Monday, May 30, 2011

Stuck in a Time

Marty’s first stroke was in 2005, the next came at the first of 2006. Because of this assault on her brain her frame of reference for all things coincides with those the stroke dates. She is aware of all of the changes around her and knows new people have been added to our family. She knows the world has changed, she knows what has happened to her but when you ask her here and now questions she reverts back to her base of knowledge prior to the strokes, and that is 2005.

In 2005, Matt, our son, and his wife Sarah had been married only a couple of years, Erin was a senior at the University of Texas, I had just been divorced from my job of 25 years, we were both a tick over 50 and George Bush was president. That is Marty’s mental starting spot.

That’s why when I first told her about Erin’s pending nuptials Marty’s first reaction was that Erin, our baby daughter, wasn’t ready to be married, she wasn’t old enough to be married. Marty’s frame of reference for Erin is that she is still at the University of Texas and still 21, that’s her last anchor point for Erin. In Marty’s mind, Erin is stuck in 2005. This explains the “Oh Shit!!” comment when I told her Erin was with child (my daughter can’t be pregnant; she is “with child”).

Marty knows, she sees Erin as a young adult, she knows and she sees Erin as more mature, older and ready to be a mother, but she struggles to move past the really solid memory of Erin six years ago.

Marty knows Matt and Sarah have baby Noah, she knows Noah is a wonderful and miraculous addition to our lives but I think, in her mind’s eye, where we all develop critical basic assumptions, she still sees Matt and Sarah as young married faux adults still going through those first married years.

If you ask Marty how old she is she will almost always say 50, her age when she had the first stroke. If you ask the year, she says 2005, if you ask the president, she says George Bush and yet she voted for President Obama and knows who he is.

When you are on the dark side of 50 thinking of yourself as perpetually 50 is not such a bad thing. Seeing your children as forever young and new to life can be a bit disconcerting but is okay, especially if you still get the benefit of grandchildren; having George Bush as president forever, not so much.

Marty was always pretty apolitical, for years I had to insist she go vote, until President George Bush invaded Iraq. She did not like him, at all, she was adamant in her opposition to all things George and his policies, and yet somehow she is stuck with him for perpetuity. It’s a “Divine Comedy” level of hell.

I always gently help her when her memory gets stuck in the mud of the past. I simply remind her how old the kids are, how we love Noah, how gracefully we have both aged and that she voted for our current president Barack Obama. She at least feigns understanding and then moves on to the next thing.

In reality, I don’t think Marty really gives any of this much thought, she is much too focused on handling what is in the moment. She doesn’t dwell much on what was or what should be or what should have been. That saps needed energy from what is happening right now. I wish I could do that.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Learning About My Father the Warrior

June, 1950, North Korean soldiers poured across the 38th parallel, the arbitrary dividing line between North and South Korea. By the time they stopped they had smashed through the South Korean capital of Seoul and had the NATO and South Korean troops bottled up at Pusan, in the southern part of South Korea.

In March of 1952, my father, Marty’sHusband Senior, sailed across the Sea of Japan and made his way up the South Korean peninsula to the front lines just north of Seoul. My dad was a forward observer directing fire for the army artillery. His trip to the front took days, the months he spent in the holes, trenches and bunkers must have felt like years.

At the end of April 2011 I had the privilege of accompanying my father to Austin, Texas so the state senate could recognize and honor veterans, heroes of the Korean War. I stood in the Lt. Governor’s reception hall and ate breakfast with these men, these heroes of a war no one remembers and I was honored to be in their presence and proud that my father was a member of this brave and aging group.

My Dad, like so many soldiers, never really talked much about his experience in the war. I think he was so busy taking care of his family and his job that he didn’t have the time or bandwidth to remember what a life changing event the war had been for him. He very successfully managed to compartmentalize his memories until he retired and became involved with his own band of brothers.

After he retired he got involved with the national Korean War Veterans Association and helped found a chapter in Dallas. Through this veteran’s group and the South Korean government he took me to South Korea on a returning veteran’s trip in 1997. It was an amazing and eye-opening trip in so many ways. It was the first time I really understood how impactful this life event had been for him, it was the first time I saw my father as someone other than just my father, it was a chance for me to see him be a part of something larger than my family.

As we toured through South Korea I listened. I listened to my dad as he related to these heroes of a war that has too often been relegated to a somewhat erstwhile conflict instead of the awful, frightening bloody mass of men and women dying and being maimed. They all marveled at how Seoul had recovered and they talked about how this modern city of eight million was nothing but ruble when they had last marched through the city.

