Posted by: morrowsl | October 30, 2016

Old Trees

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Jim Casto, feeding his koi and catfish at Ohio Log House

When we first discovered Ohio Log House in the early summer of 2015, my expectations were only to have a cool spot to use as a “base” for a joint vacation with our friends, Elle and Jack, as well as a generally-located stopping place between a wedding we were attending and our visit to our farm.
I had no idea how hard I would fall in love.  And not just with the house.
Yes, it’s an incredible structure filled floor to ceiling with enough stuff to fit an entire season of Antiques Road Show and American Pickers, along with a period movie and probably a couple of television shows.
Yes, the area where the house is located is equally beautiful and quaint and so very Americana.
But I fell in love with a man there as well.  And his is the real story to tell.

Jim and Virginia Casto met when she was sixteen and came to work at a swimming pool that Jim and a friend had opened.  As all good love stories go, she didn’t fall for him immediately.  He had to work to win her.  Eventually, he brought her gladiolas, grown in his garden at his mother’s house.  The deal was sealed.  They married and began the journey that eventually led them to a wonderful pair of buildings, the Scandinavian-inspired chalet that is home, and the centuries-old log house that is their business.

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Jim and Virginia Casto’s home in the foreground with the log house behind.

Last summer, when we met them, it was Virginia who handled the business details and phone calls.  I’d tried calling the house and actually did speak to Jim initially.  We did not hit it off so well.  He seemed confused about my call and I was equally confused by our conversation until he explained that it was his wife who normally handled “all this stuff” and gave me her cell number.  I booked our visit and promptly forgot the old man on the phone.

So, it was a bit of a shock to come upstairs that first day from our cave-like bottom floor suite and find a very lively fellow leaning against a porch post, bending Mike’s ear.  I joined them and was a bit embarrassed to admit that I was the shrill who’d harassed him on the phone.  In his gentle way he dismissed the entire thing and picked up his story.  For close to an hour he stood thusly, sometimes shifting his feet or turning to point a spot in the distance.  But he never sat down that first day.  Eventually I realized Jim Casto is not a man who sits.  Like my own daddy, he was born on the go and grass didn’t grow under his feet.
Each morning, Virginia would cross the driveway between her home and her business with a basket laden with the beginnings of our breakfast.  She and Jim would join us at the table and, from those morning conversations, we learned that Jim had purchased the old log house to save it from destruction.  He dismantled it, moved it down the road a mile or so, then spent more than a decade bringing it back to life.  When he was finished, he and Virginia carefully filled it with antiques and artifacts collected over the years from sales and shops encountered along the way.  It was amazing to watch his face light in animation as he talked about the pitfalls of turning primitive workmanship into livable modern convenience.  At one point he’d been standing in the middle of the second floor, home of a spacious living/dining area, a snug kitchen the likes of which Country Living might boast, and a massive remote-controlled gas fireplace, when his son asked what had him puzzled.  Jim replied, “I need a bathroom” and that was how there came to be a small powder bath hanging off the back of the house far enough to make you understand how bears feel when they sit in the woods.  I kept asking more questions in hopes he’d forget there was anything to do aside from answer me.
By the end of our trip, I had the sound of his voice in my head and he had a piece of my heart.

I was truly looking forward to sitting with Virginia and Jim again at breakfast and listening to them recount their adventures.  I’d spoken with Virginia again when I’d booked the cabin and she mentioned Jim wasn’t as active as he’d been.
Pulling up, the place was even more picturesque than I remembered, even in the pouring rain.  Eventually Virginia made an appearance and explained that Jim was no longer able to get around without a walker and spent little time at all outside.
My heart cracked.  This was a man who’d spent as much of his life as humanly possible outside.  I spent the evening trying to imagine how he was coping.

Next day, we were up for breakfast at 8:30 and Virginia elaborated some on Jim’s condition.  He began to decline in the fall and winter after we’d been up for our stay.  He was now on oxygen during the daytime and confined to a single floor of the house.  He walked only with the aid of a walker and she had help to bathe him.  She began to talk about his inability to recall the facts of his days and their life together.  This morning, she’d left him with their wedding photos in hopes of prompting his memory into recalling who she was.  A tear made its way down her cheek and I simply had to go to her and put my arms around her.  Surely she’d known that commitment to a man so far her senior would possibly lead to this day.  But it was evident that no amount of preparation could have readied her to lose him in such a cruel manner.  We both regained ourselves and she was out the door to check on him as we left for a pumpkin festival nearby.

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Apple orchards skirt the lane leading to the house and comprise Jim’s view of the world now.

Saturday we were up and gone and spent almost all day in and out of shops in town as well as a huge pumpkin patch we’d passed on the way back from the pumpkin festival the previous day.

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Probably the biggest pumpkin patch I’ve ever seen!

Sunday morning at breakfast, we talked again of Jim and his declining health.  He was having a “good day”, Virginia said and Elle asked if we might visit with him.  We agreed to shoot for midday.  But then we ended up too far from the house at the time we’d set.  As disappointing as it was not to see him, it allowed me to simply recall the man who’d taken my heart and how he’d managed it.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to see him diminished and cooped up.  In my mind, he would still be out on his mower, tearing across the hills, making hay while the sun was high and bright.

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And then, it was Monday morning and we were packing the cars.  Elle and Jack would head northeast and Mike and I would turn southwest.  My mood was gloomy.  Our weekend, while longer than the last one and filled with much more time together, was still far too short.  And too, we were heading to a less than cheerful task a bit farther down the road.  The setting would be just as lovely, but nowhere near as comforting.
I asked Virginia to join us for a group photo, just as I’d asked the Castos to be in the one we took on our first stay.  She finally agreed.  Then Elle mentioned missing Jim and next thing I know we’re off and crossing the driveway to see him.  My heart beat a bit faster; I am not good with this sort of thing at all.  I tend to get teary and usually embarrass myself by saying the wrong thing more loudly than intended.  I almost hoped he’d be napping and we’d leave him undisturbed.

