Mourners and Other People

My mother, Betty Jean Gregory, died twelve years ago this week.

When my mother passed away, my Dad, following wishes that she had stated many times, requested contributions to their favorite charity rather than flowers. Nevertheless, as always seems to happen in these circumstances, several people chose to send flowers instead.

Dad collected the cards from the senders to give me, since both of us knew that I would be the one writing the thank-you notes (because, after all, the donors needed to be able to actually read the notes, something that wouldn’t have happened if Dad, with his execrable penmanship, had been the one writing them!) But one card puzzled him. “Who could this be?” he asked, handing me the card.

“Betty was a remarkable woman” had been written on it, with only a first name below that sentence. But I recognized the name immediately as that of a woman with whom I’d been fast friends during high school. I explained the connection to my father, who had only the haziest memory of the friend of my youth, but conceded that Mom must have made a strong impression for her to have sent flowers to a funeral decades later, when we were both in our late 50s.

Yet there was another card from someone on whom Mom had made a strong impression, and that one I’m still relieved my father never saw. This was a purported condolence card which arrived in Dad’s mailbox fairly late after Mom’s passing and which he, not recognizing the return address and not wanting any more to deal with, just handed over, unopened, to me.

Thank heaven for that. Because this was not an expression of sympathy, whatever flowery sentiment might have been written on the stylized card. Included was a note from one of Mom’s coworkers of many years prior. The note expressed this woman’s complete elation that Betty Jean Gregory was finally dead. It vilified Mom with ugly names and shamed her with spiteful observations on her character, morals, and behavior.

I read the note with mild shock but little surprise. Mom’s mental illness and addictions had sundered nearly every good relationship she’d ever had, and earned her many enemies. It was sadly true that almost everyone who had attended her funeral had done so for Dad’s sake, or for my own; Mom died friendless.

I put the spiteful letter aside to deal with later and got on with the sad business of trying to find ways to help my father take an interest in life again.

Much later, I finally began to compose a response to the poison pen note. First, I explained that I was relieved beyond measure that my Dad had not opened the card and read her hurtful words; he, as an 81-year-old widower, did not need the anguish her spitefulness would have provoked. I remarked that I supposed taking vengeance upon a dead woman by saying these things to grieving survivors made the writer feel both powerful and vindicated.

And then I admitted, underlining the words, that I could not actually refute a single charge the writer had laid at my mother’s door. I was sure that Mom had treated her badly–worse than badly. Betty, I acknowledged, had been severely mentally ill. She displayed all the unpredictability, instability and cruelty of an alcoholic and addict. She’d probably wounded the letter writer to her very soul. I said that I was truly sorry that my mother had hurt her so much.

Finally, though, I took my own, perhaps cruel, definitely petty, revenge on the heartless writer, for I pointed out to her, “I’m sure that what you experienced with my mother was difficult. But you were an adult, a grown woman. If you think what you went through was bad, try growing up as a vulnerable small child under Betty’s authority. Consider what it was like being in her charge, helpless. That’s the person you tried (and failed) to injure with your malicious little diatribe—her already-wounded daughter. You didn’t harm Betty or her memory or reputation one bit. All you did was reduce yourself to her level.”

I slid my response into an envelope and mailed it. I never heard from Mom’s former coworker again.

Now, twelve years later, I must say in complete honesty that I did not actually mourn my mother. She, in her sickness, caused me too much harm; shamed me too much, hurt me too often. I felt mostly relief at her passing, coupled with a deep, aching regret that nothing between us could now ever be put right.

But I’ve thought many times about those two funeral cards, and the intense depth of feeling that each of them displayed: one full of unresolved fury, seeking reprisal for old injuries; the other honoring and memorializing.

And I’m glad, very, very glad, that my mother had at least one true mourner at her passing.

None of us are two-dimensional beings! I hope that you will read about my alternate, appreciative perspective of my complex mother in next week’s publication of this blog.

The Secular Light Show

November 13 will be World Kindness Day, and so I am revisiting this very applicable post from 2020.

In early November 2019, a local family initiated their holiday light display—an astounding and impressive effort; simply lovely. It was, perhaps, a tad early, but what with the invidious daylight savings time having begun two weekends prior, the winter nights were certainly quite long enough to make such a light show worthwhile. The family noted the display on our local neighborhood website, posting photos and inviting people to drive by and enjoy the spectacle. Several website members commented on the exceptional light show, and I punned that it was “delightful”.

But, as always seems to happen these days, a sourpuss (i.e., jackass!) simply had to comment. “This is a very secular display,” he groused. “Christmas without Christ is not Christmas.”

Other members quickly shut him down, pointing out that not only does not everyone celebrate Christmas, but that a light-up baby Jesus in the front yard really made no more of a statement than a reindeer; that religious beliefs were best celebrated in the home and the heart, not on one’s lawn, and not just at a particular season, but throughout the year; that at the holiday season it was best to be building people up, rather than tearing them down; and, finally, that whatever else it might be, the light display was certainly fun and festive and was bringing smiles to the faces of those witnessing it and wonder to the eyes of small children.

Nothing that was said to him, however, no matter how thoughtful or theologically sound, altered the Religious Grinch’s opinion; he remained stubbornly resistant to these various peacemakers, responding emphatically with his opinion that the light spectacle was insulting to the true meaning of Christmas while intimating that he felt picked upon for having stated his opinion.

