Saturday, September 29, 2012

john clarke memorial

Another take.


At John Clarke's memorial service in the dell; a muggy, late-summer afternoon.  Two hundred people there.  One comment:  "Whenever you were in his presence, you were always better for it."  And it was true.  Always.  He was a remarkable person.  As is Elizabeth, with her remarkable eulogy.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

smokin' and drinkin'!

Jennings Rose Room, Atlanta, 1949.  Upside down glasses on white tablecloth rock.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

ready for work!

In front of the contemporary house your parents built in 1960: 4675 Millbrook Dr., ATL  30305.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sunday, September 9, 2012

eulogy for sah

Eulogy for Stewart Albert Hurlburt
By Steven R. Hurlburt
September 6, 2012
Arlington Memorial Park
A Thursday afternoon

Thanks to everyone for coming, for paying attention to my dad.  If he was here he would probably be a little embarrassed and self-conscious of the whole affair – all this fuss – just for him.  It’s not that he wasn’t gregarious or didn’t get along with people; he did.  But he was a private, conservative person and wasn’t much for ostentation or big shows of emotion.

This day, two years ago, he had his first heart attack; it was a big one, and it almost killed him.  Word spread about his condition, as it normally would after someone has a heart attack; friends and relatives from Atlanta and Highlands called to see how he was doing and to wish him well.

A couple weeks later, we were having BLT’s for lunch.  He had stabilized, was out of the hospital and feeling as close to normal as he would ever feel again.  We were talking (though I don’t remember what about), and I could tell he was feeling agitated, something was off.  I asked what was up and he said the news of his situation was “all over the place.”  I said, well, OK . . . that’s normal.  He looked at me a bit askance and said he didn’t want people to think that he and my mother were, and I quote, “big  shots or something.  We’re just not comfortable with that.”

My dad was a Yankee, born in East Orange, New Jersey to favorable circumstances.  He was the third son of, on the male side, solid British stock that had lived in the northeast since the 1600’s, and on the female side, a striking woman from the plains of Minnesota.  His father was an engineer and inventor:  he helped construct, design and install infrastructure in places as varied (and at the time, exotic) as Bermuda and the Panama Canal; he built a wooden skiff in his back yard with his three sons (dad being the youngest) which they kept at the Jersey shore; and from my only visit to his house, I have the dreamy memory of the motorized miniature planes and boats granddad created cutting through air and water, and the cool hand-held metal boxes with buttons and switches that controlled them.  It was magic.  And it was way better than Xbox.

My dad grew up lucky, as did I.  His father would take him and the boys camping on a friend’s farm out in the Jersey wilds where he learned how to use a knife and how to tie knots whose prefixes were sometimes obvious from their looks: square, figure eight; other times mysterious:  like the granny and the half hitch.  He spent summers in Seaside Heights, scooping ice cream on the boardwalk, lifeguarding on the beach and adventuring in the skiff with his brothers.  He loved the water – being on it or in it – and he loved sports (he wrestled and played lacrosse).  He played football at Rutgers where he suffered a knee injury that affected him throughout his life.

My dad was a Marine.  He graduated Rutgers on a Sunday and on Monday morning he enlisted in the Corps.  He wouldn’t tell you this but in his first training class he was ranked 14th out of the 252 other officer candidates; in his second, at Quantico, he was 6th in a class of 250.  He was then assigned duty at Shangri-La (now Camp David), where he was one of three officers charged with the security of the President and other dignitaries.  After that, upon reaching the rank of Captain, he was attached to the light cruiser U.S.S. Vicksburg as Commanding Officer of the Marine detachment on board.  He saw action in the seas surrounding Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the Vicksburg was one of the first  U.S. ships to enter Tokyo Harbor to oversee the Japanese surrender.  He would occasionally share his memories of these best-of-times, but only if prompted.  He had simply done his duty.  After four years of service, he resigned his commission and entered Harvard Business School. He graduated two years later and moved to Atlanta for work.

My dad was a Southerner.  Growing up in New Jersey, I guess you could say he started out as a Southern atheist – he just didn’t know any better.  He probably turned agnostic when he moved to Atlanta to work, then became a true convert when he met my mom – as southern as they come.  From there he never looked back.  They were introduced at the Druid Hills Country Club (back when it was actually in the country), romanced for a year and married in 1949.  Kids soon followed; first me, then my brother Mark two years later.