Jim, it seems, had other plans.

“You folks have been here before!”

It was his eyes that let me know he did, in fact, know us.  Maybe not our names, but he knew he’d met us before and he was genuinely pleased to see us again.  I hugged him and kissed his whiskered cheek.  And wished for more time to sit and listen to that voice.  To hear his stories about the cabin and the Erie Canal and the lucky people who lived in his houses.  We told him again how much we treasured the gift of the old log house, with it’s huge timbers and solid floors.  We all agreed that fall was the best time to be there, then changed our minds when a glance out the window beside his bed gave us the full view of the apple orchards and pond.  How gorgeous it must be in spring when the trees are blooming under a blue bird sky.

Then it was truly time to go.  I kissed him again and got a kiss in return.  I held his hands and tried with all my might to soak in all that I could of him before he was gone from my sight.  Possibly for the last time.

I hope to see Jim Casto again.  The odds are against it, I know.  There’s a long cold winter coming.  He is well into his 8th decade.  His health, after living such a robust and useful life, is failing him.  For now, I need to pack up a little box with some sweet Parker county peach jam and a print of his beautiful house and send it to remind him that the story isn’t over just yet.

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The view out Jim’s big picture window.

Posted by: morrowsl | August 30, 2016

It’s a seasonal thing

My tendency is to hide out in summer.  To begin with, it’s just too hot to want to be outdoors much.  Add to that the complete disappearance of cotton in women’s clothing in the last two decades.  Pile on quite a few more pounds than are absolutely necessary to enjoy life.  And top it all with a blazing sun and miles of concrete.
I don’t feel I’m being oversensitive at all.  Summers in North Texas are most likely the closest I’ll get to Hell while still on this side of the grass.

But this summer in particular, life just seems to be in a state of limbo.  Without benefit of a pole.  And there’s a definite lack of snappy music.  It just seems like the whole world, my world that is, is holding its breath.
Not a particularly intelligent thing to do when the ambient temperature exceeds 95 degrees.

It started with Mike’s decision to retire.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  It started with Mike’s employer meeting the end of the contract he was assigned to and having no other contract in place where his almost fifty years of aviation experience might come in handy.  He packed his bags one last time and made the drive from Oklahoma City to Dallas to begin a new chapter as King of my castle.  It’s almost amusing how much stuff I had to move just to give him back his space in his own home.  Then we emptied his apartment and relocated the incredible stock of dishes and furniture and “stuff” he’d accumulated over the years while of living out of state.  At the same time, our youngest daughter made the move south, with a lot less stuff than her dad had, and suddenly the house is close to capacity again.  Thankfully, this time, I did not need an OB/GYN to help me meet this accomplishment.

Finally, sometime in late July, we made the decision to start looking for a piece of property closer to our present home than our farm up north.  Our lives took a much different path than we’d ever anticipated and our family has such deep roots in North Texas that trying to have a family retreat twenty-one hours away had absolutely no merit, no matter how bucolic the setting.

Looking for anything that remotely resembles what I’d envisioned for the farm has been by turns frustrating and exciting.  I had, quite wrongfully, believed that simply logging on to a real estate site would provide most of what was needed to cull through the vast listings of available housing within an hour of our existing home.  Almost immediately I found a suitable spot with a newish house and young trees, very easily accessible by our entire family.  I nervously contacted the listed realtor and was almost giddy to see his immediate reply.  Until I read it and discovered the house had been sold two years ago, but never removed from the generic real estate site.

Seriously?

But he offered to help us and I sent him a “wish list” to give him an idea of our requirements.  A week later we drove southeast, not the direction I’d hoped to be looking, to meet him at the first of four listings he’d sent us for viewing.  The house hit one of our points – it had a huge pond – but otherwise it was nowhere near what we wanted.  And the realtor said as much as soon as he stepped up to shake our hands.

I think that’s what I liked about him from the start.  He knew it was the wrong property, but he wanted to meet and get a better read on us.  We departed in less than an hour with him promising to come up with something better in short order.  He also provided a couple of websites that he knew would be up to date and more realistic for me.  I surf the internet at night when I can’t sleep and I’d already discovered that checking anything other than a real estate company’s listings on their own site was a complete waste of an already sleepless night.

Then, one night a couple of weeks ago, I found a place that was newly listed and looked like it might just be a good match.  I sent the link to our realtor and we saw the property last week.  It is almost a perfect match.  And we’re smart enough to know we’re not likely to get any closer than this.

Yesterday, we signed a contract.  And tomorrow we’ll go back out and look with “owner eyes” to make sure we know what needs to be done should we actually end up buying this place.  Experience tells me not to get too far ahead of reality, so I’m tempering my emotions by constantly reminding myself there are any number of things that stand between us and a peaceful spot in the country.

We’re still, very much, in limbo.  Nothing is settled.  Nothing is packed.  Or even sorted, for that matter.  We’re still at capacity here and that isn’t changing anytime soon.  Fall decorations will come out of storage in a week and I’ll do my usual deep clean before the change of season.  The air will, eventually, start to cool and I’ll wash the windows and get ready for the blessed relief from air conditioning that comes with a stiff north wind.  Pumpkins will be appearing in the grocery.  I’ll start to consider Christmas decorations and get serious with my gift purchasing (already started, but also already hopelessly behind!) and this year’s theme for my tree.

Summer, for me, is the longest of the seasons.  Not knowing for sure what is coming makes me anxious.  But the idea of relief, in whatever form it takes this time, helps almost as much as a good soaking rain.

