Category Archives: Christopher Cudworth

A legacy that is still alive

MuesPicnicRecently my son Evan drove west to California for a new venture in his career. On the way, he stopped by the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Approaching the park, the snow was two feet deep, he informed us. He arrived in time to see the sun setting.

Back home, my daughter made note on her social media account that she misses nature. That can happen for all of us. But Emily has made a point of immersing herself in concern for nature. She’s learned the plight of bees and butterflies, and captures her instinctual love for these creatures in amazing photographs.

Their mother Linda Cudworth would have been 59 years old today. She would have loved to hear the enthusiasm of her son Evan as he sat on the canyon rim going Live on Facebook as his many connections shared the moment.

She would also have been appreciative of the fact that her daughter embraces those bees and butterflies with such verve and purpose. We all learned monarch ranching from Linda Cudworth during the summer months. In the years since she passed away from ovarian cancer in 2013, we’ve ranched a few monarchs of our own. One summer we released 50 of the insects back into the wild after raising them from eggs detected on the bottom of a milkweed leaf. They would eat their way through the caterpillar stage and emerge from a chrysalis into free-flying male or female butterflies. Symbolic, you might say, of so many transitions in life.

Tattoos 

My daughter has a tattoo of monarchs and bees on her shoulder. My son has a symbolic symbol of flowers on his chest. But the real legacy is the tattoo she impressed upon their hearts through her exceptional care as a mother.

In all those years of marriage, I observed her dedication to such things. She invited the neighbor kids over to catch bugs and to show them the secret faces of nodding spring wildflowers and summer lilies. Some of these beauties have been transplanted from the garden we started in Batavia two decades ago. I gathered up the lily bulbs and inserted their yellow and white forms into the soil behind the house now shared with my fiancee.

These symbolize the fact that life indeed goes on. My children and in-laws have shared many memories of Linda over the last four years. We keep that legacy alive. But I am also fortunate to have met a woman that is not threatened or jealous of that legacy. As a result, it never needs be denied.

Additional roles

I believe my children can feel that in their lives. I certainly hope they do. It has been difficult at times to know how much to insert myself into their lives. On one hand, it is important not to helicopter their thoughts or experiences. On the other hand, a father to children that have lost their mother has an additional role to play.

What we have all tried to do, and I include my wife-t0-be’s family in this, is honor the legacy of the life we’ve lived and find the honor of the legacy we’re creating together. This is the true cycle of life, where love is at the heart, and people gather around it to share in the hope and determination required to embrace this world.

The fact that my children are now drawing upon nature for inspiration is likewise an inspiration to me. It shows that those many walks in the forest preserves (or ‘forced preserves,’ as my son once thought we were saying) were for good reasons.

Ashes and prairies

Following my wife’s passing, my children and I took some of her ashes and distributed them in the heart of a massive prairie. The sun was setting and we all recalled how she loved the place for its open spaces and its prairie soul. I thought about those ashes as I biked through the prairie yesterday, and how strange it really is that we all come and go in our time.

That is reason enough to hold on to the legacies that matter in our lives. And to make new rejoicing in the fact that we are here, and alive, where the flicker of butterfly wings demand our attention yet so many people seem to deny their importance in favor of this virtual mess going on this world.

No fan of fools

I can say without hesitation that my late wife would have been disgusted by all that has transpired in the last four years. She was a keen fan of the former President, whom she simply called “Barack” with a touch of respect and love in her voice.

While she was a loving person, she did not suffer fools gladly. We all loved her biting sense of humor that emerged at often unexpected times. There was always a touch of leadership in such remarks. “Don’t be fooled by fools,” she’d often intimate. So you can imagine how disgusted she would have been at the election of Donald Trump as President. A part of me is honestly glad she does not have to abide the mortal offense.

Because her dedication to the needs of small children and the practicalities of public and private education were evident in her preschool teaching. I specifically recall her admiration for a mother from the Hindu faith that brought their child to the Christian preschool where she taught. “There are many paths to God,” the woman responded when asked if there were any concerns with the educational format.