The years went by as a wholesome, but not entirely trouble-free, fifties and sixties cliché.  My dad was trim, dark, handsome, a corporate man, a snappy dresser, a family man genuinely devoted to his wife and kids and church.   He gave up smoking; he drank little.  He kicked the soccer ball around with us, and took us to The Varsity and Georgia Tech football games.  He built a tree house in the back yard.  He did a hundred thousand things for Mark and mom and me I can’t even remember.  He was somehow always thereSemper fidelis.

I remember being on vacation in Sea Island; I was maybe five or six years old.  It was our first afternoon and the family was walking around, inspecting the pool, the beach, whatever.  I happened to step off the sidewalk into a nest of sand spurs and I’m sure I screamed and was about to tumble to the ground because my feet were covered with them and I just couldn’t stand up.   I was about to crumple into the spur infested ground, and there he was, like Superman, effortlessly lifting me up in his arms of steel.

He refereed high school football games at Grady Stadium, hardly a mile from where I now live.  At one point he bought a motorcycle.  He played golf some weekends, and when he wasn’t doing that he cut the grass, raked the leaves, fixed the roof, kept the house shipshape.  The massive tool bench he inherited from his father – that his father built – was always covered with one project or another but was never a mess.  Dad loved tools; there was nothing better than a well made implement designed to do a specific job well.  He could fix anything.  My brother and I observed his habits, his attention to detail, his affection for symmetry and order, and when we could, helped out.  Meanwhile, my mother, the house manager, ferried us to school and little league, made sure we had decent clothes and did our homework.  She fed us and tucked us into bed and nursed us when we were sick.  And, she had an organic garden in the back yard, way before it was cool.

In my early teens, I remember dad coming home from work one day very discouraged.  He usually didn’t talk about his job, but this time was different.  He’d undergone some kind of standard psychological profile testing, designed to determine his strengths and weaknesses in the corporate arena.  What he couldn’t understand was the answer to the question:  “In performing your job, do you trust your fellow workers a) completely, b) somewhat, or c) not very much. He, of course, answered “completely,” because he expected his colleagues’ standards of honor, truth and doing the right thing to be the same as his, which he didn’t view as elevated, just normal.  That the correct answer was “somewhat” sent him reeling.  It did not compute.

My dad was a Christian in the best sense of the word.  The Catholic writer Andrew Sullivan sums it up this way:  “A Christian is not a Christian simply because he agrees to conform his life to some set of eternal principles or dogmas; or because at one particular moment in his life, he experienced a rupture and changed himself entirely.  He is a Christian primarily because he acts like one.  He loves and forgives; he listens and prays; he contemplates and befriends; his faith and his life fuse into an unselfconscious unity that both affirms a tradition of moral life and . . .  makes it his own.”  Dad was kind in spirit and had a generous heart; he had a keen sense of honor and commitment and idealism and of doing the right thing well.
He led by example, not by wagging his finger, and in that way he was also conservative in the best sense of that word.  He was suspicious of change and had an appreciation of the inherited traditions and wisdom of the past. He wanted to conserve and preserve nature and the environment.  His life was lived in modest pragmatism.  He believed in live and let live.  He didn’t want to remake the world in his own image.  He believed in individual liberty and personal responsibility.  He was not a joiner of fundamentalist causes.  He practiced charity to all.

When I went off to college (and then beyond), my dad was fortunate enough to be able to retire early.  He painted a bit – you can see a couple of his pieces on your program – and I feel this silent, solitary art form suited him; I wish he would have done more.  He and my mom spent time at their house in Garden City Beach.  They became grandparents.  They built their house in Highlands.  He played golf and won a club championship.  He even came to see his 43-year-old son’s rock band play a gig in some crappy, smoky bar, which was definitely beyond the call of duty.  He buried his younger son.

My dad was optimistic, and for the most part, life treated him well; but as it does with all of us, it eventually undid him.  It started with the death of my brother ten years ago.  It continued when he had a bad fall – breaking his nose and hurting his hip on a family cruise a couple years later.  Then the heart attack, then congestive heart failure, then another heart attack.  Slowly the strong, generous heart that had served him and others so well was giving in to that Bastard Death, his arms of steel wasting away to nothingness, and he couldn’t quite, or didn’t want to grasp that.  Finally, however, he did. “There isn’t any place I can go to get rest,” he said to me one night, exhausted.  And then, “No sense in you wasting your time here, Steve.”  And then, “I thought I could get out from under all this . . . but I can’t.”  It was one of the few times he told me he couldn’t do something, and he faced that Bastard Death with way more grace and courage than it deserves.

