Finding Peace in the Process



The 'Burbs, Illinois,
January 18
Married father of two girls. Was a writer in a previous life. Drove a truck for 20 years. Trudging the road of happy destiny since 1987.


MARCH 4, 2009 3:18PM

Shaving With Connie Francis, Chapter 16

Rate: 26 Flag

     He came to the States as a teenager and quickly found himself in uniform helping his new country prevail in World War II. Then he helped rebuild the nation with its most prized import, eager immigrants. Dozens of families are here because Jerry and others saved their pennies and nickles and used them to provide passage and lodging.
     A quiet and gentle man of enormous influence and modest status. A man of great faith and little piety. A lifetime bachelor always surrounded by family. He was everyone's favorite uncle. 
     And he couldn't breathe. Thus began two vigils, Jerry in the hospital and Mike at home. Mike's imminent passage was certain. We assumed Jerry had an infection in his lungs and would be home as soon as it cleared up.  We had always consulted him on important matters and it never occurred to us to keep him in the dark regarding Mike's condition. Jerry began having trouble breathing days after we told him Mike's would die.
     We can't be certain if Jerry sudden downward spiral was caused by grief for Mike or a sense of duty to him. He had been Mike's caregiver years before my involvement. Whenever Mike got up out of his chair, Jerry followed, positioning himself to help Mike catch his balance when he inevitably stumbled.     
     We had ordered no life-saving measures be taken, and would discover the gray area in such an order. They clear the lungs if he can't breathe. This is a life-saving measure, but also a comfort measure. Not breathing is damned uncomfortable. 
     I had begun to look forward to more time with Jerry. Mike had required most of my attention over the last six months. I wanted to spoil Jerry more. I wanted to see the smile on his face when I plugged a Fellini movie into a portable DVD player.  I loved how he giggled when we soaked his feet in order to soften up the toenails. He needed showers more often than I had been giving them. I was going to fix that. 
     Mike never responded after the last time I had shaved him. A priest performed the Last Rite's of the Catholic Church. When his night called, he went gently. Mike's son was at his side. Jerry's nephew slept in a cot in Jerry's room at the hospital, just a few minutes from our house.
     We called the hospice service and someone arrived within an hour to sign a death certificate. We said another prayer. We phoned the funeral home and they arrived promptly and said all the right things. A high school buddy and his brother run the place. They had taken care of my folks years ago and they were wonderful, but what a business. I could never do it.
     They advised us to leave the room while they did their job. We huddled in my kitchen, and I couldn't help but peek over to see them carrying Mike out in a stretcher, zipped up in a heavy black bag. This is why they ask you to leave the room.
     I became an innkeeper for my wife and her brother over the next few days, cooking, sweeping and mopping as the siblings made arrangements for Mike's funeral. There is great healing in performing these tasks and I left them to it, selecting the readings, the flowers, the music. They made calls to Italy, where most of Mike's family had chosen to remain, unlike Jerry's. I felt I had already grieved for Mike, been at his side for some final communication and connection. We can't see the spirit leave the body, but I had felt it.
     Their generation placed great stock in securing burial plots shortly after marriage. Mike would again lay next to Yolanda, his bride who had died in 1990. We donned our dark suits on a blistering hot August day and it was done.
     Jerry stayed in the hospital until Mike's services were over. We were puzzled that our doctor hadn't suggested sending him home, but were grateful someone was watching over him as we attended to Mike's arrangements. The doctors were fine, professional and attentive to our questions and concerns. The nurses and nurses' aides were lovely. They doted on him, tucking pillows here and there. They patiently answered questions over and over as family members rotated in and out of his room. They were impressed with us. Jerry was alone for only a handful of hours during his week there. They brought us cots and breakfast.
     The day after the funeral I saw for the first time the procedure to clear Jerry's lungs. A plastic tube is inserted through the mouth. Jerry cringed and gagged and turned dark red as the suction tube went down his throat. There was fluid buildup outside his lungs. It was drained from the outside with a needle. It was horrifying and it was the only thing keeping him alive. We had a decision to make.
     I asked the doctor for a prognosis. He recited the list of things they were doing. I asked again for a prognosis. How long? A few months? Oh, no. Not one month. Soon. Very soon.
     "He can't die now," one of us exclaimed. "I'm not ready."
     That perfectly summed up our quandary. We thought we could plan this. Mike had been defying the odds for years, but not Jerry. Two weeks ago he could dress himself if I let him, slip on his shoes, button the buttons on his shirt, read his watch to see how long until lunch.
     Now he can't breathe and we have to let him not breathe.
     We brought him home that day with an oxygen tank and mask. No ventilator, no more tubes down the throat. He kept lifting his arms asking to be pulled up. The more upright he sat, the easier to breathe. But he was up. He didn't understand why I wouldn't help him.
     The hospice service wouldn't arrive until the next day. I insisted they send the morphine and haldol immediately. It arrived within an hour and I began administering every four hours. It worked. He was soon comfortable. The fear in his eyes went away and was replaced by the same stare I had seen in Mike. He wouldn't speak again, nor would he suffer.
     The following days provided a surreal sense of deja vu. The hospice service pulled Mike's equipment and installed Jerry's the same day. Half our den now sat empty as I went through the exact routines with Jerry I had gone through with Mike, the sponge baths, the fruit smoothies, the Italian music.
     I hosted visitors as they paid their last respects. I felt sorry for the older ones. I recalled my father's depression each time a brother died. The list of lifetime relations grows shorter. One after another they depart, and folks can't help but ask why they are still here when their loved ones have all gone.
     Jerry didn't live long without Mike. One week, to be exact. His nephew dozed next to his bed. My wife walked down just after 3 a.m. and heard nothing. She knew the shallow breathing had ended. The hands of the clock compounded the eeriness of the events. They showed the exact time Mike had died, within minutes.
     We lumbered through in disbelief. Dialing numbers. Signing certificates. Another black bag out the door. More flowers and songs and prayers and finally the wrinkled dark suit I hadn't yet sent to the cleaners and another blistering hot day.
     Jerry was buried not 30 paces from Mike. Close enough to keep an eye on him again and forever.
--The End--

