My dad passed away September 19th, 1996. I was doing my clinical year in my Master’s program preparing to be a Family Nurse Practitioner. He had been critically ill previously that year and was in chronic pain because of long-term steroid use for temporal arteritis. Steroids are used to prevent blindness with this disorder, but steroids are a two-edged sword. His degenerative disc disease caused back pain that had grown harder and harder to control, and he had started taking large of amounts of Tylenol with codeine for relief.
During one of his previous illnesses he had become profoundly hypotensive early on morning, with a blood pressure of 60/40. My mom was asleep in the room while I sat with him, wondering if he would die that night. About 3 in the morning he was awake and looking intently up toward the ceiling. He asked what time it was and then muttered, “What are they doing up there?” Call me crazy, but I think he had a glimpse toward the other side.
Prior to that, I had always believed that he had a near death experience with his second open heart surgery. We were told that they “had trouble getting him off the pump”. When we visited in the CVICU the first time, he was still intubated with all the lines and tubes and such. But he was awake. As we spoke to him, his finger moved restlessly over his right abdomen and groin area. My mom thought he was hurting at the site where they had done his heart cath prior to surgery. But, as I watched closely, it became apparent that he was writing, “I love you.” He had not been a demonstrative father. However, after that surgery, he ended every visit with “I love you.”
The week before he died, he was scheduled for an epidural injection to try to relieve his back pain. But when he presented for the procedure, his INR (the measure of Coumadin activity in his blood–he was on the anticoagulant because of chronic atrial fibrillation with its risk for stroke) was too prolonged. Some people would say his blood was “too thin.” We went back home with his pain unrelieved.
The day before his death I took him and Mom to lunch at a little café in Judsonia. Like I said, I was finishing my clinicals that fall, and Wednesday was my day off. We had lunch and, as I was dropping them off at their house, he reached in his pocket and pressed something into my hand. It was a hundred-dollar bill. “Daddy, I’m fine. I don’t need this,” I protested. He firmly insisted that I take it. “I want you to have it.” He was proud of my efforts to complete my education. He didn’t live to see me graduate.
Early Thursday morning my phone rang. It was Mom calling for help. “Your dad’s coughing up bright red blood–a lot of it. I don’t know what to do.” I hurriedly dressed and drove the short distance to their house, the house I’d grown up in. When I walked in the bedroom, he greeted me with a hoarse, “A man can’t live like this.” He was pale and tremulous and actively coughing up blood. It was 3 in the morning.
I told him whatever he needed to do was all right, that we would be with him. An ambulance was called, and he was transported to the hospital with the request not to resuscitate if his heart stopped. At the hospital we found that, although he had not taken any Coumadin in days, his INR had continued to climb. He was bleeding into his lungs. The doctor said we might be able to slow things down if we gave him platelets and blood and such, but I knew he was ready to go. My mom and I elected comfort care. We stood beside him, holding his hand and talking to him as he wanted to talk, as he was given some medication to keep him comfortable. He was moved to the CCU for his last hours.
His last words to me were, “I love you, more than you know……” and those words have become my words to tell my children and grandchildren and great-grandchild how much they are loved. As he died, my dad raised slightly in the bed and gazed toward the ceiling. As the light left his eyes, I knew he was joining those who had come to take him home with them.
He was at peace, and so was I. But I miss him still. Thank you for being my dad. For loving me and supporting me in all I did. I love you, Dad, more than you know……….
Since my last blog I’ve been thinking a lot, appreciating all those who said it helped their grief to read about mine. I guess I’m being a bit feminist, but it inspired in me the notion to consider all the “sisterhoods” we women inhabit. The picture above, circa 1978, records the three married female students in the Beta class of the Carr School of Nursing at Harding University. We were “sisters” in the journey to complete our education as baccalaureate prepared registered nurses. We studied together, laughed together, cried together, doubted we would ever finish together. We are still dear long-distance friends.
Then I think about my sisters in Christ. Believers bonded together by a common faith in Jesus Christ and followers of his teachings. Prayer partners, prayer warriors, teachers, mentors. We comfort and encourage each other. The elderly model Christian womanhood for the younger and the younger for the even younger. Then, suddenly, at some point comes the realization that we have reached the age of being the “core” of the local church, as elderly saints pass the mantle of leadership to us.