Posted by: morrowsl | July 12, 2016

The Art of Sobriety

Alcoholism was part of my everyday as a child.  Both of my grandfathers drank, my mother’s only sibling drank, as did one of my dad’s sisters.  I didn’t have a firm grasp of alcoholism as a child, but I knew what being drunk looked like from a child’s point of view.  I knew the smell of whiskey-soaked breath.  I knew the stagger, slur, and slump.  I knew the anger and irrationality.  And, by age six, I knew what the “drunk tank” and DUI meant and how people managed to end up in the former because of the latter.

While I never recall anyone suggesting any of my family members might be an alcoholic, I certainly know that two of the four were commonly referred to as “drunks”.  From my earliest memory I associated a drunk with the same fear and disgust as anyone who might ever have killed a puppy.  They are simply bad people.

The idea of alcoholism and its effects on a family is something I’ve dragged around with me for ages.  It isn’t anything you can zen your way out of because it’s a part of your mental and emotional development.  You can’t get enough therapy to erase what you’ve seen and heard thanks to the family drunk/drunks.  It’s sort of like the imaginary friend in Drop Dead Fred.  No matter how much you try to suppress it, it will pop up at social gatherings or in the liquor store or at wine tastings.  You live with the fear that, should you have another drink, you’ll be slobbering onto some poor soul’s shoulder before the end of the evening or singing or dancing or otherwise making an ass of yourself.  It’s in your genes.  It’s no different than the green in your eyes or the shape of your hands.

And, because you know what is possible, you tend to be over-protective of the children who come into your family.  You do your best to shield and shelter them.  You post warnings to your spouse against drinking when the kids are around.  You offer to always be the designated driver.  You suggest that holidays and family gatherings be alcohol-free to avoid subjecting the children to irresponsible adults.

You feel like you’ve done a good job.  You believe that the little ones entrusted to your care will grow up remembering Christmas because of the joy and colors and new toys.  Their memories of Thanksgiving will be groans from the Papas and the clank of dishes being washed as they consume yet another slice of chocolate pie.  You hope they will recall birthdays filled with laughter.

Then, one morning while the world is already spinning too fast and your grip is stressed, you get a phone call about the current family drunk behind the wheel of a car with a child inside.  This person has knowingly chosen to risk it all for the sake of alcohol.  At 9:00 in the morning.  Coming across town in rush-hour traffic.  With your most precious little love strapped into the backseat.  And your brain can no longer keep the beast behind the door.  There are sirens on the interstate and your heart is beating far too fast.  You have visual images of the inside of the car with the driver’s raging anger and diminished capacity forcing the child to grip the armrests and try to avoid being jerked about.  You imagine that he is crying.  Or close to crying.  You know he is confused and afraid.  And that he loves his father and is ashamed to feel anything else.
But you can’t give in to an all-out panic because you have to be the one with a calm hand and reasonable mind.  You’re supposed to be the arm around the shoulder.  You are wisdom from experience.  You can’t freak out.

When the car finally pulled up and the child popped out, I swallowed the huge lump in my throat and told the ball of fear in my gut to stand down.  He was safe again.

At the end of the day the poor choices his father made became the foundation for a protective bumper.  It is my strongest hope and most determined objective that my grandson never again be subjected to a morning like the one he just had.
We will see what the future decides.

It tears at my heart and soul to hear him recalling the things he has witnessed, the things he’s been told not to share with his mother or any of her family.  It is gut-wrenching to watch him trying to sort through the lies to find a shred of truth.  I seethe at the idea of adults using him so badly.  There’s no possible way to wrap my brain around an entire family that puts a drunk/addict before an innocent child.  And it just pisses me off to know how many times it’s been suggested that we have no interest in what is best.

I don’t want my grandson to grow up without a father.  I want him to have that contact with an adult male who can help him navigate.  He will need a frame of reference for shaping his own life.  But the little girl in me who remembers the drunks and the countless times they brought anger and tears and destruction and fear to what should have been a peaceful, joy-filled life doesn’t care about any of that.  All she wants is for the drunk to go away and never return.  The woman she grew into knows the beauty of relationships forged from love without a common blood connection.  The adult, looking back at the years that were wasted because the drunks refused to do any less drinking for the sake of their family, is pissed off at a system that continues to reinforce alcoholism and drunk driving in spite of all the lobbying for change.

And the grandmother in all of them knows only that I must love him and answer his questions and calm his fears and soothe his concerns.  And offer to be always be the driver.

Posted by: morrowsl | July 9, 2016

Finding Equilibrium

A cardinal is perched in the bush just outside my window and is furiously “tick, tick, ticking” away.  There has been no fresh seed in any of the feeders since hot weather set in.  I am trying to avoid having fat lazy birds hanging around the yard while the flower heads spill their seeds all over this concrete jungle we call a city.  I am “bird friendly” but I believe they still need to know how to eat when I’m not around.

Outside, parked a bit too close to the curb and being partially washed in the sprinklers, is a U-Haul truck filled with all of the trappings of my husband’s Oklahoma City Man Cave.  As soon as the truck wash is complete, I’ll go out and throw open the door and commence returning my spouse to the home he’s been mostly absent from for over a decade.  He is in somewhat-retirement.  Which is like semi-retirement, only he’s already getting offers from other companies who are aware of the magnitude of his fifty years of aviation experience.  He is weighing his options.  And none of those include even one more day in an apartment two hundred miles north.

Half an hour from here, in the sweet little two-bedroom apartment my mother has called home for almost twenty years, my grandson is warting the hell out of his great-aunt B about when his mom will come for him, what games Aunt B will allow him to download on her tablet, and why they can’t do any of the one million things he’d rather be doing at any particular moment.  Because he is nine.  And the world for him consists of entertainment and food.  Not always in that order.

About a mile farther south, in an equally sweet little house surrounded by years of my sister’s green thumb efforts, my niece and brother-in-law are recovering from a night that included a seizure for him and an induction-by-fire nursing effort for her.  The seizures are nothing new.  Doing it alone, without her mom or brother to help, is.  And she is the one person who, if his wife can’t be with him when he seizes, my brother-in-law would prefer having care for him.