Mindful of our ever-watchful website “Lead”, who had deleted my comments before, I merely replied with a carefully-pointed remark that I thought it was a lovely gesture that this family had taken so much time, effort, and expense to make so beautiful a display just ahead of World Kindness Day on November 13th. It seemed to me, I continued, a truly kind thing to create such beauty for one’s neighbors to enjoy, and I, for one, was most appreciative of their efforts. Then I private-messaged two of those who had made the most rational and courteous responses to the Religious Grinch, and told them how much I appreciated their efforts, receiving in reply their thanks, good wishes and blessings—blessings and good wishes that they also offered publicly to the Religious Grinch, and which were (perhaps not surprisingly) not returned by him.

Although my true thoughts remained unsaid on the website (at least by me; some others dared make some of these points), there were so many things I wanted to say to Mr. Religious Grinch. I wanted to suggest that perhaps the light display had been set up by a Hindu family celebrating a belated Diwali, not Christmas, or even a NeoPagan family whose spiritual holiday, celebrated with light, is not Christmas but Yule, the winter solstice. I didn’t know, I pondered, if light displays comprised part of the celebrations of Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, but those holidays, rather than Christmas, might be what the lights represented. Soyaluna, Saturnalia, Festivus—even the 6,000-year-old holiday of the Kemet Orthodoxy faith, called “The Return of the Wandering Goddess”, might be the reason behind the glorious twinkling and blinking and racing lights in the front yard of a neighborhood home.

I wanted, too, to ask Mr. Religious Grinch what he had done, or planned to do, to bring a smile to the lips of his neighbors during this holiday season; to provide them a moment’s joy. He certainly had not provided his good wishes to those on the website, so was he planning some other random act of kindness? How would he express his Christ of Christmas during the season? Would he speak a word of loving encouragement to someone sad and depressed, or haul an elderly neighbor’s trash bin through the snow to the curb on garbage collection day? Would he be dropping a dollar into a homeless person’s outstretched hand, or volunteering at a food pantry, or giving a contribution to a domestic violence shelter?

Finally, furiously, I typed my reply to Mr. Religious Grinch–the reply that (lest I become a Grinch myself!) I ever so carefully deleted before my finger, hovering anxiously over it, could press the SEND button:

“Well, sir, since this light show disturbs you so much, perhaps you should set up on your own lawn a very non-secular display, full of stables and Holy Families and angels and stars and Magi and shepherds and sheep and oxen—and YOU could be the ASS!”

If you enjoyed this, then you might also want to read, “The Ghosts of Christmas Trees Past”, which you can locate by scrolling to the Archives, below on this page. It was published on December 18, 2019.

The Woman in the Beige Cloak

I usually publish a ghostly little poem or story near Halloween. But this is a true tale of a paranormal event.

My mother had been dead only a few months when, my Dad described to me an odd encounter he’d experienced a few nights earlier.

He’d gone to bed at his usual time, his little cat, Nefertiti, sleeping, as she usually did, curled into the jeans that he always left just lying on the floor. He hadn’t yet quite fallen asleep (or so he thought) when he suddenly saw a beautiful, unknown woman standing beside his bed, clearly visible in the darkness.

“You’re so lonely!” she said compassionately, and leaned forward to kiss him. Then she was gone. Just gone.

Grabbing the giant Maglite that always stood ready beside the bed, Dad clicked it on, swinging the bright beam around the room as he stumbled toward the wall switch to turn on the ceiling light. There was no one in the room. Neffi still slept peacefully, curled into the bed she made of his jeans.

Shrugging, Dad turned off the lights and flashlight, and went back to bed. But it took him a very long time to fall asleep.

Was he crazy, Dad now asked me? I soothed him, explaining that he had probably been just on the edge of sleep and had a very realistic dream.

But I had reason to remember this incident when, during Dad’s final six months of life, he told me one afternoon of something that he’d been experiencing: the Woman in the Beige Cloak.

“Don’t tell your brother this,” he begged me. “He’d think I’m losing my mind.” Then he proceeded to describe a vision that had occurred multiple times since his hospitalization and transfer into nursing home care. At the edge of his vision, for just a moment, he saw a woman standing in a hooded beige cloak. “I can’t see her face,” he told me. “The hood covers it. Do you think I’m hallucinating?”

I was impressed, not because of what he had seen, but due to his description. A “beige cloak” wasn’t the sort of thing my father would usually say. He’d generally describe such an outfit as a “this long tan thing with a hood”. That was much more Dad’s style of speaking. The alteration to his usual speech pattern indicated the seriousness of what he’d been seeing.

I considered my reply carefully before telling him that, no, I absolutely didn’t think he was hallucinating or losing his mind. “I think you’re seeing your Guardian Angel,” I told him honestly, without adding that I believed he was seeing this Being because he was very close to making his journey to the other side. But I reminded him of his long ago experience with the woman who had appeared at his bedside and spoken to him and kissed him; I suggested that this was the same caring Being.

Dad’s visions continued occasionally during the final months of his life, as he mentioned to me a few times. He seemed to find them bewildering, but comforting, complaining only that he wished he could see her face (he never doubted that the person he was seeing was a woman).

Later, though, and violating dad’s stricture against doing so, in a text exchange with my brother and Dad’s closest friend, I mentioned these sightings. My brother immediately brought up the possibility of several types of illness that would cause hallucinations. I conceded that possibility, choosing not to argue. I’ve always believed in angels.

