Sunday, May 6, 2012

Red Bird / Red Oak

The following are two essays that were assignments at Red Bird/ Red Oak writing studio.  I felt I should add them due to my previous post.  I loved taking classes with Judy Bridges, a wonderful writing teacher, however those classes were terribly difficult for me due to the extreme fatigue I was experiencing in the fall of 2009.  I would drive to beautiful Bay View, need about three to four snack breaks for the three hour class, and despite my best efforts only managed one session - its my great hope that knock on wood as my health improves I will get back there in the near future and continue the writing project I had intended on my Dad's father's life story...


My grandfather had an entourage before it was fashionable to have a group of people surrounding your daily moves.  Therefore, it was quite unusual that day that he was driving by himself.  In fact, the last conversation my father had with him was regarding this fact.  George was to be in court later that week.   He was headed to Elmbrook Hospital to prove to the prosecution that he was in fact ill and had heart problems, he was going to get his medical records.  My dad asked if he wanted him to drive him, he said no.  Timing is a funny thing, he was at a hospital, yet he had his heart attack minutes later driving home.  He hit a light pole, and was gone.  The next week my dad walked into court and instead of handing over the medical records, they handed over a death certificate. 
My grandfather hated hospitals and most doctors with a passion.  He did not abide by the old school rule that doctors were God and had the final word.  He always said, I am hiring them just like I hire anyone one else.  Unfortunately, I had no idea that George was ever sick.  I had no clue he had had open heart surgery and no idea, nor did any of us that he was filled with cancer when he died.  I don’t know if it was denial or his constant need to move forward but illness and George were not to mix, and they didn’t.  On one occasion George called my dad from Columbia hospital and barked at my dad to meet him on the side street in 15 minutes, as my dad pulled up there he was with his overcoat not so discreetly hiding his hospital gown.  He jumped in the car, blurted some obscenity that he did not need to be there and they left.  Apparently this was a constant problem; he just could not follow anyone’s rules, even if they were in his best interest. 
In some ways it was a blessing not knowing my grandfather was sick.  In other’s it’s what caused such a shock to my system.  The paradox that one minute the world was safe and the next it could collapse without warning.  I had been to other funerals, for heaven sake’s my mother’s side of the family is Irish Catholic, we weren’t church people, but we were funeral people.  It was like, who is it this week, “your great aunt’s second cousin”, all I knew is if someone died you were there.  So funerals didn’t make me uncomfortable, but I had never known anyone in the casket before.  To this day I rarely miss a funeral.  I am a good mourner, and that has nothing to do with George’s death.  I have been handed coats and asked where to sign in at numerous funerals being mistaken for the staff. George’s funeral was different, and I was not prepared. 
Now is as good a time as any to mention its no mistake that I alternate between Grandpa and George when remembering my grandfather.  I always called him Grandpa, but in my head he was always George.  He wasn’t soft in the traditional Grandpa way, and my father had always called him George.  I always wonder if he would have lived longer would I have changed my verbiage.  I doubt it, because I was his favorite, and I think he liked the words Grandpa coming from me, but who knows.  So in my memory I switch back and forth, sometimes I see him as my grandfather and other times I see him as everyone else, a force to be reckoned with, and that was George.
That night that I witnessed my dad’s sorrow, as a child I thought it only meant one thing, the same thing I felt this gaping emptiness that I didn’t know if I would ever feel whole again.  I didn’t know that my father was in a hurricane of emotions, and despite the grave concerns of the estate, the only fear he stated out loud was “what if no one comes”.   I don’t know how many people came to the wake at the funeral home, I just know the sea of people never seemed to end.  I only remember bits and pieces, in my experience that is how grief works, your mind will only allow you to take in what you can handle.  I remember sitting on an off white brocade settee love seat to the left of the coffin with my grandmother and my uncle.  I remember that after the service I walked up to the casket with my grandmother and she touched George’s lifeless hand and kissed it.  She told me it was okay, but I didn’t want to touch him.  He didn’t look at all like himself, yet he looked exactly the same.  I remember he was wearing a brown suit, and later I would write a note and show it to my little sister that if I died I wanted to be put in pajamas.  My first will and testament at age eleven.  I remember thinking how odd that for eternity you would have to sleep in your dress clothes.  I remember most of the funeral just like that, very factual and detached, trying to wrap the confusion of my child self and my adult awareness into a harmonious agreement.  But from that moment on I never really saw the world as a child again.  I never felt invincible, because the person I held up as untouchable, larger than life itself - without warning was plucked from the earth, and if it could happen to George it could happen to anyone. 
What I do remember with a visceral clarity was the moment we were to go home.  Everyone else had gone, my father and mother were making arrangements with the funeral director for the church service tomorrow and they were about to close the casket.  I think they forgot I was still there, because at the moment they tried I went into a state of hysteria and with all the life inside of me in contrast to the lifeless body next to me I wasn’t going to let them shut the lid.  And the questions that no one could answer began pouring out of my aching scared heart, whom would be with him all night, what if he couldn’t breathe and woke up?  My father carefully pried my fingers, full of life off of the casket and I remember glancing at my grandpa’s lifeless fingers – reality.  I remember my head hitting the back of my dad’s shoulder as my limp body collapsed into exhaustion.