Of course, there are biological sisters. I have none. But I have a beloved sister-in-law who would do anything for me. She has always welcomed me into the family as true family, not just some interloper that she tolerates because her brother (thank the Lord) loves me! She is one of the most gracious, kind, thoughtful, compassionate, and hard-working individuals that I have ever known.
There is the sisterhood of nursing. We share a special bond, one of seeking to heal and comfort, protect and advocate for our patients. (People say “clients” now, but that just seems wrong–we are caregivers and they are patients!) Our humor is sometimes more than a little dark. We can spot manipulation from a hall away. We work as partners with the medical caregivers who share in our goal of helping people work through the reality of healing or face the inevitable death of this body. We cry together when we see suffering that we cannot “fix”, and we grieve together when the loss of some newborn or child or dear nursing colleague or “special” patient dies. We are a special sisterhood, seeing life both at its beginning and its end, privilege to the most private moments of our patients’ lives.
We mustn’t forget the sisterhood of friendship. Life would be such a drag without it!Friends laugh together, have fun together, commiserate with each other, support each other, acknowledge each other as special people in their world. Our lives would be forlorn and lonely existences without our friends. There are lifelong friends, like the two pictured above (I am the one on the far right.) Months may go by without a word, but the conversation seems to pick up just where it left off with each text or call or, strange concept, handwritten note. I am grateful to have multiple sisterhoods of friends–work friends, church friends, old school friends, forever friends.
Most of the comments I have received on my last blog belong to a special sisterhood–the sisterhood of loss of a loved one. There are many “focus” groups within this sisterhood. Some have lost children–fatal illness, tragic accident, suicide, accidental overdose. Many have lost husbands, that life partner, love of one’s life, that made one whole, but now left behind as the lone part of the pair that should have lasted forever.Some have lost parents–cancer, heart disease, the many maladies that tear down our bodies. Some losses have come in the very aged, a slow, drawn out, wasting away. Some have come in the form of dementia that robs one of the loved one’s self, while their body lives on. Some losses are sudden, striking without warning, totally unexpected–accidental or sudden death. Some have lost siblings, the quality of the relationship filling one either with happy memories of childhood together or sadness over bonds broken by some foolish misunderstanding, stubbornness, or neglect and time wasted.
I guess (hope, strive, long) to belong to the sisterhood of writers. The ones for whom therapy comes in the form of the written word. We have to record our thoughts and share them in some format, sometimes to entertain, sometimes to comfort, sometimes to just share our humanity with the unseen reader world. We long to connect with the reader, to stimulate a response, to open a window into ourselves as we express our thoughts.
I wonder, female readers, how many of these sisterhoods find you in their roster? I’d love to hear about more sisterhoods, because I’m sure many others are out there, living, breathing entities that make life more bearable. And we are blessed to have them.
I’m really having a hard time with this blog, because it’s been nearly a year since I did much writing. It’s like your death redefined my life. I am now the mother of a child who committed suicide. It’s not a pretty definition. You were so very proud when I published that little novel! Since your death, I’ve written hardly anything. I think it’s time for that to change.
You know, losing you was a terrible experience, made all the more painful because you didn’t “pass away” quietly or die from some horrible illness or tragic accident. You chose to leave us, on your terms, your time. That has made this whole experience so much more hurtful, I think. Sometimes I’ve been just plain mad. How dare you hurt us like this? How selfish of you, thinking only of your personal pain and not thinking of our survivor pain.
I know, you didn’t realize, weren’t thinking. You were in such a deep, dark hole of depression and dismay, not knowing how to beat the addiction to methamphetamine, not having enough courage to own up to your mental illness, recognizing the hurt that you were causing the wife that you loved, the child you adored, and the grandchild that you felt you would never be good enough for. You had truly, as your loving wife explained, “lost your way.”
You are not forgotten. Steffie loves you still-she chose and designed your gravestone, and it is so much what you would have chosen. She even included your logo on the vase. As we drive by the cemetery each Sunday morning, I feel tears threatening. How I would love to see you and comfort you and make things better! Your brother misses you, particularly when he has some “project” to do, like jack-hammering concrete floor to fix a leak. And your little sister has been changed by your loss. She, previously so filled with the desire to escape her depression, now says openly that she would “never” hurt the family like you did. I am grateful, because I don’t think I could survive losing another child through suicide. Being a survivor of suicide is, indeed, a label one never wants to wear.
