Archive for February, 2009

Chris Is Crazy

Chris. His name was Chris.

My boss hired him and I adopted him as one of my employees. We made custom wheelchairs for people who were paralyzed, or had cerebral palsy, or the like. He was a shop-boy doing everything from sweeping to light mechanical work.

He was a big kid. Tall. Big head. Big arms. Big legs.

Chris was a bit, ummm, terched — as we used to say. You know, loony. Crazy. Really, he was. Crazy. I had to let him leave work early three days a week to go to his shrink or social worker or counselor or whoever she was. I didn’t press him; I just let him go.

Chris once told me, “I’d kill my father, if my mother didn’t love him so much.” I believed him.

Chris tormented the other employees. We were all intimidated by him. He’d go off on a crazy tirade, diatribe, or soliloquy and the shop would become as quiet as a grave yard. No one wanted to be the object of his psychosis.

“Jim, you have to do something. You have to get rid of him,” my employees pleaded.

“I’m not firing him. I have a baby daughter at home. She needs me.”

On one occasion he had Jack, a small retired handyman whose job was to maintain our rental chairs, pinned in a corner telling him about his dad. Chris had a screwdriver clutched in his hand. His knuckles were white. His voice evermore agitated.

Jack was very close to death.

“Jim, do something. You’re the boss.”

“Jack lived his life. I’m just going to watch.”

“Seriously, Jack’s in trouble. Do something.”

Jack really was in trouble. Moving slowly, I got to Chris’s side. He was lost in a world only he would understand. Jack, bless him, just kept his head down and continued working on the axle of the wheelchair in front of him. He feigned obliviousness and never made eye contact. It was his only defense.

I grabbed Chris’s arm and I said the only thing I could think of — a line from an obscure Lenny Bruce skit — “Don’t you move, you Psychotic.”

Chris snapped out of his nutty trance, grabbed my head under his arm, and put me in a head lock.

“Oh-my-god, he’s going to kill Jim,” someone said. I swallowed hard.

“Whatchoo say?” Chris asked.

“I said, ‘Leave Jack alone. He’s old. You’re scaring him.’” Jack just kept tinkering.

Chris’s grip tightened on my neck. “Tell my daughter that Daddy loves her,” I whispered.

And then suddenly Chris’s hold, while still tight, changed slightly. He began kissing my head. “I love this guy! I really love him,” he announced. And then kissed me some more.

I wasn’t going to die.

He let go of the head lock, grabbed my face with both hands, and pulled it close to his. Nose-to-nose, I put my hands on his cheeks too. “Leave people alone, Chris. We like you. We all like you. But you scare the hell out of us. Okay?”

“I love you.”

“Okay?”

“Okay. I’ll leave people alone.”

He didn’t really leave people alone anymore. But we were pretty sure he wasn’t going to kill any of us. Besides we hired Woolly Bear shortly after that incident. Woolly was a big, red-headed, lovable giant of a kid. Bigger than Chris, and sane. I was certain he could have taken Chris out with one swipe of his paw if Chris stepped out of line.

Chris didn’t last a year with us. Last I saw him he was making submarine sandwiches at a local sub shop. I went in from time to time for lunch.

He always made me a free sandwich.

I really did like Chris.

Wear Your Big Pants

The young lady I used to share my office with is nouveau-hip. She thinks she’s hip, but she’s a dork.

One day she held up the newspaper and asked me, “Do you believe that they put this on the front cover?” There, among a collage of photographs, was a chubby girl with her belly hanging out.

She didn’t expect my answer: You did it. Not me.

“I did it?”

Yes. You and your ilk. I’ve seen you wear those hip-hugging pants and oh-too-short tops. You spend half of your day pulling at the bottom of your shirt and the other half hiking up your pants trying to cover your belly. It’s not even your belly that you are trying to cover; it’s the area below your belly!

“Yeh, but I’m not fat,” she retorted.

No, but your clothes don’t fit.

When you bend over and the world can see your underwear, your clothes don’t fit. Or you’re a plumber.

“My clothes do fit. It’s the style …”

… and that’s my point. It is the style, and you and your cronies have accepted it and made it okay for people not to fit in their clothes. It doesn’t matter if you’re fat or skinny — you are all wearing clothes that don’t fit.

