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“Chickadee Ear Muffs” On Love, Heroes, And Family

December 18, 2011

My partner James has a blog called Chickadee Ear Muffs.  This past week he wrote a most touching and special post about the medical situation the family is now facing in Maine.   I post his words here, and ask for prayers for the family at this time.

A  Home And A Hero

A fair number of years have passed since the last time I lived “at home” in Maine; I left when I was eighteen years old to go to college and have lived “away” for more than half of my life so far. “Home” is now with my partner in Madison, Wisconsin, a significantly larger town than the one I grew up in; I pay more in property taxes for my portion of the corner lot in the city than my parents do for their entire farm.

Fresh out of college, I would split my vacation time between trips to Europe and trips to Maine to visit with my parents who reside in the home my Mom designed and my Dad constructed in 1984. (Prior to that, we were comfortably housed in a mobile home trailer, attached to which were three small bedrooms my father constructed so that my Mom, who was an equal opportunity enforcer of the rules, could send us three kids when her frustration level reached a maximum with any of us individually or with the three of us collectively.) In more recent years, as my parents have aged, and my resources have proven more limited, I have spent my vacation time with them in central Maine. Admittedly, the vacations have been fewer in number than I would have wished, but the telephone rang between our two abodes almost daily, so it never felt as though I were the full sixteen hundred miles away.

My parents’ home has been the site of many happy occasions and parties and festivities. While construction on the house is still not one hundred percent complete (since my parents espoused the “build as you can afford it” philosophy rather than the “mortgage to the hilt” as some have in building their McMansions of today), it is a lovely home located on a country road with only recently some new home construction encroaching on their property’s outer boundaries.

This recent trip has been a different sort of trip. Made under emergency conditions rather than strictly for pleasure, I find myself in the Pine Tree State doing a lot of reminiscing and contemplating the past and what impact I hope it will have upon my future. Reflecting on the house itself the other day, I was given to think about how my parents had come up with the design. Mom states, “Oh, we just really liked the idea of dormers and a dustpan, so that is what we did.” That was a bit of an oversimplification for sure, since the dustpan on the back of the house wasn’t “added” to the design until they realized how small my sister’s bedroom would have felt without it. Since the rafters had not yet been placed, adding it that spring was easier than raising the roof later.

Scanning photos from the family collection to be able to share with my siblings, I did discover a snapshot of a coastal home, a photo taken on my parents’ class trip during their final days of their senior year of high school. The little black and white photo, placed in the album right above a shot of an unfortunate classmate taken quite ill on the boat, was of a residence with gable roof (like the garage here has) and three dormers (as the house has). On the back, hidden from view for the past forty-four years, my mom had scrawled: “A home Bobby and I liked”.

My parents met in high school and have been together ever since. Together, they built a “home”, where parents and children sat at a real kitchen table for meals rather than in the living room in front of the television. Theirs is the type of place where even school chums felt like they belonged. My parents saw a “home” on the coast that sunny afternoon when the snapshot was taken; others undoubtedly mistook it for “a house”, a lifeless structure where people sleep and eat but don’t share.

As I mentioned earlier, I was called back to Maine in an emergency. My mom’s health has been problematic for years what with her spinal arthritis and other ailments presenting her with more and more challenges over time. A few weeks ago, she went in to the hospital for what we thought was a bleeding ulcer in her GI tract. It turned out, after rather exhaustive testing, to be far worse.

Mom was discharged from the hospital the day before I arrived back in Maine, sent home under the caring auspices of Hospice. Always in the past, when a new health issue challenged my Mom and her best “nurse”, my Dad, the doctors were able to say that with a few months of therapy, some grueling time in repose, that things would get better—not perfect, mind you, just a bit better. This time no one said that at all. Instead, my mom was given the “you have x amount of time to live, perhaps you should get your things in order” speech. Frighteningly enough, the x in the equation represented a very small amount of time.

Now about a month later, my mom’s condition is critical. Her pain is being managed with impressive amounts of morphine and lorazapam, amounts which I am required to write down and tell the nurse about each time she visits. Beatrice, Mom’s nurse, has been a real blessing to us. Mom stopped eating a few days ago, and drinks so little, one has to believe that the good Lord is getting her room ready.

