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The art of dying

Losing a loved one is one of the hardest things to experience in life. All signs may indicate that the end of a life is near, yet it is so hard to accept them.

Most typically, people experience the death of parents late in life. There are exceptions of course. Tragic accidents or fatal diseases intervene with the normal cycles of life. For those experiences, the principle need is to focus on coping strategies. Helping people when the shock of death comes too early is a profound challenge. Every single circumstance is different.

But there are some commonalities we all share when it comes to aging parents or grandparents. We know they are not going to live forever. We sometimes see the decline, yet focus on the good signs and hope the bad things hold off as long as they can.

Triggers

Often there is some incident that triggers the process toward actual death. It may be some shift in health such as a heart issue or surgery. Yet something as simple as a fall can undermine a person’s health.

Recently that happened to a close associate of mine. His mother fell in the middle of the night and her equally aged husband did not notice. What followed was a series of stays in different hospital facilities and nursing homes.

There is a harsh reality afoot with people very aged and in a severe state of decline. Hospitals are chartered to help people get better. They reserve the right to determine if that is happening. There are broad patterns that affect these decisions. People experienced with the dying come to recognize whether the trend is toward better health or whether the symptoms of an accident or illness are likely insurmountable.

The protocols of this decision-making can seem confusing to family members or those chartered with caregiving. The legality of prescribing certain medications, for example, is often determined by the prognosis issued by the presiding physician.

Free radicals

Then there are the more radical decisions to consider. Will a surgery help mom or dad survive longer, or is it just a desperate attempt to extend their life?

Meanwhile, the patient sometimes vacillates between wanting all that rigamarole and perhaps not putting up with the intrusions. This can seem like they are giving up, or losing hope. But in truth, some people come to grips with their situation faster than their caregivers.

Yet that’s not often the case with people suffering pain. Their decision-making abilities are directly affected by their pain tolerance. That’s where it gets difficult for the hospital or other facilities to make decisions that please the family. Either the patient gets so doped up from painkillers and can’t converse, or they grow agitated from lack of treatment and just want the pain to end. Even death becomes a desirable option.

Opponents

There are relationship issues to confront as well. A temperamental parent can be a daunting opponent when it comes to end-of-life decision-making. If there are unresolved or dysfunctional relationship issues between parent and child or siblings, the end-of-life process can become complex and tense. Blame gets tossed around. Insinuations made. Guilt enters the picture. No one can find peace or balance. The parent becomes Ground Zero for family conflict.

Usually, there’s one sibling or one person that does most of the steering through an end of life journey for a parent or grandparent. Yet that leadership role can generate friction too. It can happen that parents will play one sibling off the other in order to gain sympathy or hedge the bets. When those parallel decisions work against the medical advice of the presiding doctor and the presiding sibling, things can get really confusing. Or angry.

Palliative care versus hospice

Sometimes medical staff will seek out the primary decision-maker(s) for discussions about palliative care or even hospice. Palliative care is defined as follows: a multidisciplinary approach to specialised medical care for people with serious illnesses. It focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain, physical stress, and mental stress of a serious illness—whatever the diagnosis. The goal of such therapy is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.

But quite frequently, palliative care has the goal of keeping the patient comfortable leading up to the actual process of death. When death is likely imminent due to any number of signs related to disease or debilitation, a transition to actual hospice care occurs.

Hospice removes most life-giving supports and acknowledges that the patient is indeed dying. This can be an extremely challenging decision for families to make. But there are good reasons why hospice is entered as a care strategy.

Experience

Having worked with both my parents and my wife in both palliative and hospice care situations, I can assure you that the differences are not so distinct or profound as they might seem. I am fairly convinced that the only reason the terms differ is to ease the transition for family members. The term palliative is designed to help them come to terms with the fact that their loved one is indeed dying. When the wise female physician pulled me aside the day my wife was unable to move from the table where she lay, and counseled me that palliative care was likely the next step, I knew what she was saying.

In my mother’s case, she had been directed home from the hospital because there was, n the doctor’s words, “nothing else we can do for her.” In plain and simple terms, a hospital is medically defined as the place where people go to “get better.” When it is determined by the hospital that a mission of that order is not likely to be fulfilled, families are often asked to move their loved ones to another facility, or to simply take the patient home. Hospitals do not like it when people die under their care. It does not look good on the record sheets.