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eldercare, caregiving, death, family

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Damn it Jimmy. I told myself before I started reading this that I wasn't going to cry. RATED
oh, jimmy, this is lovely. i don't cry easily but my eyes did fill up with tears. i love that you reminded us who jerry was before you went into how he died. it's true that you can feel the energy leaving someone's body. i love that they are buried so close together. i love taht you've given them this heartfelt and heartwarming tribute. lov elove loev and gratitude for being such a good good man.
The End, you say. Three ends. So fast after so much suffering. I was with you on this journey --as many of us -- and admire both your caring and your writing. But how did you feel after? Relief and sadness? Something else? You pulled no punches during and I'm curious what your emotions were with them gone.
A magnificent tribute, Jim, to two extraordinary people. And you and your wife gave far more than either of you will ever admit. There is a place is heaven close to both of them for both of you.

Finally, I enjoyed watching you grow as a writer as this series progressed. You likely didn't know it but this series was your school. And as in any school the student either learns or he doesn't. You learned and thrived.

Thank you for this gift of love.

Wonderful Jim. It's very difficult to deal with the end for those we care for, and I can only imagine two so close together. Thanks for sharing. Rated
Thanks, JimmyMac. It is through these gentlemen, Mike and Jerry, that I, that we, have gotten to know you. You are a good man; it is a good thing.
Jimmy, wow (and that is a quiet, respectful, sympathetic wow).

Every word of the tale you've told has been infused with love---as were your ministrations two Jerry and Mike.

I've told you this before, this is a more and more common story---these joys and trials of elder care---BUT your POV is so unique--

As I typed that last sentence, it occurred to me that what I am trying to say is that I never pictured myself reading (much less, enjoying) a tale like this---but I devoured what you wrote---because your voice is so unique.

It has been an honor to be part of your audience.
jimmiemac, I don't know why your bio says you were a writer in a previous life, because you most certainly, (don't argue with me about this), are a great one now. The simple grace that shines through this series, is inspiring. As real and hard and luminous as life itself. Bravo.
You did it to me again. I'm at work, crying, out of Kleenexes, trying not to make a complete idiot of myself. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story.

Which makes me now have to ask: Now what? Caring for these men has been your life (well, not your whole life, but your calling, your career, part of your identity, your purpose) for however long. What are you going to do with yourself? Or, more accurately, what ARE you doing with yourself? And for the record, how long ago was this? I've never been able to tell. Was it last week? Last month? A year ago?

Please keep letting us be voyeurs in your life.
You are a good man to take care of them so well. I know I have said it before, but you are. They were lucky to have you and your wife. I wonder what they are doing now??? :)
Sincere thanks to everyone. I never set out to make you cry but I did try to put you in the room with me. There was a long stretch in my life when I never cried because I rarely allowed myself to feel. I am profoundly grateful that I have been freed from that godawful existence and nowadays if I feel like crying I just let it rip. There are worse things.

To Lea's question, they died in August and I spent a month on the couch, eating and watching TV. The election lifted my spirits, though I will always regret not volunteering in my neighboring states when Obama's campaign asked me to do so. I got a few dozen folks registered to vote and attended a few local meetings but I always found an excuse not to get off the couch. Damn! Jerry's death was hard to get over. He never asked for anything and I had to be patient finding out what he needed. I felt like I did a great job for Mike and a poor one for Jerry. I so wanted to spoil him for a while.