So here Dad and I sit, struggling to come to terms together with what the situation really represents. In the short term, it has meant that our room has been the living room where Mom’s hospice bed is located. Dad has spent most nights in the lazyboy next to her, not daring to be that far away. I have been in my room upstairs most nights, but as soon as something goes wrong, I am right downstairs with the two of them. During the days, I haven’t left the living room in weeks. It is amazing how the world seems small when someone is sick and you can’t leave the room for fear of not being able to respond to a need, no matter how great or small.

What I have been witnessing has been nothing short of heroic. I am not talking the kind of heroism of which we speak post-9-11 where anyone who shows up to work on time is considered a hero. I am referring back to the old-fashioned definition where you had to do something heroic to be considered a hero.

Night after night, day after day, my Dad hasn’t left my Mom’s side. Together he and I have braved the unspeakable chores of bed-panning someone, making sure that wounds are well cleaned and properly dressed, prepared meals, even if the patient is only going to eat a teaspoon of the dish requested. My Dad has held my Mother’s shivering body as the delirium has on occasion overwhelmed her and her body has sought to do more than it possibly could physically, given the multiple maladies she is facing. He has held her hand when she has cried about the situation, understanding that she is going to be leaving him all alone. “How did this happen?” she shouts at times. How indeed? She had always assumed that because my father had worked so hard all of his life that she would one day be left a widow, and here it is her who has “dropped the ball” and is leaving him without anyone to take care of him like she did all these years.

Mom made sure that the trains ran on schedule here. Meals were always ready when he was, no waiting. Paperwork always handled. Banking managed. The list goes on. He was the bread winner so she was always sure to do all the rest. And now here is Dad having to do it all for her. People sometimes joke that they don’t want to have their kids or spouse need to change their diapers in their old age. Since my Mom has been home, her ailments have been so devastating that we never even stopped at the changing diaper phase. Dad and I blew by that and have been dealing with things well before it would even get to the diaper part.

What has been heroic in my mind is the way that Dad has been handling my mom’s every need. I asked him a little about it the other day and he said, “…In sickness and in health…” My parents met in their high school English class, where Mom helped him get his homework done so that he would pass and graduate. She always said of him at that time that he was just “so cute”; Dad always said she “was quite a looker”. They took their wedding vows in September 1967 and meant every word of them. My Mom has needed him, and he has been there every second of the day to help and do the job right.

A couple of friends of mine have characterized my stay here recently as nothing short of heroic too, but I am not sure that I am comfortable claiming that title for myself. My parents have shared more than 44 years together, growing old together in this home that they built together. While my Dad is likely to survive my mother by many years, he intends to see that her last moments in their home together are just as happy as the ones that led them to build a life together, raise a family and more. While she is suffering terribly, he has chosen a monument for her, made final arrangements at the funeral home, and even read an obituary that I have written for when the time comes—each step a necessary one in the process of healing and coming to accept the situation as it presents itself, but heart breaking nonetheless. Dad is of that generation where men don’t cry but he has, in small doses just the same. His agony, which is hanging from not just his sleeve but from every other part of his being, is tangible, and yet he hasn’t abandoned her even once.

In an age where most marriages survive only around seven years, my parents have been lifelong partners. His commitment to her and her needs is inspirational to watch as this whole ugly end plays out. I can only hope that the relationship that I have forged for myself as an adult can endure with the grace and good humor that my parents have shared all these many years.

Heroic isn’t just showing up at the battle field, it is taking the fight to the enemy. In this case, Dad is staring down death and though he knows in advance that he can’t win, he can make the natural force buckle and allow Mom to be comfortable. I am just glad to be here to help out where I can and more importantly witness such an act. If there is a medal out there for heroism, I am nominating Dad for the prize.

In this case, heroism might just mean winning a struggle to keep this old house alive as a HOME rather than let it pass with my Mom and become nothing but an empty shell in which Dad will reside until his final day. Even when Mom’s time comes, there are visible signs of her presence everywhere. That makes this a comfortable house in which to live. What makes this the sort of place where a hero calls home is love, and there is plenty of that to keep it well decorated and cared for in the upcoming years.

I love my parents.

One Comment
  1. Helena Clarke-Froidevaux permalink
    December 19, 2011 6:29 AM

    A beautiful testimony to James’ formative years and the good care he received by his loving and attentive parents. His message is one of universal appeal. We shall not forget his and your kindness during our visit to the BB Clarke Home on Spaight Street. Our prayers are with James and his family at this time. Helena and Pascal Froidevaux, Lorient, France

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