My mother was consigned to palliative care following an attempt at chemotherapy to treat her pancreatic cancer. The treatment was too hard for her to take. It put her in the hospital for a few days. Then the doctor came by and told me that they were done treating her. She was able to get home and we hired caregivers. All our family visited during a three-day period and she was happily able to see nearly all her loved ones.

But then she had a stroke on a Sunday evening, and by Monday morning, the case was clear. Her ability to swallow had been destroyed. The decision to enter hospice care was defined by that condition. Within a week of entering hospice, she passed away peacefully at home. Her husband and immediate family were there with her. And while it was sad to know that she was gone, there was great closure and peace that came from that.

Hospital business

Hospitals try to avoid keeping patients until they die. It’s simply bad for business. And hospitals are a business. That does not mean hospitals can necessarily avoid death in their patients. Plenty of people die in their hospital beds. Death is simply unavoidable when the human body and mind have had enough trouble dealing with pressure and failure.

Life comes to an end in one of three ways; natural, unnatural or somewhat assisted. A natural death is what we all seem to desire. That’s when people pass away of so-called natural causes. That would be heart failure in many cases, or other organs. There are many ways to die.

An unnatural death is typically the product of overtreatment. That would be too many surgeries in many cases, and not enough energy to recover. From what I’ve read, that process and occurrence is an all-too-frequent occurrence in the American health care system.

Perspectives 

I’ve watched my own family members anguish over the merits of yet another surgery for my father-in-law. Deep down I knew it was fruitless. But the patriarch of a family is not something people give away easily. Never mind that he’d already skirted death when he collapsed face first into a pile of sawdust while sawing wood in his own backyard. His wife woke him up that day. But from there, it turned into a series of heart operations, kidney problems, weight loss and finally death in the hospital. None of that was an easy choice for the family to make. It was deemed necessary as long as he was alive, to keep him alive. But whether it was absolutely necessary to keep him alive was the question everyone avoided.

Almost all families face that type of decision sooner or later. No one said dying is easy. But we tend to make it much harder than it should be.

Prayers for dad

My father passed away in a hospital bed six months ago.  He had fallen in the middle of the night and broken his hip. His caregiver called emergency for the umpteenth time and they carted my dad off to the hospital.

Everyone knows that a broken hip is a tough injury for any elderly person to sustain. My father already had an injured arm from a previous accident. But mostly he’d had a long time dealing with the effects of a stroke suffered back in 2003. He outlived my mother by ten years and we kept him in his own home with caregivers. The diagnosis to do surgery was his decision.

The diagnosis to do surgery for the broken hip was his decision. I let him make it because even though I was an executor of his estate with Power of Attorney for health care, he was still lucid and capable of deciding for himself whether to live with a repaired hip or die from the effects of the injury.

He lived another four days and saw all four of his sons during that week. Then he passed away quietly in that hospital bed. I arrived on a Saturday afternoon to a room with quiet music playing. His blanched figure with open mouth lay on the hospital bed. I kissed his forehead as I had done many times in fifteen years of taking care of him. Then I knelt and said a prayer next to him even though he was not necessarily a praying man.

I thanked him for his love over the years even though he lost his ability to say it. I said thanks to what I know of God for believing in my ability to take care of my father. It was tough as hell, and definitely worth it.

He was dead, but his memory just as surely came alive in the days that followed. There was nothing medically I could have done to change that outcome. There seldom really is. Death comes because it is meant to be. It gave me peace to know that he no longer had to live without his voice, and his golf clubs, and that wandering spirit squelched by his confinement to a wheelchair all those years. He dealt with it pretty well, and like an SOB at times.

The art of dying

But he dealt with it. And it was our job now to deal with his passing. It all took so long and happened so fast. That’s how death works, after all. And sometimes you should not fight it. That is the art of dying.

There’ll come a time when all your hopes are fading
When things that seemed so very plain
Become an awful pain
Searching for the truth among the lying
And answered when you’ve learned the art of dying

––George Harrison, The Art of Dying

 

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I talk to people

It used to drive my wife and children nuts. My propensity for talking to people. Yet I’ve done it so long and learned so much by talking with people that I refuse to stop.

