The Morning Call

I sometimes wake at dawn to a feeling of dread buried deep in the pit of my stomach.  Sometimes I know the source; other times I have no clue.

The morning calls began in February, 2008.  My sister called one night to tell me that her advancing struggles with lifting her feet and walking had been diagnosed:  Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  Her callous neurologist delivered her death sentence just before Christmas.  He said, “You’ve got ALS.  Go home; quit your job; buy a wheelchair.”

Carla died in 2013.  My wife’s recovery from intense vertigo began, in the same month, to drift backward into a nasty, prolonged relapse.  From the fall of 2013 to the spring of 2014, I often woke up in the gray predawn to worries about my wife’s health and our financial future.  A gnawing feeling ate away at my stomach, and nothing made it go away until I gave up on sleep and got busy with the work of the day.

I woke up this morning with a similar sensation in my gut.  Nothing terribly bad is going on in my life at the moment, though worries about my parents nag from time to time.  I tried to pinpoint the trouble spot generating my discomfort, but came up blank.  I chalked it up at first to free floating anxiety, but became dissatisfied with an easy dismissal of the problem.

I thought about this possibility:  maybe fear is a form of emotional PTSD.  2013 endures in memory as the worst year of my life, and the waves of upheaval and unease I’m still experiencing are just late arrivals.  Starlight comes to us from eons ago.  Maybe the pain from a past event still approaches like a dissipating wave from a distant source.

Another possibility:  I’m approaching my sixtieth birthday, and my eventual demise no longer seems all that eventual.  My uncomfortable morning gut might just be my body and unconscious coming to grips with death.

One last possibility:  fear is the ground of existence.  I fear death.  I fear pain, emotional and physical.  I fear conflict and failure.  I fear losing whatever measure of love, comfort and success I’ve gained.  I fear dying alone.  Buddha said that the basic condition of life is suffering.  Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe.  It feels more like fear to me.

Einstein reported that qualms of mortality had begun in old age to transform into another sensation, one of merging with nature.  As his body failed, so did the barriers between his ego and the cosmos.

Many claim that death is just the transformation of an energy signature into another form, an escape from the drudgeries of mortal life to an immortality of freedom and light.  That sounds pretty good to me…

But I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that I’m getting close to Albert’s state of transcendence.  Acknowledging that I’m afraid, paradoxically, makes fear more bearable.  If fear is a norm, there’s not much point worrying about it or even taking it too seriously.   Denying fear is like trying to avoid the effects of gravity.

Douglas Adams jokingly described a method of flying:  a person must throw themselves at the ground and miss.  Maybe courage and good cheer are gained by throwing oneself at fear and missing.

Wish me luck.






Dog Quest 2017


Animal, Dog, Pet, Puppy, Cute, CanineNext Dog????

Our dog Sammi died in the fall of 2003.  As a black, white and tan rat terrier she was eight pounds of guile, cunning and nervous agitation.  When she ran down the street her legs moved so fast they blurred.  The neighborhood kids called her “The Hover Dog”.

At times her terrier level of anxious energy was too much for me, and I swore a few days after I buried her in our back yard that I’d never get another dog.  But my daughter and her fiance’ visited over Christmas with their two pups, and my wife Judy and I found ourselves talking about the possibility of getting one.  Our house seems large and empty after our visitors leave, and we feel an urge to fill up the open spaces with an active presence.  And Judy and I are somewhat tied to staying close at home.  We have spells when direct contact with friends and family is limited, and we feel a need for extra companionship.

My sister had an Australian Shepherd the last few years of her life when she suffered from Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Charlie was an intelligent, very loyal mid sized dog.  He was a consistently hopeful and cheerful presence.  However he was extremely protective of Carla and would butt anyone with his nose who came too near to her.  Once he got me in the side of the neck when I attempted to arrange Carla’s feet on the foot rests of her motorized chair.  And my Dad had bruises up and down his forearms from similarly misguided interventions.  Judy has vertigo and sometimes walks with difficulty, and while I liked Charlie a lot I don’t want to get a dog who protects her from me.

Our search is complicated by our allergies to dog dander, so Judy is looking up hypoallergenic breeds.  We’re discovering that most of these are expensive.  And we want a more mellow dog, but one not too large and dull witted like a Lab.  We may have to find a mixed breed mutt to suit our needs.  And we’ll probably have to wait until after our daughter gets married in May to get serious about finding a dog.  We don’t want to deal with new routines and dog training while planning a wedding.

On Sunday we went to Central Park in downtown Winter Park.  Judy wanted to see something beside the insides of our house and our yard.  We sat in the shade and watched a squirrel digging up nuts, toddlers chased by parents, a guy making balloon animals for children, and two lovers kissing and caressing on a blanket.  And we saw dogs, dogs, dogs.  We commented on the size, shape and personalities of the ones we saw, and I turned to Judy and said, “It really does sound like we’re getting a dog.”  And I thought about all the happy possibilities.