Achieving

Likewise, my late wife’s training in special education revealed her deep concern for the humble and less fortunate in this world. Arrogance by principle she did not abide, nor false pride. She worked with high school students with learning disabilities that included profound degrees of autism. Yet she also guided one of her students through the challenges of high school to make it through college and earn a playing spot in the NBA.

Many a social evening were spent with our close friends who were also teachers. Few people outside the teaching profession can comprehend the many ways teachers go beyond their job descriptions to positively affect the lives of young people in public education. And while my late wife genuinely thought the athletic world a bit vain, she also volunteered to direct the Cheer Club at the high school.

False vanity

Her amused disregard for athletic vanity could have its humorous consequences. When I took up cycling, she made fun of my tight-fitting cycling “kits” and called me Lady Legs for the tradition of shaving my gams, as serious cyclists do. Heck, back when we were dating, and I held back from going out the night before a running race, she teased that I had Golden Leg Syndrome.

Yet I persisted in my pursuits despite this brand of teasing, because every couple uses the other for balance. It does not pay to be too co-dependent either. So we found our respective spaces in this life, and worked together to encourage that same self-confidence and hunger for growth in our children. I see that belief at work in them still, and pray that they can continue to find love in this world among people who support it. That is the legacy that is still alive.

 

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The ch-ch-ch-changes we need to make when talking about cancer

We read news of the death of David Bowie from cancer and what does it tell us? That he “lost his battle” with the disease.

It’s time for some changes in that sort of language. I’ve watched several people dear to me die from cancer, and they did not lose the battle. They won time instead.

Time to live. Time to consider the importance of the people they loved. Time that mattered.

Cancer is an indiscriminate condition that can cause death eventually. You don’t get it because you’re a bad person, but bad habits like smoking can cause it. Yet cancer can also come along because you’ve spent too much time in the sun, or had the bad luck to carry a certain cancer-causing gene. So to suggest that you’ve lost the battle is to make a pitch that the battle was lost before we ever knew it was begun.

Well, that’s rather true for all of us, isn’t it? Life itself is a pre-existing condition. Yet in defiance of that truth, we’ve all been living with a health insurance business that parses that fact for its own profit. And we deal with drug companies that jack the price of life-saving drugs simply because they can. It goes on and on.

Pushing through the market square,
So many mothers sighing
News had just come over,
We had five years left to cry in

News guy wept and told us,
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet,
Then I knew he was not lying

That means it can be an expensive battle to live, to pay for the right to continue one’s life. That’s immoral on its own, of course. But every time someone dies from cancer it seems we repeat that meme about “losing the battle” ad hominen (against the person that died) and ad infinitum (there but for the grace of God go I.)

david-bowie-5-1024x616.jpgSo stop it. Make the ch-ch-ch-change in yourself when you speak of someone dying from cancer, or any other reason. They did not lose a battle against a disease or anything else. They won time to the best of their ability. And we should all honor that.

As for the memory of David Bowie, many of us had no idea he was sick. But even famous people deserve privacy. Perhaps something reached out to me through the cosmos however, because two weeks ago I printed out a bunch of chordsheets of his music and began playing his songs. Moonage Daydream is a tremendously cathartic bit of music to rip on guitar. It brings us back to those moments in life when music props us up against the perceptions of the world.

18345-david-bowie-637x0-1Bowie and I go back to the Ziggy Stardust album, which I revered as a sophomore in high school. The androgyny of the character and his person both fascinated and terrified me. At the time, it was not acceptable in any form to be considered feminine by those terms. Not in the tiny farm town where I lived.

I didn’t necessarily have the instincts to publicly display my curiosities. But like many young men I tucked my manhood between my legs and looked in the mirror wondering what it would mean to look like or be a woman. I have photos from that period when my facial features were delicate. Not yet a man. But no longer a boy.