But on December 1, Dad’s friend walked into his room at the care facility and found him waking the minute she entered to exclaim in total shock, “Who was that beautiful woman hovering over me?!” There was, of course, no other person in the room. But before his friend could remark that he must have merely been dreaming, he answered himself: “It was the woman in the beige cloak! I’ve never seen her face before.”

The next morning, the care home staff found my father cold and unresponsive. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed as having suffered a heart attack. Hospitalized for three days, Dad survived the attack to return to his room at the facility. But ten days following his heart attack he was dead.

As I believed then, so I believe now: the woman in the beige cloak was his Guardian Angel. She had revealed herself to him once during his time of uttermost grief, to comfort him in his loneliness. She had been with him throughout the long six months of his dying, watching over him. And she fully revealed herself to him on that day before his final illness spiraled into the debility that would take his life.

My father died in his sleep, but he was not alone.

May we all be so fortunate.

If you’d like to read another true paranormal story for the season, scroll to the Archives, below, and choose “A Ghost Story (Only It Isn’t a Story”) from October 27, 2021.

When the Queen Died

Hatred does not cease by hatred, ever.

As an adolescent constantly searching to discover the appropriate spiritual path for my life, I came across a book titled The World’s Great Religions. One line from that book would remain with me the rest of my life: Verse 5 of the Buddhist Dhammapada. The translation was given as, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, ever. Hatred ceases by love.” (I’ve read other translations of the verse in the intervening years, but they are in essence the same.)

I had reason to recall this favorite quote when, like many people, I was shocked to read the controversial tweet by Carnegie Mellon Professor Uju Anya as news broke of Queen Elizabeth II’s imminent death. Dr. Anya wrote, “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.” Twitter removed the post for violating its community guidelines, but not before it had circulated worldwide.

A short time later, Professor Anya followed her disturbing tweet with a factual, painful explanation. She described the genocide endured by the Igbo people, her people, when they attempted to separate from Nigeria to form the independent nation of Biafra. She detailed British involvement, wholly for financial reasons, in support of Nigeria during the ensuing war.

The child I had once been, reading that Buddhist quote at about the same time this war occurred, knew nothing of that conflict; Vietnam dominated the headlines for my young self. It was only after reading Dr. Anya’s explanatory remarks that I researched the history of the Biafra war. I found her description of British support of Nigeria in the war to be accurate, although the struggle was far more complex than she alluded; racism and wildly differing cultures helped ignite holocaust.

Nevertheless, after reading her explanation, Dr. Anya’s original tweet made far better sense to me. Filled with anguish for what her people had endured, she fastened upon the Queen as the singular object of her revulsion; the symbol of that past evil. I still could not, did not, approve of Dr. Anya’s spiteful words (hatred does not cease by hatred, ever), but I could certainly understand why she’d said them.

Yet I still had a real problem with Dr. Anya’s tweet. Those words, written by an educator, who claimed that they were, as she later remarked, “designed to educate people”, were simply inexcusable. The explanation that followed her outburst was educational; her malicious statement was not. Not in any way.

I do not pretend to be well-educated; in fact, my formal education is very slight. In consequence, I require more, a great deal more, of those who style themselves, by reason of years of study and position, to be educators. It was in that regard, as an educator, that Dr. Anya failed miserably.

Her outburst was, the professor asserted, an “unplanned, spontaneous” reaction when she learned that Queen Elizabeth was dying. That, too, did not wash. Anyone with a few functioning neural connections (and that would certainly include Carnegie Mellon professors!) knew for a good while that Elizabeth II hadn’t long to live. The Queen was 96 years old. She was the surviving spouse of a 74-year marriage—and Widowhood Effect has been understood for decades. She’d had Covid. When appointing Liz Truss as Prime Minister, she’d had to stand using a cane. Unplanned? Spontaneous? In my opinion, Dr. Anya’s vicious tweet was long planned, and anything but spontaneous. I simply could not accept her glib explanation that she was “triggered” upon learning that Queen Elizabeth was close to passing, and to my mind, that made the professor’s failure to first post the historical reasons for her fury even a greater failure of her position as an educator. She had ample time, during the Queen’s slow decline, to disseminate the terrible history of Britain’s behavior during the war, and engage her followers in frank discussion; to state why she held Queen Elizabeth, who was merely the titular head of the nation, personally responsible.

Put simply, Dr. Anya started at the wrong end of the stick. How many people saw only her first, inflamed tweet, and, disgusted, never read further to discover the very valid reasons behind her fury? How many more people might she have educated on the history of genocide had she first spoken factually, with restraint?

Professor Anya, an intelligent, well-educated woman, was so blinded by hate that she introduced her remarks in completely the wrong order, thereby garnering some sympathy, but also a great deal of antipathy.

Hatred does that. It blinds us and makes us behave poorly. And it does not cease.

Having struggled my whole life, though, with recurring bouts of rage and impotent fury for past abuse, I empathize with, while still not condoning, Dr. Anya’s reaction to the Queen’s passing.

Nevertheless, I persist in admiring Queen Elizabeth II for many reasons, not the least of which is the remarkable self-discipline that she demonstrated throughout her lifetime: her careful words and calm demeanor.

Had Dr. Anya been able to put aside her antipathy, even for a brief moment, might she have learned something from the Queen’s iron-willed self-control? Perhaps…

At any rate, Professor Anya, you successfully exacted belated vengeance upon a dying elderly woman and those who loved her, and I genuinely hope (although I doubt) that it helped you to heal at last. (Hatred does not cease by hatred, ever.)