I listened as these old soldiers talked and enjoyed each other’s stories and company as they relived a time in their lives that will always separate them from those of us who have been spared the worst of war. I watched as they looked at maps and pointed to where they had been stationed, I marveled at how my own father, a warrior in a real war, looked for familiar spots and I felt pride as I watched him, along with the other veterans, accept an honorary medal from the South Korean army. It was one of those moments that expanded my view and understanding of my own father.

In the Texas Senate gallery I sat with my dad and his compatriots. When the time came for the proclamation recognizing the Korean War veterans several Senators spoke. In turn they each recognized the men surrounding me. Some read names, some spoke of the cold, the heat, the Chinese, the Chosin Reservoir, Pork Chop Hill, and Inchon. Finally they asked for the veterans to stand and finally they applauded, and applauded, and applauded. I felt a great sense of pride as I sat among these very ordinary men who had served their country in an extraordinary way.

As my father and I drove back to Waco from Austin we talked, or rather he talked the whole way home. I asked the questions I’ve always wanted to know and he told me about his journey to war and his time at war and for the first time, his feelings about what he had experienced. I drove up to my house feeling fortunate to have spent this day with this man.

As we drove into the driveway of my home I said I thought it was really nice for the Senate to recognize you guys. My dad said, “Yes, they didn’t have to do that, but it sure is nice.” I’ve always been proud to be his son.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Schooled by Marty ------ Again

Marty is a musician. Despite the trauma of the strokes she still possesses the soul and skills of a musician. Music is one of those things that connect her to the here and now, one of those things that bring Marty back to the surface through the fog of the brain assault.

Today as we finished lunch I sat there and looked at the piano and regretted my decision 40 years ago to refuse piano lessons. My mother wanted me to take lessons; she wanted me to at least learn some of the rudimentary musical skills one acquires when learning to play the piano. Being a boy child, a manly child I refused and she didn’t insist and it’s my loss.

My musical roots consist of learning to play the tenor saxophone for the 5th grade band. My saxophone career spanned four years. My dad played in the Texas A & M marching band back in the 40’s and I played his instrument. I learned notes, I learned counts, and I learned the tenor sax is not a chick magnet.

Today as I sat looking at the piano one of those little cartoon light bulbs popped over my head with an idea. I looked at Marty and said, “Could you teach me to play the piano?”

She looked at me, gagged just a little and said, “Yeah, if you can be patient.”

“I can be patient.” I said. “Do you think you could show me how to play?”

“I’ll try,” was her less than enthusiastic reply. The subject was tabled for the completion of lunch.

After lunch I started puttering around doing some odd chores and on a whim decided there was no time like the present. I pulled back the piano bench, pushed Marty’s chair just to the left of the piano, sat down and said, “Okay, tell me what to do.”

Clearing her throat Marty said, “Play a ‘C’ scale.”

As the brother to a piano player, the husband of a piano player, the father to a couple of piano players I have absorbed some piano intelligence by osmosis and listening to repetitious drills. I knew where to put my fingers, I even knew the fingering. I blistered the ‘C’ scale like Fort Worth’s own Van Cliburn.

I looked at Marty, looking for some positive reinforcement. She said, “Do it again.”

Okay, I did it again, looked over my left shoulder for some sense of appreciation of my skill and she says, “Do it again.”

“How many times?” I asked.

A short reply, “Until I tell you to stop.”

I started playing the scale, over and over again, varying the pace, the flow, even the fingering and she didn’t tell me to stop. I kept playing and looked at her. She was lost in a gaze looking at her song books as I continued to play the scales, afraid to stop.

My hand started to tire just a bit and I stopped and finally said, “When are you going to say stop?”

She said, “Stop.”

Great, I’m thinking, my wife has turned into the Sgt. Carter of piano teachers.

We diverged from single notes to chords. I played a “C” chord. That was okay, she told me to play a “D” chord and I kept hitting the wrong group of keys and Marty would say, “No, that’s e-minor, no, that’s F sharp.” I told you, it brings Marty to the surface, it amps-up her here and now, she didn’t even look to tell me I was on the wrong keys. She heard the chord and knew what it was and it wasn’t a “D” chord.

I must now confess I lied about being patient. I tried but I’m not a patient guy so I decided we should move on to real music. A John Denver song book just happened to be on the piano from the last time Marty had played for me. I immediately turned to “Annie’s Song”; one of the songs performed at our wedding 35 years ago, and opened it up. I asked Marty to tell me what the first note was and she said a “B”. I know a “B”. So I started, one hand, one finger playing “Annie’s Song”.

It’s important to know that “Annie’s Song” has only a sharp, the “C” note, and of course I kept missing that and missing plenty of other notes but eventually I made it through the first refrain of the song

Repetition is a key to learning a song, repetition requires patience, I have sworn to be patient, so I started playing the song again, then again, then again. Somehow I managed to mangle it in different ways every time, finding different notes to miss each time through the song. I didn’t turn to look at Sgt. Marty but I know, I have seen the pained expression of bad notes on her face before, I know she was scrunching up her nose and closing her eyes. I have seen that face.

