Cousin Maria, This One’s for You!

Maria, on March 31st I wrote a little piece about a young boy’s night out with his dad and granddad gigging frogs.  The next day, April Fools Day, you responded with: “Enjoyed your story Jim.  Brought back memories of the pond on my grandparent’s Ohio farm, although the only thing we caught there were the leaches that would attach themselves to our legs and feet while we were in the water.  Not a very fond memory.  Maria”

I was, upon reading that, an April fool, as I often am.  You see, the first thing I thought, with excitement, was: Cousin Maria! Wow! After all these years!  And then I began to think: no, couldn’t be.  How in the world would Cousin Maria chance upon our little blog?  I’d win the Powerball first, no way that could happen.  Besides, this Maria talks about visiting her grandparents’ pond in Ohio and our grandfather died long before either of us was even born!  No, it’s some other Maria.  And, yes, a little strange that this Maria too has an Ohio connection, but that’s still not so strange as my cousin somehow stumbling upon our blog …

See what an April fool I am?  Number One: never occurred to me that, if I have had two sets of grandparents, so two grandfathers, one who died way too young but another who lived long enough to hang out with me some, you too would have had two sets of grandparents, sharing the same grandfather who died way too young but also having a second one who could well have had a pond in Ohio full of leeches hungry for your feet.  Number Two: never occurred to me that Jill instigated this blog, the same Jill who had not long before visited you in Arizona, where and when she could easily have (as indeed was the case) recruited you as an observer of our impending blog.  Of course Jill would do that!  That’s precisely what Jill would do!  Of course I’d overlook that!  That’s precisely what I would do!

So, wavering between believing you were Cousin Maria and believing you were some other Maria with grandparents in Ohio, I took a coward’s course of action and responded to your response in a way which tried to play to both possibilities.  So, now you know that your long-lost Cousin Jim can be the fool and play the coward.

It’s all worth it, though, because now I can return to that initial excitement at having contact with you again, even if only through a blog.

We never did have much contact, from the start.  You guys were up in Fort Wayne when we were in Dayton, not too far apart but not too close either.  I remember very occasional visits when we were young.  Then you guys moved out to Arizona and we moved east and then south and the only contact we Paukert kids had was hearing about you through Mom.

Our paths crossed very briefly in 1983 or 1984, not sure which.  I had come back from Europe with Dita at my side and not a dollar in my pocket.  I needed a job.  A school in northeastern Tennessee needed a teacher.  Mom drove Dita and me up there so I could try to get that job (didn’t happen) and then we continued on to Ohio to visit Grandma Markey.  It was the first and last time Dita ever was with Grandma, also the last time for me.  We arrived in West Alec just as you were departing from a visit with Grandma.  It was as if our paths crossed halfway up (or down) the dark, creaky stairway leading to Grandma’s store-top apartment.  We met, chatted, then you returned to Arizona while we spent a couple days with Grandma.  

We found Grandma in a really good mood because she had enjoyed your visit so much.  A couple things we all know about Grandma: she talked more constantly than constantly and, while she talked, without ever really meaning to be negative and critical, she was almost always negative and critical.  Unless she was eating strawberry pie, or unless you had just visited her.  That made me think you maybe were her favorite grandchild.

So, get ready for some classic Grandma Markey!  After you left, Grandma talked and talked about how wonderful your visit had been and how nice Charles is and how sweet you are.  And then she added: “I just don’t know why she has all that hair in her face!”  Then came the patented Grandma Markey wincing smile.

So that was the last time our paths crossed until this blog.  I’m very glad they’ve recrossed.

