Knocking on Heaven’s Door

I spent the past week at home attempting to get through a bout of influenza. It began on Saturday night with a heavy headache and by Sunday mid morning I was on my way to the ER with a fever and the stomach turning effects of taking two types of cold medications too close to one another.

There is something to be said about the calming effect that a hospital brings. No, seriously! When you have been in the ER as many times as I have, the plastic crunch of a hospital mattress, the sterile smells, and the incessant beeping of various machines is comforting. You know, for the most part, that you are safe now. You know that you are in capable hands that will make you get better and if things get worse, at least you won’t die alone at home in the bathroom in that raggy robe covered in cat hair.

My first stint in the ER was at the age of 3 when my dad suffered a massive heart attack. Mom put me in an umbrella stroller and rolled me up and down the halls, not so much for my entertainment but to calm her own nerves. I remember the smells of bleach cleaner, hot food that had no flavor, and a slightly metallic smell that I have never been able to place. So fascinated was I by this world of people moving briskly and importantly down shiny halls wearing snow white jackets and speaking in tongues about charts and MRIs, that I failed to realize the seriousness of my dad’s condition; I thought that giant of a man was merely sleeping. Halfway through my dad’s recovery a nurse shot him up with 3 times the amount of morphine he was supposed to have and Dad went up to knock on heaven’s door for the second time that week. The nurse was later caught after a number of patients were killed as a result of her “mercy” Killings. Dad survived and after a bout of pneumonia he was released to go home.

Things changed ever so slightly after Dad came home. The shiny packs of Marlboros disappeared, Mom was cooking out of a book entitled “Don’t Eat Your Heart Out”and Dad seemed humbled in a way. He spent more time playing with me. I was able to convince him to turn a giant box from our new microwave into a boat in which we had many high sea adventures. I am sure that in that hospital bed my dad, like every one else who has ever looked death in the eye, made a bargain with God that he would change his ways if only he was given more time on this earth.

I have been on the sending end of many such prayers in my own life. At age 5 laying on the operating table before tonsil surgery as the doctor asked me if I wanted grape or bubble gum scented knock out gas I remember promising God that I would never get in trouble at school again and that I would not ask for another matchbox car as long as I lived. Then the grape scented gas filled my nostrils like that first whiff of a Mr Sketch purple marker. Oh how I coveted a set of those markers but my Mom viewed fruit scented markers as a gateway drug of sorts so I had to get my fix at friend’s houses and in the waiting room of the dentist office. Waking up from surgery I was an instant celebrity. The doctors and nurses could not stop exclaiming over how large my tonsils had been. They made it sound like I had been born out of nuclear run off and was able to produce monster sized useless organs that wowed the medical world. My hospital bed was covered in new toys, balloons hung from the tray table, and there was a never- ending supply of popsicles and ice cream. I had died inside a Mr Sketch marker and woke up in heaven!!

My subsequent hospital visits were never as lucrative as the day my tonsils were removed but in a way they mirrored each other. There were the prayers, the promises, the feeling of being safe and the belief that when I woke up everything was going to be better. Isn’t that what we all experience when faced with a serious illness or medical event? Laying on that lumpy bed as a haggard nurse attempts to poke us with a dull needle we are blatantly reminded of our mortality. We bargain with God and make promises to be better people and to never ever take our health for granted again. We lay there in a fit of self-pity and illness induced misery cursing all the days we wasted while we were healthy. We frantically write bucket lists in our heads of all the things we are going to do once we bust out of the hospital.

But, as is true almost every time, we arrive home, saved from the brink of death, go to work the next day and forget completely all the plans and promises we made to improve our lives. As with New Year’s resolutions, promises made on one’s near death-bed are quickly forgotten once life kicks in again. Like a bloodthirsty landlord, life is demanding to the point that we feel selfish when we try to work on ourselves and insignificant when we try to make a difference for others.

I too have failed miserably at following through with my grand plans but found other ways to make things happen. So many times I vowed to join a fitness club then look through the windows of a 24 hour fitness facility to see all those other women in their synchronized Fabletics outfits and I turn around, put on my boots and start hiking the hills and woods of my home. I plan to volunteer then run across a child whose family home burned down and I buy her a replacement for the beloved toy she lost in the fire. I take food to those who don’t have family, I help out the instant I see someone in need. Yes volunteer organizations are wonderful and necessary but sometimes you can’t wait for a group to find an area of need to work on. Sometimes you just need to go out into the world and help on your own with no coordinator or committee. Afterall, didn’t those who have made the most difference in this world throughout history start out with a single act of kindness?

The problem with life is we make things too complicated for ourselves so that the simplest of things turn in to major undertakings that require too much of our already depleted energy. We fail to get started and so we set aside our plans all together only to write them down again when some disaster befalls our lives. Hospital beds are a comfort but also that place where we are allowed too much time in which our lives flash before our eyes and we depress ourselves when we see how little we have accomplished. By what measure do we gauge the success of our efforts? A very inaccurate one I would suspect.