It’s not that I’m prudish, far from it. Show some skin; I like skin. Just wear clothes that fit.

You look poor.

Weave a New Net

Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust.
“Dissolve” says Death – The Spirit “Sir
I have another Trust” -

Death doubts it – Argues from the Ground -
The Spirit turns away
Just laying off for evidence
An Overcoat of Clay.

Emily Dickinson

January 3, 2001 my wife paged me. Nan was rushed to the hospital. I met my family in the emergency room.

An old friend of mine, Tommy Giles, was her emergency room physician. At first he thought it was “atypical” chest pain. Non-cardiac. Whew.

Further workup revealed that it was indeed a heart attack. “But a small one,” he said. Nan was admitted into the Intensive Care Unit.

I stayed with her until 12:30 AM. She was awake, alert, oriented and in pretty good spirits. I went home and slept well.

Aunt Shirley called at 6:30 AM. Nan’s heart attack had “extended” – worsened. At 3:30 that morning, she was put on a ventilator.

Nan NEVER would have wanted to be put on a vent.

Shortly after Pop died, Nan asked me, “Why didn’t you take me out in the field and shoot me like I asked you?”

“Two reasons, Nan. One, you never asked. Two, you know I wouldn’t have done it.

Nan was the last of her generation. She outlived Pop, her 11 brothers and sisters, and all their spouses and all their friends. She was worn-out and done.

We never thought to ask for a “Do Not Resuscitate/Do Not Intubate Order.” Too late. Too late.

Dr. Azanza had been Nan’s doctor for at least thirty years. I was there when came into her room for the first time since her heart attack. He pointed at the ventilator. “What’s this? She didn’t want that.”

There were tears in his eyes. We talked. He did his doctor thing – listened to her lungs, looked at the monitor – and then he sat in the chair next to her and quietly cried. He excused himself to go look at her chart.

He had been off-duty the previous night. Another doctor had covered him. Like us, he never expected what he saw.

He ordered medications to keep her partially sedated and pain-free. Generous orders.

The consensus was that we’d give Nan twenty-four hours on the ventilator and then make a decision. If she miraculously rallied, we’d get aggressive with her treatment. If she didn’t rally, we’d turn off the ventilator.

“Best case scenario,” Doctor Asanza said, “is she becomes bed bound”.

oh. shit. “Nan would NOT go for that. She’d kill us all.”

“I know.” He, like the rest of us, was crying again.

The vigil started. Our family rallied around Nan’s bed. The hospital said they’d let us stay the night if we wanted. But she was in good hands. I trusted her nurse and, again, went home sometime after midnight.

Doctor Asanza would be in the early morning. We’d discuss options.

The option we’d decide would be to take her off the ventilator. “She never wanted to be on it anyway,” we thought.

If she could have gotten her hands on a wooden spoon, she’d have cracked me on the side of the head for letting things go this far.

Sorry, Nan.

The day before we decided not to take Nan off the ventilator. She was taking a few unassisted breaths each minute. There was good volume to those breaths. We’d give her another day on the ventilator to give her some strength.

That extra day surprised everyone – me, Aunt Shirley, Doctor Asanza. My wife, a veteran nurse who has shepherded dozens of people (and families) off life support, made a compelling case to wait.

“I know she didn’t want this but this is where we are. And this is what we have to deal with. Now we have to give her a chance. We owe it to her.” And then, with tears in her eyes, she said, “She’s my Nan too.” I’ll never forget and always love my wife for those words. I get choked up just recalling that moment and those words. My wife is very special.

Nan opened her eyes that day. I was holding her hand. She looked at me.

“Are you in any pain, Nan,” I asked.

She shook her head, “No.” That was a relief.

I thought she might not be alert for very long so, with her eyes still open, I took the opportunity to explain things:

“Nan, I want you to know what’s going on. You’re hooked to a machine that’s helping you breathe. We’re going to start turning it down soon. We want to get the tube out of you. We want you to be able to breathe on your own. Are you okay with that?”

She didn’t shake her head. I think she understood. At the very least, I knew that she wasn’t adamantly opposed to her treatment. And that was a relief too.

“I love you, Nan,” I said.