Eventually he was reduced to spending much of his time in a chair in his bedroom.  But even then one of his youthful enthusiams was his comfort.  Through the years he’d collected dozens of pocket knives of all shapes and sizes.  (“Hurlburt men have always carried a pocket knife,” he once told me.) They were something he appreciated: a well made instrument designed to do a job well.  He loved the sharpened edge, the compact design, the satisfying snap-and-click sound as he pushed the blade back into the body of the knife.  I used to hate the fact that he would sit in that chair and open mounds of junk mail, all wanting him to give money for the latest disaster du jour or to buy something from the Scooter Store or to stock up on something called Grout Bully.  But one day as I sat there watching him open all that crap with the always-sharp edge of one of his favorite knives, I realized it wasn’t the crap he was interested in. It was the blade – that ancient, primitive thing.  The blade wasn’t ostentatious or frivilous; it was something you could count on.  It wasn’t trendy or flashy or transitory; it was something, actually, that was very conservative, like him.  It was the sharpness of the knife, the soul of that blade, the crease in the envelope yielding easily to the honed edge, the precise engineered click and snap of an instrument from our ancient past – one made well and doing its job well – that  gave him something to look forward to.

Although he might give me that “askance” look again if he were here, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that my dad was a great man; he was a good, kind soul; not self-seeking or self-aggrandizing; he was generous to a fault.  And in spite of all of the inevitable failings wrapped up in our humanity, as much as it was humanly possible, he really was a man who, as the writer of Philippians says, was true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good repute, virtuous and praiseworthy.  He was a man of high character, and we are all a bit diminished now that he’s no longer with us.

Those are some of my thoughts about my father.  If you would, I’d like to take just another minute to read something else, something written by a man who’s not here today.  It’s a letter my brother wrote to my dad almost 20 years ago when he was 38-years-old.

It’s dated June 20, 1993, and it reads:

Dear Dad--

As we get older we tend to forget a lot of things, but I remember so many things that make you a great Dad and I want to say thanks.

Thanks for the little car you got me when I cut the end of my finger off in Dayton.

(He must have been about four year old then.)

Thanks for all the Christmas eves you stayed up putting toys together for Steve and me.

Thanks for the time you took carving me a wooden knife.  I wish I still had one of those.
Thanks for the skateboard you made me from that piece of kitchen countertop.

Thanks for my first bike, my first pocket knife, my first .22, my first hunting trip. 

Thanks for turning me loose at the beach with the john boat.

Thanks for the mini-bike you got me that must have been a large problem with mom.

Thanks for my first motorcycle.

Thanks for still loving me during my teen years -- boy was I stupid.

Thanks for your advice over the years even though I seldom took it—big mistake on my part.

Bottom line -- thanks for being a great dad all these years.  Love you pops.

p.s. Happy Father’s day

he's gone . . . cont'd

You ride alone, beneath the overcast, and arrive at H.M. Patterson & Sons funeral home in Sandy Springs around nine to get everything set up.  You and Sandie were there last week, after Stew had become bedbound.  You’d met the Funeral Director, a Capote-esque character with a Southern, almost-lispy speech pattern direct from central casting, and “made arrangements.”  You choose the casket, the lining; you decide on pallbearers and are cautioned by the FD not to use oldsters as pall bearers because the casket is damn heavy and they might slip or fall and break a hip.  One of the arrangements you wanted was a Marine Guard at the graveside to blow “Taps.”  Months ago you’d called the local Marines office, the national office, and a few other dead ends and wound up with nothing.  You couldn’t find the right person to make it happen, and you let it go.  One of the first questions the FD asked was if your dad was in the service, and if so, did you want a Marine Guard at the funeral, and if you did, well he would arrange it!  Awesome.  All you needed was your dad’s honorable discharge papers.  Where those are you have no idea but after a day or two of tearing his office apart, they were found.