To some people, such behavior and curiosities are abhorrent, wrong and unbiblical. Yet the courage of people like Bowie to bring those instincts to grace and acknowledgement have indeed changed the world, and for the better. The very idea that people all fall into plain and distinct categories is false and dangerous. It is the fascism of singularly self-directed purpose, and not godlike at all. Art, by contrast, explores the unspeakable. It sings it loud. Brings truth into the light.

Nature as well is both creative and forceful in its diversity. A society that collaborates with the forces of nature is a healthy one. The elements of the world that suppress and tries to murder the fact of diversity is one that fights against none other than itself. Men like Adolf Hitler, for example, made up their own version of reality. They try to cover their fears and insecurities with willful terror and murderous intent.

david-bowieAnd that’s why David Bowie matters. His music and his leadership together changed the world. If anything, he battled a few  s0-called demons in the process. But given the fact there are actually no such thing as real demons, he battled what the world threw at him instead. And in many respects, he won. And that’s the right kind of pride.

That’s the inspiration we can take from the passing of David Bowie. He forged a creative path that enabled him to overcome many fears about the world. He was born David Jones and chose his stage name from the inventor of a knife, it seems. Then he used it to cut both ways. There’s a powerful lesson in that.

A friend just texted me lyrics from the song Heroes. “We can beat them, forever and ever. We can be heroes, just for one day.” And that’s the best example of all. Thank you, David Bowie.

Art shows

From the age of perhaps four years old, I have been drawing and painting and showing my work to others for approval. Tucked in my baby book is the first real watercolor I ever painted. It depicts a jet plane with a flag on the tail. I have no recollection of the reference material used for that depiction of a jet. But it does exhibit some precocious visual interest in the world. Bic pen, watercolor and a piece of typing paper. It doesn’t take much to get started.

By the time I was twelve, drawing and painting were part of my everyday life. My father even helped me sell work to his friends. And by seventeen years old we’d put some artwork in frames and hung them in the old Manor Restaurant in St. Charles where we lived.

Too many study halls were spent drawing instead of studying. My grades in classes such as Economics and Government were not the greatest because I’d be drawing cartoons for my buddies rather than paying attention to lessons about how stock prices are affected by the market.

Art is both a wonderful obsession and a significant distraction. Being creative is not the best option in disciplined classroom situations. You can even be branded a smartass for giving creative answers to seemingly rote questions. You can also be branded a dumbass for not knowing the basics of this world.

I once wrote an essay titled “My Life As An Art Major, Or Why We Qualify for the Americans With Disabilities Act.” And it was funny, in a way. Because the world does not always accept creativity as the answer to basic questions.

But notice that does not suggest that artists lack problem-solving capabilities or that artists have no role in society. Quite the opposite. This interface between “reality” and operating in the abstract is often explored through art shows, where artists gather work together to show the public, and the public wades through and considers what is being shown, and said, by the art they find.

Just last night our Water Street Studios collective held a Resident Artist’s exhibition. As part of “the team,” of people renting studio space, four of my works were shown in the main gallery and my studio was open for visits during the evening.

Making art

Preparing work for any art show is a laborious process. Doing the paintings or other processes is just part of the mix. There is often framing to do, and that takes time and money. It can be exhausting getting everything ready on time. Then comes the lugging too. Carrying artwork comes with risks. All it takes is one dent on a frame or picture from a swinging door and a work can be ruined.

For that reason, art shows are Sisyphean ventures. There is no such thing as an artist being done with his or her work. Either the work itself is in progress, or a body of works is not complete.

Yet your goal is to sell some pieces to pay for the effort. Which brings back the harsh lessons of that high school economics class in which you might not have paid that much attention. Art shows are a practice in marketing. You market your work. But you also market yourself.

Body of work

People tend to buy artwork from artists that show a body of work rather than a piece or two that attracts their eye. It’s like the mating dance of exotic birds. The more ornate and complete the dance, the more likely the “buyer” is to welcome the artistic advances.