Yet I somehow doubt that a double rainbow will split the sky at the hour of your own death.

If you appreciated this essay, you might also find something to like in “Princess Diana Saved My Life”, recently re-posted on August 31, 2022. You may locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below.

When We Weren’t White

Last year (and we are blaming Mercury Retrograde for the problem) this post failed to publish in time for the Columbus/Indigenous People’s holiday.  So this year it is being reprinted timely.

I am, as confirmed by DNA testing, half-Italian. My grandparents were each born in America, but their own families, including some older siblings, were born in Italy: Lucca, in Tuscany, and Vasto, not far from Rome.

One of my great-grandfathers actually arrived on the shores of America pre-Ellis Island, coming through Castle Garden, on the southern tip of Manhattan. Mansuetto Gregori arrived with his wife and children sometime during the 1840s or 1850s, long before Castle Garden stopped processing immigrants in 1890. Family legend, related to me by my grandmother decades ago, held that, having arrived in New York and before moving to what would eventually be Sioux City, Iowa, Mansuetto quickly changed the spelling of the family name to Gregory, hoping to be taken as “Black Irish” (the name once given to those dark-haired, olive-skinned Celts who descended from survivors of the 1588 destruction of the Spanish Armada). The Irish, as Mansuetto quickly determined, had assimilated and were (mostly) accepted in America, as Italians were not. I’ve never quite understood why Mansuetto would have believed that his accent, as he learned English, would fail to identify him as Italian rather than Irish, but I suppose that logic would have been his least consideration at the time.

We Italians weren’t White, you see. We would not be considered White until 1965 (I was 11 years old), when racist quotas on Italian immigration would finally be overturned.

So although many people–people of color, indigenous people, and those of Asian, Pacific Islander or Jewish descent–might easily glance at me and think, “privileged White person”—and although I, personally, suffered almost nothing of the anti-Italian sentiment which was once rife in the United States–well, no, not quite. My experience falls nowhere near the same classification as that of most Jews or Asians, and certainly doesn’t even place in the same solar system as the pervasive racism experienced daily by most Black people in the United States. But it was not all smooth sailing, either, especially for my paternal Grandmother and Grandfather, and not even for my own father. As I have reported in prior blog posts, my grandparents endured terrible incidents of bigotry throughout their lives. For my Grandmother, especially, those incidents left emotional scars; I will never forget my feelings of disbelief, shock, and grief when she first related the painful story of the racist remarks she suffered in early childhood at the hands of her teacher, an Irish-American Roman Catholic nun. (See “And Speaking of Prejudice”, from January 18, 2018.)

For, yes, as Italians, we were also Roman Catholic. Few people today realize or recall just how detrimental to his campaign was the Roman Catholicism practiced by John F. Kennedy. Yet it was not long after his assassination that I sat in my fifth grade classroom, listening fearfully, as my teacher explained to the class that, should the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion ever be revoked, “THEY” would come for us, just as they had murdered our President.  Fortunately for my peace of mind, there were many Catholic children in the neighborhood where I first grew up, since Holy Name church and school were literally around the block.  But the one little girl who was just my age (all the others were older or younger) wasn’t permitted to play with me, the “Car-tholic” girl. Bigotry comes in many forms.

Still, most of these fears and slights touched my life only peripherally, fading away as I grew to adulthood. Perhaps that is why I reacted viscerally to the reframing of Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day. PLEASE DO NOT MISUNDERSTAND! I genuinely believe this is a long-overdue reparation for and acknowledgement of the horrific damage suffered by the native peoples following the arrival of Europeans on the American shores. Nevertheless, I also have a heartfelt personal investment in Columbus Day, as an Italian American aware of the sad truth of the origins of the holiday: that the celebration (originally intended as a one-time event) was declared by the short-lived President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, following the horrifying New Orleans lynching of 11 Italian immigrants. The murders brought Italy and the United States nearly to the point of war; the Italian consul in New Orleans left the city at his government’s direction, and Italy cut off relations with the United States until President Harrison’s paltry act of reparation.

So while I rejoice at this new national consciousness; at the acknowledgement of wrong doing, and at the justice and truth brought to the reframing of the day, for me, for me personally, it can never quite be that. Columbus Day will for me, always, be recognized as “Lynched Italian Americans Day”.  You see, my racially-profiled and murdered ancestors are to me quite as important as yours are to you. And absolutely none of them, yours or mine, deserved to be treated as less than human because of the circumstances of their birth and heritage.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “You Dirty Wop”, which you can find in the Archives, below, from February 1, 2018.

The Oxygen Mask

My Dad never fully accepted the inevitability of death.

During a long ago mental health counseling session, I was advised by my therapist to work on being less of a caretaker personality. I should learn to acknowledge and fulfill my own needs, she suggested; to say no without excuses or guilt; “put the oxygen mask on your own face first”.

Years later, I’ve come some slight distance toward achieving those goals. I can occasionally acknowledge personal needs, and even work on fulfilling them. Rarely, though, am I able to say no without providing a reason, and never without experiencing guilt. And I suspect that, were I to be found in that situation, I’d be trying to cram the oxygen mask on the face of the nearest small child, rather than my own.

I suppose that’s why, during the distressing six months of my father’s decline and death, I experienced such disbelief at the overwhelming work required of a caretaker, and such shocked surprise at the irritation and resentment I found within myself.