The A/V people are already there erecting the screen for the slide show.  Introductions and condolences from the guy who’s going to handle the service.  The minister my mother wanted to officiate shows up, pleasant and nice.  Rebecca sets up the computer for the slide show.  As you peruse the program again you see two more screw-ups: one of the people giving a remembrance is named Bill Pike (not Joe, like the program says), and you forgot to include a line for the slideshow.  Jesus.

Around ten o’clock people start arriving for the visitation.  The casket is closed, draped with a huge American flag, flanked by flowers.  You get to spend about thirty seconds with each person there; time’s moving, fast.  Before you’re ready, the visitation room empties of guests and it’s just the family.  The minister says a brief prayer; you’re ushered into the hallway and then a short walk to the chapel.  The program reads:

Processional: “The Solid Rock”
“Because He Lives”: Jim Bell, Lloyd Hess
Remembrances: Jane Gouldman, Jenny Hurlburt, Joe Pike
Eulogy: Steven R. Hurlburt
Meditation: Rev. Art Wilder
“Brokedown Palace”:
Steven R. Hurlburt, Rebecca Hurlburt, Jenny Hurlburt
Recessional: “Joyful, joyful We Adore Thee”
Pall bearers: Phillip Causey, Jim Gash, John Gouldman,
Ethan Hurlburt, Steven R. Hurlburt, Rick Yost

You’re seated and the casket is wheeled in, almost completely covered with Old Glory.  It is surrounded by flowers.  A cross of white flowers from my mother’s bridge group hangs on the wall behind it.  Time speeds faster, faster.  The minister prays, the singer sings with that deep, pleasing, polished, old school Protestant voice.  Jane’s remembrance is of your parents’ first date; Jenny’s is of her granddad, the storyteller and Bill’s is one of deep respect: dad as golfer, stand-up guy, a man’s man.  Your hands are sweating like mad; you’re emptying the box of Kleenex beside you, not dabbing tears away, but wiping the sweat from your hands every few seconds.  How are you supposed to play guitar with soaked hands? 

The slideshow, which we decided to put after the remembrances and which is ten minutes long seems over in a flash.  Now it’s your turn.

You walk up to the podium in time suspended.  Your hands sweat.  You look at the words you’ve written and suddenly English becomes a foreign language.  You start to speak (you’ve rehearsed this, read it out loud, perfectly, dozens of times) and you have marbles in your throat.  You’re not choked up, you’ve just forgotten how to enunciate words properly.  You hear every word critically.  Gee, did I just pronounce that word that way.  What the hell is going on?  You just plow ahead and hope for the best.  Overall, you had a few long compose-yourself pauses, but didn’t choke up.  You were OK.

Then the minister did Baptist standard-issue: he’s in a better place paved with streets of gold and all his questions about life are now answered and he suffered in this life so he could be really happy in the next, etc.  You don’t realize how hollow that all sounds until someone’s saying it to your face at your father’s funeral.

You and your daughters get up to do your song.  The sweat’s still oozing from your hands and apparently you’ve forgotten how to play a simple E chord.  God, what is wrong with you.  You’ve played the song a hundred times, and now . . .?  This is the first time you and your daughters have sung together in public.  They rally you and you all do a respectable version.  As they say, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The benediction and recessional and it’s over.  Over.  It seemed to take no time at all.  Your hands aren’t sweating any more.

The casket is wheeled out to the hearse.  The six of you load it in.  Your mother rides with you in your car.  The funeral caravan leaves slowly, the hearse never going more than 25 miles an hour.  The motorcycle cops stop/direct traffic.  At an intersection one cop pulls over, gets off his bike, halts the traffic and salutes as you go by.  You salute back.  You and your mother say few words, but she did say you and everyone else involved did well for your father.

You enter Arlington Memorial Park, where your brother’s buried.  The first thing you see on entering is a huge, over-the-top mausoleum with the name CARLOS on it.  It’s not Louis XIV, but it is, well . . .  “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” she says.

You drive by a thousand graves all with the gaudiest, cheesiest, cheapest plastic flowers sprouting above them.  Whoever thought that this was the way a cemetery should present itself should be shot.  Seriously.  “Now that’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” your mom says.  With conviction.