That means an artist needs to build both a body of work and with it, a reputation. Then comes word of mouth, and loyalty. You build a clientele, if you’re lucky and smart. One of the craziest experience I ever had as an artist was an art show held in a private home in a wealthy community. The hosts served lots of alcohol and the guests whipped out checkbooks and wads of cash and paid me on the spot. Women shoved money in my pockets while grabbing a painting and copping a feel. It was a very artsy evening, to say the least.

A more rational but equally stimulating version of that show was the annual Artists In Action event held in Geneva, Illinois each year. Artists were invited to actually produce work during a September weekend on which the Festival of the Vine was held. I always sold a lot of work there because people liked being able to see the artwork being made. It built a bond between patron and artist. And that’s good.

The process

Making a sale is not necessarily what goes through you head while you’re actually doing the work in a studio. Ideally, you are producing paintings or other artwork because you have something you want to say or show about the world. When that statement is visually or symbolically pleasing to other people, they might be motivated to buy. In other words, you take pride in your work. And that’s the right kind of pride.

Yes, there are some artists who develop a formula for sales and crank out things those purposes. Art is a business, and art shows are an extension of that business. There is no shame in that either. Some of that art is sentimental or familiar. But we should be able to distinguish between that style of art and that which is produced to make an impact.

Wine and canvas

In recent years, art seems also to have taken on a public flair with people taking courses featuring wine and canvasses. Everyone in the group paints a picture while being led by an instructor. These are fun and valuable lessons in art appreciation.

But the difficult part in producing art is being definitive. That is the characteristic one Jamie Wyeth (Andrew’s son) most values in his work. If it is not definitive, he wants no part in it.

Which brings us to the conclusion that good art shows are where good art shows. That is, it is definitive. And that is the goal of any real artist in this world. And to sell, of course.

Grieving in dream time

We all know plenty of people dealing with loss in their lives. A friend loses a child in the latter stages of pregnancy. Another grieves over the death of their parent or a sibling. We lose people to cancer, or car accidents, suicide or heart attacks. All these losses are carried with us in many ways.

Most recently my father passed away. The day he died I entered his room and cried heavily over the man who raised me. I also cried for the relative valor with which he suffered 13 years of stroke disability. The loss of his ability to communicate robbed our family of valuable time with him. We also lost a share of family history since he was unable to tell stories of his youth or his experience.

And a few years ago, my wife died of cancer after eight years of survivorship. We had been married for 28 years. That’s a lot of shared history as well.

Just a year before my wife passed away, my father-in-law died from complications related to heart problems.

And ten years ago in 2005 my own mother passed away.

All these losses have been processed in different ways. Yet all of them have converged in some way in my dreams.

Shred of guilt

Whether we like to admit it or not, there is often a shred of guilt that goes with losing someone we love. Working through that brand of guilt alone can take years. We might wish we could have done something more for the person we loved, or been there more. We might have wanted to tell them with more urgency how much we loved them.

None of these feelings are foolish or unwarranted. They are the very real consequences of having loved, and having lived. It is simply impossible to have lived perfectly, of having never forgotten to say “I love you” when it counts. So it takes time to grieve through these feelings as well as the raw loss of someone in our lives.

Asking forgiveness

FamilyBefore my late wife passed away, I sat down by her bed and told her that I loved her and asked forgiveness for any wrongs or ways that I might have disappointed her over the years. All relationships have some degree of failure in their mix. I thought it important to let her know how much I appreciated our time together, and to apologize for my own shortcomings. Her doctor had advised me to be absolutely positive in her last few weeks. Yet we’d been through quite a few things together, and I positively wanted to tell her how I really felt. That included a bit of confession. We all try our best, but love requires that we admit some of our shortcomings along the way.

Recurring dream

Perhaps that is a brand of emotional w0rk we must always do on our own. The one recurring dream (every few months) that I have in relationship to my late wife is that she has returned somehow from the dead and I am in no way prepared to deal with that.

The dream typically finds her rising from apparent death at the funeral home to re-enter her life. I encounter her at parties or other events and don’t know how to engage. Awkwardly, I’m challenged in those moments to know what to do because I’m in a new relationship.