I think of you every day, son. I wear a necklace with your name on it in remembrance. It gives me comfort. Although I miss you with every inch of my being, I at last know that you are safe and at rest in our Heavenly Father’s arms. And, through it all, my faith is ever stronger. God is good. His love, grace, and mercy are enough to see us through the darkest of days. I only wish you had remembered those truths from your early years. Perhaps, then, you would have never chosen to leave.
Years ago I read a book by Gail Sheehy titled Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. My recollection of the content is scanty, but I feel myself swept into a current of life events that feel like “passages”. Some are joyful and sweet, like the new ornament on the Christmas tree. Beside her mother’s Baby’s First Christmas ornament dated 1992 is my newborn great-granddaughter’s ornament dated 2014. Friday, December 19, 2014, to be exact. The baby is exceptionally beautiful for a newborn, and, yes, I AM prejudiced, but even acquaintances agree when they see her picture. Her mother is, likewise, a beautiful woman grown from a beautiful child and married to a really fine and remarkable husband. My heart bursts with joy at the expectation of seeing this young family grow.
There is a bittersweet element to my current passage, too. I suppose in many ways I am becoming the matriarch of my family. My age allows it. My status as mother, grandmother, and, now, great-grandmother requires it. Christmases at my mother’s house have been replaced by Christmas Eve at this house. But, am I prepared? Do I have the energy, the focus, the insight to fulfill the role? Do I have the magnetism to bind family ties closer together as my mom and dad did? Can I inspire the devotion to family get-togethers that bonded previous generations? I’m not sure I feel up to the task.
I pray that with God’s help I can fill the shoes of the previous “greatest” generation, knowing that it is only with a healthy dose of devotion to God, family, and seasons that I will succeed. So, let us make new traditions that will be as loving and long-lived as past ones, while treasuring the past in our hearts.
And, with that, I will wish all you readers–
“MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT!”
This time of year always makes me a bit sad. Three years ago on November 11th I was watching BlueBloods when the phone rang. It was my niece, Lisa, calling to tell me that my older brother, C.S. “Robby” Roberson was dying. The next few days would be etched in my memory unlike any other piece of my life. That’s Robby–the picture above–but I didn’t know him at the time that photo was made. I think that was his senior picture perhaps, maybe about 1962. A handsome guy. At that time I was aware of his existence but had no idea how our lives would come together and how important he would become to me, how his death would change me.
You see, Robby and I are products of the same father but different mothers. Our dad was first married to Robby’s mom, who gave birth to his brother, Bob, and him. That was wartime–World War II–and when Dad was sent to Guam, like so many “dear John” stories, his wife moved on, establishing herself in California and the two boys with her, blocking any and all attempts for him to have a relationship with his sons. When Dad was discharged from the army, he returned to his roots here in Arkansas, met my mother, married, and fathered me and my brother, Alan. We were marginally aware we had two brothers in California. They seemed a world away.
Yet the story didn’t end there. In 1989 I received a call from my cousin, Janet. In one of those convoluted family stories, it seems that Dad’s first wife was sister to his brother’s wife. Therefore, Janet is cousin to both Robby and me. Robby had developed a curiosity, a hunger if you will, to know more about his siblings in Arkansas, and he had called her to see if he could possibly get photographs of us. Instead of sending pictures, she called me and gave me his contact information. I am forever grateful to her. Shortly thereafter, I made “the call”, announced that I was his sister, was cautiously received, and there the real story begins.
The first years of our relationship were a bit difficult. Our brother Bob had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and was dying. Robby was very preoccupied with that tragedy. I, on the other hand, just wanted to reunite Dad with Bob before that was made impossible by either’s death. Robby was very protective of Bob, who had never come to terms with Dad’s absence from their lives, and nixed the proposal. I only once spoke with my brother Bob, on his birthday (maybe his last one). I got his phone number somehow and repeated “the call”, introducing myself as his sister, and cordially wishing him a happy birthday. He was polite but obviously uninterested, and there our nonexistent relationship ended. I thought that perhaps my relationship with Robby would soon suffer a similar fate.
