Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Jennifer Joy, She Made a Toy

I have the best parents in the world. Seriously. They are A-MAZ-ING people, both of them, and they have always put a lot of effort into parenting me and my sister and brother.

Like many kids of the 70s, I had a record of Free to Be You and Me, the children's music and spoken word recording by Marlo Thomas and a passel of other celebrities. I listened to that record I don't know how many thousand times. There were stories, songs, skits, poems performed by voices I would decades later realize were famous. People like Harry Belafonte, Diana Ross, Alan Alda, Mel Brooks and many others. I know in the case of Alan Alda, for instance, I knew him on MASH but always felt like I knew him from somewhere before. I only just figured this out.

Mom (Mommy back then) would hold me or sit by me and listen to the whole thing. She'd take time to explain what different lyrics meant and what the philosophy was behind them, actually talk to me like an equal about it.

One of my favorite lyrics, because it contained my name, was from the Helping song:

"Zachary Zugg took out the rug/
And Jennifer Joy helped shake it/
And Jennifer Joy, she made a toy--/
And Zachary Zugg helped break it!/
And some kinds of help/
Are the kind of help that helpings all about/
And some kinds of help are the kind of help/
We all could do without.

Mom and I always sang the Jennifer Joy line as loudly and happily as we could.

That's the thing about Free to Be You and Me--the songs were pretty great, the writing was funny, but it was really all about the messaging. These were songs, poems and sketches that were written in direct retaliation to the predominant gender biases in society. I learned it was OK for boys to play with dolls, or show their feelings, that women could grow up to be strong and independent and just as fast and smart as boys, that brothers and sisters rule, and that helping was fun and that I could grow up to be a construction worker or a doctor or a policeman or a mom, anything I wanted.

I was free, you see, to be me.

Today, a lot of people would call that cheesy idealism, but I loved it then and I love it now. It shaped my worldview. There's something so pure and joyous about these songs, an innocence beyond irony. As a friend of mine likes to say, I dig it.

I've never forgotten those songs. I've gone for long periods without thinking of them, sure, but they are a part of me now. I happened across the record in my parents' garage last summer. Not the best place for it to spend the past three decades, as it was warped in all kinds of twisty ways. I was a little sad, but it's OK. I've probably gotten warped in a lot of twisty ways since then, too.

Today, I was mentioning that album to a friend and he said I could probably find it all over YouTube. I didn't think about it at the time, but I thought later, why would a record be all over YouTube? So I went to visit. Wow. Turns out, that the 1972 album was made into a 1974 television special with even more celebrities. I had no idea. It was a complete trip seeing how people chose to animate or choreograph all the soundtrack to my childhood. It's so odd that I know these songs so well, yet never saw these 35-year old images until a few hours ago.

Here, are some of the recreations I found from that special. I literally think of the "It's Alright to Cry" song every time I'm fighting off serious tears. I think the fact that it's sung by Rosey Grier, the former NFL player and bodyguard, is fantastic.

Intro--Free to Be You and Me. Notice how they ripped off Mary Poppins, another favorite of mine, at the end.

Helping (by Shel Silverstein)--I like the album version better, but still.

It's Alright to Cry, sung by Rosey Grier

And, because my sister Laura and her husband Kyle are this week both at work for the first time since becoming parents in December, I thought I'd post this one in their honor. Play it for Abby, someday, sis. Even better if you dress up in some of these get-ups. :)

Parents Are People

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Don (But Not Forgotten)

My apologies. I had to put something of a pun in the heading to this post, because Don would have. 

Don is my uncle, and he died a year ago today. He was a big part of my life and I have thought of him every day since he died, and a great percentage of my days before that. I miss him very much, but usually it's not exactly sad to miss him. I still feel connected to him, and he still makes me laugh. He is someone that when I think of him, the overriding emotion has always been joy. It's more muted now, but it's still joy that he's my uncle. 

Everything that an uncle is supposed to be, he was. Fun-loving. Goofy. Supportive. Wise. Silly. Smart. Animated. Curious. Loving. There.

He played guitar, sang, preached, acted, laughed, had an inordinate fondness for bad jokes and for making his nieces and nephews giggle and squeal with glee. He and the aunt he picked out just for me, Yvonne, usually seemed to be enjoying the heck out of each other's company and grateful for each other, even through the rough times. They were true partners in life and love and in many ways excellent role models for my own marriage. Because they did not have children of their own, they showered us with attention at every opportunity. Don knew how to love a person wholly, and dedicated his life to spreading love, compassion and his faith in God to the world he encountered. 

He was a Methodist minister like his two brothers, and now, his sister, and served many small congregations throughout rural Arkansas. As a preacher's kid, I can tell you, that while rewarding in many ways, this is a greatly undervalued and misunderstood career, and too often a thankless one. When Don finally felt the need for a career change, it was not for an easier job, or even a more lucrative job. Instead, after many years in the ministry, he went back and got a Master's in Social Work and became a caseworker and advocate for the indigent mentally ill. It sounds like I'm idealizing him when I say that day after day he worked long hours well above the scope of his job to get his clients, forgotten by society, the care they needed, but I'm really not. He'd take them shopping, drive them to appointments, think of all sorts of creative ways to boost their lives and prospects, or at least their day, by showing them someone cared about them. I lived with him and Y for a few months one year during this time, and witnessed his dedication to these people every day. He did this while still caring for a small, rural congregation part time and while battling the many hardships and complications of his diabetes.