Just last week I talked with a guy that sat down across from me in an airport. His vest had an interesting logo on it. I struck up a conversation and learned that he represented an organization that protects wild lands out west. I’m scheduled to interview the Executive Director to do an article and pitch it to a magazine.

So I talk to people for networking reasons. But I also talk to people just because it makes life more interesting. I talk to people in elevators. I talk to people that are nothing like me on the surface. I talk to people of different races and genders.

I especially talk to people who are out walking their dogs. I will stop during a run and pet their dog, asking permission first. I’ve met a lot of nice people this way. And talked to a lot of dogs. Generally, they appreciate the butt scratch I give them. I do not try to scratch the butt of their owners.

I talk to people while I’m out shopping for groceries. Obviously, I talk with people at church too. One feeds the belly. The other feeds the soul.

We talk to each other in new ways these days. Facebook. Twitter. GMail. Linkedin. Met a lot of interesting people these ways too.

There are days I talk to friends out of need. But sometimes that applies to strangers too. It’s amazing how consoling a conversation with a stranger can be sometimes. Then they’re no longer a stranger. I’ve helped people get jobs this way. Referred them to people they might like to meet. And learned about interesting opportunities along the way.

I talked with a woman in the swimming pool at the health club a couple months ago. She swam with her head above water and wore a modest suit. Her son was whaling away in the other lane, happy to be swimming hard. I learned that her husband was recently admitted to a facility where his health issues could be watched closely. They were making the best of things, but it was hard. After I got out of the pool, the mother and son showed up outside the locker room and we talked some more. I encouraged her son in his swimming. He was only in eighth grade, a bit soft in face and body. We all go through that phase. I told him that his swimming was really good. He smiled. In loco parentis. We do what we can. It’s a form of caregiving for the world.

I talk to people sometimes out of anxiety. It’s a release of sorts. Worry eats at you. So does fear. Talking to other people can keep those vexations at bay. Until you gain control.

I try to make people laugh if I can. Find something in common in line at Starbucks. Make a joke about the bananas getting too cozy. I take pride in trying to make people laugh. That’s the right kind of pride.

When people share concerns I try to listen rather than talk. And if they seek advice I try to relate, but not replace their worries with mine. But I’m not perfect. Sometimes flaws show through. Yet nothing makes me happier than when someone says, “Thanks for listening” or “Thanks for talking.”

I talk to people because I need to talk to people. For sure I’m a total loner at times and don’t want to talk with anyone. I can be happy out in the fields watching birds with no one around. Or riding my bike in windstorm. Don’t want to talk with anyone then.

I’ve talked with teammates during long runs and tried to figure out life along the way. It’s a fact: Every new day is a puzzle, and we only have this part of the puzzle to consider while we’re awake. That entire scenario is a puzzle to me. So I try to puzzle it out by talking with other people.

Sometimes you get rebuffed. People don’t want to talk. Think you’re an idiot. Don’t give a damn what you think. Disagree with your religion or politics. Hate you for being a man, or a woman, or some type of either. When you try to breach those barriers you become a problem in their life. Fuck off. Don’t try to change my thinking. You get the message. No more talking. You move on.

But still I keep talking to people. It’s worth it no matter what. It’s the only way I can hear myself think sometimes. Funny how that works. And why.

The real meaning of home plate

One of my favorite places in the world to visit as a child was my uncle’s farm in Bainbridge, New York. The farm was full of activity. Cows to milk. Manure to shovel. Tractors to ride.

There were also frogs to capture. Birds to watch. Fish to catch in the Susquehanna River.

Nichols farm.jpgAnd one summer day after my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Kermit had come to visit our home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I was sad to see them leave. So I blurted out, “I want to come with you.”

I recall glances being exchanged, and quick conversation. Several years before, my aunt and uncle had taken care of me when my mother experienced complications from the breach birth of my younger brother.

So it wasn’t like I was running off with strangers. I loved them.

But somewhere in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania, my heart began to sink. I’d been packed and sent off in their car with nary a goodbye to my parents. I think they were coming up  to visit a week or so later. So it had all been planned out.