Maybe some day before too, too long Dita and I can get out to see you in Arizona, a part of the world Dita has long wanted to see.  Years ago, not long after college, I spent some time in So Cal with college friends, twin brothers.  They had a sister living in Flagstaff who we visited and we went from Flagstaff up to the Grand Canyon, intending to hike to the bottom and back up (of course).  We took a bus from Flagstaff to the South Rim and, on that bus, met an Australian fellow and two Danish women.  All three wanted to join us on our little adventure so the next day the six of us set off early morning down the Bright Angel Trail.  It was one of the most amazing hikes I’ve ever done.  The Aussie got a kick out of taking any and every opportunity to sneak out to the edge of a cliff and yell over to the other side of the canyon: “Hello Bruce (sounding more like ‘Brew-is’)!  Hello Sheila (sounding more like ‘Shaee-lar’)!” for the joy of hearing his cry bounce back at him from various faces of the canyon.  Halfway down the canyon a thunderstorm swept in, gushing rain so hard that a mini-rockslide forced us to cower under a slight overhang, stones falling at our feet then bouncing down the canyon.  My kind of beauty!  The storm moved on so we moved on and reached the bottom, camping that night on a sandbar by the river, no rain and no bugs so no need for a tent.  The next day, early before heat, we headed back up, each carrying a gallon of water in obeisance to park recommendations.  Halfway back up we met a group of kids spending the summer working at hotels on the rim, taking a day-off-duty hike and carelessly carrying no water.  The day was very hot and these kids were nearly ill with thirst, so we shared our water with them, more than we could afford to share.  By the final mile of the hike up we ourselves were out of water and I was feeling to worse for it.  Before we reached the rim, my body was weak and aching and my mind was hallucinating enough to freak me a bit.  We reached the top, though and the Aussie shouted a last goodbye to his friends Bruce and Sheila.

I want Dita to do this hike!  My poor, old legs wouldn’t get me down the canyon, let alone back up again, so I’ll need to rent a mule.  After the canyon, we could visit the Navajo and Hopi, then head down to Phoenix for pizza.  I’ve read that Pizzaria Bianco bakes the best pizza in America.  Come eat pizza with us, ok?  Even if you might still have all that hair in your face!  

Last Writes

Bill became a writer at 64.

It wasn’t poetry or long-form prose. Not short stories, which he loved to read, nor song lyrics, which he loved to sing. Not essays and certainly not blog posts. Bill wrote notes.

Most were practical. Several were reflective. Some were funny. A few were heart-breaking.

It wasn’t by choice. It was the only way he could make himself understood to people other than me. As it turned out, I think it also helped him understand. Or at least reckon with what was happening to him.

I have changed a lot. Mentally and physically. Bill note 2

Bill’s Porter Hospital nurses gave him a clipboard and legal pad on July 15, 2014, the day after 11 hours of surgery to rebuild his jaw using bone and tissue from his lower leg. It became his voice with the staff … and sometimes me … during four more hospitalizations over 30 of the next 90 days. That and a couple of small spiral-bound notebooks he had me buy.

Can I get up before Dr.stops by? I will not let him catch me in bed. Hopefully they will be able to give me a new dress (aka hospital gown).

Ever prideful, Bill insisted he was up, presentable and sitting in a chair when Dr. Campana made his early morning rounds. This was the request each of the 30 days he was in the hospital. Long before pre-cancerous spots and radiation and photodynamic therapy and cancer and surgeries and PET scans, Bill would say, “Even if you don’t feel good you can look good.” He always did.

At times, most times in fact, he worked hard to keep things light.

I was a bit anxious last night, but I didn’t try to escape. I’ll start drawing a floor plan!

I want designer scrubs with shoes.

Fun is the name of the game. 

I’ve been building a pillow fort at night.

I just had an oxy(contin) shower.

And again,

Good morning! Walk? Have to be up before Dr. 

At times, he was philosophical, including commentary on the declining newspaper business.

Now the newspaper looks like somebody who has been through chemo … thin, unsteady and knowing the inevitable could only be held off for so long.

Because he was on a mostly liquid diet, food became a focus, including watching America’s Test Kitchen marathons on the tiny, fuzzy hospital TV.

I think about Peru and chocolate for the kings.

Maybe we can go to the Boulderado for clam chowder to go.

Do you remember the Chunky Bar?

Chris Kimball (host of America’s Test Kitchen) called this pork tenderloin the French cut.

I will see if I can find the New Yorker restaurant review that had tiramisu with black cherries in a parfait glass.

Then there were moments of despair, which broke (and still break) my heart.

This is beating me. 

I won’t be coming home for a while. The pain gets no less. Let’s be realistic. Where does this end?

Jill … best thing that ever happened to me.

Nowhere I’d rather be. With you anywhere. We can do anything.

As we approached our trip to Hawaii, the notes became hopeful … excited, even. But then Bill developed thrush, a mouth infection that’s a common side effect of radiation, about a week out. Thankfully our hospice nurse, Anita, was able to beat it back in time for the trip. In addition to meds, though, treatment involved swabbing the mouth with vinegar every few hours.