But as you round a corner in the gently undulating hills, the pines stretching tall and narrow in the grey sky, off to your left, a hundred yards away, you see the gravesite set-up: the tent, the chairs . . . and a space behind them, nine Marines in dress blues – eight men and one woman – lined up at parade rest, and two others at the entrance to the gravesite standing at attention awaiting your dad, and you instantly break into tears and say reverently, involuntarily: “That’s awesome.”  And your mother echoes: “That really is awesome.”  And it really, really is.  You drive as slowly as you can to take it in because all this respect and tradition and preparation is because of him, your dad, what he did and how he served his country sixty years ago, beginning the day after he graduated college, and you know you’ll never see anything like it again.  Ever.  Semper fucking fi, Marine.

You glue your eyes to the spectacle before you; it’s a dream, and dreamlike, it will evaporate before you know it.  You labor to take it all in and remember, remember . . .  You round a corner and it’s out of sight for a bit; you round another corner, this time almost to the gravesite, and it’s still there, all of it.  You get out of the car and mill around for a bit.   Everyone’s crying as they look at the magnificent sight of the Marines, some of them surely the same age as your dad, when he was in the Corps.  You and the other pallbearers line up at the back of the hearse.  Suddenly, your dad’s brother-in-law Bob (Jane’s husband) joins us.  He’s an “oldster” – just turned eighty – and in following the FD’s advice (yet another of your many oversights and mistakes in this whole process) you didn’t have him as a pallbearer.  But he’s as hale and hearty as you, and: he went to the Citadel; he’s lived the Code; he will not be denied.  He jumps in with the rest and you’re damn glad he does.  Together, the seven of you carry the flag-covered casket to the awaiting grave. 

You sit next to your mother on the front row.  Everyone assembles behind you.  You hear a gentle tapping on the tent; it’s started raining.  In thirty seconds, it’s over.  Someone from the funeral home touches your mom’s shoulder: “I’ll let you know when they’re going to fire the guns, so you’re not startled.”  A few moments later you hear the crisp click of the weapons and three shots are fired in unison.  Then, hauntingly, lovingly, gently, “Taps” begins to echo through the pines and over the hills, one last time dad, for you.

And you’re so caught up in it, tears streaming, straining to take in the fullness of every note, marveling at the casket and the two Marines at either end of it now, holding up the flag preparing it for the folding ceremony, that you forget to do the one thing you’d promised yourself you’d do at that moment: stand up and salute your father one last time.  Jesus, how could you forget . . .?

Then the two Marines standing straight and tall holding the flag – one black, thin as one of the pines, looking impossibly young; one white, older, stockier, who could have been my dad sixty years ago – begin the folding: studied, meticulous, detailed, deliberate, painstaking.  Upon finishing, the stocky one kneels down in front of your mother and says:  “On behalf of the President of the United States, the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation of your husband’s service to Country and Corps.”  Tears upon tears upon tears.

And it was over.  All over, suddenly. 

You stand up and try to come back to reality.  People begin to talk and walk back to their cars.  You head straight to the two vans that the Marines came in and thank them for what they just did for you and your mother and your father.  Months ago you’d told your father you were going to send him off this way.  He gave you a wry look, which was to say: “Yeah, too bad I won’t be around for it.”  You said, “Yeah, I know, but I wanted to tell you; I wanted you to know.”

It's just a box of rain
I don't know who put it there
Believe if you need it 
Or leave it if you dare
But it's just a box of rain
Or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
And short time to be there
-- Robert Hunter

he's gone . . . cont'd

The three of you reassemble downstairs and you all start making your to-do list:
Call Jean Hurlburt (the wife of your dad’s oldest brother)
Program for funeral
Get in touch with minister
Talk to Jane (your mother’s sister) about remembrance
“Because He Lives” (song your mother wants sung at the funeral)
Etc.  You discuss/talk/make lists for a couple of hours until finally, exhaustion.  You give your mom a hug and kiss and say something comforting (you hope . . . you can’t even remember what you said) and go home.

You can’t remember if you cried on the way home, but you must have.  You open the door to your house for the first time having no father.  You catch yourself thinking that you’re doing everything now for the first time since your dad died.  You can’t remember if you took a Xanax to go to sleep, but you probably did.