It Scared Me
I crouched frozen on the stairs catching the profile of my father hunched heavy hearted over the antique wood chopping block, his head limply falling forward.  The yellow and blue cast iron pots and pans hanging overhead, the one’s he often bumps his head on, he doesn’t even notice.  Then slowly I see his clenched fist, slamming down intently, slowly on the solid wood.  Once, twice, the third time he stops mid motion, the dull thuds echoed restraint.  My young strong father looked instantly fragile as one by one tears slowly hit the block of wood below. The kitchen was dark, and in the silence I could begin to hear him shake.  My mother moved towards him, but he shuddered away, she laid her hand on his back with the slightest of touch and left him alone.  Any other circumstance I would have misinterpreted his action as anger towards her, unfortunately I understood.  My mother had been the victim of my grief earlier as I screamed with all my childhood might from the depths of a soul I didn’t know I had that I hated her.  I hated her because she was the one to tell me my grandpa was dead.  News I could not bear to hear, to hear was to feel, as with my father to be touched was to feel and all we wanted to be was numb and alone.  I didn’t dare move, I didn’t want him to see me, in fact I wanted to pretend I didn’t see it myself.  I had never seen my father cry, and I was afraid.


I had been avoiding today's outing for the past week.  My 96 year old grandpa - who has been living at my parent's house for the past 3 years needed to be transferred to hospice care at a nursing home facility.  It has been a heartbreaking decision for my parent's whom at all costs wanted him to remain in their home, however there comes a time when as I said to them that Grandpa's best interest can not be the only interest that is considered, and the mental, physical and emotional toll of taking care of someone, even with help of part time hospice care is no longer enough.  I have watched the devastating toll this has taken on my parents, feeling as if they have let someone down, which despite not being true, become the lies we tell ourselves when we are dealt with cards that can not be changed, and no improvement is in sight.  Its the ultimate debt most pay in exchange to living to 96 with no real illness except the fatigue of living on this earth for an extended period of time.  Its been a slow decline over the last year, and even in the past 4 months since home hospice was approved the pit falls have come step by step, until home care would need extended supervision.  Thus, the initial plan of a 5 day respite care has almost for certain become permanent.

The saddest part of my grandfather's decline, besides the weakness and lack of bodily functions that have slowly plagued his body is the vacancy in his eyes.  This vacant look, the mumbled "uh ha" for most questions are the result of someone's body outliving their spirit.  A resignation of sorts that his time is only a matter of time.  I know many people that grew up without grandparents, and the fact that 8 years ago I still had three living, and living well is something of amazing good fortune, but with that long life has meant having to witness first hand the cruel process of a drawn out death.