By the time we got to the farm in Bainbridge, I was an emotional wreck. These days I know what role anxiety plays in my brain. Back then, homesickness was a combination of anxiety and loss of familiarity. The feeling of being separated from my parents at such a young age, I was six or so, sent me down a rabbit hole of grief and longing for home.

Homesick 

That feeling of homesickness caught up to me at other stages in life. When we moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois, I was only thirteen years old and left all my friends from grade school and middle school behind. For months, I grieved that loss. My best friend in the world back in Pennsylvania was hurting too. We sat together on the elevated tee of a golf course and he said, “Why does everything I love have to leave me?”

So homesickness is not always tied to a place. It can afflict you from any sense of loss. When parents die there is a sense of homesickness about the entire world. To lose a child, I am told, is as bad or worse.

And thinking back to that aching sense of loneliness as a child, when I missed my home in the wake of that decision to run off with my aunt and uncle to their farm in New York, I realize it was the suddenness that brought about homesickness. Our minds and hearts depend on predictability. To some extent, that is all we have in the world. Routine keeps us grounded. Familiarity makes us feel safe. That is why anxiety is such a difficult mental disorder to treat. Those with anxiety create worries beyond reality. 

Which means simple events such as going away to college can bring on homesickness, because there is a relationship between anxiety and being homesick. One week you’re fighting against the control of your parents and the next, you miss it so.

A trip to a foreign country can also make you yearn to be back home. When the adventure wears off, the wires of your soul are exposed. It acts like a negative charge. Ridiculous things seem suddenly important. You want a cheeseburger. Just a taste of home will do. 

There are some people who say the entire human race is homesick for a relationship with God. That all of us exist, for lack of a better description, in a state of temporal homesickness. That’s why people say the dead are “going home” to God.

Others deny that need at all. They credit it to sentiment. Yet it is said that everyone prays in a foxhole. Or when people get sick, they pray in hopes of a cure. We look for answers beyond our own understanding in such circumstances.

The real meaning of home runs

America’s former favorite pastime, the game of baseball, centers around an object called “home plate.” It is a nothing more than a rubber square with a triangle back. Yet it has such significance. 

A player that hits a home run circles the bases of the infield and receives great cheers when he or she touches home plate again. This cycle is repeated thousands, even millions of times each year in the games of baseball and softball. Everything about the game is measured and precise, and it all centers around home plate. The distance between bases in all four turns is 90 feet, and winds up at home plate. The length of the foul line to the outfield wall is measured from home plate. The gap between the pitchers mound and home plate is just over sixty feet. People that love baseball know these things. They don’t have to recite them ad infinitum to appreciate them. There is no creed to the game like there is in other religions. And baseball is a religion of sorts. It is the homiest of sports. 

Throwing the knuckler

I was a baseball pitcher through the age of seventeen years old. When I walk through a nearby park where there are two baseball fields, there are often lost balls to be found. When I pick up a lost baseball these days I hold it up and either throw it back or take it home. In either case, it reminds me of youth.

I loved being the center of attention and in control of the game. Like all pitchers, I made my own luck on the mound. That meant I developed a set of pitches to help me be successful. I had a slider, a curve, a fastball and a sinker. And if I was brave, I even threw the knuckleball.

That last pitch was a challenge to learn and to throw. It took practice, and my brothers and I would throw knucklers back and forth with my dad. That’s how we learned. The knuckleball is also known as a floater. If thrown correctly, it wobbles and bobs based on the way the seams interact with the air. A perfect knuckler actually has no spin on it. That’s why it is so hard to throw.

But it’s risky to throw a knuckler because sometimes they don’t work. They just go slow and straight over home plate. When that happens, you get clobbered.  Yet for some reason, I’ve always been willing to take such risks in life. 

The right kind of pride about oddballs

Knuckleballers are an odd lot in baseball. The game, as a rule, does not like or tolerate them. They throw too slow to fit the speed-driven nature of baseball. Knuckleballers are thus liberals among fields full of conservatives. Knuckleballers break the rules of physics and baseball with every pitch they throw. When they are on their game, knuckleballers can be impossible to hit. Even the pitcher and catcher do not know where the ball will wind up. And how beautiful is that?