This is a painful dilemma in a dream world, much like those moments when you are trying to run away from some threat and are unable to move your feet. Dream interpreters say that not being able to run away in a dream… is a sign of general anxiety in your life.

That’s exactly how anxiety works, of course. It can focus on any topic, but it also invents its own realities. And so, in relation to grief, it brings that person back on the stage of your life as if they were alive again. “What do you think of this…” it wants to know?

Bad dreams and divorce

The anxiety of dealing with loss in a dream world is similar in some respects to a person living through a real life divorce. Rather than grieving through bad dreams, however, one is forced to grieve that relationship every time you encounter a former spouse in real time. That can seem like a bad dream in more than one way.

It takes just as much time to grieve through that kind of loss as it does to come to grips with the death of a sibling or a loved one. None of us can completely separate ourselves from the reality of a divorce any more than we can divorce ourselves from feelings of grief or loss with someone that has died. It’s part of your subconscious thoughts whether you like it or not.

Dealing with loss

In relation to our experience in loss, overall I feel our family has tried to deal with these experiences in healthy ways. Obviously, the pain of children grieving a lost parent is a different thing from a husband dealing with the loss of a wife. I think some of the guilt I am processing relative to my late wife is a shared empathy for my children in having lost their mother. The dream in which she returns to life reminds me that my work in helping them is not over. Nor should it be. She returns to me in dreams so that I remain sensitive to the fact that I am responsible as their living parent to keep her memory alive for all of us.

Rather than a nightmare, such dreams are instructive and healthy to the grieving process. In many ways, our family has found positives in our life celebrations together. We are not afraid to recall both joyful and amusing aspects of my late wife’s personality. She loved to tease but could also be petulant about certain subjects or beliefs. These dichotomous aspects of her personality do keep her memory alive. They can also be shared with others because they are honest. We can be unapologetically real about her memory.

Sharing burdens and friends

1509152_10204571857793222_4147884275556153224_nAlso, my companion Sue is respectful and loving toward our needs. Being a companion to a “widow,” as she has done,  is not always easy. For both the spouse and the new companion, it can be difficult living in the shadow of someone so loved. Sue has treated my children with respect for their mother’s memory. She has grown to understand them better as people as a result, because learning about their mother has helped her understand their own characteristics and values.  And in our relationship, I have been very honest with Sue about my feelings in the 2.5 years since my wife passed away.

We did not leap into categories of emotions too quickly. It has been a prolonged “honeymoon” if you want to call it that, since we met and starting dating. That’s a necessary fact of our respective situations.

Sue was working through pain from a previous relationship when I met her. I was in active grief from having lost a spouse. I believe we’ve helped each other through, and grown as people as a result. We treasure relationships with both our sets of friends, and some of these groups have merged successfully, to the point where we no longer define friends as “Mine” or “Hers.”

Protection and risk

11169852_10205615038072077_292278208289650118_nThat is the protection. The risk is the investment in time and love we have made in each other. We have discussed the weight of that investment on several occasions. Dating in your 50s is not like dating in your 20s or 30s, when there are families to build and children on the horizon. Yet there is still an investment in the future. Even during the few years we’ve been together, we’ve felt changes in our bodies, hearts and minds.

We’ve also ached in real time over the challenges our children face and have shared the ache across family ties as well.

Through all this shared experience, it’s never been my process to compare Sue to my late wife Linda. The relationship we now share is clearly built on its own foundations. As stated, however, these foundations do draw from our respective pasts.

And interestingly, Sue’s actual first name Linda. She’s simply gone by Suzanne, her middle name, for her entire life. I first learned this fact in the first few months of dating her when her bike slipped and we visited the Urgent Care facility to get her checked out. The registration desk asked for her name and she stated, “Linda Astra.” Then she spun around to say, “I forgot to tell you. Linda’s my real first name.”

That was an odd little moment. But it was not lost on me.

Caution signs

We likely all know situations where in which the deceased spouse can become something of a legend or a saint in the lives of those who carry on their memory. Sometimes that sainthood can produce dysfunction among stepchildren or in other relationships where the new person in the family formula is constantly measured against the parent or loved one who went before.