And, somewhere in the city, five families are making funeral arrangements for their loved one, who woke up and went to work on Thursday, just like all the work days that came before.  And never came home again.

Already, the world is moving on.

Social media is filled with commentary and memes and photos and videos and all the other “things” that people use to express their feelings, now that we all live on the WWW.  News media is filling the airwaves with expert commentary and hours of street reporter’s efforts to violate the personal spaces of those involved to wring out and capture all of the ratings-rich emotional moments that surround such catastrophic events.  City lights are turning blue to show a united support on behalf of the police force.  People are jumping onto soapboxes and pounding on podiums and telling us all what it’s going to take to be united in a city torn asunder by an act of violence so huge, we are finally going to be known for something even more heinous than the killing of a President.

It is so easy to declare that the world has gone “mad” and we are destined at last to all burn in Hell together.  Even easier still to like a few Facebook posts that may or may not say something similar to how you feel about what has happened here.  And, easiest of all, most will wake up this morning and have breakfast and watch the news or surf the net or do whatever it is they do to be “informed”, because we should all be informed.  And then they will simply go about their Saturday doing whatever it is they had planned to do this Saturday.  They may mull over the things they’ve seen.  They may even resolve to do a better job at smiling at the cop who always sits just around the corner in the shade waiting to stop someone for a traffic violation.

Eventually, the five dead men will be forgotten by all, save those who loved them.  Because, that’s what we do now.  That’s how we handle these things.  We cry and get sick to our stomachs and worry that our own little piece of paradise has somehow been disrupted.  We view the events from a “what if that had been me” point of view and worry that we shouldn’t attend rallies or parades or otherwise gather.  We weigh the options of trying to do something valid to gain equality for every human soul.  But then, our lives interfere and we’re forced to go back to having it easy.

I have avoided the news because I have such an aversion to being force fed the bullshit news media insists on serving.  I refuse to get sucked into their ratings wars by videos of crying family members and caskets and a lone piper playing Amazing Grace.  I am not a fan of those who push in on private matters and then wear the grief of others like a garment.  I know how to be sad for someone without having to first watch them collapse under the weight of their own personal grief.  And I just will not be party to the circus that always comes to town when hatred spills over and destroys all it comes into contact with.

We all have work to do.  We all need to stop seeing color as a divider, regardless of what color we are.  We all need to help whenever and wherever help is needed and not just when it doesn’t disrupt our Saturday plans.  We have to stop blaming those around us and start blaming ourselves.

I did watch the initial news conference held by Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Dallas Police Chief David Brown.  Mike turned on the news as soon as I told him what had happened after we left for Oklahoma on Thursday.  It was hard to watch Chief Brown.  The irony of his position wasn’t lost on me.  He is a man of color.  He is the man at the top of an organization sworn to serve the community.  He is a man who was reeling in the wake of the slaughter of men under his jurisdiction at an event to peacefully protest and unite against the slaughter of men of color.  And yet, he chose his words well and delivered them with a calm reserve.  He was doing his work.  He was telling us all that we have to unite as a people.  Not people divided by color or religion or belief.

“We don’t feel much support most days.  Let’s not make today most days.”
David Brown

Posted by: morrowsl | July 2, 2016

I Had a Farm…

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”
Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

I remember the first time I heard that line.  I understood so well how Karen Blixen felt about her farm.  How the shape of the boundary lines were the shape of her world.  How it’s smell was her perfume.  How the sounds of it were her songs.  How her heart felt every time she stepped off of and back onto her farm.
I once understood it all too well.

I know they say you can’t go home again.  But what about a place that was never your home, no matter how much you wished it to be.  What about going back there?

We leave in a couple of weeks for some time on the farm.  Which is to say we’ll drive out from town and hang around some during the daytime, cleaning up this and that and poking around.  We might venture back out in the late evening as well if there’s a bit of moon and the frogs are singing.  We’ll sit in the quiet stillness of a long afternoon and feel that incredible breeze that always lifts late in the day.  We’ll watch dragonflies and frogs on the pond.  We’ll smell the fresh-cut grass.  And skirt the edges of the fields to run our hands across the long leaves of the tall corn.  And, if I pretend, I’ll maybe feel that we’re actually on the farm again.  Then we’ll start the car and drive back to town and leave the night to envelop all that it touches in dark shadow and damp mist.

It hasn’t been so long ago that the thought of making the turn into our lane was enough to get my heart beating quickly and my stomach doing flips.  I’ve even been known to cry as soon as we cross over the Ohio and I know we’re almost there.  I know I am likely the only member of my family who feels such a connection to this place.  I am the only one still pushing with all my might against the force that time and distance is hammering down on it all.  I may be the only one left who still sees it as it was, even when the reality of what it is glares back at me.

The last time we were there we finally removed all remnants of my husband’s sweet parents.  All the clothes and shoes from the closets.  All the hats and coats from the mud porch.  All the books and papers.  All the reminders that, at one time, a family lived in the house and it sheltered them.  We packed up what made sense to bring with us.  We pulled a burn barrel out of the barn and fed a two-day fire with page after page of handwritten notes and carefully copied files and stack upon stack of magazines, church bulletins, pamphlets, and whatnot.  We made multiple trips to the donation center with clothes and household goods.  I kept reminding myself that, should the house come down in a dusty heap now, no one will ever have to sift through the rubble looking for anything important.
We bought a weed-whacker and hedge-trimmer and chemical sprayer.  He mowed and I whacked.  He sprayed and I piled up a truck load of dead-fall from the trees.  We relocated items we wanted to keep protected.  We discussed and disagreed and decided.

And, in the end, we knew that it was still not enough and that anyone who knew the story of the place would know that it is empty and vulnerable.  As much of a shock as it was to drive up and see the porches crumbling and the paint peeling, it was still a huge surprise to find the windows whole and the doors pulled tight.