Given my love of the dichotomy between status quo and unpredictability, it has been hard sometimes in life to behave the way that the engineers of baseball and life want me to behave. I can be winning 7-1 with only three outs to go, and still want to try throwing the knuckleball in the ninth inning to prove that I’ve got the guts to do it. It was the same in basketball with behind the back passes and dribbles. It made the game more fun and exciting. My personal hero was Pistol Pete Maravich. He could probably have thrown a knuckleball with a basketball. And in my world, that is perfection. As it was, I learned to spin the basketball on my finger because Pistol Pete could do it. That’s a skill to entertain children and sometimes adults, but has absolutely no other use in the world. 

Wild instincts

Those knuckleball instincts were what made me run away with my aunt and uncle all those years ago, throwing caution to the wind and jumping in their car to head for the New York hills. Those wild instincts are also the reason I like escaping to the wilderness to look for birds, and go running or riding much farther or in worse conditions than I should. People who don’t piece those occupations together in me do not fully recognize the person that I am. These wild instincts have cost me at times, but I’m still proud of them because they prove that I have not given up. Still trying to learn new pitches. 

Making sudden decisions has always been part of my nature. Throwing the knuckler when it is much safer to just put the ball across home plate and let your fielders back you up in case the batter connects is the smart decision at times. And I’ve done that enough to enjoy a few victories. 

But I’ve also lost some things in life that perhaps I coulda (shoulda) won by taking unnecessary (or stupid) risks. But I don’t think any of those situations were wasted.

Because by contrast, I’ve met plenty of staid people who are rich or comfortable, but still unsatisfied. That’s true in business and in love, where there are no guarantees of happiness. So you have to take risks to find them. 

Risk versus adversity

I’ve taken some chances in standing up against adversity that felt like a knuckleball was being thrown my way. My late wife’s cancer was a knuckler we never saw coming. But for eight years we kept swinging and hitting it back as long as we could. We got to be pros at it. And they say that a pro baseball player is a success if they can get a hit three times out of ten at-bats. We made it eight years before the knuckler fooled us for the last time. We batted .800. I have to call that a victory. 

Yet it still feels like a failure in some respects. It makes me angry that my children lost their mother. And I don’t deal all that well with anger. I’m competitive and have had to discipline myself into understanding success is measured in different ways. Yet anger is a still the knuckleball that makes me flail away at life. It’s hard to throw it without hurting someone else, and just as hard to hit when it comes your way. Anger is the one pitch that still vexes me. But I’m learning to take some pitches. And that helps.

The right kind of pride about our flaws

Dealing with the unpredictability of life on that order can be tough. The even more difficult aspect of dealing with life’s knuckleballs is in how you respond when one of them comes at you.  Flailing away can make it tougher rather than just “taking the pitch” and hoping it’s not a strike. Just like in baseball, people expect you to show self-control at the plate, use “emotional intelligence,” (an oxymoron?) and behave a certain way because your character and training and prior response all say you should know better than to swing at balls outside home plate. Yet we still do it. 

None of us is perfect. No pro baseball player has even hit .400 for a season since Ted Williams. That’s proof enough that we all take chances in the course of life. But just as often, we take chances that are a reflection of our changing character and a desire to create change where it is needed. That swing of the bat can also cause pain to yourself, and to others. 

But we have to keep swinging.

The right kind of pride about homesickness

For many years, I was ashamed of that bout of homesickness that struck me as a child. But these days, I am a bit proud of that six-year-old kid. For taking chances. For loving enough to want to express himself. But also for admitting, when the homesickness hit so hard, that he was not strong enough to fight through it all.

I have long quoted a saying that applies in all such circumstances. It is almost a palindrome of a phrase if you study it in theory. It goes like this: “You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.”

That’s true by choice, and it’s true by circumstance. Sometimes it is really hard to tell the difference. And that’s when I throw the knuckler.

As the crocus petals fall

A close friend has been at the hospital the last few days tending to his mother. She injured herself severely in a household fall by tripping on a braided rug that her husband has long refused to throw out in their bedroom.

Such are the vagaries of old age, and sentiment. Her broken ribs and swollen brain are being treated at the hospital, but she’s not sure it’s a good idea to go on. There is fear, and there is pain.

Her son is also in pain, of the emotional kind. There has been no more faithful a son than he. For two decades he has tended their garden. Mowed their lawn. Taken them to church when necessary. His own life is intertwined with that of his parents. Because he cares.