With the death of both of my grandmother's I had a serendipitous or some might say spiritual intervention.  My Grandma Kelly, my mother's mom, had been fighting death for years, plagued with a colon that doctors described as sewing up sawdust, due to radiation in her 50's for uterine cancer, she lived her later years with constant diarrhea.  She was one of the most elegant and composed sick patients.  She had in her lifetime fought off uterine cancer, open heart surgery for a valve replacement and then the severe colon destruction, in the end it was a fall that broke her pelvis that would place her straight from the hospital to a hospice bed.  My grandma and I were extremely close, for most of my teen and early adult life I had my routine of meeting my parents and grandparents for their Friday Night ritual fish fry.  In my twenties, it was not  uncommon for me to meet them and get a good dinner, before I would excuse myself from the restaurant before their night cap and head out to meet my friends.  My favorite thing my grandmother did was whenever I was at her house and laying on the sofa watching Wheel of Fortune or a sporting event was that she always would rub my feet - never did I ask, it was just something she did - it was comfort, it was love.

Eight years ago, my cousin Katie had decided to come and visit me in Phoenix, the night she arrived we got the phone call that my grandma had slipped even further - I got on the phone with my aunt and said what should we do, she responded calmly - if you need to see her alive get on the next plane out.  All Katie saw from that visit was the airport and my apartment, we booked the next flight available, 12 hours later.  Katie was my guardian angel, so I didn't have to make that lonely flight home by myself.  We arrived in Milwaukee around 9pm and went straight to the hospice.  My grandmother hadn't been responsive for over 12 hours, and when we got in the room, she opened her eyes and looked straight at us - and with the life so close to leaving her life, she held our hands.  My mom and her sister never left, as I went back to my parents house, I went to bed and around 4am awoke from the following "dream"

I saw her, she was scared, and she didn't want to leave us
I was shocked, in my dream like state, I couldn't determine was this real, was this a dream
She looked at me with such sorrow, such remorse, and I told her it was okay
We would be okay, We could do it, She could leave
I kept saying it over and over, its okay, you can leave
Its okay - I love you - You can leave - Goodbye
I woke up in sweats - out of breathe and at the very second I heard the phone ring
It was over - She was gone.

My Grandma Dreske, was another unpaved path.  After stage 4 breast cancer, bone cancer, and then pancreatic cancer - which would finally be too much.  Despite being in her 80's and suffering from macular degeneration and diabetes, she took the the bold move of trying IV chemotherapy again.  However, the chemo would prove to much and I believe most likely contributed to the stroke she suffered from on her the last chemotherapy she had determined to do.  My grandma even in her death defied medicine which was her claim to fame.  She slipped into unconsciousness and the critical care hospice team was by her side, and every day after day after day kept saying - this is it - but it wasn't it -was a long 10 days - on the final day of her life, I was at home after visiting - it was a brutally hot and humid day, and at the time I was suffering badly from my hyperthyroidism, so the heat was not my friend.  It had been that warm for the past six days, so the nursing home was having trouble keeping it cool d/t the overwhelming humidity that had plagued the city.  As I was sitting at home, I couldn't shake it that I had to go back, so at 9pm I got in the car and drove over to the nursing center.  I remember the dark clouds, the humid summer sky and my heart pounding from exhaustion and fear - that this was it.  I knocked timidly on her door, and the hospice caregiver said she could leave the room - I told her it wasn't necessary, I wouldn't be long I just needed to say goodbye.  I was shaky and overheated, I walked in and she lay there somewhat peacefully - I whispered in her ear - gave her a kiss on the forehead and walked out of there knowing that was the last time I would see her alive. And it was, she passed away a few hours after I left, I was the last family member to see her alive.

