Monday, April 25, 2011

Facing Mortality: A challenge

Lately, in addition to writing about my past, I’ve been losing weight and getting fit—in many ways, attempting to turn back the clock. Beyond living life to the fullest, I haven’t spent a whole lot of energy preparing for my own death. And why should I? I’m a busy lady. With so many other people expecting things of me, and me expecting so much from myself, how can I work something like that into my schedule? I mean, come on—like many writers, I don’t do anything unless it comes with a deadline.

Oops. I guess when it comes to preparing for death we all have a deadline. We just don’t know when it is.

You might think I’d be the last person to be caught without the proper documentation when I reach the pearly gates. After all, I’m a writer—how hard can it be to slap together a last will and testament when there are templates to work from? Furthermore, I’m assisting aging parents as they deal with dementia, and have already reaped the benefits of the attention they paid to their advance directives and powers of attorney. My husband’s mother even planned her own funeral, and told Dave she wanted balloons at the party afterward; at his time of grief all he had to do was decide the order in which to sing her chosen hymns.

I should have learned this lesson after my first husband’s suicide.

For reasons that seemed practical at the time, Ron never added my name to the farmhouse he already owned when we married. We were just starting out our happy lives together; who was thinking about what might happen if Ron died?

I found out what happened—as concerns the farmhouse, there was no clear right of succession. You might think property would go to the spouse; after all, I’d cared for it and renovated it and called the place “home” for fifteen years, and raised my children there. The State of Pennsylvania had other thoughts. According to a pre-set formula, the boys and I inherited jointly—and because of that, I entered into a business relationship with my eight- and ten-year-old sons.

Ron dying without a will or power of attorney also meant that after his suicide—at a time when I was in deeper shock than at any other time in my life, and my kids needed me more than ever, and I had, literally and figuratively, a huge mess to clean up—I also had to go to the courthouse and get administratrix papers just so I could close our joint bank account or sell our jointly owned cars.

I did move forward with a will in those first years after Ron’s death, but in a test of resolve that I failed, when I went to sign it, the lawyer’s computer had crashed and she’d lost it. I could not scrape together the energy to do it again…and now it’s more than a decade later.

So it was with great interest I attended a recent series of programs at my church on preparing for the end of life. It was quite well attended—I wasn’t the only one who had put this issue off, and it seemed we all needed to hear the message one more time.

Yesterday, with both sons sitting around the table after Easter dinner, we talked about my will, how I planned to handle things, and what their wishes might be as concerns a few business details. I’m finally going to tend to this.

I have no more time or disposable income than I have had any other week in the past ten years, but I’m going to do this because that church series reminded me of something I’d already known: such preparations are both responsible and a huge gift. Acting on this knowledge is long overdue. I love my children, and should I predecease them, I want my passing to be a time of reflection and remembered joy and allowable grieving, unsullied by legal hassle. And should I linger, I want them to be clear on what I believe is a viable living state so they can make decisions not associated with inner turmoil.

I can help them with that, and I will. My appointment is at 10 a.m., May 2. How about you: are you prepared for your own demise?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Thing You Can't Do

Last week I wrote about Ron burying one of our goats, something he had to do although I’m sure he never wanted to. Ron loved a challenge—as long as it was related to the carpentry trade. To renovate our farmhouse, he learned wiring and stone pointing and all sorts of framing, drywall, flooring, and finishing techniques.

In other words, he loved to acquire anything he could hang from his tool belt. He shied away, though, from challenges that would stretch him from the inside out. Instead of staying as his father lay dying in the hospital, he offered to take his mother home—a move he regretted so much he mentioned it in his suicide note five years later. I was the one who stayed with Lloyd that last, long night. I’d never seen anyone die before, either—but I didn’t think he should do it alone.

Due to my need to commit Ron to psychiatric treatment against his will, and his subsequent suicide standoff, Ron continued to give me ample opportunities to do things I thought I couldn’t. It seems odd to call them “opportunities,” but in the long view, that’s what they were: each impossible challenge I met made me a larger, stronger person.

It wasn’t a lesson I sought to learn from him, but Ron taught me that sometimes you’ve got to do that thing you think you can’t.

Here are a few of the challenges I faced after Ron’s death, which I write about in my memoir:

1. I had to contest a lawyer’s invoice when, unbeknownst to me, divorce services originally valued at $3,000 had transitioned, upon Ron’s death, into a $15,000 estate case (I had no experience with lawyers; until then I had only ever bartered for the purchase of a Christmas tree).

2. I had to tell my eight- and ten-year-old sons that their father had killed himself.

3. I had to scrape pieces of my husband’s brain off the wall of his woodworking shop, where the Hazmat team missed them.

4. After six months, I finally found a service that could clean up after mace—the police who shot it into Ron's shop, to try to get him to come out during the standoff, had no clue how to help me.