And because he cares, he is suffering now at the thought of his mother’s passing. She is alive, but barely. Sooner or later most of us go through this experience with a parent. A spouse. Or a friend.

I know people that have even lost children. Such abrupt dissolutions.

Crocus

As I entered the house today, I glanced down to notice that the crocus in the front garden are already starting to drop their petals. We wait all winter for the first signs of spring. Then spring comes and sheds these bright signs of life as if they did not matter at all.

I have watched my mother die. I was there when she passed away 10 years ago. Recently I watched my father die as well. We emptied their house this past week. Filled a three-yard dumpster with all their former belongings. Kept a few keepsakes and practical items for our own.

My brother said, “I’m going home to get rid of 25% of what I own. If this is what happens to us when we die, I don’t want that.”

Time passes

Three years ago this March 26 my wife passed away after an eight year go-round with cancer. She lived fully right to the moment she passed away. I have always said that I am proud of her for that. But life itself sheds its hold on us like petals on a crocus.

We are reminded of all this come Easter time. According to Christian tradition, even the Son of God shed those petals of life here on earth. The faith holds that our souls are borne into heaven if we have accepted the grace, and shed the brand of pride that prevents it.

Instead, we should hold pride in the mercies we can show others. I told that to my friend, the selfless man that has cared for his parents all these years. “You are in pain because your love is wrapped together with her life. That is pain your have earned through caring. God knows that we feel that pain, and it’s the knowledge that we are loved that sustains us through it.”

Walking right into the pain

Three years ago on Good Friday, I walked into the church I attend with tears barely concealed behind my eyes. My brother asked me why I attended the service so soon after the death of my wife, and I told him, “I’m walking right into the pain.”

That’s really the only thing we can do. You can’t escape it by walking around. It follows you like a shadow. And when I walked up to meet the pastor for a blessing that Friday evening, he was the one shedding tears in my family’s name. “You are in the right place,” he told me.

That does not cure it all. There is still the absence and the loss. The profound depression knowing that someone is gone, for good. That is grief. It must be reckoned with as well. But first we must acknowledge the pain. All else is folly. That can take time. It cannot be rushed. Yet neither can we dwell in the past, lest we forget there is life to be lived.

Preaching to the choir

I understand that church is not for everyone. I get that more deeply than you might think. My own father relinquished his churchgoing ways. He loved the camaraderie of the choir, but the words ultimately didn’t mean that much. It doesn’t mean he did not have a soul. And I do not worry for it. That is not the brand of faith to which I ascribe.

We are all flawed people, who need forgiveness for the things we do. And, we should do all the forgiving we can muster. Because the real purpose of those falling petals should be to let go the lies, and the hurts, the harsh words and the lost opportunities to say that we love someone.

That is the faith to which I ascribe. It is ultimately transcendent, even in all its fallen glory. It is not keeping the crocus past its time, but knowing that its coming and going is the real sign of hope, and of caring, and of things planted for the right purposes.

My father’s house

Back in October 2015 when my father passed away in his hospital bed, I was proud to think that we’d managed to keep him in his house in the ten years that passed after my mother died in 2005. As anyone with caregiving responsibilities can tell you, there are challenges to protecting the freedoms of the elderly. And when we love them, those challenges only increase when emotions and old relationship patterns cloud decision-making.

My father’s house was purchased in 1977 or so. It sits on a hill in St. Charles, Illinois where my brother and I used to chase grey partridge around the fields where hunters had released them as wild game.

Those birds are long gone, replaced by the suburban sprawl that created my dad’s place. The house is nothing special in any way. A split level with peach and apple trees planted in the back yard by my dad and mom years ago.

But my folks made it home for 30 years. Then my father had a stroke in the early 2000s and the home turned into a caregiving facility. In fact, caregivers lived in the home with my father all 10 years that he survived after my mother’s passing.

That’s all done now. And soon my brother will be coming out to Illinois to go through all the family archives left in the home. That includes albums both musical and photographic. My dad chopped up lots of pictures and pasted them into collections, so it’s a mixed bag. But it’s our bag, and I trust my brother of all people to handle that process.