“We all love you,” echoed Uncle George.

Throughout her hospitalization Nan had short periods of alertness that surprised all of us -doctors, nurses, family.

Instead of “pulling the plug”, the doctors decided to try to gently wean her off the machine. “We’ll see what happens,” they said.

They weaned her over the course of the day and decided to turn the machine off and take the tube out.

My family and I were prepared ourselves. We just want her comfortable. And, so far, she had been.

All I could think was, “What if this old battle ax breathed?”

On Monday, January 7 2001 at 3:33 pm, Doctor Crisanti turned off the ventilator that helped Nanny breathe. A moment later, he took the tube out of her trachea. Nan’s nurse, Steve, made her comfortable and called us in.

Aunt Shirley, Uncle Jeff, Uncle George, Laura – my sister, Sandi – my wife, and I gathered around her. Held her hands. Stroked her head. Told her we loved her. Told her everything was alright.

She opened her eyes for a couple moments. Perhaps she saw we were there. I hope so. And then closed them and went to sleep.

She was breathing easily. Regular, even breaths. There wasn’t a hint of pain or discomfort.

At 5PM everyone but Sandi and Aunt Shirley left the hospital. I went home to tend to my children whom we’d left in the care of Sandi’s mother. I planned to come back around 8PM and stay the night.

“Sandi called. Go back to the hospital,” my mother-in-law said.

My daughter asked, “How’s Nan?”

“She’s okay. She’s off the breathing machine.” And back to the hospital I went.

Sandi was on the other side of the Intensive Care Unit’s automatic doors waiting for me as they opened.

Our eyes met. Pause. “Nan’s gone.” Tears in her eyes.

I rushed to the bed side. Nan’s hand was still warm. We sat in the dim light for a while – Uncle George, Aunt Shirley, Laura, Sandi and I. We said little. We cried.

I was the last to leave. I knelt beside her. Held her hand. Kissed it.

I turned off the dim light on the way out. At 5:55PM, Ida Mae Peterson – my Nan, my very special Nan – breathed her last. Aunt Shirley was holding one hand. My wife, the other. They said her breathing simply slowed, slowed some more and then stopped. Quickly, quietly, peacefully.

“You know, Aunt Shirl, it’s like living life without a net now.”

“Well, Jim,” she hugged me. “Now we have to weave a new net.”

We love you, Nan.

January 11. Cold and rainy. It had to be.

We filed in by twos and threes and fours. Stories still being told – some repeated from the day before. Times and tears were shared.

Not only had Nan passed, a whole generation did.

Aunt Shirley and Uncle Jeff were with Reverend Bowering when I got there. They’d already shared their thoughts with him. Now I gave him mine. He needed to know, really know, that Nan lived the cliché: She did for others first and for her last. But for Nan, it was not a cliché. It was honest and real. I gave him examples.

It was also important to realize that Nan raised children – all of us – all her life. It was what she did; it was who she was. She never let go of us and continued to nurture and teach all the way ’til the end. Again, I shared stories.

Reverend Bowering knew Nan. This helped give a personal touch to his service and her eulogy. He peppered the morning’s hour with personal anecdotes. And through our tears, he was able to make us laugh.

I liked that.

And as quickly, we were standing in the freezing rain. The Reverend offered prayers. He led us through the Lord’s Prayer. And then set a cross of three roses onto Nan’s casket. Moments later, family and friends, one by one, silently laid flowers beside Nan. And offered Love.

We were all very slow to leave. Standing there. Not knowing quite what to do anymore. What can you do without Nan?

Some of us took flowers from the grave. But mostly we just stared at the brown box and thought about the wonderful woman who brought us together one last time.

And we left. Disappearing into the harsh day.

Each of us alone.

Why write this? Why record and publish the details of Nan’s death and funeral?

For me. It is therapy and mourning. And a record to assist my very fallible memory when I try to recall that very difficult week.

For Nan. To honor her.

For you. So that you may share in the human experience and let you recollect the passing of your own loved ones. Or, perhaps, ease you through some future transition.

As I sit here, seven years later, I think of all of you who left my family and me kind messages, I sincerely and humbly thank you. I think of all of you whom have lost loved ones since: my condolences to you were sincere; I feel for you and know that only time can cool the sting.