The point of all of this is that sometimes life gives us wakeup calls. Sometimes we are thrown against the wall and reminded of our mortality for a moment and then we are returned to our everyday routines. The choice is ours what to do with the extra time we have been blessed with because we all know that it could go either way. Our lives can be snuffed out in an instant with no second chance to make our mark on this world. I was reminded of this recently when someone very dear to me passed away suddenly. He was diagnosed with leukemia and within two weeks we had lost him. For a year he had battled pneumonia and diabetes then the leukemia. I watched him go from making plans to do more in the years he thought he had left to just saying “I cannot fight anymore.”

My plea to all of you is to do everything. Put nothing off until later or tomorrow or next month. Do not wait for a catastrophic event to wake you up to the reality that there is no tomorrow there is just right here and right now. Open that door for the lady with her arms full of groceries, pay for the order of the person in line behind you, make a child smile, cook something and share it with a neighbor who has no one to share a meal with. You do not have to be Mother Teresa to make a difference. Just shut off your mind and all its voices telling you to stay out of it or that you don’t have time or that you won’t make a difference. Wake up and let your heart do what it was designed to do, just love.

Ashes in a Shell Casing

My first experience with cancer was at the age of 6 when 3 of my dad’s former coworkers came down with brain cancer. They had been sign painters in the 1960s in a basement paintroom with no ventilation. It was just a matter of time before breathing in those toxic fumes would catch up with them and it did, with a vengeance.

I remember going with my parents to visit one of the men. He went by the nickname of “Sparrow” a strange name for a tall, strapping, dark haired handsome man. When we arrived at the nursing home in Jordan, it was like something out of a child’s worst nightmare. A huge building of red brick built in the early 1900’s with the look of a horror story sanitorium. The halls were dark, ceilings low and confining, the paint was peeling from iron stair rails, and the smell of bleach, urine, and death filled the air.

Sparrow was in a room on the third floor. A dreary dark and silent room with only the gasp of a respirator to break the silence. The atmosphere was one of waiting. Waiting for this once strong and active man to pass or waiting for him to suddenly wake up from his morphine and cancer induced coma.

His hair was still dark, untouched by the frost of age. His skin was sallow but clear, his hands at his side’s were still massive and bore scars from years of hard work. A hose attached to his trachea took the breaths his lungs could no longer draw on their own. Before us was the ruin of a man I had once though of as a giant when we first met.

After years of lying unconscious, Sparrow died a day after our visit. It was as though he was waiting for that last conversation with my dad. To hear how his old workplace was functioning and to get the latest news about all his former friends before he was ready to give up the fight.

Jump forward 15 years and my junior year in college. I was a happy college student at the top of my class. I spent most of my time studying but had met a young man who became a best friend and someone I could see myself dating. A month after we met I went with my parents to a doctor’s appointment for dad to have his colonoscopy. Sitting in the waiting room I never expected the doctor to call my mother and I into his office to tell us that dad had colon cancer.

A tumor the size of a baseball and 13 inches of his colon were removed a week later and life was thrown drastically into perspective. My college friend was with me through it all in the form of daily phone calls and emails of support and encouragement. I fell in love.

Dad’s cancer was contained to that one tumor by the grace of God and he avoided the misery of chemo and radiation. He wasn’t the same after the surgery either. Fear and his own brush with mortality had aged him.

About the time we were getting the good news about my dad’s prognosis my friend back at college found out his grandmother had lung cancer. I had not met her yet but she had raised my friend practically from infancy to adulthood so this was a particularly hard blow.

The 8 years I spent dating her grandson, we saw Grandma Pat in and out of the hospital. She would get healthy then have to go in for more rounds of Chemo. In the end she was at home unconscious in a hospital bed. I could not leave her side. So I would sit up every night with her, holding her hand while her children squabbled over who would inherit what. I loved Pat with all my heart and even when her grandson and I were getting ready to break up the last thing she ever said to me was ” I don’t care what they say about you, you are a good woman and I love you!”

Those words coming from a woman who once owed 30 Arabian horses, drove all over the country by herself to show her horses, was married to a chronic cheater, and had to help run a resort that was not her dream, meant more to me than any compliment I could ever receive.

Pat took her last breath on new years eve 2008. The funeral was an epic event with people lined up outside to offer condolences well into the night. I gave the eulogy, and while the words I spoke are a distant memory I will never forget how my simple reminders of how great a woman Pat was, forced her family to stop their bickering if only for a moment and remember how blessed they were to have had her as a mother, wife, grandmother, and friend.

Finally, my most recent experience with cancer was the diagnosis of leukemia for the greatest man I ever knew, my “dad” Charlie. Charlie was the kind of man people pray to have as a father. He was selfless, kind, intelligent, understanding, loving, and most of all the kind of man who made me smile every time he walked into the room. From the first day I met him he took me under his wing and accepted me, flaws and all. Charlie believed in me, he believed in me when no one else in my life ever did. He encouraged my art, enjoyed spending time with me, and treated me like an equal. We conversed about everything from tools to guns to my goats of which he got such a kick out of. I loved him with all my heart and in his own gruff way I think he loved me too.