Before leaving after a walk-through today I noticed a videotape on the shelf that took me back to the period when my dad had his stroke. He was out East on a reunion trip when the stroke hit. That threw our family into turmoil. It was my job back here in Illinois to keep the home safe and pay the bills.

The home itself has never had much sentimental value for me. But my father’s house instead was the symbol for caring and concern. We’ll be cleaning it out and selling it soon. But there’s no need to give up the former for the latter.

Love on steroids

A friend on Facebook recently posted a meme about what to do when a woman says “Do what you want.”

It then says, DO NOT DO WHAT YOU WANT. Stand still. Do not blink. Do not answer. Don’t even breathe. Just play dead.”

Ah yes. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

But three years ago this week, I was living through a different brand of experience. My late wife was deep in the throes of treatment for a brain surgery stemming from ovarian cancer that had somehow circumvented the supposed brain-blood barrier and made its way into tumors that needed to be surgically removed.

That was in January 2013. Then the treatment was followed by a bit of radiation. And then steroids. That was when things got really interesting.

You’ve all heard of “roid rage,” which is when athletes get so hyped up they have no control over their emotions? Well, it’s real. And while my wife on steroids was not subject to steroid-induced rage, she did become absolutely fearless.

And let me tell you something, an absolutely fearless person can be a very scary thing. It was impossible in some ways to tell when she was being serious or not. We spent some money we did not really have. We bought a new vehicle when I wasn’t even working (thank God for my 960 credit rating at the time) and bunches of other things. I thought the money was coming from some unknown source, perhaps a gift from her very giving parents. But no.

A wife on steroids also cleans a lot. A whole lot. And then cleans some more. Entire shelves of formerly peaceful dishes were offloaded and wiped clean and put back in their places. Rooms got painted. She could not lie down for more than 10 minutes. “I feel great!” she’d enthuse.

The steroids also bulked her up. This was a bit disconcerting on a couple levels. She was already a tall, big-boned German girl. I felt like there was no room in the bed. And then she started snoring too. So I moved to the front room and slept there. No choice. It was like a freight train coming through the bedroom.

None of this do I blame her for. She was a wife on steroids. But it had a cost outside the home. Her judgment was impaired on many levels. Aggressive driving, for one thing. And her work as a teacher at preschool ultimately had to end. She was too spacey to do her job properly. Our close friend and her preschool manager called me one afternoon. We talked quietly about the fact that it was time to give it a break. Linda was simply too charged up.

And then the prescription for steroids ceased and she wound down like a clock. Peacefully with friends and family around she passed away in March of 2013.

But that month with a wife on steroids had its gifts as well. We purchased a painting by an artist whose work I’ve grown to love. Now I work in the same studios that artist once did, and it reminds me to take my work seriously. Yet joyfully.

In the long run, there was no way for go out of this world other than the way she did. But it was like an intense tryst with a powerful spirit, those 45 days with a wife on steroids.

Women have always seemed like intense creatures to me. It does not pay to mess with disrespect or lack of trust. But I do have to laugh when thinking back on what it might have been like to try to continue living with a wife on steroids. I really don’t wish it on anyone.

Most women don’t need steroids to be strong. They’re strong enough already. And if you think you’re tough, just give it a go. Push them to the point where they say, “Do what you want.”  See how far that gets you. But I recommend the advice in that Facebook meme first. “Stand still. Do not blink. Do not answer. Don’t even breathe. Just play dead.”

When I was very young, perhaps 14 years old, I loved the song by Cat Stevens called Hard Headed Woman. Something in me recognized the virtues of a woman that could both encourage you and hold you accountable. I’m dating a woman like that now, and grateful for it.

I’m looking for a hard headed woman, headed woman
One who will make me do my best
And if I find my hard headed woman
I know the rest of my life will be blessed, yes, yes, yes

Yesterday I also spent 45 minutes talking with my mother-in-law, who is a hard-headed woman in her own way. Her life has been spent exploring the difficult path of following Christ. Her search was so intense, she has crossed over the bridge to Judaism and back. This has been an illustration to me of the fact that normalcy and expectations are not adequate measures of a person’s true heart.

Nor the desire to love, and be loved. I wish that for all. My children. My friends. My family. My readers. If love were the thing on steroids, perhaps the world really would be a better place.