This isn’t to say that I was alone in this situation. Fortunately, there were a number of us working together to take care of paying bills, confronting apathetic nursing home staff and non-communicative doctors, seeing to the maintenance of Dad’s home, and providing care for his lonely little cat. The visits, the medical appointments, the holiday meals, the daily phone calls, his laundry, locating medical equipment rentals, picking up and monitoring medication, even trimming his toenails—all those chores were divided between a small phalanx of helpers. In that respect, we were very fortunate. As I have said many times now, I honestly don’t know how people do this, alone and without assistance.

But the simple truth remains that caring for a very elderly parent—and Dad was 92 when he died—means that one is aging oneself. These chores, both mental and physical, are made more difficult by years: at 70, one simply hasn’t the mental flexibility of prior decades, or the physical stamina.

Complicating our job was the fact that Dad, never having accepted the inevitability of his own mortality, was in a state of astonished disbelief, furious about his increasing frailty. Dad had been hospitalized only once in his adult life, when he’d been put in traction to relieve back pain. Despite having never exercised and eating mostly junk, he’d remained amazingly healthy until he was past 89. Finally, excruciating pain in his knee and back began to limit his mobility, and years of smoking caught up with his lungs.

But unlike those of us who’ve experienced serious illness, Dad simply hadn’t reconciled with the fact that he would, someday, die, or that he would begin to fail physically. He raged at that reality, and, infuriated, began to morph into the worst version of himself: demanding, resentful, whining, snappish, angry. All of his caretakers, both employed and family, bore the brunt of his choleric temper while trying to remain calm and helpful. I’ll always recall the afternoon when one of the aides came to tidy his room at the care facility: I’d jumped up to help her as Dad, increasingly irritated, could not make her understand exactly how he wanted a certain blanket placed on the bed. He snarled at me, too, and the aide grinned and whispered, “Well, I thought it was just me, but I can see you’re in for it, too!”

As I left from my visit that day, I finally acknowledged to myself that I, too, was angry–really angry; bitter and resentful. At that point, we had all had tried for half a year to make Dad more comfortable in his unhappy situation, without ever receiving thanks from him, or even acknowledgement of our sacrifices and effort.

And so, finally, I put the oxygen mask on my own face. Knowing that I communicate best in writing, I handed my father a letter saying all of this, and more. I insisted that he examine his inappropriate behavior, and mend it. No matter what he was going through, I said, he had the obligation to treat staff, family, and friends with courtesy, respect and, above all, appreciation.

Dad was absolutely flabbergasted at my letter–flabbergasted, flummoxed, totally confounded. For my part, I found his reaction bewildering until it finally it dawned on me that never once in my adult life had I truly censured my father, no matter how bad his behavior. Oh, I’d sometimes humorously chided him for racist or misogynistic speech. I’d quietly suggested that everyone, even nurses just doing their jobs, deserved to be thanked. I’d gently advised him that friends, growing tired of hearing only complaints, might stop visiting. I’d begged him to say please rather than issue commands. But I’d never blatantly censured his conduct or resolutely demanded better behavior.

Sadly, I can’t say that my letter made a great deal of difference in Dad’s conduct during his final weeks. But putting that oxygen mask on my own face allowed me to at last take a long, deep, clear breath, straighten my burdened shoulders, and lift my head high in acknowledgement of my own perfectly reasonable requests and legitimate needs.

And that felt good.

If you appreciated (I won’t say enjoyed) this post, you might also like “Aging Prayer”, from January 26, 2022. You can locate it in the Archives list, below.

Flowers for the Living

Survivors don’t need flowers. They need memories.

When my friend, living 900 miles away in another state, died, no one told me.

Renee

I knew that Renée was dying. Late in the winter of 2021/22, she’d been suffering from prolonged pneumonia, treated at the local urgent care clinic with antibiotics and steroids. But she hadn’t gotten better, and finally X-rays were taken. They revealed cancer. A lifelong smoker, she had stage 4 lung cancer.

Having lost another friend to this terrible disease, I knew there was no hope. Chemo and immunotherapy could give her only a bit more time, not a cure. Nevertheless, I pretended with her to hope.

We had been friends since the late 1980s, despite the fact that we had never met. Introduced by letter through a mutual friend who recognized our similarities in outlook and philosophy, we became pen pals when that meant writing letters and affixing postage. In an era when long-distance calls were costly, we rarely phoned one another, but nevertheless “talked” regularly, supporting each other through innumerable crises and congratulating one another on every life achievement: children’s graduations, marriages, family drug problems, the deaths of friends and family and pets, my uterine cancer, various jobs, a grandchild’s birth, retirement. We decided we had been sisters in a previous incarnation. Her pet ferret died, and I wept with her; my favorite cat died, and she sent me a condolence card.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABekkahboo, my namesake cat

Renée herself adored cats and started breeding Sphinxes, even naming one in my honor. I began to call her Cat Lady. She nicknamed me Lady A for a long-running joke between us.

As e-mail developed, our friendship branched out first through that, and then text. We still rarely made phone calls except in the most stringent of circumstances, but now we were in touch several times a week or even a day. I started my blog, and she signed up immediately as a follower. My grandchild was born, and I learned to attach videos; I sent them to her, and she mailed my little one baby dolls and dollhouse toys.