That can create a “bad dream” in which people refuse to accept or show love to others. It’s much better to acknowledge that we all need each other. Those relationships may be in new or different ways those in the past, but that can be a good thing.

We have this one life to live. It is best to make life better for one another every way you can. That’s almost better than the Golden Rule.

 

Understanding the Relationship Algorithm

What follows is a brand of simple, straightforward advice on how to have better relationships.

The Relationship Algorithm (RA) is a tool to help you open communications, build respect and sustain love through all the years of a relationship. The Relationship Algorithm is a formula one takes to either tear down or build up a relationship. It works like this:

Relationship Algorithm: Negative Direction

Relationships break down because they are subjected to a series of negative responses.

Complaint to or about a person is most often the catalyst that starts a chain reaction of negativity that can tear down a relationship. Complaint is a form of insult. Insult is a lack of respect. Lack of respect leads to lack of trust. A lack of trust undermines the ability to love. The inability to love reduces the will to communicate. When communication fails, the relationship is over.

Here’s the quick synopsis of that Negative Relationship Algorithm:

RA/N: Unhealthy or Constant Complaint >Form of Insult > Lack of Respect > Lack of Trust > Inability to Love > Unwillingness to Communicate. 

 

The Better option: Relationship Algorithm––Positive Direction

By contrast, a Positive Relationship Algorithm places communicate at the forefront. From there, a healthy chain reaction can occur that affirms the love in the relationship and builds on positive emotional feelings. Constructive emotions such as trust, respect and positive dialogue produce a relationship that is healthy and progressive in nature.

Here’s the quick synopsis on the Positive Relationship Algorithm.

Desire to Communicate > Ability to Love > Building Trust > Showing Respect > Complementing the Partner > No need for Complaint.  

Within this spectrum of constructive relationship tools, there are also tactics that can help you work within each component of the Relationship Algorithm to build positive dialogue.

Solving problems using positive direction

For example, imagine a couple has challenges discussing financial issues. A negative response is to complain about money issues or disrespectfully accuse the other person of mistakes or abuses. That insulting approach leads to reduced trust, lost love and reduced communication. That’s how fights over money begin and continue.

By contrast, a healthier way to engage in financial discussions is for both people in a relationship to separately write down their financial concerns. Then carve out a time where both parties can give full attention and communication to the subject. If necessary, get a babysitter for the kids if you have them. Turn off the cell phones and shut down the computer (unless you want to use a spreadsheet for discussion.)

Agree not to threaten, accuse or complain during the initial discussion.

Always show respect

Promise at all times to show respect on the issues at hand. If additional information is required to make a decision, make notes and agree on a timeframe for action or answers on each topic. Focus on establishing a consensus about each issue on the table. If that’s not possible, and you need to consult with advisors or professionals to organize or solve your financial (or other) problems, agree to make that appointment and engage in no complaint on the subject until that issue can be resolved.

Likewise, do not engage or impose the “silent treatment” on your partner following discussion of relationship (especially financial) problems. This is a form of silent complaint and a true lack of respect. In many ways saying nothing is far worse than having a fight.

Also, be especially aware of Passive/Aggressive behavior, in which one person baits the other with kindness or passivity to gain an advantage, and then turns on them with assertiveness or even violence to overwhelm or win a fight. That is obviously an unhealthy, unfair and unproductive way to relate.

It is always important to be aware of your own emotional intelligence in these categories.  Avoid using scare or manipulative tactics to get what you want. That is no way to resolution or healthy compromise where needed.

Patience, respect and positivity pay dividends

Some problems take more time than others to resolve. Again, if one person feels additional discussion might be necessary to clarify their position or provide updated information, be sure to begin from the communication side of the algorithm, not the complaint side. This prevents the negative feedback cycle from turning into a stress factor between two people.

As our financial illustration shows, a good relationship algorithm always begins with communication, not complaint. Even this simple guideline can be enough to control potentially negative feelings and get people working toward positive response to challenges and needs within a relationship.