5. I sold my husband’s guns (I knew nothing of guns, was scared to touch them, and felt faint standing in the gun shop).

6. I took a weekend after Christmas, waiting on one toll-free number after another, to cancel 29 active credit cards I didn't know about (I’ve refused every offer of new credit since, no matter what the enticement).

7. Dealt with #s 1–6 above, and more, while teaching my sons—who should never have had to witness any of this—that hope is always possible to find.

8. Watched as a vet euthanized my dear dog Max, because he too suffered from the suicide standoff, and while life left his body I was determined that my loving eyes would be the last thing he’d see—then brought him home and buried him on the farm.

9. Stayed on the farm to raise my children, facing down again and again and again what happened there.

10. Through all of this, held tight enough to my belief in the possibility of a healthy, enduring love that I was able to marry again.

I've learned that all sorts of things are possible. I remember once thinking that I’d never be able to swim a half-mile—then I swam two.

I, like my husband Dave, am afraid of heights—yet we climbed the Beehive at Acadia National Park in Maine (pictured above).

I thought I'd never travel abroad then Dave and I accompanied the boys on their school choir trip to Italy and watched them sing in the Vatican.

I recently thought I’d never be able to lose weight at my age—then, with hard work, lost 15 lbs.

I didn't think I could face caring for my parents, who suffer from dementia—but I am.

I once thought I’d never amass enough words or ideas to fill a book, but the memoir I’m writing is my third. Can I get any of them published? It's harder than ever for a first-time author to break into print and yet... Who knows what other feats I’m capable of?

I've decided there’s never shame in falling short of a goal. Because if you don’t try, you’ll never know. The trying, in and of itself, can add value to your life.

What have you done, that you thought you’d never be able to do?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

One hot April day

While it always feels like an anomaly, it’s not that unusual for Pennsylvania to experience a “heat snap” in April that shoots temperatures into the 80s. Since April weather is more likely in the mid-50s, the spike creates an event remarkable enough that we can tie a memory to it. One of mine has to do with the death of Jeremiah in 1989.

Jeremiah (above, background) was an Alpine goat, and quite smart. When we went to meet him, the breeder looked up into his herd and called “Jeremiah!” The goats were spread across a wooded hillside—Alicia, Bettina, Carlotta…all of their names ended in an “ah” sound—but only one perked up his head and trotted down the hill. This farmer sold milk, yogurt and cheese products, so kept only a few intact males for breeding purposes; other young neutered males he sold to butchers. But when a special goat like Jeremiah came along, the farmer would try to find a good home.

We already owned one goat, a baby Nubian named Clementine (above, foreground) that I’d bought Ron as a Valentine (yes, the card I wrote rhymed). When she went off her feed and wouldn’t even accept the bottle of mother’s milk we’d retrieved, we quickly learned that goats are herd animals and need socialization to thrive. That led us to bring home “Uncle” Jeremiah—in the back seat of my Chevy Nova.

Clementine’s interest in food revived. They were so cute together. At first Jeremiah was twice her height, and she would run back and forth underneath his belly.

Lives come to an end, though, and years later Jeremiah died one morning of what we believed to be bone cancer. One April morning, with that day’s temperatures suddenly expected to climb past 80.

My participation was off the table—I was six months pregnant with Marty, and had toddler Jackson to care for. Burying the goat would fall to Ron and my brother Scott.

I’d already buried enough cats in that rocky soil to know what they faced; it would take hours to make a small hole three feet deep. They had to go six feet deep and a whole lot wider. It was a Sunday, so hiring someone with machinery wasn’t possible. With the heat climbing, they had no choice but to get started.

They left Jeremiah in the relative cool of the barn as they dug. I brought water out to them by the gallon as their bodies, unused to laboring in such temperatures, struggled to adapt. Scott was young, and a fitness nut to boot, but I wasn’t sure how 46-year-old Ron would hold up. As home renovators we were used to some manual labor, but nothing this heavy. He engaged in no regular exercise, and he smoked.

More importantly, he was emotionally under-equipped: Ron showed his love for his animals by fawning over them with hugs and kisses. He didn't do the tough stuff. I typically handled their medical care and end-of-life determinations. I’m sure the water running down his face was as much tears as sweat.

By mid-afternoon they’d had it. Ron and Scott deemed the hole ready and went to retrieve the body. Removing it from the stall, which required a few tight turns, was a trick in itself because by that time rigor mortis had set in. There was no way Ron could hold his breath and avert his eyes and pretend this wasn’t happening.

At long last they got the body out to the hole and laid Jeremiah within it.