You awake with a thousand things to do.  You attack the list from last night; you assume Sandie and your mom are attacking theirs.  You work like a madman on the eulogy.  You’d made some notes conceptualizing how you wanted it to go . . . but now it’s real life and it has to be right, it has to honor him, it has to live up to him.  You do . . . a thousand things in a blur (and today, writing this, you can’t remember ten of them).  Where did you eat?  When did you go to bed?  How many words did you write?  How many times did you rehearse “Brokedown Palace” (the song you and Rebecca and Jenny will sing at the funeral)?  Who did you call?  How is you mother?  You have no idea.

You finally get in touch with Holmes (he was out of town yesterday) and get the program together.  The front and back covers are paintings your dad had done over forty years ago.  Holmes, no slouch of an artist himself, said, “Wow, these are really good.”  They are, and you have several others, but you wish he would have painted more.  Painting – a silent, solitary pursuit – suited him.  (Note to self: get your art – writing, music, photography, whatever – done now, because one day you can’t.) 

On the inside-left page you’ve placed Philippians 4:8 (“Finally brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”).  Christopher Hitchens used this verse at his father’s funeral “because of its non-religious yet high moral character,” and he goes on to say: “Try looking that [verse] up in a “modern” version of the New Testament and see what a ration of bland doggerel you get.   I shall never understand how the keepers and trustees of the King James Version threw away such a treasure.  But that very thought, if you like, is partly taken from my father’s legacy of suspicion of change and of resistance to the rude shock of the new.”  To which you say: Amen.  On the inside-right is the order of service.

Rebecca comes over to rehearse a bit; she’ll pick up the programs from Staples later.  You write solidly throughout the day.  You’re on the phone a lot.  You’ll never get everything done, you think, and you wish the funeral was Friday. 

Rebecca calls around dinner time from Staples.  “What’s my name?” she says.         Uh . . . Rebecca? you say, wondering where this unique line of questioning is going.  “What’s my last name?” she says.  Well, this one’s easy; but you say, uneasily, and with that question mark at the end: Hurlburt?  You still don’t know what she’s getting at.  “Dad,” she says, “I’m married, my last name is Causey.”   Shit.  On the program you listed her as Rebecca Hurlburt, not Causey.  Way to go, D.  At least we laughed about it.

Rebecca brings over dinner and the programs.  Jenny’s supposed to be in from NYC around 8:00 to rehearse.  Her plane is delayed and then she has to change planes and that’s delayed and she ends up getting in at midnight.  (In the process, she leaves the funeral remarks she’d been working on on the first plane.  She’s up til three rewriting them.)  You run through the song a few times with Reba.  You hammer away on the eulogy.

An invisible sun rises and the morning comes muggy and grey with the promise of rain.  It came in darkness for you.  After waking up at one, two and then four o’clock, you finally decide to just get up.  The eulogy you’ve been working on for two days could still use some polishing; you’ll deliver it one-time-only, about six hours from now.  It better be good.

The girls come over before eight; you sing “Brokedown Palace” a few times.  Phillip shows up.  You assemble everything – eulogy, chord/lyric sheet, guitar, guitar stand, music stand, phone, etc. – and hope/pray you haven’t forgotten something.

more to come . . .

Friday, September 7, 2012

he's gone

It’s been a long t­ime coming . . .
It’s gonna be a long time gone.
-- David Crosby

Today, Friday, the weight has lifted; heaviness remains.
The heaviness is a black hole who’s infinite mass makes the concept of “weight” seem slightly . . . daft.

An invisible sun rises and the morning comes muggy and grey with the promise of rain.  It came in darkness for you.  After waking up at one, two and then four o’clock, you finally decide to just get up.  The eulogy you’ve been working on for two days could still use some polishing; you’ll deliver it one-time-only, about six hours from now.  It better be good.

Your father, Stewart Albert Hurlburt, died tonight in his home of twenty years at 7:45 as you, your mother, and his (still) daughter-in-law sat outside on the deck ten feet below him, finishing dinner and talking about . . . what?  Nothing really.  The nurse appears; from the corner of your eye you see her walk into the living room.  She’s been sitting with your dad and there’s no reason for her to come downstairs except . . .

She says, haltingly, that we all might want to go up to his room.

Don’t believe the line: “He died peacefully in his sleep.”  Bullshit.  “Peace” is not: the Bastard Death eating flesh, organs, heart, memory and soul (make no mistake: it devours the soul) away until you die.  Yes – his eyes are closed, he’s in bed, he’s not thrashing about – but, “sleeping?”   Really?  Peace and sleep are relatively grotesque, lame euphemisms that have nothing to do with it.

