door clicked behind her.

The house phone kept ringing and I ignored it. I was busy!  I had to somehow cram all these kangaroo hats and koala candles and goanna t-shirts into my suitcase—what could I jettison?

“Gee, Heidi’s been gone for a while,” I finally noticed.  “She must be waiting in the laundry room while the wash runs its cycle.”

The phone rang again.  “Wait—maybe she’s not …” and I picked up to hear her voice, a bit strained, “Annie, I’ve been out here for 20 minutes, calling over and over!”

I ran down the hall to let her in.  “What a dolt I am!” I apologized.  This was the only time I detected the slightest hint of irritation in Heidi’s demeanor, although she was soon over it, busy packing and repacking for her week to come.  Clothes for work, for driving to the farm, for bunking at her cousin’s, for one night at Auntie Margaret’s.

In the morning, we pushed my now-much-heavier, bulging suitcase up the hill to McMann’s Point station.  At Central Station, we waited on the platform until my train to the airport arrived, then hugged fiercely and waved good-bye as the train rolled away.  Heidi would catch a different train to work.

When I boarded the plane I discovered that miracle all travelers live for—an empty seat next to mine!  I was in the very last row across from the toilet, but I could live with the whooshing noise.  I am short enough that, curling up in the fetal position, I am able to lie down in a two-seat row.

What I hadn’t counted on was the loud talkers who soon congregated in the open space behind my seat.  Even with ear plugs, I could hear them yammering away.  I turned around and asked them to lower their voices.  They did, for a minute.  Some people just can’t help themselves. It was already a long flight, but this was going to make it seem like eternity.  I got up and stood behind the seat myself.  “I thought I’d join you,” I said, smiling like an imbecile.

They quickly dispersed back to their seats.

Home.  Like I’ve written before, I love leaving it and love coming back to it.

It’s satisfying to dump all the clothes I’ve worn over and over for a month into the laundry bag and to take out something fresh.

I look forward to unpacking all the cheap crap I bought and bestowing it on people who have no idea why I thought they needed a wallaby-themed calendar.  Taken out of context, much of what I buy on trips seems lame.  But my nephews appreciated their koala and wombat hats.

And lucky me, I will be going to Japan with these guys in June.

From Woolloomooloo to the Mississippi

My last day in Australia.  This was the weather Woolloomooloo, the area in which the Botanic Gardens are located.  And next to that, the weather in St. Paul today.

I’m sorry to be one of those people who whines about weather.  But every other day I get one of these notices.

There have been six snow emergencies so far this year, and March is the snowiest month in Minnesota, so it ain’t over.

What these notices mean—for those of you who don’t live around here—is that I have to move my car by 9pm, then move it again by 8am the next morning so the plows can clear the roads.

Try moving your car when it’s a foot deep in heavy, wet snow (as opposed to light, fluffy snow) and the wheels are encased in ice.  Yesterday, hacking away at wheel-well ice on my knees, my heavy-duty scraper broke in half.  I sent it flying into a snow bank with a primal scream. I then employed an ice chopper, tears, a shovel, swearing, a hammer, grunts and howls of anguish, and cat litter.  It took 45 minutes and I think I blew out a knee, but I got my car moved.  Thank god I’ve got a manual transmission so I can rock it back and forth.

And I will likely have to do it again in a few days.

People say the snow is pretty.  I know I should try to appreciate it more. These are some photos from inside my snug, warm house during and after a selection of blizzards.

And here are some snaps from the snowshoeing I did with my cousin and friends last weekend.

The dogs had at least as much fun as the people.  I love how she is covered in snow balls.

I’m aware that I am procrastinating on wrapping up my writing about Australia.  As long as I am still writing about it, it feels like part of me is still there.

Another day in the Botanic Gardens.  Heidi was on a mission to see some of the Invictus Games, and I was happy to go along.  Prince Harry was rumored to be making a speech just outside the gardens. Rumored.  We stopped and asked five people, and no one knew, not even the volunteers or employees.

“Sorry, love, we ran out of programs ages ago and none of us even know the schedule,” was one volunteer’s response.

In case you’re wondering if there were any interesting plants in the Royal Botanic Gardens, there were.  I kept lollygagging to take photos.

I wanted to stop at the gift shop again.

“Aw, Annie, I’m afraid we’ll miss Harry’s speech,” Heidi said.

But I insisted. It would only take a minute.  There was a card I had seen that I hadn’t bought and now as long as we were passing by … but we both became mesmerized by the beautiful botanical-themed items and spent 20 minutes there.

We then raced across a broad lawn to find we had just missed Harry’s speech opening the bicycle races.

Heidi’s shoulders sagged and she let out a sigh.  This is a woman who lived in London for 18 years, who had gone to every celebration of the Queen’s birthday, the Golden Jubilee, any and all flag-waving, Hail Britannia, crowds-in-the-street type celebration that came with an extra day off work.

“I’m sorry!  I made you miss Harry’s speech!”

“No drama!” Heidi shrugged as we moved with the crowds to view the races.

There were competitors from 18 nations, all of them physically or emotionally handicapped.  I was impressed that as much weight was given to veterans’ mental trauma as physical.  It made sense, since Harry and his brother William support mental health charities at home because of the trauma they endured when their mother, Princess Diana, died.

That said, the cyclists with only one leg were the most impressive.

Visitors were wearing their national colors.

Some were more gung-ho about representing their countries than others.

We verbally edited the “Taco’s and burito’s” menu, then moved on to order kimchee chicken burgers for lunch.

Lastly, I added to my collection of photos of myself with large furry animals.