 

 

The thing with being an artist

images-togetherThis month at Water Street Studios, a trio of artists is featured in the Main Gallery and the Kane County Chronicle Gallery upstairs in the building.

Watching the show being hung downstairs in the Main Gallery was fascinating. The prep of the walls. The line to level the work. The careful choice of images on paper by Jesse Howard and sculptures by Todd Reed to create a resonating whole. It’s a little like preparing for a wedding. But it is a marriage of ideas both contradictory and challenging.

And while that was going on, Krisa Varsbergs was upstairs with her husband and a friend mapping out a display of her compelling paintings.

But it’s not an Upstairs Downstairs thing like some show on PBS. Quite the opposite. This is the next step in a new beginning for Water Street Studios, which recently raised $50,000 in donations from community leaders committed to the arts. And that money was matched by an anonymous donor. So the total came to $100,000, money that is targeted for ADA compliance and arts education initiatives.

So the three artists launching solo exhibitions tonight are symbolic of these outreach efforts, the goal to make connections in the community.

Jesse Howard

Howard Work.jpgThe work of Jesse Howard is visceral. His portraits are larger than life testimonies to the character of the people he draws. Working in a wet charcoal method that is part painting and part drawing, his work bears multiple thought signatures that bring out the complexion and complexity of the people he portrays.

At times he takes that intensity further than life, narrowing the face of a character to emphasise the crushing pressures of life. At other times, the liquidity of the eyes in his portraits stops you in your tracks.

These are drawings and paintings to be encountered, not just viewed. They speak volumes about people, but also about race. And how race is no way to measure people. It honestly can’t be done. Every swooping brush stroke beyond the faces and the body is a movement toward that end. And every deepening black within the charcoal grey speaks of the anchoring (and anointing) heart of the people within, and how they overcome all that they face.

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Todd Reed

The work of Todd Reed will always escape consideration from those who see fit to see sculptures as simple shapes and colors. For as all artists know, nothing is simple except that which you decide. So his decisions about shapes and landscapes are meant to both absorb those reflections, and emit them as well.

So understated that they calm, his sculptures in metal with their cool sheen and carefully combined colors are the opposite of a Rorschach test. They don’t test your personality so much as they question it. Are you aware of simplicity? Are you aware of the complexity that lies within. Can you handle a world that is reduced to its elements, so that a couch could also be a vista?

This is the world most of us occupy as children. Our imaginations are allowed to come and go between spatial planes. Only as adults are we trained to categorize by force of habit. So Todd’s work takes you back and releases these notions all at once. Take it slow. Don’t move from each piece until something strikes your mind. You will find it a rewarding experience.

Krista Varsbergs

VarsbergsIn looking closely at the work Krista has presented in her solo show, it becomes clear why her work has such an earthy foundation. It is painted directly on unprepared wood. The grain of the wood shows through in places. Sometimes stained with a glaze of black paint. At other times etched, removed, or broken into hanging strips.

All these expressions of engagement contribute to the overall impression of the pieces she paints. Her women stand starkly, or pose ever so slightly. This tip of the hat to expected behavior is an irony…and we find that shoes, if painted in perfect detail, likely represent a closet full of them. But without that detail, and no flouncy skirt to match, the sexuality of the subject may be too much even for the object of the image to handle. Instead, the fashionable patterns of a simple dress are crossed by textured swipes of the brush. Paint flows down these passages, arrested by its own drying motions. These might be the attentions of men. Or they might be fears. Or they might be imagined. But likely not. The hollow eyes of life are all around her.

In Varsbergs other works, a jangling framework of lines to surround and sculpt the face, body and spaces both define and defy the heart of the figures. These lines take over the paintings at time while negative space pushes the commentary even further. Is this the figure of Christ? And is this a latent post-modern Madonna of the City?

It is this resonating balance between figurative suggestion and surface and space that takes Varsbergs works beyond mere abstraction, the trap of senseless artists, and works that do not let you go away easily. Her pieces all have the feel of night and consternation. Yet there’s a catharsis going on.

These three artists are worthy of the new “exploration” phase of Water Street Studios: Engaging the community in art that both rewards and challenges the senses, and expectations. That’s the thing with being an artist. It’s our job.