You’d rather say he died with a certain symmetry and order (concepts he loved):  the first heart attack was Labor Day, 2010; he died Labor Day, 2012.  Dying, of course, is not easy; it is work, hard work.  Labor.

There are tears – not wracking and slobbering, you’ve already done that a few times – but gentle and resigned and relieved and sad and . . . glad?  He’s gone; he’d suffered too damn long.  You’re happy?  Not exactly, but still . . .

His head is turned to one side, the mouth open – just one last breath.  You put your hand on his still-warm chest; it has a heart but no beat.  Nothing covers his ribs but a raged t-shirt and skin; his flesh was not weak, it was gone.
“Skin and bones.”  You idiotically think of Sally Struthers and starving Biafran children.  Jesus, what is wrong with you?

Your mom dabs tears; she lets out a small groan – an ancient, primitive, guttural, involuntary ache.  She puts her hand on his forehead.  She (and Sandie and you) looks at what used to be Him.  “Awww . . .”  So much heartache in one small utterance.  Her first word as a member of that horrible sisterhood: The Widows.

You sit in the chair beside the hospital bed (the one he’d slept in for twenty years had been replaced several days ago).  You get up, walk into the hallway.  You come back in the room and sit in the chair and stare.  You get up, back into that same damn hallway.  You return to the same damn chair.  What the hell are you doing?

The minutes tick by at the raw beginning of this first-day-of-the-rest-of-your-life.  Utility and pragmatism unexpectedly kick in.  The nurse has called the hospice people; someone will come to record the death.  She asks us to leave the room so she can make Stew presentable, i.e., straighten out his head, cross his arms nicely across his waist, make the sheets neat and just so.

The necessities.  You start calling people: Rebecca and Jenny (your daughters), Jane (your mother’s sister).  You text friends.  You think to post on Facebook but don’t.  You haven’t been able to reach Jenny and you don’t want her to find out that way.

The nurse tells us it’s OK to go back in the room.  The mouth is still “oh” agape.  My mother tries closing it; it resists.

Then a blur.  You go downstairs.  You gently cry.  You hug each other.  What else?  At some point you get pen and paper and start to make a to-do list.  You wait for Rebecca to arrive in case she wants to see the body.  She arrives and says no, she doesn’t.   Does the hospice rep arrive before or after Rebecca?  You can’t remember.
The hospice rep calls the funeral home.  Soon an Unmarked Black Van arrives.  (You idiotically think of  Mission Impossible – not the jacked-up movie, but the great TV show you watched religiously with your brother in happier family days).  You open the door and see two young guys – one black, one white – getting out of the van, the white one still getting dressed for the occasion: he’s trying to attach a clip-on bow tie.  My mother tells him not to worry, but he puts it on anyway.  With their standard-issue and somewhat ill-fitting Men in Black suits, shoes and ties, they could pass for Mormons making one last house call, doing mission work.

Polite to a fault, they shake your hand and look you in the eye.  They’re sorry for your loss.  They convey sincere sincerity and pastoral corporate compassion.  They are on a mission.  They’re impossibly young, and their job is to ferry old, dead people back and forth.  Jesus.


They bring in a stretcher, which is impossibly . . . narrow.  In the span of a week, your dad has gone from his own four posted double bed to a hastily assembled single-size hospital bed to this stretcher that’s barely a foot wide.  Well, at least you know he’ll fit on it easily and they won’t have any trouble carrying it to the van.

more to come . . .

Monday, September 3, 2012

going going . . .

Your dad had his first heart attack Labor Day, two years ago.  No one thought he would make the next one, much less the second.

Today is his second Labor Day since that heart attack.  Instead of weighing 160, he weighs 100 pounds.  He's not left his bed in a week; he doesn't eat; drinks little.  He exists at this point; he doesn't live.

Your mother's worrying herself sick, trying to do something, anything, where nothing can be done.

You were at Rebecca's yesterday sorting through hundreds of photos of him, your mother, your brother, you.  We put 118 of them in a slide show for the funeral.