The recollection of these events have reminded me of my family. What a wonderful, large family I have. A family that is there for each other. A family that can laugh through the tears. A family that can share so many stories. A family that can come together so quickly and so closely.

And this is on both sides of my family: my wife’s and mine. I am lucky.

Dr. Asanza has since retired. What a most wonderful physician he is. He kept Nan out of the hospital through heart disease and kidney failure and worsening diabetes. He trusted her family to administer his prescriptions. He graciously and gracefully assisted Nan through her most difficult hour, through this life and to the next.

Aunt Shirley. Like me, she still feels like a teenage child in Nan’s presence. But she with uncommon courage, love and duty spearheaded the family through Nan’s illness and passing. I could not be more proud of any person. And I’m honored that, though she has two children of her own, has always called me her first born.

And, finally, thank you to my dear wife, Sandra, who loves Nan as much as I do. Who was there for me at every turn, at every moment. She comforted and counseled me. Held me at my saddest and allowed me to hold her. Who was at Nan’s side through life and, like Aunt Shirley, held her hand at death. What a wonderful woman.

I am eternally thankful for all of you. Sincerely.

It’s been seven years and I’m still weakened without her. I am not unique. Most of us go through this. In a way, it’s a privilege to hold the memories of someone like Nan. To be there through her death as she was there through our lives.

A privilege.

Thank you, Nan.

And now I must stand up, dust off, and – as Aunt Shirley said – weave a new net.

I Don’t Dance

Even at the cheesiest of wedding receptions, I don’t dance. I don’t do the Chicken Dance. I don’t do the Hokey Pokey. I don’t get in that Rumba Line.

I tell my wife, “I don’t dance, but I’ll gladly hold you while you do.”

I request a couple of songs from the DJ. One he never has, “Walk Forever By My Side” by The Alarm (it was my wife and my wedding song); and the other he always does, “Sea of Love” by The Honey Drippers. These are our songs.

I hold my wife while she dances, and we fall back 20 years to when we first held each other as husband and wife.

A few years after my first dance with the Misses, we were at my company Christmas party. I was being my no-way-am-I-going-to-dance stick in the mud. My boss’s wife, Lynne, saw this and decided she was going to be the one to get me dancing.

Lynne samba’d up to me, grabbed me by the arm, and tried to pull me out of my seat. I got heavy.

“Lynne, I don’t dance until I have six more of these in me.” I held up my Budweiser.

Head down but smiling, Lynne floated away. I was free.

Five minutes later, she returned clutching six long-neck Budweiser bottles.  One by one, she put them in front of me. “I’ll see you on the dance floor in a half-hour, Sweetie.”

I don’t remember much after that. But I bet I danced with Lynne.

Everybody, DANCE!

Don’t Park There

“Dad, can I borrow your Jeep? My car is stuck in the mud.” So says the 17-year-old girl without any follow-up or explanation.

Let me back up a bit.

After three weeks of sub-zero temperatures, we had a bit of a thaw this weekend. All the snow melted as did the first three or four inches of earth. What was left was a loose, wet pack of mud on top of ice. Don’t park your car on top of it because it will get stuck and you might not be able to get it out until May.

The night before one of my wife’s sisters parked on the grass in my side yard. She got stuck there and got out in an ugly, spinning, swerving, and gunning maneuver that was last taken in 1942 by a Japanese Zero trying to get out of a Mustang P-51′s gun sights.

I don’t blame my sister-in-law for trying to park there. She was only following my rule:

“Don’t park in the turn-around. I will hit your car. I’ve done it before and I will do it again. I’ve even blown through my car’s back-up sensor to do it.”

I have a long driveway that backs into a busy road. In order not to have to back into 40 mph traffic, I had a turn-around put in. The turn-around allows you to get your car turned around so that you can get out on the street going forward.

My pin-brain assumes no one would ever park in the turn-around. Most people don’t see it the way I do. They see the turn-around as two more parking spots.

I’ve started telling people who park there, “If you insist on parking there, I will hit your car. Ask Tricia, I took hers out and it wasn’t even a week old. I’ll do the same to yours. Trust me.”