I wrote and delivered my Grandma Kelly's eulogy, but I was so distraught and unprepared to be truthful I didn't like it - and have no idea if there even is a copy, but these are the two I wrote and delivered for my Grandma Dreske. I see them as a tribute to her life, and a bit of insight of what I draw on during my dark days.  I foce myself to remember I have a lineage of fighters, my Grandma Kelly, Grandma Dreske and George and know somewhere inside of my DNA is the strength that was passed on, even though its often hard to find.  During my treatments I would wear my grandmother's wedding band, George's (my late grandfather) mosaic cufflink around my neck, and there is nothing I physically need to carry from my Grandma Kelly because she is never far from reach.  I appreciate you taking the time to read the following tribute, of someone you don't know - but may it bring you close to someone you have known - someone you have loved and were forced to say goodbye.

In Remembrance of Eileen Dreske

I would like to thank everyone for gathering to celebrate the life of Eileen Dreske. All of you have been sources of great comfort to our family and my grandmother. On her behalf, I would like to thank you for being a part of her life, for it was the people around her, which brought her the most joy. I would like to take a moment to again thank the dedicated staff at St Camillus Skilled Nursing, Vitas Hospice Services, her long time friends and family that made this last year more palpable.

There are three other care givers that I would like to make special mention that my grandmother held in deep regard. Lynette Sokolowski who probably never imagined when she walked into my grandmother’s condo for a “simple” house cleaning position, that it would begin a most wonderful and complicated mix of friendship, caregiver, reality checker and a godsend to our family when we needed help, Lynette thank you for your 20 years of caring. Dr. Filmanowicz, who lucky for us broke his promise to my grandmother that he would not retire until she passed, he needed a vacation. All of us would forever hear the words, “there is no one like Dr. Fil”. And of course my father, I need not say more.

There is the old saying, “You cannot change the wind but you can adjust the sails”
If my grandmother had a motto that was it.

I was looking for the perfect words this evening before we say our final collective good-bye tomorrow and thumbed through Anna Quindlen’s book Happiness. While reading it, I smiled to myself thinking there is no inspiration I need to look further than the woman whom we are remembering today. Eileen did not need to read the words of advice in Anna’s book, because she lived it. When Anna was just 19 she lost her mother to ovarian cancer. Perhaps that was the secret of their shared life view. My grandmother also lost her mother when she was 19, and at that moment I can only guess you have to make a choice, sail the rough waters or adjust your sails. We all know what choice Eileen made.

Eileen chose to live a wonderful life. She was a careful historian of it, keeping meticulous albums of all her travels, graduation brochures, cards she received. She loved nice things, but was much unattached to them. It was the life long relationships that she held most dear. She had plenty of rough waters, but her courage, her optimism, her sense for adventure and her faith in her religion and friends and family carried her through many storms.

There is no better teacher, than a student of life. Eileen, like most women of her generation did not have the opportunity to go to college, so life was her education and she soaked it up. Whether it was different cultures through her love of travel or her continuing to learn about the faith she held so dear. She gained much from the knowledge of the Jesuits at San Camillo, she always found places to learn. She road that stationary bike and next to her often would be one of the retired Jesuit priests, there she would ask him how the church has changed and continue to shape her world view. She learned much from her friends and family,
because she was a wonderful listener.

My grandmother was not afraid. It is not to say there were not moments of fear or doubt, but at her core she was not afraid to die, and that gift allowed her to live the fullest of lives. I often asked her how she got through the painful cancer treatments, and she would say simply, “I just tell myself nothing lasts forever” When she lost some of her freedoms, due to macular degeneration or aging, she was ingenious at ways to still live fully. Whether it was using books on tape, or using a walker to get around. She did not look at something as a crutch, but rather what choice would give her more freedom to live. She also wanted to see you live your own life, she was always very busy, and expected that you would be too. She did not need to live vicariously through others, and that gave her the opportunity to find great joy and happiness in the success and happiness of others.