You wrote this two years ago:

Lunchtime: Got a call from Sandie, who -- with Jenny, Rebecca and Philip – was visiting my parents at their house in Highlands  for Labor Day. She said that my dad had gone to the emergency room the day before for some coughing/complications with pneumonia (with which he had been diagnosed a week earlier by Dr. (?) Bergeron), had been examined and prescribed some medicine to help with some swelling in his ankles, and because he said he felt better and wanted to go home --they let him. She said he didn’t look too good.
I decided to go to Highlands. No one would be there after Labor Day; my mother was exhausted from the ordeal; what if something happened and no one could help her?; this was serious. I’d never driven from WB to Highlands: should I drive straight there? Should I stop in Atlanta first? Could I fly? What’s the nearest airport? How long is it driving vs. flying. How much does it cost to fly? Etc.

Decided the best was was to drive WB > Highlands. It would take 7+ hours.
I threw stuff together and was on the road by two, in Highlands by 9 p.m.
Dad, sucking it up, and, always trying to do the "right thing,” came out to greet me (in his bathrobe) when he saw me pull into the driveway. My mother ran behind him, yelling, “Stewart, don’t be STUPID going out in the wet weather. Get back inside – it’s STUPID to be out here . . . what are you doing?! And I’m thinking, Jesus, Mom, if he’s about to die, could you just not call him "stupid" . . .?

Monday –
After lunch dad comes out of his room after an aborted nap, looking stricken. He says he doesn’t feel good – at all. We go immediately to the emergency room, where they finally do a bunch of heart tests on him. (For some reason, he told the doctors the time before he didn’t have a history of heart problems . . . ) He’s immediately put on a heart drug and continues with the diuretic. He’s feeble, weak and not looking good. His heart has half the capacity to pump blood as a normal heart, and that’s only going to decrease with age. The doctor speaks to me and mom outside my dad’s hearing and tells us this is REALLY SERIOUS, THAT HE MIGHT NOT MAKE IT.

REALLY.  That he should have been on this medicine months, if not years, ago.

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday –
When the doc is doing his rounds in the morning, he says both times how surprised he is (again)that  dad wasn’t on Lisinopril because it’s SOP to use it in people with weak hearts. The doc said that he uses it every day, and looked at me to indicate I might want to think about doing it. It is a minimal-side-effect way to allow your heart to work more efficiently.
Stew improves remarkably (even the doc says this) as the drugs begin to work.
Pamella, Rebecca and Philip come up Tuesday. Jenny Wednesday, Sandie late Wednesday night. Pamella the kids and I got out for dinner Wednesday at Paoleti's.  Food is average, but the drive in to Highlands, with Reba, Jenny and Philip acting apeshit to a Phish CD I brought along was hilarious.

Sandie, Pamella and I had dinner with Jane (my mother’s sister) at Wolfgang’s Thursday.  (Mom stayed at the hospital with dad.)  Jane telling stories about Barb growing up; how horrible her dad was; how he (mis)treated his wife (“a slave”) and daughter; how Barb told Emma Laura when Jane became a teenager “not to let daddy do to her what he did to me.” I knew he (my grandfather) was tough, but not that he was an actual, full-bore woman-hater. My mother was the first child (of four), and a girl, and received the brunt of his craziness.

Friday –
Dad is actually well enough to go home. The drugs are allowing/ maximizing his weakened heart’s ability to pump as much blood through the body and organs as possible. The drugs will not increase the lifespan of the heart muscle; they will improve the quality of the life he has left. The doc says Stew’s a remarkable guy. He is, and I don’t know if he knows how close he came to dying. 

Saturday, Sept. 11--
Sandie and mom went to Atlanta for the day. Barb is to come back this evening with Pamella; Sandie tomorrow evening by herself.

Out of nowhere, sitting at the counter eating a BLT I fixed him, as animated as I’ve seen him since I’ve been here – dad looked at me and said: “Can you believe Jane going out there and telling the Pike's about me being in the hospital? Why is it she had to inject herself into everything?! It’s none of her business, and she has no business telling anyone about what’s going on with me.” I asked how it would hurt that the Pike's (dad’s and mom’s “best friends” in Highlands) knew about his illness. He said that if the Pike's knew, that pretty soon “it would be all over the club” (i.e., that the members of the Cullasaja Club would know).  I asked dad specifically why he and mom didn’t want "the club to know."  I mean, so the-fuck what?  Who cares? He said he didn’t want them to think they were “big sticks [I think he meant “big shots”] or something. We’re just not comfortable with that.”