This past fall Charlie was diagnosed with Leukemia. A month later I was sitting with the family by his hospital bed as he took his last breath. Again, someone so strong, so full of life, so incredible, so loved was brought down by something that none of us have the power to stop. I remember praying over and over for God to let me take his place because he had a family, children. Grandchildren who needed him when all I was was a broke receptionist who would never be half the person Charlie was. But life and God don’t work that way as so here I am left behind with Charlie’s memories, some if his ashes in a rifle shell casing hanging from the rearview mirror of the truck that was once is and is now mine to remind me of a man I loved more than any man who has ever entered my life.

Today I went in for a cancer test of my own, I am writing this in the waiting room as a matter of fact. I will have no fear, no anger, no bitterness no matter what the results may be. I am ready for what life throws at me because I have faith on my side, the love of family and of friends, and the determination that nothing will get me down or try to prevent me from living life on my terms. I have been blessed 10 fold in my life and as they say “You only live once but if you do it right, once is enough.”

Duane (German) Burgers

This past Saturday I went up to visit my parents and when I arrived at their house Dad was in the kitchen in his signature navy blue suspenders, getting ready to fry up a giant batch of his famous Duane Burgers.

Dad has been making these burgers since the beginning of time and they are his variation on the traditional German Burger. Typically served with morel mushroom gravy which is made in the same pan that the burgers were fried in to ensure that every delicious bit is used up. With the savory, comforting flavor of a perfect meatloaf, these burgers bring back fond memories of dinners around the kitchen table and the German traditions that influenced my entire life.

For all of you out there here is the essence of the Duane Burger. The basic ingredients with guesstimations on the amounts because us Germans cook by taste and not by measurements.

Duane Burgers

1 lb ground beef

1 lb ground pork or pork sausage

2 eggs

1/3 cup ketchup

1 sleeve of Ritz Crackers crushed

1 onion minced or run through a good processor

1 teaspoon Pleasoning Seasoning

1/3 cup minced fresh mushrooms

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder or fresh minced garlic

Dash of salt and a pinch of black pepper

Combine all ingredients well. Refrigerate 1 full day to flavor through. The fry into patties.

To Move or not to Move

Have you ever been faced with a decision that involves turning your entire life upsidedown?

My 83 year old father needs me and my family has asked me to move back up to the area where I grew up so Dad could live with me on a hobby farm.

Suddenly all I have been working towards may be right at my fingertips but at the wrong location on the map. My life along the Mississipi may be far from ideal but everything I love is here. Hunting, fishing, the river and bluffs which I lose myself in when I need a moment to myself. Can I find that kind of peace back home?

I have been one who is able to adapt to whatever surroundings I find myself in and some how find something to love about that place. I know I could do the same if I moved but is a move what I need?

I see in my minds eye the farm I always dreamed of owing with a barn, chicken coop, granary, and charming farm house. I see myself holding classes on cheese making using milk from my goats, canning, quilting, making hay with my own equipment, giving Dad the quality of life he deserves and a place for him to putter around.

Then I think about my life here. The backwater marsh where I duck hunt and disappear into when I need a break from the world. Russet sunrises over the water, whistling wings overhead, frost on cat tails, and feathers floating on mirror-like ponds. The deep forests of the bluffs which I climb to hunt deer, turkey, antler sheds, and morel mushrooms. Those moments of awe when oak give way to cedar groves carpeted in rubicund needles and velvety moss the color of emeralds. The view from the cliffs when you can see the sweep of the Mississippi; a seemingly slow, lazy giant whose personality is as attuned to the weather as the tide is to the moon. Long days spent on frozen backwaters pulling dinner from beneath the ice with just the cry of a bald eagle on ice kissed air to let you know you are not entirely alone.

My love for this place is palpable, undeniable, and unending but so too is my love of family. So I asked my dad today during my break what he wanted from me. He said he is overwhelmed by everything but he was thinking of selling his house and getting an apartment by Mom’s nursing home. He didn’t sound convincing, I could hear him giving up by the tone of his voice. For all our differences we are alike in the color of our eyes and the fact that we cannot be confined or contained to a vanilla apartment with no yard to care for, no view to contemplate over morning coffee, and no use for hands that itch for work.

I nervously brought up the subject of moving and he instantly started jabbering away about a Ford 8N he saw for sale and a hay rake and baler. The excitement in his voice was something akin to that of a child discussing a trip to Disney. So now, I am torn. Tomorrow he may change his mind and stubbornly refuse to leave the house he has lived in for 50 years, I never know what to expect from him.

As for me, I will do what I always do and play it by ear. And if there is one thing I have learned since Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is that the disease is more of a rollercoaster for the family than it is for the person with the illness. Mom is happy and content in her new home and she knows she is sick but makes due. As for the rest of us, the fear, uncertainty, expense, loneliness of missing mom as she used to be, and all of the sudden changes are paying a toll. I wish I could just buy a farm, move everyone in and go back to the good old days but life doesn’t work that way. So I guess you can just count the blessings, enjoy that which you do have, and adapt to whatever comes next. Never think that things can’t change because they can and they will whether you are ready or not. As in control as you think you are there are bigger hands that hold your life in their palms and you just have to trust that everything, good or bad, happens for a reason.