About a year and a half ago, my grandma told me she was ready. She was ready for the next adventure, for the next chapter. Her faith was so strong that she wanted to be reunited with those who have gone before her. I can not say I hold that same faith as deep in my heart as she did, but I do hold strongly to my faith in people, the kindness of others. My grandmother was a complex person, meaning different things to different people. I love her sometimes most for her imperfections, because she was so human. It was the kindness, the joy, the wonderful sense of humor, which links us all in our shared memory.

I leave you this evening with a story that exemplifies the advice of Eileen’s unknown soul sister Anna Quindlen, where in her book she shares lines from a Gwendlyn Brooks poem as words to live by…

Exhaust the little moment, Soon it Dies

And be it gash or gold, it will not Come Again in this Identical Disguise

Eileen, Mom and I were in France we were late to catch a train that headed out of the city. That trip began with my grandma using a cane, since she had been diagnosed with bone cancer; they advised her to use one. We had just minutes to make it to train car 82, and it was necessary otherwise we wouldn’t get out of Paris until the next day, so without thinking we started to run, and it was a long run. As we out of breath handed the conductor our tickets and collapsed on the plush train seats, we looked at each other and just started to laugh. Eileen had the biggest smile on her face, and once we gained our breath she looked at us and said with such gratitude, “Gosh it felt good to run, I can’t remember the last time I ran, it had be as a little kid” she just sat there with this beaming glow, and I will remember it forever, it was who she was. She was able to enjoy that moment, that freedom, pure joy brought on by the simplest of acts, a task she forgot she could still do, living, running, breathing…who could ask for more. 

And now that we say goodbye we will adjust our sails to see her everyday in our lives, in the moments that we think we can’t persevere but we do, in the moments when we just sit and enjoy the view.

Thank you. Good night 

A Brief History

According to the dictionary to eulogize is to give high praise or tribute.  Well, that is an easy task, the difficulty lies in making it concise.  Last night, I used the metaphor that I thought so perfectly described my grandmother, and that was, “You cannot change the wind, but you can adjust the sails” The statement seemed to resonate with a collective nod for those in attendance. 

My grandmother was born into an immigrant family.  Her parents met here in Wisconsin, but ironically were from the same area in Slovakia.  When my grandmother’s mother passed away when Eileen was 19, this is where I believe she made a decision to take life as it was dealt, and to always move forward.  It was at this time she took on the role of second parent to her younger brother Al.  The bond between them was never more apparent than in her last days.  She new when Al entered the room, a life of shared experiences of joy and heartache that only siblings could share.  Eileen and my grandfather, George were very proud to be surrogate grandparents to Joyce and Al’s children, and our family is very grateful for the love and care they have given to Eileen over the years.  She loved her other siblings deeply, Emil and her sister Fran, and missed them immensely over the years.

Eileen married George and an entire new phase of her life began.  It is well known that she had more than one suitor, and why she chose George, I am not sure she really new.  But I have a feeling looking back on her life that she had a love for adventure that she new she would have with George.  That union was not an easy one, but I don’t think she would have had it any other way, it offered her the opportunity to see the world in an unconventional way, and though the seas may have been rough at times, she had very strong sails.

I can not speak of how she was as a mother, but she taught us all lessons of life by her example.  She loved her children deeply and unconditionally.  And I know how blessed I was along with my sister, Brooke, and Cousins Jenny, Jason, Jake and Jarrod to have had her as a Grandmother.  She was an unconventional grandmother, in the ways that she didn’t bake cookies or play a role she thought Grandmother’s should play.  She was herself, and that was the best lesson of all.  She loved to be active, travel, play golf, read her mysteries and learn.  She loved enjoying and cultivating her friendships.  She was a wonderful listener, and gave advice when asked, but never judged.  She was happy when we were busy and never wanted for more than others to be happy and enjoy creating their lives.

