Not Today, Death

“Don’t cry. Stop crying,” she commanded, as I trapped my sobs and focused on her words. “Don’t cry. You have one heart, one body, one life. YOU have to fight for it. Stop crying.” The Infectious Disease Doctor seemed exasperated with me, as if my tears were drops of weakness that made me sicker. Briefly I thought my illness must seem measly to the towering Serbian blonde. In that moment I felt so small in my hospital bed. It was day 4 and despite innumerable tests, no bacteria had been found despite the appearance of my lungs on x-rays and a CT. “Maybe you aren’t finding anything because RA is doing this to me.” “You have fever and pneumonia, all signs of infection. This is what we are treating with antibiotic, ” she waved her hand at an IV bag hanging from one of the poles next to my bed. An oxygen machine ringed in pale blue gurgled and hissed in my left ear. The night before a child with big eyes stood at my bedside wearing a dress in the same shade. Intuition said I should keep that to myself.

When I created this blog 5 years ago I was 44, and fresh off losing a tough, unfair battle for my health and career. I’d been fighting since I was a kid, for myself and sometimes for those who I thought needed a champion, and I was spent. In hindsight, other people, especially those in power, not only preferred women who didn’t make waves, but rewarded them for not fighting. Maybe if I adopted a quieter, more graceful approach during the 5th decade, life would prove less bruising. In any case, I needed time to heal. What I didn’t know is that my fighting spirit would one day be the difference between life and death.

Lying in that hospital bed a few weeks ago, I feared going “…gently into that good night”, dying of pneumonia as the poet Dylan Thomas did, but after 5 years of curbing my fighting nature I was sorely out of shape. There are dreams I haven’t realized because I laid ambition aside, trips I haven’t taken, and works I haven’t written. Death takes who it can snatch away, especially if one cannot fight. Medical professionals are often champions when we are weak, their educated treatment hitting a bullseye and chasing away mortality. And then, there is luck and those who rage; “… rage against the dying of the light” – Dylan Thomas. One physician listened to my mumbles about rheumatoid arthritis as I was sliding near intubation, the ICU, and a large sucking mudhole next to my bed (According to a study published by the American College of Chest Physicians, every day a patient is delirious brings a 20 percent increased risk of prolonged hospitalization and a 10 percent increased risk of death). Once he consulted with my rheumatology office and hung a high dose bag of steroids, the mudhole disappeared. For me, rage didn’t look like the screaming, swing at the fences anger of my younger years. It looked liked grasping, holding on and repeating my assertion that RA affects the lungs, despite feeling small and weak. A reward for my tenacity is more time to write and dig my toes in the sand. Love is sweeter now, too.

My sixth decade begins in a couple of months, time enough to regain my strength, embrace my true passionate self, and resolve to live as loudly as I want. I understand now that I don’t have time to waste. Death is funny that way.

 

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Final Goodbyes

Although how we say goodbye to the dead has evolved and varies from culture to culture, the need is as old as time, as is the belief that there is an afterlife.  Even Neanderthals placed flowers in the hands of the dead before they sealed the bodies in caves 300,000 years ago.  Memories rush in, clouded by love and grief, and although it is past too late, we appreciate them more when they are out of our reach forever.  Honoring the ones we’ve lost cauterizes our wound, and we accept that the ceremony is for us, the living.  It sets us on the path to healing, our cries resembling a release valve on an overflowing well of hurt.  Living there for a few hours reminds us that death is the great equalizer and for a time we hold our living loves closer, sometimes afraid of the randomness of death, oftentimes aware of how brief even a long life is.

The days of public displays of the dead are waning, thank God, replaced by memorial services and “celebrations of life”.  We turn to God, even if it is the only time we do so, for comfort and hope that our loved ones live on.  You may shy away from reading this, grief being among the hardest emotions and certainly one we want to avoid.  It is also common ground for every person that was ever born.  January is to me what April was to T.S. Elliot.  Time dulls the edges, but I hold tight to my deepest grief because it is all I have left of my son.  It is mine and this public declaration is unusual to say the least.  I know death makes people uncomfortable and talk of it is to be avoided, especially when we are years away from a tragedy.  One of the changes I’ve experienced in this decade is that I am becoming increasingly transparent and immune to other’s expectations.

We attended a memorial service last week for Dale, an uncommon character and dear friend of my parents’.  I was moved when the preacher said that Dale loved to tease, or as his wife Sue put it, “agitate”.  It seems more respectful to remember him as he was.  Dale’s agitation came with rewards, however, such as his outlandish stories about inventing the computer, the internet, and a multitude of other modern conveniences.  He was a Navy Seal deep diver (for real) when decompression was unheard of and his heart paid the price.  Only Dale would consider his chainsaw as a remedy for the dozens of  situations he employed it for.  He made us laugh and was an overly generous man.  We received a thank-you card from his wife yesterday that asked us to remember our good times with Dale.  We will.

A local giant says goodbye

Frederick Meijer, the founder of “one-stop-shopping” died on Friday at age 91 after suffering a stroke earlier in the day.  Fred, as he was known in the community, was a free-thinker with common sense values who with the help of his friend Earl Holton built a small empire of Meijer retail stores.  In 1934 Fred’s father Hendrick opened a grocery store in Greenville Michigan at which Fred worked 40 hours a week while attending high school and where he met his wife Lena, who was a clerk.  In 1962 Hendrick and Fred opened the first Meijer Thrifty Acres.  Every child that grew up in Michigan after the mid-sixties remembers riding the mechanical horse at the front of every store for a penny.  I just noticed the other day that there is still a horse at the front of my local Meijer and amazingly it still costs a penny to ride.

My admiration for Fred was born when I went to work at a newly opened Meijer store in the late 90’s.  I was hired as an “everything gal” for the store and met Fred several times during those few years.  His favorite ice cream was blue moon and he would hand out pennies to children so they could ride the horse when he came in for a scoop.  He always had a pocket full of pennies.  Occasionally I was asked to deliver gallons of milk and other sundries to Fred’s friends’ homes when they were ill.  I thought it was nice that they shared this personal information with an errand girl, but it was not surprising.  I was such a believer in Fred Meijer and Earl Holton that after a year I became a Hiring and Training Manager.  Earl was President of Meijer and had started at Meijer as a bag boy.  Fred’s Dad Hendrick was not nearly as fond of Earl as Fred was because it bothered him that Earl always had a smoke when he retrieved the grocery carts from the parking lot.  Up until a few years ago every Meijer store had a smoking break room so that customers never saw employees smoking out in the lot.  Earl’s approach to customer service was inspirational.  In the early years a customer asked him for a fry pan that was locked in a storeroom.  The only set of keys were with the store manager who had left for the day, so Earl removed the door from its hinges to get that fry pan for the waiting customer.  Fred empowered his employees and trusted their judgment because he believed that he could not possibly know everything.  Thanks to his wife Lena, all of the store’s bathroom doors swing out so that you don’t have to touch them with clean hands.  I’m surprised that sensible idea hasn’t caught on.  Sam Walton said he got the idea to include groceries in Wal-Mart from Meijer, and several other chains followed suit.

Fred and Lena Meijer kept the company family owned, choosing not to take it public several times over the past 30 years.  Their philanthropy is well-known throughout our community with the Meijer Heart Center and 125-acre Meijer Garden and Sculpture Park standing as living testaments to their generosity.  I am positive that there are many individuals who remember small acts of kindness from Fred.  I will always remember him as the billionaire that did not act like one, who spoke to me as if I was his equal.  It may be cliché, but it is fitting to say that they just don’t make them like Fred anymore.