That is my greatest fear, second only to losing the place to non-family members with inheritance rights and money to spend.  We never make that turn that I don’t send up a silent prayer that we won’t encounter some stranger who believes they are entitled to our farm simply because they are on it and we are not.  And I always give thanks when we step out of the car to nothing but empty silence.

The day I became a part-owner of our farm, I vowed to work at restoring it as a place for our family to gather.  I would insist we pour our time and efforts and money into bringing it back to itself.

And I failed.

And so, each time I know we are going back, I am filled with a sadness so huge it swallows my thoughts.  I almost dread the trip.  I know what it will do to me to see what another year or two has taken away.  I dwell on the what-ifs.  Even as I know in my rational mind that the time for saving and restoring is gone.  Even if we agreed to spend the time and money, we would need more of both than what is available to us now.

I had a farm…  I had a farm…  I had…

Posted by: morrowsl | June 27, 2016

Sister’s Story

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Our joint journals and Mom’s medical journal

A number of years ago, I started a journal about my childhood years growing up in a small North Texas town surrounded by the results of my paternal grandparent’s parenting efforts.  But such stories are best when told by multiple voices, so I gave the book to my sister and suggested she tell some of it from her older sibling point of view.  Between us, we covered a lot of our childhood, a great deal of our teenage years and a spattering of later events.  Eventually we made our way to current events and ended up filling all the pages.  I bought a second book.  But, somehow, the stories ran out and we got busy and that one sat on a shelf for a really long time.

When our mother began to decline and ended up needing someone with her ’round the clock, we started a new style of journal.  Just a cheap spiral notebook where we could keep track of the day-to-day efforts of keeping Mom medicated properly, as well as a place to record doctor visits and any other events relevant to her health.  Both of us prefer an ordered way of managing Mom’s health and keeping a record allows us to go back and build a timeline when something seems to be wrong or if an infection or adverse reaction occurs.  And, every now and then, we’ve written vignettes in those books, much the same as we once did in our joint-journal.  Little bits that help us pass the small hours of early morning while Mom is sleeping.  Sometimes it will be a memory brought to life by conversations with her.  Or even a memory she recalled on her own and shared.  Occasionally we’ve covered current events or family news.  Or maybe just a disagreeable conversation with some medical someone bent on being so “in charge” they missed the entire point of the call or visit.

Recently, I added a journal to our collection.  I told my sister that we needed to record what it feels like to be spending Mom’s last years with her, sharing the time between us, much as we did in the last year that Daddy was alive.  I wish we’d kept a journal then!  When I miss him so much I cry, it would be such a comfort to go back and recall happy days at the lake with him.

So, now we have a collection of journals on the desk in the guest room at Mom’s.  I usually bring them all to the kitchen table and stack them neatly.  And then, when the apartment is quiet and I need to let her sleep, I sit and write.  Or read.
It is a comfort to share the burden of helping our Mother to die well.  Neither of us knows how this particular story will end, but eventually it will.  When the days come that we miss her and our shared time together in her cozy little apartment that backs up to the woods and is alive with birdsong and sweet flowers, we can open these books and read these stories and laugh and cry and remember.

Thank you, Sister.  For all of it.

Posted by: morrowsl | June 11, 2016

On Your Mark…

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Being married to a man in the aviation industry has taught me much, not the least of which is that nothing is ever guaranteed.  Oh, the eventuality of a thing is certain, but the journey to or from will never look overly familiar.  Such has been especially true in the years we’ve spent living in separate homes.  He is still, very much, living in this house.  But he’s been living in other places for over ten years.  And that is about to come to an end.

When we married, my husband was just leaving his military career for a civilian job in commercial aviation.  So we had to learn to dance to a new tune.  He’d been flying cross-country for much of our courtship and I’d been a working single mom.  He’d been a happy bachelor and I’d been a deranged woman on the edge.  Somehow, we both decided we could combine our lives and still retain our sanity.  We emptied my little apartment and culled through his bachelor pad until we had a combination of furnishings that made some sense for a family of five.  I remember having so many bath towels the linen closet couldn’t hold them all.

Over time, as the kids grew and our lives moved through the years, we remodeled and refurnished, moved one kid out of state and another into the “big” bedroom, brought the missing kid back and watched another one leave.  We became a temporary home for a niece for a time.  We took on birds and cats and dogs and fish.  We offered shelter to a neighborhood lop-eared rabbit.  We planted a garden and housed a friend’s ginger and plumeria in our greenhouse.  We agreed and disagreed on what color our front door should be.  We replaced electrical outlets ourselves.  We carpeted the living room and painted the hall and replaced every major appliance at least three times.

Basically, we lived.  An ordinary, every day kind of life.

In that time we have both changed jobs multiple times.  And now we’ve circled back to where we were in our earliest years.  On Monday, Mike will begin the process of ending his residency in Oklahoma.  The job is completed and there’s no reason to retain the apartment.

Back in the beginning, as a young mother in a new marriage and my very first home that wasn’t an apartment, I was in love with the idea of creating a space of comfort and shelter surrounded by the things we most loved.  Eventually, I was just happy to not have to step over shoes as I dodged sleeping dogs on my way to the kitchen where I prayed the sink wasn’t overflowing with dirty dishes.  Laundry took a weekend to complete.  I cleaned house in stages that never ended.
Now, almost forty years into this partnership, I’ve been living alone, more or less, for the last ten years or so.  I painted the front door red, because it’s the color the door should be when the brick is gray and the trim is white.  I’ve turned the back bedroom into a “woman cave” where I can do all my little projects without having to move everything to the dining table.  I’ve discovered it’s easier to have ice cream for dinner than to cook a healthy meal that will provide leftovers for lunch the next day, which would mean not having an excuse to eat ice cream for lunch.
And I don’t even want to know what horrid habits my sweetheart darling has developed!
But, by height of summer, we will be back in 1980, more or less.

