Into the Dark

daddy-and-mother[1]Any of us whose parents live to be elderly are likely to experience their long, sad decline at the end of life.  I’ve had both extremes–Daddy died suddenly at a relatively young age, of a heart attack, while Mother spent a couple of decades with heart failure and then strokes.  Even when you’ve had lots of time to prepare it always comes as a shock.  How can they be gone?  How will my life go on?

Scott Simon, an NPR host and former Today show weekend host, went through this with his mother in Chicago.  He tweeted throughout her time in the ICU, until she died, and after, an online journal of his thoughts and feelings in 180 characters per message.  If you haven’t read them, here is a link:

I’m a bit disturbed by the concept of typing on a smartphone while your mother is dying, but his writing and emotions disarm that.  He held her in his arms, sang to her, listened to her while she could still talk.

When I worked for a hospice agency I was told the most important things to say when you’re saying goodbye are:  I love you, please forgive me, I forgive you, thank you.  Sometimes a parent needs to hear you say, “It’s okay for you to go, I will be all right.”  Mothers are still mothers, even on their deathbeds.  One nurse told me that sometimes the mother will wait to die until the children are out of her room.  “I think some of them want to spare the children, right to the end, ” she said.

It’s important to know when to let go, and to get the help you and your parent need.  Facing the end is terrible, but anyone who has mourned a dying person knows the truth:  we’re not mourning for them, we’re mourning for us and our loss.

Generations of Irises

Iris from Mother's bulbsMy mother was always fond of flowers.  Wherever we lived, she planted bulbs and weeded flower beds.  Our yard was never elaborate or manicured, and she certainly never read gardening books or drew plans.  But I remember four o’clocks which bloomed in the evening shade, and beds of zinnias and marigolds scorching in the summer sun.  She planted tiger lilies on the edges of the back yard at the house we lived in when I was in elementary school and phlox clinging to a rocky outcropping by the kitchen door.

When we moved to the farm someone gave Mother several varieties of irises.  Some of them were the classic purple ones which are the state flower of Tennessee.  Others had huge blossoms in unusual colors, including peach.  They were the last of the bulbs to bloom each spring (technically speaking, they grew from rhizomes) and gave us a week or two of glory before the heat set in.  In order to keep them blooming year after year, the rhizomes have to be thinned out.  Mother gave some to my sister Sherrie, who planted them in her yard.  As recently as three years ago they were still blossoming.

I’m not sure how some of Sherrie’s rhizomes got to my niece Judy in Ohio, but they did.  The photo is of a peach-colored iris blooming in Judy’s yard this spring.  She has two plants that still come up and flower, descendants of the original stock that was planted in the late ’60s on our farm.  Out of those roots….maybe they will last long enough to provide rhizomes for another generation, another yard, more springs.

Heat Wave

A modern-day air conditioning unit in Vicksburg, MS
A modern-day air conditioning unit in Vicksburg, MS

My friend Ed observed the other day that the two forces which made the modern South possible are integration and air conditioning.  The more I think about that statement, the truer it becomes.  We obviously still have huge issues with racial tensions throughout this country–the sad case of Trayvon Martin makes that only too clear.  Yet, as my African-American friend has told me before, things are a whole lot better than they were 50 years ago.  I hope we can get still further down that road.

On the subject of air conditioning, the heat and humidity of this summer has led me to remember what it was like in the summer in Tennessee.  When I was a small child we only had a big unit air conditioner in the dining room window, which was supposed to cool the entire house.  It was not nearly big enough, so we had circulating fans on the floor in our bedrooms.  The rhythmic hum of the fan was as good as white noise to help me fall asleep, while the movement of air washing over me made me feel cooler.

On the worst nights, when the air conditioner just couldn’t cool enough and the air was thick with humidity, Daddy would get out the car and we would go for a ride after dark with the windows rolled down.  The sticky air didn’t help much but the breeze coming through the windows was better.

We spent one summer in an old, dilapidated house without enough wiring for air conditioners while the house on the farm was being built.  It had thick walls which did keep it from heating up as much as it would have otherwise.  But many a night I laid in bed, sheets thrown off, sweating even with a fan pointed at me from the floor.

Air conditioning in modern office buildings made it possible for industry to move to the South, which made city life and civilization preferable to farming for many people, and brought diverse populations to the area.  Air conditioning in homes made it much more comfortable to live there.  It was a big change which I am grateful for, even here in New York–the third heat wave of the summer began yesterday!

The Moving Wall

The Moving Wall in Hastings, NY
The Moving Wall in Hastings, NY

I went with some friends to a park in Hastings today to see the Moving Wall.  It was an extremely hot day, but another friend who is a Vietnam vet was volunteering at the traveling exhibition, and his wife was working it as well.  So we drove down in air-conditioned comfort to view it.

The Moving Wall is a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC and has been touring the country for almost 30 years.  Even at half size it is somber and sobering.  All those names, starting in 1959 and going forward year by year–it’s overwhelming in some ways.  I have never visited the memorial in Washington, but I can see it would be an even sadder but fitting tribute at full size.

I was talking with Jose and some of the other volunteers as we stood under a tent to escape the sun.  They asked if I knew someone whose name was on the memorial.  I started to say no, because none of my family members had died, and my high school class was the last one to experience the draft, but none of them were called up.

Then I remembered.  I had a POW bracelet when I was in high school, and I remembered the name on the bracelet.  It was Col. Gregg Hartness, an Air Force pilot, shot down over Laos and missing in action.   Had he ever come home, or was he on the list?  I looked in the directory, and there he was.  Jose helped me find his name on the wall.

It really took me back to those dark days when the war was winding down, but people were still dying, still going missing.  I had sent off to get a POW bracelet to make my stand clear–anti-war for sure, but remembering the soldiers who were sent off to fight a senseless war.  I was so grateful that my own family members were spared.  And I was in high school, so I had that unpleasant adolescent smugness about making a noble gesture.  I remembering thinking, “Well, the war will be over soon and he will come home, so I won’t have to wear it long.”  Then I found out Col. Hartness was missing in action.  He never came back.

I still have the bracelet with his name on it.  It was strange to stand in that sweltering park and see his name again.

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