After George died, she had a bit of calm before the storm.  The storm being the unrelenting cancer that would prove that medicine is an imperfect science.  She was our little Phoenix rising, our cat with nine lives.  She was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer a month before she was headed on a European tour with her friend Nellie.  She stared that cancer down, and decided, not now.  It was not her time, she wasn’t finished and we were all blessed that she was right.  She was an amazing fighter, her courage, her attitude, her faith, were all exposed and it is at that time of great anguish that she lived the truth of who she was.  The years of her health waxing and waning, ups and downs, were handled with more grace and dignity than I could imagine.  She had more life to live, and she did just that.

The last year of Eileen’s life was a struggle not only for her, but also for those who loved her so deeply.  I often say, the only blessing of her stroke was that she did not have the short term memory to realize how long she had been ill.  And once again, she defied the odds of pancreatic cancer.  But even in this last year, I continued to learn from her, watch her adapt to her new surroundings, keep fighting for her independence and she still offered so much joy.  We were blessed that her personality, her witty sense of humor, and often her feisty impatience were always in tact.  We had lost a little of her, the way we wanted her to be, but her essence was there every day. 

In her final days, I am thankful that she was at peace.  As I watched her decline, despite a sadness deep in my soul, I had such profound gratefulness.  Grateful to be able to witness a life well lived.  Grateful to have been blessed with so many years to learn from her way of living.  It is a wonderful gift to enjoy life as it is handed to you, to be able to adjust and adapt, and to be able to leave this world with no regrets.  I know deep in my heart, that she left in peace.  Her faith brought her home but she did not leave us behind, each of us will walk our days seeing a little of our life with her eyes, she will not forget us and she will never be forgotten.

So the time has come again, the inevitable completion of another circle of life, and this time - I feel I have nothing to give.  I just can't bear it again.  Today, we arrived at the newest care facility and with a hesitant gait I forced my legs to move across the threshold into the lobby that looks like every other lobby at a nursing home facility.  The false serenity with the god awful diluted peach, moss green and light oak wood that adorns the winged chairs and sofas.  The colors that some genius determined would illicit a calmness, all I saw was the life sucked out of the pigment in my surroundings as a mirror to the life that was slowly deteriorating all around us.  No amount of paint or cheery receptionist could hide the reality of these walls.  As we made our way up three flights of stairs (since I still can't get into an elevator) pushed the button to get to the floor, walked down yet another corridor to turn and walk down another hallway to then hit the double doors marked Vitas - my system began to shut down...these pale lifeless walls with bad oil paintings began closing in on me.  My heart began to race, my palms were sweating, my mind was jumping and focused on trying to find the nearest exit.  I could feel myself losing all rational thought, and all my dad's words were blurred together as I focused on walking to the end of the final hallway to get to the last room on the left that my grandpa was in - as I approached my mom emerged, and I saw for a brief second my grandpa, in his burnt orange cashmere sweater (despite it feeling like a sauna) his eyes closed, resting comfortably.  And with that quick visual - I just couldn't do it and I fled.

As I made my way out of the maze, cursing myself for this panic that arose, we got to the car and I sunk into myself with a crushing defeat.  I had let myself down -in my eyes let my parent's and grandpa down.  I sat in silence as my boyfriend drove us home, and encouraged me that it was a dry run - it would get easier.  There is some truth in that statement, I now know what the facility is like, what to expect, but watching someone you love slip slowly away and those around us helpless to transfer vitality, never gets easier.

I appreciate my Grandfather's affable nature, his stoic way of continuing on after my grandmother left us, and I admire my parent's for their strength to know it was time to move him, the most difficult decision they have had to make.  I know I have to be careful, because I have been feeling so much better and I know I have been pushing the limits on my self, and so today - I fled.  Not my finest hour, but perhaps the necessary one to stay strong enough for the days and weeks ahead.  I wish my Grandpa peace and freedom in his dreams, when his eyes are closed, I hope he is young and vital again in his mind, and can rest knowing reaching his age is not for the faint of heart and he continues to quietly press on.

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