Already, I am wary.  He’s learned to play games on his phone and I’m learning to go without a shower until later in the morning.  I’ve become accustomed to having a mostly quiet house and he prefers the white noise of the television.  I’m a creature of habit who doesn’t flush in the dead of night because the dog will think I’m up for the day and start begging for breakfast.  He’s a creature of habit who turns on lights to see his way around in the dark of night.  I tend to be up early.  He likes to stay up late.

I’m considering changing the relationship status on both of our Facebook profiles to “it’s complicated” until we’ve managed to live together every day for at least six months without any attempted murder or suicide.

The upside, of course, is that we will finally clean out the garage and he’ll get a real workshop.  A man cave of his own.  And he gets a home office, on the off chance that having a wife haranguing him daily drives him to leave retirement behind almost before it gets started.  He won’t have to do his own cleaning and laundry.

Nothing in our lives together has ever come with a guarantee.  That won’t change.
But the journey is about to get a lot more adventurous.

Posted by: morrowsl | May 8, 2016

Happy Mother’s Day

I recently agreed to do a podcast with my youngest daughter for Mother’s Day.  I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, but I knew for certain it wouldn’t be some sappy testimony to motherhood and children and the wonder of it all.
It wasn’t.
I’m pretty sure I likened childbirth to constipation and I’m positive the subject was never overly glorified.  That ain’t how we roll.

But it did get me remembering.  No matter how many times you repeat a thing.  No matter if you get better at it or worse.  No matter what you may come to realize when all the smoke clears and you can sit down and think.
There is nothing that will ever equal the inaugural voyage.

I recall the day after my first child was born.  I was in a civilian hospital in a military town, so we were treated much the same as cattle in the stockyards.  Usher in the laboring beast, assist the birth as needed, provide shelter and sustenance, and let things run their course.  All the rooms were wards of six.  Not a lot of privacy.
There was a never-ending line of women in the hallway that first morning, shuffling along in our house slippers and bathrobes, right hands sliding along the handrail mounted to the pale tan walls, left hands holding tight to the little water bottle that offered instant, if temporary, relief to our sorely abused nether regions.  Many also carried small bags of toiletries – tooth and hair brushes, deodorant, lip gloss.
Thankfully, it took most of us so long to get from our rooms to the community bathroom that there was never much of a line and usually a stall open and available.  I wasn’t sure my system would even work anymore but, convinced by my mother (a seasoned veteran) that all I needed to secure my release from the place was to poop and be able to prove it, I was determined to at least try.  It was no small thing.  I was scared to death to even attempt a fart.  Everything from my belly button to my upper thighs felt like I’d been beaten with a sledge hammer.  The idea of sitting down made me tear up.  How the hell was I going to manage sitting down and pushing out a poop?

Suddenly,  a woman about ten feet ahead of me gave a little sigh and collapsed in a tangle just at the bathroom door. Panic ensued.  Those who were leaving the bathroom attempted to get out of Dodge as quickly as possible.  Those yet to enter circled around the fallen mother, our protective instincts kicking into high gear on a surge of hormones and adrenaline.  My mind raced.  She’d almost managed a full splits on the way down.  In response to the memory of my one and only attempt to do the splits, my woman parts convulsed sending waves of pain through my midsection.  The poor fallen woman was just coming around when the nurses finally arrived to help her up.  I tried to smile reassuringly as I shuffled past her.  All things considered, I was thankful as hell not to be her.

I stopped at the sink to fill my little water bottle with warm water and took the first available stall I came to.  Finally alone, inside the safety and security of my minuscule metal chamber, I tried to forget what I’d witnessed and focus on the task at hand.  On the inside of the door hung a cloth shoe organizer, it’s pockets stuffed with cotton balls.  I stared for what must have been days until the light bulb dimly flashed.  Warm water and cotton balls.  OH!!
The idea of the warm water decided for me and I sat.  Disgustingly, my once-firm tummy slid into my lap and rested atop my thighs.  I was shocked.  How the hell did that happen?  One of the first sensations I’d had, after waking up from giving birth, was that of being once again slender.  I’d started the journey a bit shy of a size ten.  My last clothing purchases had been maternity size fourteen.  I had stupidly assumed that, once the child within was without, I would just return to my previous size and shape.  This pancake of flesh resting on my lap was something I hadn’t considered at all.

I have never suffered from vanity, or at least not much, but at that moment I realized that nothing would ever be the same as it had been and I started to cry.

Of course, now I realize it was likely a bit of postpartum depression.  But that morning, sitting in that hospital bathroom with the sounds and smells of fresh motherhood all around me, having witnessed a woman fainting at my feet and coming to such a stark realization that my life was now governed by something far stronger than I was prepared to face, I simply gave in and gave up.

Eventually I slapped myself and regained control.  As bewildered as I felt, there was still that little girl down in the nursery to consider and I wasn’t about to be a baby in front of my baby.  I changed my mind about taking my mother’s advice, something I’ve done quite often in my life, and decided that I wasn’t really in a big hurry to leave the hospital and the company of all the other new mothers.  I was, for the first time in a long time, a part of something.  I was in a group of women who’d just come through a harrowing life journey and I wanted to find out what our shared experience might have to teach me still.

As I shuffled back down the hall with my now comforted lady bits snugged into clean underwear and my teeth freshly brushed, I heard thunder and realized it was pouring rain.  A chill ran down my spine and with it the blissful realization that I could once again sleep on my stomach.  I rang for the nurse and put on my most convincing “pain” face.
A bit later, as I was snuggling into a medically-induced deep sleep, legs opened wide to the warmth of a heat lamp and ears filled with the music of a pouring rain, it came to me that as much as my life had changed, there really was no reason to become lost in the madness.  I needed to remember that there is always a “me” in “mother”, even if there’s some space between the two.

