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Clio's Temple


In the midst of death, we are in love

Posted on March 5, 2014 at 4:47 PM Comments comments (11)
"In the midst of life, we are in death." With these words, the minister began the committal prayer for my mother's body. As I sat and listened, the sentiment grew within me that, while these words are true, there is a lot more to be said about death and how we brace ourselves for its impact.

To begin with the most obvious point: we prepare when we can. Mom had been in declining health for years and her decline had accelerated in the last twelve months. As she slipped away from us, her communications declined to just a squeeze of the hand and the whispered words "I love you." In my life, her love was fulfilled and complete.

Five days before Mom passed out of this life, my cousin Greg lost his long-running struggle with high blood pressure and kidney failure. Because we came from a small family, we for many years had developed a closeness more like brothers than cousins. Years and physical separation had attenuated those bonds, but when he went into one of his crises four years ago, I flew to Connecticut to ask him if he would accept me as a kidney donor. For reasons I'll never understand, he preferred to wait on a regular donation - which never came. I understood why he would not allow his sons to register as potential donors; they still had decades of productive life before them. I wish I could have persuaded him at least to let me make the effort to donate. Nothing might have come of it, but at least I would not now be nagged by pangs of conscience. If only I could have made him understand how much his presence in my life meant to me . . .

The impact of death striking those much younger than ourselves is something for which none of us can prepare. Two days after returning from Mom's funeral, the local newspaper headlined a story about the death of Meredith Legg Stapleton, a standout basketball player for the USC Aiken Lady Pacers. She had battled a particularly pernicious form of melanoma for five years. Eight days before her 27th birthday, it took her away from the loving embrace of her husband of sixteen months, her parents, a brother, sister, brother-in-law, one nephew, and two nieces. In the coverage of her battle against cancer, her faith and good cheer are perhaps the things that struck most of those who knew of her struggle. So perhaps when there is no other resort, we arm ourselves with as much courage as we can.

Now my family is wrestling with the unexpected death of Travis, my cousin Greg's oldest son. He had been fighting a viral infection when I saw him at his father's funeral, but his death blindsided all of us.  He had been taking anti-depressants for some time and we fear he may have inadvertently taken an overdose. In the face of this unrelenting onslaught, what defenses can we build?

I'm further along toward old age than I like to admit. I've come to the conclusion that we can't armor ourselves against such a sea of troubles unless we remember that there is one thing stronger than death - love. As long as I can love, I can face the loss of some of those who are dearest to me.  In the midst of death, we are in love. I hope I can remember to live the rest of my life in that same spirit.

Mom, Greg, Travis - I love you and always will.

Brice Alvord, 1946-2013

Posted on October 20, 2013 at 5:31 PM Comments comments (4)
We met for the first time during a business trip to New York. I don't remember what I thought about him; he quickly identified me as a young man in love (I had just gotten engaged). He must have seen something in me that I didn't even see in myself, some potential for growth.

Brice treated me like a younger brother. A former Naval aviator and firefighter, I found his stories endlessly fascinating.  We found that we shared some common beliefs. From these grew common bonds. Both of us were natural pranksters, but he was a lot better at it than I was.

Our friendship grew over the next four years from telephone calls and occasional exchanges of correspondence. Mostly, we talked about how tough it was to make the higher-ups focus on the things we thought were important. We took pride in being fellow sufferers.

We next got the chance to work together in 1983. A contractor at the project where I worked had an opening for a training manager; they needed a guy to come in and straighten out a thoroughly bollixed-up situation. I called him and asked if he would be interested in applying for the job. He gave me the go-ahead and I passed his resume on to the appropriate folks. In due course, they brought him on board. Within six months of him arriving at the project, the contractor's program was straightened out and his managers identified him as a go-getter. They tentatively identified him as the guy to go and start up a new business line, operating out of their Denver offices. He returned my earlier favor by asking if I'd be willing to go with him. I gave him an affirmative answer. A change in business conditions scotched that opportunity, but our friendship had bonded both on professional and personal levels.

The ironic thing is that our periods of working together directly only amounted to about three years of the thirty-five that we knew each other. But we had the kind of relationship that we could talk, end a conversation, and pick it up three months later exactly where we left off. When I started my own business, his sage counsel saved me a lot of headaches.