I finally ended the song one last time, hitting the wrong key about four times in a row, sort of pecking at the key board. As the song writer sort of said, my senses were full, I was proud.

I wasn’t too sure Marty was still paying attention at all; she sometimes loses focus, especially when it gets a little boring. Then out of the blue she says, “Thank you.”

I’m touched, I know she remembers this song, I know she remembers the meaning to this song, I know she feels it, I know she relates it back to so many years ago when we pledged to be together forever regardless of sickness or health, I know she is thankful.

I turn to her and say, “You my dear are very welcome, so why are you saying thank you?”

She looked up from her deep thought and said, very simply, “For finally hitting the right note.”

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mothers I'll Love Forever

All day, every day I am surrounded by humans of the female persuasion. I am allowed to float vicariously in an ocean of estrogen and on most days, at most times, I’m honored to be in the presence of all of these beautiful women, most of who happen to be mothers. I’m a mother lover and have the perfect perch from which to wax on eloquently about the most important mothers in my life.

My own Mom – Bettye Lou --Much to her chagrin my Mom, who loves Bill O’Reilly is the person who taught me to be a liberal. She gave me life, she taught me to empathize, through her own life she showed me how to accept differences, tolerate different ideas and if I have an emotional IQ at all, she is responsible. Sorry Mom but it’s all you.

My mother has fought macular degeneration for several years and over time her vision has become more and more limited, exceptionally difficult for someone who has always been so visually oriented. She still plays bridge, really well, every week, in spite of the macular degeneration. She has found a way. She still cooks, she still rules the house and the holidays, she still loves on her children and she has taken Marty into her heart as her own child.

My mother is the consummate mother figure and I know she has always loved me best. There’s never been a time in my life when I didn’t know my mother loved and supported me, and I know that wasn’t always easy.

My children’s Mother – Marty -- Perhaps the greatest compliment I ever heard anyone give Marty was when I heard my own mother say she would have liked to have known Marty when she was raising her children because Marty was such a good mom and would have provided insightful counsel.

I learned real passion from watching Marty with Matt and Erin. There have been many mothers who loved their children as much as Marty loves her, but none more. Marty practiced her love, exuded emotion, had remarkable confidence in parenting and always knew answers. Maybe they weren’t the right answers, maybe a question hadn’t been asked, but she always had an answer for her children.

Marty was the kind of mom who didn’t accept normal boundaries. She just didn’t recognize them. I know that part of her could be aggravating, but she was always available, always aware, always in love with her kids. There could never be any doubt about her love for her children, you could see it, and you could feel it, and if you watch her real close, if you know her well, you can still feel it when Matt and Erin are with her.

Noah’s mother -- Sarah – the daughter-in-law – Sarah is amazingly maternal, I didn’t see that coming. She is completely tuned in to my grandson. She knows what he is thinking, what he is feeling and how he is feeling intuitively.

In her, I see the same passion, the same undeniable love, the same dedication and skill that I see in Marty. She is so like Marty yet so different from Marty, I understand why Matt married her and wanted children with her. I have been so proud of how they have taken to being parents. They are going to have another child in October and I’m sure they will name this one Larry Joe.

Mystery babies mother – Erin – my daughter, a mother-in-waiting. When Erin told me she was pregnant I sat holding the phone in a kind of stunned silence. I thought about my daughter as a baby, I thought about my daughter as a young child, I thought about my daughter as a teen-ager. I have a hard time seeing my daughter as an adult; I don’t have a hard time seeing my child with a child. She has seen the best teachers in the world. Through my mother, through Marty, through Sarah, she has had wonderful maternal mentors.

If ever there was anyone capable of providing the care, the love, the kindness, the passion it takes to be a mother, it’s Erin. I’ve seen it her whole life. I saw it when she cared for her dolls and talked to them gently and sang quiet songs to them, I saw it when she begged to baby sit and parents wanted to book her early, and I saw it when she had to cut all of her mother’s bloody, matted hair from her head in the hospital. She cares for others, she is passionate about so many of the right things, and she is already a wonderful, worrying mother.

As a man surrounded by women so much of the time I could claim to be the supreme arbiter of great motherhood, but that would be stupid, even for me. The women in my life would never allow me that. What I can say, without reservation is, as a son, a husband and a father, I have seen what is good, I recognize how vital, how mandatory the women in our lives are to our well being.

I know there is a grace-filled God when I look at the mothers in my life. I wish it were so for all.