And then she got sick. Hospitalized immediately, awaiting surgery, she texted me, “I’m so scared.” “I know,” I told her; “I know. I’m praying. I’ve got everyone I know praying for you. You can beat this,” I told her, knowing that I was lying, while I wept to my daughter, “I can’t lose another friend to cancer!”

She texted that she was alone at the hospital, hoping for a visit later of a close friend, but meanwhile, alone.

Renee Flowers (2)

Not knowing what else I could do, I called, and then sent her flowers. The bouquet arrived, and she texted me a photo of it. It was spring-like, she told me. It was bright and beautiful.

She with cancer, I with lifelong asthma and a newly-diagnosed heart problem, we knew that flying in the era of Covid would not be wise. Nevertheless, I readied my guest room for her, describing all the redecorating, so that she could believe that she would be here.

I began texting her multiple times a day, about anything and everything. “It’s the only way I can let you know that I think of you, all day long, every day. That you’re constantly in my thoughts and prayers.” “Keep ‘em coming,” she answered. Her replies at first came every day or two, then every three or even four days, then hardly at all. I knew that she was growing weaker. But she still made an effort to respond, especially if I sent her videos or photos.

A day or two after my ranting post appeared, complaining about the medical profession, she texted me that she wanted to print it and send it to several friends. “Push the button to republish it,” I told her.

It was the last text I would ever have from her.

After a few days of hearing nothing, I said, “I wish I’d hear from you.” I suggested, “Maybe you could just text me the number of a friend, so I could chat with them about how you’re doing.” But she did not respond. Since I am a Facebook abstainer, my daughter offered to check Renée’s Facebook page and message her. But, again, we received no response.

Then on August 26 I woke from a worrisome dream. It can’t mean, I told myself. No, certainly not. But by noon I could bear the suspense no longer. I searched for “Obituary Renée Croteau Massachusetts”—and found it. NO! THAT CAN’T BE RIGHT! I gazed in horror at the screen. But I pressed the link, and there it was: the face of my beloved friend. She had died a week prior, on August 19. She had already been buried. And no one had contacted me. No one had reached out to me. No one had told me.

In the days since, shock, and then grief, and then anger, have been my constant companions. Was her phone locked? Did her husband and sons not know her passwords to it or her social media or e-mail, to find me in her contacts? Had they made no preparation for what we all knew was coming? Had they not asked her, “Who should we contact?”

Or had they looked at all of it and just not cared?

How did she die? Was she in a coma at the end? Could they have held the phone to her ear, so I could have said goodbye? Was it quick? Did she pass in her sleep? All the questions to which I need answers swirl about me, keeping me from sleep, gnawing at my brain.

But the one thought that stays with me in the end and gives me some small comfort is: I sent her flowers. Flowers that gave her joy in a dark hour.

Flowers are for the living, but survivors don’t need flowers. They need memories. And I have an abundance of those.

In Loving Memory of My Dear Friend, Cat Lady, Renée Croteau
1963 – 2022

The blog post about the medical profession which Renée liked so well was published on August 10. You may locate it in the Archives.

Typhoid Mary, Covid Carrie

I have somehow become suspected of being a walking Covid factory; the Wuhan Market in human form.

It would appear that I, quite innocently and without any evidence whatever, have become the Midwest’s greatest vector for disease transmission; the Typhoid Mary of Covid. To this I can only say that, not content with scything down a large portion of the population and rendering the rest ill for months with the long form of the disease, Covid has made people downright freaking crazy.

The first indication of my unwitting selection as the Great Disease Vector came in January, 2021. The vaccine had just been released, but was in short supply; only specific populations–the most elderly, those who looked after them, health workers, etc.–were given first shot (pun intended!) at vaccination. Several members of my family fell into those categories, though, and were promptly vaccinated. But I, plenty old but not quite elderly, was caught in a holding pattern, waiting for my chance at a shot to save my life. (It’s really a great pun.)

Now, some of our family members being Asian American, we have for many years celebrated Chinese New Year together. In 2021, that holiday arrived in January. Unfortunately, one of those family members had been ill with an undiagnosed mystery illness (think, possible long Covid following asymptomatic disease; think, with far less charity and a touch of irritation, just plain hypochondria). So when the celebration rolled around, the vaccinated family members were invited. I, however, was warned by the most officious member of the family that I was a danger to the sick person, since he, along with his wife and three children, were too young to be vaccinated. Don’t come! I was ordered.

I did as bidden and stayed home, heartbroken. Only much later did it occur to me that, as a lifelong asthmatic, I was in a great deal more danger from two unvaccinated adults and three unvaccinated children than they were from me. But, hey, who was I, Covid Carrie, to quarrel?

Finally, the vaccine was released to those of my age category and (after a mighty battle with the website—for the love of heaven! Despite having come to tech so late that I actually learned to type on a manual typewriter, I could and did design numerous databases during my final two decades at the office, all of which functioned one helluva lot better than the joke perpetrated upon a helpless populace by the Indiana State Board of Health! But I digress….) I finally received my first vaccine and began the tortuous waiting period for the second shot.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, Easter rolled around. A gathering was planned once again with Mr. Mystery Illness and his kin, and I was warned, “You’re a danger to him. You’ve only had one shot. Don’t come.” You’re a walking Covid factory. You’re the Wuhan Market in human form. Stay away, Covid Carrie. I sighed and spent Easter visiting a homebound relative.