To Monte's point, I agree wholeheartedly. Writing is a gift which I ignored for decades, wallowing instead in self-pity inflicted in long-ago failure. Someone told me very early in sobriety (1987) we are all damaged goods and will spend the rest of our lives healing. Whatever wounds I inflicted regarding my writing I now consider healed. I shall never again diminish my own talent nor ignore whatever gifts God has seen fit to bestow upon me. There is much to do and I charge ahead healthy and hopeful.

There are a few more odds and ends I will post in an epilogue tonight or tomorrow.
Jimmy, all of these have been so beautiful. Flesh it out, and find an agent.
Just a wonderfully told emotional experience Jim. My heartfelt sympathy for you and your family. Not knowing you I couldn't feel that unless you'd accomplished your goal of putting us in the room with you. You did.
So this has been an interesting transition for you from August till now, a scant six months. I like that.

Back in December when you started this series, I commented that you told the story with a sort of Zen-like, comforting feel. And now I can see how well you kept it up – allowing us to bring our emotion to all of it. That was your gift to us. As you say, I was in the room, and frankly, I don’t think I’ll soon forget it.

Thank you.
Jimmy, I just want to thank you for everything. Who you are, what you did, the kind of friend that you are and finally, for writing it all down. I'm just nuts for the way you write.
Thank you for taking us on this journey with you. Beautiful, because it is human and true.
Beautifully written, heart tugging, relevant and so real for so many. You gave us such an intimate glimpse into your life and your heart.
Although I started reading late in the series, everything I've read was written with caring and respect. Kudos, JM, for living this and sharing it with others. You are a fine man.
Thank you. For allowing us to take this journey, to get to know Mike and Jerry.

But -- The End -- Shouldn't that read simply : Intermission: ?

Thumbed. Thanks for sharing your gift with us, Jim. We are thriced blessed.
Again ... now what? What are you doing? Are you working or looking for a job? I assume you won't stay at home by yourself now.

I can't imagine those 3 deaths so close together. Actually, I've been through 3 deaths that quick. But they didn't change my identity and career. I would completely imagine myself on the couch for much longer than a month.

I haven't met you, and I know you're a flawed person like the rest of us, but I so love you for how you treated those men, and especially for sharing the journey with us.

(Note, I am not a stalker. I don't know where your address, don't care, will never bother you.) But I honestly love how you have touched my heart like no book ever has. I loved those two old men. I cried for them. I don't feel like I know Adele enough to love her, yet. Will you share more? She must be an incredible woman to have seen you through your struggles with alcohol, your troubled daughter, her two sick family members' illnesses and deaths, and still love to go to a Kris Kristofferson concert with you.
You already know what I think. I'm in awe. Because I was in that room I could hear them breathing.

Just tremendous Jim.
Lovely. Thank you for a moving, HUMAN, experience.
Here come the tears again....

As I was reading this, I kept thinking "the pace is too fast, it's too fast..." Now I realize that the written pace was perfect because Jerry died such a short time after Mike. You brilliantly used your writing to reflect the frenetic pace that no doubt you were feeling when they both died within a week of one another.

I am sure going to miss this series, Jim.
Thanks again to all. Just posted "Epilogue," a few odds and ends that didn't fit anywhere else.
I agree with what Lisa said. This post read so quickly. Then I understood how well it coincided with the frenetic pace of what you were going through. Your words live and breathed through this entire story. I'm sorry to see it end but I am sure that you will conjure more magic of your humanity and have us captivated again soon. Warm and loving feelings for you, jimmy. This was an absolute labor of love. Rated.
Regarding the brevity of this chapter: I kicked myself a hundred times for not having more. Had I waited to long? Did I allow the telling details to escape forever. I had no notes. I tried again and again to put myself back there. Nothing. I visited St. Mary's cemetery. Nothing. I did count the steps from one grave to the other and got my last line. But during Mike's services I was thinking about Jerry. I was in both places and thus in neither place fully. I determined I could only reflect the reality as I had experienced it. I remembered it was damned hot and then it was done and we floated through the exact same week again for Jerry.
God, I admire your strength even more than your writing -- and that's saying a lot.
compelling as the rest of this series. "Now he can't breathe and we have to let him not breathe." hard thing, that sentence.

Such details. Giggling while you soak his feet.

But the main thing is the directness of your prose. Very effective. You let the story have its away, something i struggle with, regularly. well done.
I have seen this same kind of thing happen with couples who have been married a long goes, then the other shortly thereafter.

I've loved every chapter of this, from the cottonwood seed scene on. You've turned what could have been a long, sad slog into a thing of beauty.
Took a while to get to this because I wanted to be able to really have time to take it in. Wow. Jimmy - I noticed in your comment that you wanted to put us in the room with you. Not only did you bring us into that room, you brought Mike, Jerry, and the rest of your family into our hearts. This is an unforgettable series that I want to go through and read again. Thank you for this beautiful gift, and for your presence here.
God, that was the best