Posted by: morrowsl | January 28, 2016

A Tale of Two Canines

Sunday, it turns out, was our beloved Dillon’s last “good” day.  Things very quickly went south for him.  He stopped accepting food, eventually drooling with what I can only assume was nausea when I put warm food in front of him.  His legs became too weak to hold him up.  He stopped searching the room for me.  Stopped meeting my eyes.
He told me, as only an animal can, that he was ready.
I called and got the first available appointment for him with his favorite vet and vet tech, and together the three of us helped him to a peaceful and dignified end.
I managed to make it back to my parked car before the ugly cry started.  Then, off and on for the rest of the night, I mourned my sweet boy.  I walked outside late last night, under a crystal clear sky, as I’ve walked while waiting on Dill to make his slow and deliberate rounds each night for the last couple of weeks, and I whispered goodbye one last time.
I know there are so many people who say, “It’s just a dog” and to those people I can only reply, “To you, yes”, because he became, in the eleven years that we had him, an equal member of our family and our house.  We will miss and mourn him no less than if he’d walked upright and hogged the bathroom.

But now, with a changing of the guard, I have a far greater task at hand.  I have to find it in my heart to allow Holly to take Dillon’s place.

When Marc first found Dillon at an SPCA adoption, he’d had every intention of making Dill his dog in his home.  But a guy that works a 24/48 routine and lives alone is a poor choice as a dog owner.  Dillon soon made things difficult and Marc was forced to surrender him to the ‘rents.  We all easily adapted and before too long there were other dogs in both houses.  At one point we had four dogs total, all over 40 pounds, in a house with a yard that a Chihuahua would scoff at.  That didn’t last long.  When the smoke cleared we were down to two – Dillon and Holly – both surrendered by a couple with great intentions and big hearts, but little else.

From the beginning, my relationship with Holly has been strained.  She is very much an Alpha female and Dillon was every bit a submissive male.  I couldn’t stand that.  He owned both his Chow DNA and his red hair.  He bristled and barked and bared his teeth with all the nasty aggression he could muster, sometimes even managing to make me leery of him.  But the part of his DNA contributed by some wayward Golden Retriever was the laid-back stoner boyfriend of my teenage dreams and I refused to believe he had anger management issues.  He just needed to get in touch with his Alpha side and hold on to it.
I fed him first.  I addressed him first.  I deferred to him in all situations, believing I would train him to be the second-in-command after me.  Eventually he stopped his submissive presentations to Holly, but she never bought it.  And perhaps when my back was turned, he didn’t either.

When he began to have trouble keeping his feet and finding his way, Holly saw her opening.  She pushed him aside, sometimes knocking him into doorways or table legs.  She ignored him as if he were already gone.  She took a lunge at him last week over a dropped Vienna sausage.
That is the part of animal behavior I detest, even as I know it is nothing more than survival mode.  The stronger animals will always overtake the weaker ones.  And, unfortunately, the weaker animals know all too well that this is as it should be.

So.  Now.  Holly is the only dog we have in this house.  She and I have had years of dismissing each other as we stand on either side of the line drawn in the sand.  I have my work cut out for me.  I know that she will love me unconditionally.  I just have to be willing to accept her.  I know that she is a sweet girl, if a bit high maintenance and hyperactive.  She is likely very trainable still.  I have only to put forth the effort to let her know what’s wanted.  And she certainly deserves to be well-loved.

This morning I pulled out a can of the somewhat expensive food I’d been buying to tempt Dillon and I spooned it into the bowl with Holly’s kibble.  As I served it to her, I told her that it was one he really liked and that I knew she would as well.  It was good to see her eating heartily after so many attempts to feed him ended in refusal.  I called the vet’s office and scheduled a bath for her.  She is yet again in the throes of a UTI and the resultant leaking has made her coat dingy and she stinks.  I think this weekend I’ll see if Mike wants to go out and get her a new bed and maybe a new set of food and water bowls.

None of this will matter in the least to her.  But it will make me feel less guilty for having been so obvious.

I think I’ll finally break down and buy a new pair of walking shoes as well.  Because, of all the things that Holly truly loves, walking is at the top of the list.  And then I’ll turn a new page in dog ownership and begin a journey with this beautiful Husky girl.  We may never have the sort of relationship I shared with the Red Dog.  But I owe it to her to try.

SONY DSC

Holly

 

Posted by: morrowsl | January 24, 2016

We have POOP!

SONY DSC

Dillon

 

The Red Dog is failing.

It started just before Chirstmas.  Those tell tale signs of irreversible change.  He is thirteen, which isn’t death’s doorstep for a mix-breed of medium size, but it does put him in the elderly category.

It’s true, he’s been slowly changing over the last year or two.  The once deep and commanding bark has started to sound a bit thin, like a baritone with a respiratory infection.  Where he used to hear the slightest sounds outside his street-view window, he’s actually let a few UPS trucks escape notice lately.  And his normal attack-mode posturing when anyone dares step onto the porch, and which got him labeled “dangerous canine” on our homeowner’s policy, has calmed to a round of loud barking and a show of teeth, followed by a nap.