1-15-15 (15 days before Bill died) …

If I stay ahead of pain, I’m OK. One problem is painful swallowing. This is hard to eat. Lidocaine is very short term. I need something to “coat” the swall(ow) area. When not in pain, my life is almost normal. I don’t’ even think about it.

Then a few days later …

Tried on swim trunks last nite. Tight as draw strings would go, took two steps and they fell off! Ordered smaller from Speedo. Be here Fri or Mon. Got 2 day ship for more $.

I hope this pain is a non-issue when we get there. Won’t even think about it! I won’t let it drag me down.

And during one sleepless pre-Hawaii night …

3:30 am:

Now that burned those tiny hairs around my hiney! “Vinigga!” Tell me I don’t need pain meds! Got to keep up. I feel almost normal sometimes, but I always have a feeling it’s looking over my shoulder.

4 am:

Much organizing: c-on (carry-on) or check baggage. Just did some Lidocaine to cool mouth. At this time I feel normal. I have a tendency to tinker, detail, fix, clean, after hours when I don’t have pain.

5:30 am:

The joke went past me when you and Laurie came in and you had my slippers in hand! “Now sit here by me feet, and put another log on the fire …” It’s cause you are so sweet.

5:30 am (again):

Swabbing with vinegar. Will xxxing thrush limit mucus build up in mouth and sinus?

7:15 am:

Coffee. I’m leaving in morn!

7:45 am:

I made a mistake when I said time doesn’t matter. Just the opposite. It’s all I have left, and it isn’t much.

A few weeks after Bill died, I found this note, buried in the legal pad, from October 20, 2014, just after Dr. Campana told us the cancer was unstoppable.

I think this is the beginning of the end, best friend. Things didn’t work out the way we wanted. I’m totally responsible for this.

I hurt to my core when I think about the guilt and responsibility Bill carried about his cancer. I always hated that he smoked, and I made no bones about it. I also knew that for some people like Bill, smoking is an insurmountable addiction. But none of us lives without internal struggles. We do the very best we can with what we’ve got.

If Bill can see and hear me now, I hope and pray that he sees and hears me thanking God, the universe, my lucky stars and anyone else responsible for bringing him into my life and giving us 27 years of trying to figure life and love out together.

If an all-knowing, all-powerful being had come to me a year or two into my relationship with Bill and said, “You can love this Armani plumber (see my earlier post, Big Things Come in Small Gestures, to understand that reference) mightily and be loved mightily back for 10 (or even 5 or 7 or 12 or …??) years and then it ends, or you can cut and run now,” I would’ve signed up for the bet. In fact, I did, and I got more than I ever could’ve imagined possible at the time. I can’t be sad or angry about that.

Bill was a badass, for sure. Brave and strong, and as he grew older, that strength allowed him to feel and show love and tenderness in ways that alluded him earlier in life. Even with all of that, one of the biggest lessons Bill taught me, sometimes begrudgingly (on my part), was that finding humor in even the toughest of situations made life more bearable if not outright, out-loud fun. He demonstrated that in spades throughout his life and even more impressively in his last seven months of surgeries, pain, struggle and the pure, deep sorrow of a terminal diagnosis. As evidence, here’s one of the last notes he wrote to me (with a wry smile and a twinkle in his eyes, I’m sure).

From Garrison Keillor … Lena, you’ve stuck by me when the crops failed, a tornado leveled the house and barn and now my cancer. I’m beginning to think you’re bad luck.

Bill note 1







Big Things Come in Small Gestures

Going through a loved one’s belongings after they die is a gut-wrenching task. It has been for me, anyway, which is why I’m still chipping away at it 2+ years later.

The good news is I’m down to a couple of boxes of plumbing parts worth selling (does anyone need a Grohe rainfall shower head?), a pair of $400 dress shoes worn once (what can I say … my brother Skip dubbed Bill “the Armani plumber” for good reason) and several dozen books (bought before Bill became, I’m sure, one of Amazon Kindle’s best customers).

But sometimes there are hidden treasures to be found that make the pain abate for a while. Such was the bookmark I came across from our fun, week-long trip to Jackson, WY, with our friends Janine, George, John and Robin just before 9/11 happened.

I’m sure I’d seen it before, but I have to admit I don’t remember. If I did, I hope I was grateful and, more importantly, expressed it. I certainly am now, as this simple little slip of paper has brought me immeasurable joy. The moral of the story? If you are half of a couple or someday will be, please know the immense power in small, loving gestures. The impact can last a lifetime … and beyond.


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