The Relationship Algorithm can work wonders if you keep these positive goals in mind.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a memoir about character, caregiving and community, the positive aspects of cancer survivorship and facing challenges in life. The book is available on Amazon.com. 

RightKindofPridecover
The Right Kind of Pride is a book by Christopher Cudworth about the importance of character, caregiving and community in this world. It is available on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

One long breath

CrowdThere were more than 2000 people milling around the start line of the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot in our hometown. My racing instincts from long ago sent me out to a quiet street for a one-mile warmup jog. It had already been an eventful week getting my house ready to host 12 people for Thanksgiving. I was looking for a place, I suppose, to take a deep, long breath before doing the race.

Perhaps my mind was trying to take in a bit too much information at that moment. We had scheduled a Memorial Service for my father Stewart the night before Thanksgiving so that family could visit and join in celebrating my father’s life and grieve his passing.

Me with folksAll those years of caregiving for him were not quite over. There were still financial issues to manage, and the sale of his home to discuss. All that functions like a practical soliloquy that must be sung in order to gain closure.

But the emotional bank accounts remain open forever, and it is best to invest some time sharing memories with others, and learning how they view the life that has passed on. This is particularly true for a parent, as not everyone has the same perspective on what they mean, and how they should be honored.

As principal caregiver, my role kept me close to my father all those years after his stroke in 2002. He lived a full decade after my mother pass away in 2005. My job had been support for her initially, which quickly transitioned to full caregiver after her survivorship with lymphoma and pancreatic cancer came to a quick close in November 2005. That meant a full-time caregiver was necessary to join Stew in the home.

Stew and OlgaNot knowing what to expect after those quick changes, it struck me one day while walking into the home of my father that there were no real rules to this game. I was in charge of his life in consultation with my brothers. That meant there were always bills to pay and issues to discuss about his health and needs.

Sometimes that made it difficult to address much else in life. Stewart was not fond of making small talk when there were things bothering him. That list and how to address it could take quite a long time during my visits two or three times a week. He’d lost his ability to speech due to the stroke, which meant that we had to engage in a series of yes or no questions to ascertain his concerns. Early in the stroke recovery he’d quickly grow frustrated. His emotions were also hair-trigger thin at times, setting him off on a session of arm waving and barking “NO NO NO!” whenever I failed to get the questions right.

Stew and Evan and EmilyThere were many times I’d try to push the conversation toward something more pleasant such as memories of his that he might like to share. That was a tough gig too, because we could easily stall if I did not guess the name of the person involved in the story he wanted to relate. Even before his stroke we all had problems not knowing all the friends and family he thought we should know.

“Dad,” my brothers and I would say, “I never knew that person…” we’d reply, and he’d get frustrated and demand, “Yes you do!”

But we seldom really knew them. My father was a highly social man and had many acquaintances from golf and bowling and work and life in IMG_4900general that we, his sons, had never actually met. Or if we had, we did not remember them. Which was worse?

That meant it was a work in progress over the years moderating discussions with my father. It hurt me to hear that my brothers were frustrated with their visits. Stew would store up a memory bank full of things he wanted to share and try to communicate it all in one grand session rather than being patient and happy with a few satisfying stories.

There was a whole lot of life lost after my father had his stroke. He’d share photos and get bits of information out, often in beautifully abstract Stew and Evan and Emilyfashion. But my dad always was an impatient man in some respects, and one could go there with the best intentions to have a nice talk and come home hurt by the exchange.

His caregivers had the same problems. But we ultimately made it work for thirteen years. He lived in his own home until the very week he died. All three of his other sons made it for a visit by circumstance, and my father passed away on a Saturday afternoon.

All this was coursing through my head as I warmed up for the race. It felt like I’d been inhaling and dealing with the stress of trying to please him for so long. Now it was over, for the most part.

We held a nice memorial service with both laughter and tears.