So Terri was just doing what I advise all my guests to do: If you don’t want to park behind me or my wife’s car, park in the side yard. Terri tried to park there, but didn’t realize the weekend’s thaw turned the grass into swamp.

It took me and my four-year-old a half-hour to put the yard back together again.

Which brings me to my daughter. Stuck in the front yard. Ready to abandon her vehicle with the hopes of commandeering mine.

“No. You cannot borrow my Jeep. Sometimes it doesn’t start. I don’t want you stranded anywhere.”

She was in a hurry. She was miffed. She wanted to leave. Now.

The Wife-beast chimes in, “Aren’t you going to help her?”

“Of course, I am. I’m thinking.”

“Well, stop thinking, and get some wood to put under the tires and get her car unstuck.”

“I don’t think I’m going to need wood.”

The front tires of my daughter’s car are mired in up to the hubcaps. I could tell that she used her aunt’s approach to extricating the vehicle: Put the car in reverse, step on the accelerator, and turn the wheel wildly. Poor form.

They don’t teach you how to get unstuck in driving school. They should.

I learned how to get unstuck by getting stuck a lot. Kids these days aren’t adventurous enough to purposefully slam their cars into drifts of snow and have to get it out before the cops show up (pussies), but that is another story.

I don’t know your method, but here’s mine for getting unstuck. It’s lasted the test of time.

  1. Don’t spin your tires. It’ll only dig you deeper in;
  2. Don’t turn your tires. It’ll only slop up any traction you might have;
  3. Gently “rock” the car – a little forward, a little back, a little forward, a little back. Be patient. Eventually you’ll make a bit of a runway where you can build some momentum;
  4. Go as far forward as you can without spinning the tires. Bring the car backwards; build as much momentum as you can. At the right moment (you’ll feel it), hit the gas just hard enough to build speed. The car will pop itself out.
  5. If it doesn’t pop out, repeat.

I had my daughter’s car out of the muck in less than a minute. “How did you do that?” She asked me in the same way you ask a magician how he found your card.

After I explained the above five step process to her she said, “Oh. Like physics.”

Something like that.

Fucking Midget

When my older boy was only three or four, he said he saw a boy with a mustache. This scared the hell out of him.

“There are no boys with mustaches,” I explained. “It was probably just a shadow or chocolate milk or something.”

“No,” he insisted. “It was a boy with a mustache.” He was certain and was seriously freaked. This went on all afternoon.

That evening we went out for dinner. My wife, my daughter, and I told him about dwarfs. Little people. “Maybe it was a dwarf, you saw,” my wife explained.

I agreed but, of course, I have to act like an ass and say “midget.” I know little people don’t like being called “midgets” but it’s a much funnier word than “dwarf.”

Oh, and I didn’t stop there, I made sure I said “fidget” — because I thought “fidget” sounded even funnier.

You know what a “fidget” is right? A “fucking midget.”

I’m really clever. Funny guy, right?

Wrong.

After dinner we get up to leave, I put on my coat, and turn around.  And who is sitting in the chair directly behind me?

You got it: a fucking midget.

This Is Nan

When my parents could no longer take care of my sister and me, Nan and Pop stepped up and took us in. From the time that I was eight-years-old, they were my parents.

Nan was a tough bird. She raised my real grandmother’s children; they called her “Aunt Ida.” My real grandmother told her children (four boys, two girls), “I may be your mother, but you listen to Aunt Ida.”

Nan never told me that she loved me, but I never doubted her love. None of us did.

These are some of the notes that I wrote as I was sitting next to her hospital bed the day before she died:

Nan is one of thirteen children born and raised in a poor section of Baltimore, Maryland.

Nan is a white woman named after one of her mom’s best friends, a black woman, Ida Mae. This was in 1913.

Nan is the woman whom my daughter is named after.

Nan is the woman whom Pop married. He brought her to New Jersey.

Nan had no biological children, but took in many step-children.

Nan is the woman that went back to that impoverished Baltimore neighborhood to take two of her ill, pregnant sister’s children back to New Jersey to ease the pain of poverty.

Nan is the woman who, tears in her eyes, turned the car around and picked up her pregnant sister and three other children and brought them back to her home in New Jersey.

Nan is the other mom of her sister’s six children. She raised them. They are hers.