But God had other plans. Robby and I chatted on the phone and wrote letters (yes, “snail mail” with stamps and everything), and, ultimately, exchanged e-mails. His letters were written on long yellow legal pads with a blue fountain pen, and he always signed them with some combinations of the signature, “Robby, your brother, Me”. We grew to know each other. We shared the current events of our lives. He talked about doing a “stake out” as a vice cop in Long Beach. I told him about my daughter’s baptism, and he commented with some dismay, “You’re not one of those ‘born again’ people, are you?” “Yes”, I replied firmly. That’s when he told me that he was an atheist. “There’s nothing after we die. That’s the end of it all.” I was troubled but knew not to push the point.
Then, call it fate, destiny, coincidence, or the hand of God, we met. I was in San Francisco at a healthcare conference. He said it was a short flight from Long Beach to San Francisco, so he and his girlfriend flew up. I think he needed a buffer for our meeting. I had one, my coworkers, who were eager to witness this reuniting of siblings. He appeared at the door of my hotel room with a rose and a striking resemblance to our brother, Alan. They had different mothers, it is true, but I guess our dad’s genes were dominant because they had the same mannerisms, expressions, vocal inflections. And, both were cops.
Robby wined and dined all of us girls, with an emphasis on the wine. I left the encounter with the sense that he was probably alcoholic, which was proven true as our relationship continued to develop. But, develop it did. The next step was taking Dad to California to meet his son and grandchildren. Then Robby came here, dismayed to find it is a “dry” county. However, he found an economy size vodka (which I think my dad poured down the drain when he thought his son was drinking too much). He and Dad talked a lot on that visit, giving Robby a better understanding of the events of his childhood and bringing Dad some closure as his health began to fail. Robby was back when Dad, after a difficult heart surgery (trouble restarting his heart when it was time to come off the pump), asked me to “call Robby”.
Then came the first surprise call from Lisa. Robby was near death with bleeding from his stomach related to his alcoholism. He was taking prescription meds with the alcohol. His home was in disarray. It was obvious now that he wasn’t just a drinker, he was an alcoholic and was drinking himself to death. He was hospitalized and, after an intervention by his family and friends, signed himself in to rehab. I wasn’t able to be there but faxed my plea for his sobriety and life.
Our relationship made a shift. On one of his visits to Arkansas, he attended Easter service at church with us. On one of my visits to him, I gifted him with a Bible. On another trip to Long Beach, he asked what I wanted to see or do on my visit. I asked to attend church there with my family, and he was right by my side. I remember being a little surprised when he recited the Lord’s Prayer flawlessly with the rest of us, until I remembered that it is integral to AA’s meetings. The girls told me they sometimes observed him to be reading the Bible, when he thought no observers were present. My daughter sent me to Long Beach for R & R with my brother, and he took me to Catalina. On the ferry back to Long Beach our boat was “socked in” by the heaviest fog I had ever experienced. I remember Robby in the bow of the boat with a watchful, vigilant expression, as though he had every sense dialed up a notch. I knew then our situation could have been a bit perilous!
Then, one early fall day in September, I’m not really sure of the year, I think perhaps 2007, Robby called. “Are you sitting down?” he asked, and then proceeded to share with me that he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. In my nurse mind, I feared the worst but, of course, said nothing of the sort to him. He had surgery and radiation and chemotherapy. He by then had retired to Idaho and was fortunate to have access to an excellent cancer center. When we made a road trip to Yellowstone in 2010 we made a long detour to visit. I was somewhat reluctant to “drop in” uninvited, but my husband insisted. I had sensed Robby’s deep-seated need for privacy as his e-mails had almost stopped. I knew things were not going well. He was a shadow of himself. His voice had changed. He still had difficulty swallowing but gamely ate some of his favorite white chili and blueberry cobbler. We headed home the next day. I thought I was saying good-bye.
Then came “the call” of another variety. Not a call of introduction, but a call of announcement. Robby was dying, in hospice. He had not asked for me, but his daughters thought I would want to know. I was on a plane the next morning and by his side that afternoon. The girls told me that he had visited with the hospital chaplain before his transfer to hospice. He had “made his peace” with God. They said he had prayed a prayer of thanksgiving, too, and that he expressed gratitude for his sister, Kat. There is a lump in my throat as I type these words. Three days later, on November 15th, Robby exited the pain of this life and entered a better place.