The world kept turning, and I, now both fully vaccinated and extremely careful, did not fall ill of Covid. In fact, when boosters became available in October, I rushed to get one, standing in line for over an hour despite having arrived early to my appointment. Nothing was going to keep me from that booster! When Thanksgiving landed, by God, I was going to be ready: vaccinated, boosted, mask-wearing, crowd-avoiding and hand sanitizer using me!

I hadn’t counted, though, on yet another family member. Despite every argument we flung at him, despite seeing that the vaccine had done the rest of us no harm, my son-in-law was adamantly an anti-vaxxer. Once more I was given an ultimatum: I could come to Thanksgiving dinner, but my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter could not, due to his unvaccinated status (the possibility of his testing negative using one of the now readily-available home tests was not even discussed). Choking on my tears, I made my Sophie’s Choice, deciding, of course, in favor of my daughter and her little family. I had, after all, promised my baby granddaughter when she was no more than twelve hours old that I would always protect her, even to giving my life for hers. Giving up Thanksgiving seemed quite minor by comparison.

After all this, then, it came as no surprise to me this summer when I was barred from yet another gathering, this time of friends. I’d been exposed to Covid several days before our luncheon was planned to take place, and was upfront about that with everyone. But, I offered, I would test both the day before and the morning of the luncheon; I would wear a mask, and not order or eat, so I would not have to take it off; I would just join them at the table to bask in the joy of being with friends.

We can’t risk it, I was told.

Accustomed at this point to my status as a pariah, I was saddened, but neither upset nor surprised. My friends met for luncheon in an enclosed restaurant space, surrounded by strangers of uncertain vaccination, health, and testing status, and I remained at home.

Still, I find it odd that, having not yet (I will not dare say never!) fallen to Covid despite being directly exposed to it now over four times, I should somehow have acquired the weighty status of the Great Midwestern Disease Vector. As I say, looking at the anti-vax and vaccine wars, the lockdowns and protests, the attacks on mask wearers and mask refusers, as well as what I have experienced, it would seem that Covid’s true legacy is not actually death and destruction, but simple, plain, insanity.

For another viewpoint on my experiences with Covid, you might appreciate “No Pleasure in Being Right”, which you can locate by scrolling down to the Archives. It was published September 1, 2021.

I Really Hate the Medical Profession! ( Part 1, Probably)

There is a reason for those two snakes on the caduceus!

A few weeks ago, I endured what is euphemistically termed a sleep study.  I haven’t the slightest notion under the frigging flaming sun as to why it would be called that, since the whole convoluted process would be more correctly titled a sleep deprivation study.  There’s no way in Dante’s Hell that any normal human being could sleep under those contrived circumstances, and certainly not someone like myself, afflicted with mild claustrophobia.  Sci-Fi androids probably have fewer wires than those that were slapped on me that night: a giant metal surge protector slung about my neck connecting hundreds of tiny twisted cables; nasal cannula jammed up and drying out my nose; sticky electrodes lining my body from my scalp right down to my calves.  And all of this in a stuffy windowless box of a room.  Sleep? Who could sleep?!

Even more hilarious were some of the questions on the paperwork I had to complete prior to the study.  Do I snore?  How the devil would I know?  I live alone.  My cats haven’t complained.  What did I weigh in high school?  Are you kidding me?  I’m 68 years old.  I sometimes can’t remember if I ate breakfast today, and they’re asking what I weighed in high school?  A lot less than I do today, was my somewhat-acerbic answer.

Despite this absurdity, the medical powers-that-be somehow determined that I suffer mild sleep apnea.  A CPAP machine was recommended.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, because I wasn’t really thrilled with the whole idea), in keeping with everything else  that is unobtainable/scarce/in shortage during the Covid era, CPAP machines are globally unavailable for six to nine months, as I was informed by a phone call from the medical provider’s office.  Having told me this, this same provider’s office then scheduled a follow-up appointment just three months down the road.  Excuse me?  If I’m not receiving any treatment for this condition (of which I remain unconvinced, anyway, considering the bogus environment of the test), why would I fork over yet another $176 fee to learn…what?  Nothing?  Sorry, doc, I don’t feel called upon to contribute to your next Caribbean vacation cruise.

All of this madness was, I should probably explain, in service of determining the cause of a worrisome heart arrhythmia.  So that night of sleep deprivation was followed by yet more ineptitude with a stress test.  (“Can you walk?” the cardiologist asked me, and I answered in the affirmative.  I enjoy walking.)  Unfortunately, she asked the wrong question.  She should have said, “Can you jog?  Sprint?  Run?”  Nope, and, suffering asthma, I’ve not been able to do so for perhaps 35 years or more.

The tech inserting the IV in my arm helpfully wrote “ASTHMA” in big warning letters across my paperwork before I was handed over to two techs who had, quite obviously, never encountered an asthma patient in their very young lives.  I suggested using my rescue inhaler first, and was voted down.  Bad move.  I always use my inhaler prior to exercising.  So, tucking the inhaler into my clothing where I could reach it easily, I hopped up onto a treadmill set to what they described as a “brisk walk”, with no warm up preceding the rush of movement.  Uh…  What they termed a brisk walk, I called at least a trot.  Not a good idea, without a warm-up, for most older people–joints, you know; for an asthmatic, a very, very, VERY bad idea. In a mask, too. Within three minutes, I was suffering a full-blown asthma attack and (since they refused to pause the machine to allow me to use my inhaler) the whole test had to be scuttled.  Three hits of my inhaler later, they proclaimed, “You’re having an exaggerated blood pressure response”.  Uh, a colossal asthma attack and three blasts of albuterol—ya think?