Nan is the woman who nursed her ill sister in her home. For years. Until her sister died in that home in 1965.

Nan is the woman who was the other mom to my mom.

Nan is the woman who told the judge that she’d break my mom’s neck if she tried to come take back the children. I was one of the children.

Nan is the person who the judge trusted to raise two more children: me and my sister.

Nan is mom when you don’t have a mom anymore. But Nan never lets you forget your mother. Or father.

Nan is my mom. I am hers. I am lucky.

Nan is dinner at 5 o’clock every evening for the thirty-seven years of my life. And for twenty-five years before my life.

Nan is home. Sitting her chair. Watching her family as we grow. Always.

Nan is on the phone catching up on aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends.

Nan is on the phone passing on the news.

Nan is the hub of many worlds.

Nan is there where you’re sick with chicken soup, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and tea.

Nan is the one who will tell you right from wrong. Because Nan knows.

Nan is the business end of a wooden spoon when you’ve done wrong.

Nan is a quick thimble-sheathed noogie when you haven’t done wrong. Or, as she would say, when she didn’t catch you doing wrong.

Nan knows everything about you. Seriously. She does.

Nan is the person who lets you know.

Nan makes you rich when you’re as poor as can be. She humbles you when you feel bigger than you are.

Nan is an iron fist and an open hand.

Nan never asked for anything.

Nan gave everything.

Nan is always there. Always.

Nan is a green, flowered dress.

Nan is the net under the tightrope of life.

Nan is one of my True Loves.

Retarded Einstein

einstein-on-bike

My wife says, “You are the smartest man I know. How come you’re so stupid?”

She says that I have no idea how to apply my intelligence. And that I don’t focus on life’s little, regular things. Like eating. Or where I’m driving. Or how to get there. Or even what day it is.

Einstein’s wife would tell the story that her hubby, Al, would walk the streets of Princeton, lost in thought and would have to call her from a stranger’s house to find out what was going on.

“Dear, where am I and where am I supposed to be?” He’d inquire, and then she’d gently direct him.

I’m like that sometimes. Okay, a lot.

“Hi, Baby. It’s me. I know I was supposed to do something after work but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. Do you have any idea? … Yeh. I know. Tuesday. Right. … What do I do every Tuesday? You mean after taking a shower? It’s all up in the air. … Oh, Tuesday after work? I dunno. … Oh! That’s right! Bring the boy to jiu-jitsu! … Oh and honey? Don’t make me any supper. I didn’t have lunch until 4 o’clock. … Why? I forgot.”

I’m a retarded Einstein.

Where’s the F***ing Remote!?

If you are anywhere near my age, you’ll remember when you were the channel changer?

“Hey, Junior! Get up and put Channel 4 on. The game starts in five minutes,” your Dad would yell.

And you’d have to get up and mosey over to the television. Click. Click. Click. And twist the dial to channel four.

Sometimes you even had to turn the fine tuner around the edge of the dial. Remember that? Or, worse yet, someone had to go up on the roof and finagle with the antenna.

“How’s this?” The voice would scream down. Your job was to relay the message to Mom.

“Still fuzzy!” She’d yell in return. Back in the day, it was always still fuzzy.

And then came cable and satellite. And we have “the clicker”. The channel changer. Or, as I call it in my house, the penis, because only the men have it.

For the last eight years we’ve let my son handle the penis. And for eight years he’s been irresponsible with it. He’s always wedging it between the sofa cushions. Hiding it. Storing it.

“Dude, don’t do that. You’ll lose the channel changer,” I said.

“I always do that,” he says.

“Yeh, and you always lose the channel changer.”

“We don’t lose it. I know where it is. I hide it so that no one can turn off my channel.”

So if the channel changer is always lost in your house, as it is in mine, maybe what you need to do is get Junior to get up and change the channel. He’ll eventually get tired and cough up the remote.

Cutting Room Floor
Sadly, one joke was edited out. Edited out by the Supreme One, the Wife-beast.

I wanted to say “… or, as I call it in my house, the penis, because only the men have it and Mommy always wants it.”

Okay. Okay. There’s more to that joke too “… Mommy always wants and complains that Daddy doesn’t know how to use it.”

There, I said it. I hope you’re happy.