He'd had to slow down in recent years. Diabetes set in. He found himself no longer able to spend long periods on the road. He continued to publish guidebooks for the training business, even after a stroke. His greatest joy, though, was to spend time with his wife Kathy, his kids Ian and Kaley, and his grandchildren.

The news that he was in the hospital suffering from congestive heart failure sent me into a spin. "This can't be," I thought. "Hell, he's only 66." Since both his parents lived well into their 90s, I figured it was just another crisis that he'd pull through. Alas, under the unfair rules of life's lottery, it was not to be. When his heart stopped, a hole opened in the hearts of many of us who knew and loved him.

There's far more to say than I have room for at this point. I'll have to get by without his friendly ribbing which, in an oddball way, was something I really used to enjoy. When I think of Brice, the only words that come to mind are from Chaucer: "He was a parfit gentil knight." Adieu, my friend.

Happy Birthday, Mom

Posted on September 4, 2013 at 4:01 PM Comments comments (5)
I consider myself fortunate that my mother is still living. For most folks my age, "mother" is only a (usually beloved) memory. Today is Mom's 85th birthday. While she will get flowers, cards, and congratulatory calls to commemorate the day, her consciousness of them is a fleeting thing. When the sun rises tomorrow, her memories will be gone. Three strokes in the last six years have deprived her of the ability to do everything she once loved - cooking, sewing, playing the piano, reading. It's this last loss that is particularly biting, at least to me. She taught me to read. Now that a book with my name on it is about to appear, it will make no more of a ripple in her mind than a passing sensation.

We've seen this before. My mother-in-law struggled against Alzheimer's disease for nine years before succumbing. Like my mother, she was a librarian. Like her, she also lost the ability to read and to play bridge. In thinking about life's losses, what is sometimes most poignant is the fact that, before death comes along, we often must surrender some of those things that make us human. In my case, Mom can remember that I am someone she loves, even if she can no longer call my name. Watching her decline brings to mind the mordant wisecrack about how to plan for old age: Have the Hemlock Society on speed-dial.

After we visited with Mom last weekend, my wife and I repaired to a beachfront hotel for some recuperation. Walking along the beach, observing the delight of small children playing, brings back a memory, specifically a picture that is somewhere in my family's files. It was taken sometime in the early 1950s. I couldn't have been more than a couple of years old. It shows Dad, Mom, and me at Panama City Beach: Mom and Dad watch as I devour an Oreo. It's just the kind of memory that, even if the actual memory is gone, seeing the picture brings back something enduring: My belief that love is the most powerful unseen force in the universe. Gravity doesn't hold a candle to it. Although my mother is gone in all but physical presence, she is always with me.

Happy birthday, Mom.

Trying to let go

Posted on May 22, 2013 at 11:46 AM Comments comments (1)
I'm posting this update from my birthplace, Chipley, Florida. I've been down here the last two days because my mother is enduring another of her frequent health crises. She took a headfirst fall last Thursday at the nursing home where she now lives and had to be airlifted to Flowers Hospital in Dothan, Alabama. My sister and I have almost persuaded my father to move her to a better facility in Tallahassee, where she can be close to better medical care round the clock.

Mom was felled by a massive stroke six years ago. For most of that time, she has lived at home where my father and a series of hired caregivers have done their best to take care of her. I'm afraid, however, that she has walked out of her home for the last time. One of her greatest wishes was to die in her own home. Sadly, that is an option available to fewer and fewer of us. She may not recognize that she's had to let go of that part of her old life, but she knows something is wrong, perhaps something that can't be put right.

Until the stroke, we all assumed she would outlive my father. There's a difference of six years' age between them and Dad has had several life-threatening episodes over the last thirty years. For the first time a few days ago, Dad admitted that he might well outlive her. Swallowing that bitter pill is his part of the process of letting go.

Those of us who share a special love for Mom are all having to let go in our own ways. My sister has been able to take advantage of her proximity to stay in closer touch with the situation. I've followed it from a distance of almost four hundred miles, with only occasional visits to check on things. It's one of those things that you wish would end, until the end looms up in front of you. Trying to mourn for someone who's still living is a special challenge. I can only hope we handle it as well as we can.