His usual check-up last year didn’t bring anything alarming to light, but all the same, I added another check-up to his pre-holiday grooming in early December.  There were some things.  The most important being his inability to open his mouth.  His illness(es) presented as an inflammation of his jaw, diagnosed as Masticatory Muscle Myositis, for which he was given Prednisone.  That led to stomach issues and diarrhea.
Merry Christmas!
After the holidays, a few more little things popped up.  His left eye suddenly swelled and began to weep.  Back to the vet, although not our regular guy because he was on vacation, to see why the weeping eye?
Why the apparent dementia?
Why the unsteady legs?
Why the, now complete, hearing loss?
Diagnosis, a raging UTI, even though he showed not a sign of an issue in that area.
Yes, he’d been pretty much wearing the floor thin between the water bowl and his favorite bush.  But he’d been on Prednisone.  The increase was suspected, not suspicious.  I also pointed out a small bump over one eyebrow.  The doc felt it was something related to his weepy eye and instability.  Although she had also discussed his multiple issues with one of the techs who is completing nursing school (for humans) who pointed out that older people with UTIs often experience temporary dementia as well.  I knew this, because of my mother, but had never considered it could happen to animals as well.
New meds, which led to more stomach upset and a loss of appetite.  And the suggestion that there might be a mass in his head.  Go have an MRI and see what they find.  It’ll likely run in the thousands of dollars…

That was a week ago.  I’ve not made the call for two reasons.  One, the “thousands of dollars” was followed by a firm statement that a mass in that area will not be treatable.  My initial reaction was that at least I’d know.  If it was a mass, it would explain most of the things we were seeing.  However, I am no longer a person willing to demand heroic efforts when all signs point to useless additional stress on the animal, who is going to die no matter what is done.  Bevis taught me that.  And I promised him I would never again subject a terminal animal to guinea-pigging by an over-zealous veterinarian.
But I also delayed because I wanted some time to just observe my dog, knowing what I’d found out about him, to see what it felt like was wrong.  If it was a mass, there would likely be no improvement in his condition, while there would very likely be a good deal of change.

He’d lost five pounds in the three weeks between Christmas and the two visits.  He’d also stopped eating dry kibble when he became unable to open his mouth and chew.  Because of this, I bought a case of canned food made by the same company as his kibble.  The higher water content in the canned stuff means he fills up faster and pees more.  Initially, he couldn’t get enough of the canned stuff and ate with a gusto I hadn’t seen for some time.  Eventually though, he slowed down and lost interest.  This is a red flag for me.  Was it the canned food or food in general he didn’t want?  I offered the Old Man some cooked chicken and he tried to take my hand off!  Okay.  We seem to have an appetite, albeit a picky one.
To my mind, an animal that continues to eat isn’t one that’s giving up.

When my gal Sal was diagnosed with brain cancer, the seizures came fast and furious.  I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop with Dillon.  Waiting on the seizures to start.  So far, no seizures.  I’m cautiously optimistic that the idea of a mass is incorrect.  Or, at least, a cancerous mass.
So, while Dillon is failing, and he is failing.  I am not convinced it is due to cancer.

Yesterday, Marc came to visit his old friend.  They spent some time on the floor together, eye-to-eye.  Marc suggests I call the vet back and ask him to have another look.  Like me, Marc isn’t 100% convinced we’re dealing with cancer.  He feels the lump, and there is a lump still, could be sepsis.  It might be something we can biopsy at least.
Dr. Dave has a history with the Red Dog.  The first time they met, Dave muzzled Dill after a very healthy growl from deep in that gorgeous red-coated chest.  It’s the only time they’ve disagreed in the eleven years they’ve known each other.  And in those eleven years I have come to understand the doctor I trust with my animals.  I don’t think there are many like him.  When Sal got sick, it was Dave who pointed out the weight loss and suggested we look for a cause.  And it was Dave who told me, teary-eyed, that he’d found lesions in her lungs.  It was Dave who told me the cancer would show up somewhere else and that, when it did, I would know.  He was right.  And he was right about Puddin’s mammary cancer.  He’s been right about pretty much everything he’s suggested so far.  My gut tells me he’ll figure out what’s going on with Dillon.  And most likely without the benefit of an MRI.  And, while I know that is putting a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, he is the kind of vet who willingly takes the ball and runs with it.  He has never suggested a test unless he could tell me exactly what he expected to find.  If he feels he won’t find what he needs, he just doesn’t do that test.  He is also open to my own suggestions for caring for my animals.  And that lets me know that he respects me as a pet owner and my gut feeling with regard to the animals I share my home and life with.  I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Dave.  He, in turn, has a great deal of affection for Dillon.  And for Holly.  His eyes light up when Holly wiggles into the room like a three-year-old in dress-up clothes saying “Look at ME!” and he’s been down in the floor crying, right alongside me, as I’ve said goodbye to dear friends.  There is something in that alone that money can not buy.

In this week of observation I have not seen what I’ve been looking for.  There have been several episodes of being awakened in the night by Holly needing to go out that resulted in finding Dillon curled in the floor, soaked in urine, unable to get his weakened back legs to lift him up.  I’ve been through a couple of pounds of cooked chicken and a rather large sweet potato, some bacon drippings, a bit of cheese, a lot of peanut butter, and a couple of episodes of finger down the throat to get his pills in him and food on his stomach.  I feel like I spend almost as much time taking him to the bathroom as I do taking myself.  Between us, it’s a lot of trips!  I’ve learned to expect him to be wet, along with the floors, and I wash my old towels twice a day most days.  I mop every other day to clean up the rest.  I’ve stood patiently waiting as he hesitates at the door, unsure if he can traverse the threshold and negotiate the small step.  I’ve had him stand, leaning into me, for long periods as if he is lost and too tired to figure out where he should go.
I’ve also seen him dive into his food with joy and gusto.  I’ve turned to find him standing behind me, eyes sparkling, looking very much like his old self, begging for a treat or a meal.  He continues to eat several times a day, much to Holly’s dismay since she feels she too should be eating.  I’ve seen him hop over the threshold of the door and trot out to his shrub to throw his leg in the air like a ballerino.  Yesterday I heard him bark, loud and forcefully, when Marc and Mandy pulled up out front.
And today, finally, he came to get me so he could go out to the hill and poop.  It’d been a couple of days and I had decided this would be the sign, finally, that his system was shutting down.  But no.  No signs of strain.  No signs of distress.  No signs of anything much at all amiss.
Just a dog, stooped on a small rise of ground, having his morning constitutional.

The Red Dog is failing.  But, thankfully, he isn’t dying today.

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