The Intersection of Two Mourners

My sister Carla died of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, in August, 2013.  I got a call from her husband a few hours after she passed away.  He told me that she had a panic attack and stopped breathing.  The funeral was two days away and I had to quickly book a flight and cancel my classes.

My daughter drove me to the airport early the next morning.  I hadn’t flown in a while and had trouble figuring out the computer’s directions on the check in monitor.  A man at the airline desk reluctantly gave me a few tips, and when I asked another question he was openly annoyed  and spoke to me as if I were mentally challenged.  I was tempted to tell him that my mind was a foggy from stress, and that I was grieving and had trouble putting two logical thoughts in a row.  I could have gone on and told him that when I landed in Dayton I would also be staying with my parents and would be a constant witness to their suffering.  But I didn’t bother.  I had dealt with service counter jerks before, and knew that their capacity for empathy was usually stunted.

I made it through security and took my time getting to the gate.  I tried to read a book that I had brought along, but while it was very funny the humor was deeply cynical.  I put the book aside and tried to meditate.  The crowd noise and announcements over the P.A. kept interrupting me whenever a moment of peace began to quiet my mind.

We got the announcement to board, and when my area was called I got into line.  A woman ahead of me was pulled aside and sent to the service desk at the gate, and she was irate.  She said very loudly, “First you give me a hard time when I checked my bags, and now this!”  The airline rep ignored her as he studied his computer monitor.  When she continued to complain he looked up and said, “We’re moving you up to first class.”  And then added with a patronizing tone, “That isn’t so bad, is it?”  The woman glared at him and muttered angrily as she went past him to board the plane. The rep and a stewardess rolled their eyes and shared a whispered joked about her behavior.

When it was my turn to show them my ticket they pulled me aside also.  I wasn’t concerned.  I was moving along in such a mental daze that I didn’t care where they sent me or what the problem might be, and I suspected that I might be in for an upgrade too.  They gave me a seat in first class, and when I got onto the plane I saw to my chagrin that they had placed me beside the irate woman who had complained so bitterly.   I didn’t want to sit next to an irritable person who seemed to be looking for a fight.

I took my seat and got a better look at her.  She was a business woman in her forties with short, curly brown hair and a round face.  She looked supremely tired and distressed, but was polite to me when we exchanged a few words.  She described her problems at the airline counter, and I told her that we must have run into the same hostile ticketing agent.

After the plane took off I asked her what her final destination was.  Our flight was headed to Atlanta, and I assumed that we would be catching separate connecting flights.  She got a stricken look on her face and told me that she had got some very bad news the night before while attending a conference in Orlando.  She was flying home to North Carolina because her son called and told her that his best friend had an accident while white water rafting.  He was thrown out of a raft, struck his head on a rock, and was submerged for a long time before being pulled out.   The doctors gave him no chance of recovery.

The boy had been in and out of the business woman’s house when he and her son were teenagers, and she looked upon him as her second son.  She also grieved for her son and worried about how he would deal with his friend’s imminent death.

I let her talk for a while and she told me about happier times with “her two boys”, the effort she had made to have a successful career following a divorce, and about the health problems of her current boyfriend.  She relaxed as she talked and we began to enjoy each others’ company.  She finally got around to asking me about my trip, and I told her about my sister.

We talked for a short while about our experiences with grief.  I said that I believed in an after life because I had a dream in which my deceased grandfather appeared before me and reassured me that he was fine where he was.  He had crippling arthritis in his knees and walked with a cane the last few years before he died, and in my dream he did a soft shoe dance and said, “Look at me now!”

By the time we landed we had settled into a comfortable and companionable silence, and I remember thinking about how wrong my initial judgment of the woman had been.  She was a caring person who had snapped because the stress had been too much.

When we deplaned I saw her briefly as she came out of the gate.  She looked anguished and disoriented again, and I realized that the weight of her problems had resettled on her shoulders, that she was thinking about the difficulties that awaited her when she got home. Our conversation had left me calmer and steadier, and I wanted to say one more thing to help her feel better.  But the look on her face told me that she was locked in her own private hell, and I decided to let her go.  I wasn’t sure if anything I said would help or hurt her situation.  I knew from experience that when people try to comfort someone in mourning they often find the wrong thing to say.  I had been guilty of that on a few occasions.

I caught the next flight and landed in Dayton around noon.  I picked up a rental car and drove down I75 to my parents’.  I began to feel a sense of dread as I got closer, and I realized that I was worried about providing comfort to my parents and to my sister’s boys.  I had a long history in my family of acting as an irritant rather than a balm even when I had good intentions.

The thought came to me when I hit the outskirts of Kettering that the real pain was about to begin.  My sister had opted for a traditional viewing, funeral mass and burial, and I had always found that whole process to be an exercise in prolonged torture.  I thought about the expression on the business woman’s face when we deplaned, and I wondered if it was a mirror image of the way I looked at that moment.