One week later, while speaking with the physician’s assistant who had received my test results, she complained that I’d been unable to exercise long enough to get accurate readings.  “I had an asthma attack,” I protested, and she was surprised.  That fact hadn’t been mentioned in my results.

Finally, reading the conclusions posted to my online chart, I sat, stupefied as I scanned the information.  My heart, I learned, was structurally sound.  There was no evidence of blockage, heart attack, or arterial disease causing the palpitations that I was experiencing.  “Continue with your treatment plan until your next appointment,” the letter concluded. See you in six months….

WHAT treatment plan?  Wasn’t that what all these tests were in aid of determining?  I had no treatment plan.

For two years, Covid gave me an excuse to entirely avoid the medical profession and seek natural treatments for any problems I experienced.  While l, along with the rest of the world population, would really, really like to see Covid become a faint and fading, distant memory, I’d still genuinely appreciate another such perfect justification to never see another doctor—never, ever again, for the rest of my life.

If you appreciated this little rant, I’m sure you’d enjoy “Aging Is Difficult Enough Without…”, which I published on July 29, 2020.  You can scroll down to the Archives, below, to locate it.

Lessons Learned

With the youngest memory of our family taking the first step of her educational journey today, I was reminded of this post from January 25, 2018.

As I mentioned in a long-ago post, we all have memories of teachers we idolized, and others whom we absolutely despised. Sometimes, too, those memories are a mixed bag, such as when we received shabby treatment from a teacher we liked.  We all have those stories.  These are two of mine.

I adored my fifth grade teacher, Miss Shireman. Looking back through time using the eyes of an adult, I can see that she was one of those rare teachers who not only genuinely enjoyed teaching, but liked children, as well.  She devised endless wonderful projects and creative ways to engage us in learning.

But what eluded me completely in childhood was that, like all of us, my beloved teacher was human.  She had good and bad days, and sometimes those feelings affected her teaching.

One such bad day occurred during our study of Indiana history. Miss Shireman had assigned us to draw a map of Indiana and its counties, and given us a weekend to complete the assignment.

Draw a map of Wyoming or New Mexico – a cinch. But draw a map of Indiana, with its squiggly lower border and 92 counties?  Not so simple.

I sweated over that map. I carefully drew and erased and redrew that noxious bottom border, and struggled to fit in all the weirdly-shaped counties.  I worked as hard on it as I had ever done on any assignment, and felt pretty proud when I turned it in that Monday.

A few days later, I was shocked when Miss Shireman stood in front of us and slammed the handful of maps down on her desk, declaring her disgust over the poor work we’d all done. We were going to do the maps over, she announced, and this time, we’d better do them well.

I was devastated. I had tried so hard! I’d been so proud!  It took everything in me not to cry. But pride came to my aid.  I redid my map by tracing the one I’d already done.  I knew it was already my best work, and I wasn’t about to redraw the whole darned thing.

It was not the first time I’d been scolded by a teacher for poor work when I knew I had tried my hardest, but, probably due to how well I liked Miss Shireman, it is the most painfully memorable.

Then came seventh grade.  Our teacher, Mr. Phillips (whom I didn’t dislike, but had no special liking for, either) encouraged our creativity and language development by having us write short stories.  In this, I was in my element.  I loved it…until the day he told us to choose an incident from American history as the basis for our story.

Wham! Writer’s block. I HATED American history.  It seemed to me nothing but a series of bloody battles and hypocritical old white men trying to circumvent the Constitution and get rich by trampling the bodies and spirits of others (sort of like a recent Administration).  I finally landed on one possible theme: the mysterious disappearance of the entire colony of Roanoke, Virginia.  That incident did intrigue me.

Once again, I sweated over the assignment. I wrote and rewrote that story, quickly learning that writing without inspiration was like slogging through knee-deep swamp mud.  I wasn’t precisely proud of the version I at last submitted, but I was satisfied.  So it was quite a slap in the face to receive my graded story back with a poor mark and the caustic comment written across it: “This is a very poor effort for you.”

Poor effort?! Did that jerk not understand how hard I had worked on that story?  It was my absolute very best damned effort under the circumstances, and he didn’t have the sense to appreciate it.

(Yes, it still makes me mad.)

There are numerous other memories of unhappy moments with teachers bopping about my memories of my years in school. I daresay everyone has memories like that.  And if these two stand out so prominently in my thoughts, it is mostly because of a sense of injustice.  I had done my very best, and was belittled despite it. But that in itself was a really important lesson for life, although probably not in the school syllabus.

I would need to use my fingers and my toes and then start on the strands of my hair to count the number of times in my working years that I was unjustly reprimanded. Small people given a little bit of authority often prove Lord Acton’s statement about the corrupting qualities of power. Being unjustly reprimanded by a boss at the office is a sad fact of life for most workers.

The most important lessons we learn in school are often not part of the curriculum. But they are probably the lessons we most need to prepare us for reality and for our future.

Happy first day of preschool, sweet Morrigan Lynn!

If you appreciated this essay, then you’d probably enjoy a post related to the many times in my working life that I had to rely on that childhood lesson of being unjustly reprimanded.  You can find “Tales of the Office: Jackass Bosses I Survived!” by scrolling to the Archives, below. It was published April 27, 2022