Why do I write this now? In remembrance. In thanksgiving. In love for a dear, good man who truly made a difference in my life. Robby was intelligent, strong, and full of passion for life. He was a good father, and I suspect, an even better grandfather. (Most of us are better the second time around, I think.) He was admired as a peace officer. He was my brother, friend, confidante, and adviser during some very difficult passages of my life. I miss him everyday, this remarkable tower of a man that I was honored and blessed to know as my brother. I needed to reflect and share and give tribute to his life, for he is now part of who I am.
I love you and miss you, Robby, more than you know.
One of the things I quite love about our home is its location. Thirty acres of pasture and woodland and pond grants a world of opportunities to view the lives of both wildlife and domesticated animals. For instance, the above bovine family offers one a bit of a chance to contrast and compare families. In a word, our world is a microcosm of family life across species!
You’ll have to forgive me. I fear that my world view is being “Downton-ized”. My daughter and I are latecomers to the community of Downton Abbey watchers, and we have been playing catch-up with the aid of DVDs of each of the previous seasons. We are firmly established in Season III now, and I find myself constantly thinking about the people, the tragedies, the interplay of politics and religion and aristocracy and servanthood. And, one could never forget the family dynamic–sisters who are crushing each other’s dreams, the dowager duchess who is fearless in her criticisms but surprisingly wise and unerringly funny in her comments, the lessons of a marriage made for money yet resulting in love. There is so much to ponder!
And that introductory note brings me to the story of Daisy, Holly, and Lily, who are pictured above. A little family history must come first. Daisy is a lovely, longhorn mother who has born two beautiful daughters. She has quite striking brown spots. She was born on this land, and, as a young calf, would come to the fence to get me to feed her the tender grass from my side by hand. (You do recollect, don’t you, that the grass is always greener, sweeter, and more tender on the other side of the fence?) Although her horns look quite intimidating, as well they should, she has a very gentle nature and has been the epitome of a good mother to her daughters.
Holly, her firstborn, was conceived through the services of a huge black Brangas (Brahma and Angus) bull. Holly lost the horns, but retained the lovely spots. However, her sire’s contribution to the gene pool resulted in black spots. Holly has been a bit of a trial to us and her mother, as befitting the old term “black sheep” (or cow, as the case may be). I’ll explain shortly.
Then we come to sweet little Lily, named thus because at birth she appeared to be lily white with no spots. In the way of cattle, which is not monogamous by any stretch and operates by virtue of proximity and not loyalty, Lily was fathered by a lovely, creamy white, Charolais bull. As she has progressed into childhood and adolescence, she, too, has developed spots, which are creamy yellow, almost like a light caramel or butterscotch. Much to our surprise, she also has nubbins with the promise of developing horns like her mother.
I alluded to Holly’s miscreant activities. It began with Lily’s birth. Holly, great grown heifer that she was, long weaned from her mother’s milk, saw the young Lily partaking of maternal nourishment. It seems that the memory of the sweet warmth of Daisy’s milk was not long past in Holly’s memory, and, besides, who was this upstart drinking from the fountain of her mother’s udder? Holly quickly relapsed into infantile behavior, pushing Lily aside and draining Mama` quite empty. And so, Holly was banished to a pen by herself. Fortunately, she learned that lesson, and, when reunited with mother and sister, behaved herself, at least regarding nourishment. However, I presume that her teenage hormones and angst took control, and she recently created an opening in the fence on the backside of our pasture, exiting such and meeting up with a friendly bull there. You can guess the rest. She was duly returned home and, before her captors could get back to the other side of the fence, she again was out, dallying with her teenage crush. Once again, the prodigal was returned to her proper home, this time with imprisonment in the pen of her youth.
I say all that, to note this. Arising early one morning, I noted the three of them, lying together where they had rested through the night. And, each morning since then, I have found them thus. And, somehow, in my Downton-ized brain, that struck a chord. Yes, children sometimes disappoint. But, a mother’s love is unconditional and forgiving. And, families stick together. That’s why I love living here. There’s always a lesson in the wonder that surrounds. I hope you experience both the lesson and the wonder of your life today.