And on Thursday morning I jogged up the quiet street away from the crowds. The air was clammy and grey. I felt tired and slow. And as I reached a spot near the river I stopped in my own tracks and began to cry. Tears fell down on the wet sidewalk and I told my father that I loved him.
Stew and Olga.jpgEarlier I sat in McDonalds before warming up. My cell phone had some photos sent to me by my daughter and son the night before. They were photos of my father holding each of them in his arms. Truly, those images felt like yesterday. I felt sad at the time that had passed yet thankful for those memories. He was a wonderful grandparent and a good dad.

That’s about all you can say. The rest is part of one long breath we take throughout this life. It seems we’re always holding our breath for what comes next. Which is why I encourage you to let out a little air. Breathe out and let the air come back into your soul a bit. Breathe in the essence and reality of the people around you. Because they want your attention. They love you. The demands of life can wait. They seriously can.

Then take one long breath and smile. It’s worth it.

 

On the precociousness of November flowers

FlowersThis morning during my dog walk it was a bit surprising to find two yellow flowers blooming in the already pruned bed of a Master Gardener that lives nearby. She’s not one to pluck much of anything during the summer months. She prefers to leave her flowers out where everyone can admire them. But come autumn her garden beds get a full house-cleaning.

Yet up popped these two flowers.

Their species is not so much important as their precociousness. So I will not go on about their life cycles or why they might be giving it a second go this late in the season. All of nature perks and plays with warm fall days. Migrating warblers sing quiet versions of their springtime songs. Sparrows and robins too, and all birds in passage from north to south. It’s not so much about singing for territory as it is about communication of existence these days.

I’ve even heard chorus frogs singing from inside the prairie in mid-November. The temperature and humidity of a 55 degree fall day clearly resembles those dank March or April days when breeding begins for frogs. So the frogs sing.

Occasionally I will find the stiff remains of a snapping turtle that died during a frosty night while making its way from the uplands to the lake below. Mother turtles lay their eggs in holes dug into the dirt. Many of of these holes and eggs are proceedingly raided and eaten by marauding raccoons. The next morning all the leathery eggs lay strewn about the hole. If lucky, just one or two holes with their clutch of turtle eggs may survive. That’s how life’s competition works.

Nature depends on this precociousness to advance its cause. It is a long and random process in which we are all engaged. As human beings, call survival a “battle” when in fact it is often something far more subtle that takes us down. A set of mutant cells. A virus. Old age.

Having been through many such human “battles” in recent years with family and friends that have now gone before me, I am absolutely sensitive to the precociousness of life. When my father recently passed away, it was only after thirteen full years of existence following his massive stroke in 2002. At the time, no one really thought he’d live a year past that event. Yet he survived the death of my mother ten years ago, grieved and kept on going. A precocious man.

My father-in-law survived an apparent heart attack and lived another uneasy year in its wake. His persistence was evidence of his character, for the damage to his heart and body were profound. We all credited his hardscrabble Nebraska upbringing for his perseverance.

When my late wife passed away in 2013 after eight years of cancer treatment, it was not because she had given up hope. Quite the contrary. The woman put up with more pain and discomfort than anyone could bear during those years of treatment. Yet she precociously wanted to live. So she did, and saw her children through graduation from high school and attending college. I know they miss her deeply. But I also know we all admire her strength, humor and appreciation for all of life.

I know those flowers down the block will not last forever into the winter But their presence is a reminder that all of us are precocious beings. We all feel the warmth of the sun even when it deceives us a bit, bringing us out to turn our faces toward the sky and breathe in. We precociously feel alive in the face of all that might defeat us otherwise.

Let’s face it. The news is almost never good out there in the world. Even our religions reek with the stink of death, and always have. Only faith survives precociously like two small flowers in the November dirt.

In politics, our hopes of peace lie like road kill along the information superhighway. Twitter throws 140 characters of crap in our faces and Facebook ridicules sincere and liberal concerns for humankind while videos of cats startled by cucumbers at least make us laugh.

Yet is it is the face of two small flowers in November that remind us the precociousness of life is worth appreciating. And protecting.