At least, they tried.

Jeremiah’s rigid legs wouldn’t fit down into the hole. Scott was quick and decisive. “I’m not digging any more.”


“Turn around if you can’t watch.”

Seeing no other choice, Ron turned away while one at a time Scott dropkicked his work boots through the goat’s legs, breaking each until the goat dropped into the hole. Once Scott had covered the body with enough soil to cover the evidence of his act, Ron joined in and completed the burial.

Life on the farm offered up many opportunities to stretch ourselves in unexpected ways—more about that in the next post. Now that I live in Doylestown, though, when the temps hit the 80s yesterday, Dave and I had a bit more fun.

We walked up into town, as may others did, and got an ice cream cone.

Last night though, I watched 127 Hours through On Demand while Dave was at a meeting (if you've seen the movie you'll know the parallel to Jeremiah's burial right away). I may have moved on, but I will not forget.

Do you have any memories tied to a hot day in April?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A storyteller is never alone

Friday night I had an extraordinary opportunity to do a public reading of the first chapter of the memoir I’m writing, Standoff at Ronnie’s Place. The event was held at Fairfield University in Connecticut, where the editors of Mason’s Road, the journal that published this piece, were throwing a launch party to celebrate the journal’s first two issues.

Now I’ve done plenty of public readings. What was different about this one was the fact that until that evening, I had not met a single one of the 75 audience members assembled. In addition, many of them had never heard of Berks County, Pennsylvania, the all-important setting for my piece. If I hoped to gain these people’s interest in my tale, I was going to have to earn it.

Elizabeth Hilts, my creative nonfiction editor at Mason’s Road, introduced me. She explained that the issue’s theme had been pieces with a strong sense of setting, and added that when she first read my submission, “I walked through that door with Kathryn and stood out in the rain with her and felt everything she felt. Her language would not let me go.” [Paraphrasing possibly impacted by author's inner excitement.]

What a wonderful thing to hear said about your work, in front of witnesses, no less. And I’m thinking Okay, this was worth it, I can go home now. But then people clapped, and still expected to hear me read.

I was prepared. I had my black three-ring binder that opens flat. I had my pages printed out in a 16-point font that allows me to scan—even quickly memorize—entire lines so I can look out into the audience and connect with them.

I'd handwritten large asterisks where I sensed that an extra beat of silence would allow my words a tad more resonance. I’d put the pages in plastic sleeves so my dry fingers wouldn’t flub while turning pages.

In my hotel room, I’d repeated the biggest tongue-twisters so that I might rely on muscle memory for correct delivery of “squashed plastic seat pads” and “the telescopic sights of their rifles” and “marking with blood splatter”—it’s my heart that still stutters on those last two.

I replaced Elizabeth at the podium; she moved to the back of the room. I began: “I wrapped myself in a parka and headed into the storm.” The story pulled me back in time, where once again I headed through the door of our farmhouse to try to impact what I could of my fate. But it wasn't the same; Elizabeth’s comment was already changing my experience of that day.

As I looked into the audience for my oh-so-cleverly planned moments of staged connection, emotion welled in me when I found something I hadn’t bargained for: real connection. My voice pushed through the silence in the room and the audience tipped toward me to receive it, some of them with their hands to their mouths as if saying, “Oh no, I fear where this is going.” Yet they came with me. By the time I had fully transported myself back in time to enact once again the events of my story, I no longer stood alone in that driveway, with the rain pummeling my face. Around me stood 75 silent witnesses, willing to take the soaking right along with me.

My awareness of this new camaraderie built all the way to my final line: "My children would soon be home, and they needed me." Speaking of the way Ron's act impacted the boys often breaks me, and this night was no different. When I closed my notebook, I could only mouth the words "thank you," yet my gratitude was sincere.

Of the readers that night, I had driven the farthest (although in a fun twist, three of the contributors read via Skype from India, Tel Aviv, and Savannah, Georgia). A few registered surprise that I had made the trip. After all, I was paid nothing for the story, burned a half a tank of gas at $3.50/gallon, and had to shell out $120 for the hotel room.

Yet not going, for me, had never been an option. We can never know what gifts are hidden within the opportunities offered us unless we show up and say “yes”—even Ron’s suicide standoff, with its forced participation, eventually offered up hidden gifts.

This time my gift was a new awareness: a storyteller is never alone for long. We may have to navigate solo through some challenging events in life, but our aloneness is a temporary discomfort. Through story we can later invite people to become part of that world—and there, together, we'll all be less alone. I entered the worlds of others who read that night, and even after the reading, I had the privilege to bear witness to several stories offered me by people moved to share their own life experiences.

Through story, magic happened in Fairfield that night, and all of us who attended were transported and transformed.