He'd had diabetes from the time he was a kid, six or seven, I think. When I was young, I thought this was so cool (on up there with the fact that he drove a canary yellow Karmann Ghia and carried a chihuahua around in his shirt half the time). As a kid I thought it was neat and exotic that he drank Tab cola (before such a thing as Diet Coke existed), couldn't have sugar and gave himself shots. I can remember bragging about him on the playground to someone:

Other kid: "My uncle let me ride in his firetruck."
Me: "Yeah, well MY uncle is DIABETIC and is so tough he gives himself SHOTS every day!"

Diabetes, though, is an ugly, insidious disease. For all those years I naively thought it was just a thing to manage, it was silently hurting his body, eventually going after system after system. Don's health, never great, began to deteriorate pretty rapidly a few years ago. He got through a kidney transplant and seemed better for a while, but soon began to be in and out of the hospital for this and that procedure, test, fever, complication. Within a short time, we found out the diabetes had compromised his circulatory system and he needed major bypass surgery. 

I was, as usual, wrapped up in my own self-absorption around that time, often hearing only after an incident that Don's health had taken a downturn, but on my way to work the morning of his big surgery, I suddenly thought to call him and wish him well. I only spoke to him for a couple of minutes, but I remember he sounded uncharacteristically anxious, and very happy that I had called. He spent much of the short phone call winding me up for his latest bad joke. Since I was driving in traffic (bad habit) I was distracted, and missed some of the narrative. Now, I just remember there was something about a cow and a helicopter in the punchline, I think. I wish I could remember it, but I do remember him laughing at it. I told him I loved him, that all would go swimmingly and I'd see him this evening, then hung up. After work, I would join my family in the waiting room for many hours waiting for word of the surgery, and later, for him to wake up.

He did wake up from the surgery, but everything had changed. I don't know that I ever fully understood it, but the oxygen had left his brain in the aphasia mode for too long and his body was so weak. It was weeks, maybe months, before we could communicate with him with any semblance of normalcy, and then, only touch and go. Complicating everything, the medical center during his recovery had been negligent, resulting in an incident that deprived his brain of oxygen for several minutes and permanently set back his recovery. We all did our best to sit with him or visit, but I think only Yvonne fully understood him and his needs. He was still Don but was trapped in this frail, diminished shell that could barely sit up, walk, or stay free of infection, much less hold sustained, coherent conversations with the rest of us.

The morning I had spoken to him was the last day Don was at home. The next few years were a seemingly endless series of medical emergencies, breakthroughs, setbacks, infections, hospitalizations, rehabilitation plans, legal and billing crises, and transfers between the hospital, the rehab facility, and the long-term care home. Through everything, Yvonne, brokenhearted and ever-hopeful, remained steadfastly by his side, caring for him and fighting with administrators or lax nursing staff on his behalf the way he had once advocated for his clients. Some days were great days, and he seemed so much of himself, able to go out for short trips to join us for a family holiday gathering or just to be with us, out of the clinical healthcare setting for a few joyous hours. Other days were just painful to even think about.

His death was horrible and beautiful at the same time. 

It was beautiful because our family, always close, was able to go to his bedside and say our goodbyes the day before. It was horrible because we had to.

It was beautiful because once we all got there, we gathered around his bedside and together sang his favorite hymns and songs, said some prayers, while he looked around at us each in turn. It was horrible because his eyes looked so teary, grateful and bewildered all at once in those moments before they began the sedative, palliative care from which he would not wake. 

It was beautiful because Yvonne, my aunt Anne, uncle Robert and I spent that final night in his uncomfortable hospital room with him, mostly silently, so he would not have to die alone, and so Yvonne would not be alone when that happened. It was horrible because his destroyed body writhed and wheezed a wretched death rattle all night and we never knew if each breath would be the last one as his vital signs stubbornly refused to give any ground and we didn't know what to feel. 

It was beautiful because the nursing staff was so caring and attentive, and understood in the morning, when he needed more meds. It was horrible because he still needed them. 

It was beautiful because Yvonne realized that a final bath, that ancient cleansing ritual, might be just what his body and spirit needed to let go. It was beautiful because the nurse gave our family time to gather at the hospital again before that happened. 

It was beautiful and horrible because when we finally came back in the room afterwards, his vitals that we had been watching all that awful night finally began to slip and then fall steadily towards death. 

It was beautiful that he died finally peaceful after so many years of physical and emotional pain, silently encircled by the people he loved best, and who best loved him, all of us holding onto each other, to Yvonne, to him. 

It was horrible because then he was gone and his body was just his body, flesh shaped like Don but not Don. 

It was beautiful because as he had died, that Friday at noon on the dot, the cold and bleak rain of the past few days at that moment turned into the most beautiful falling snow that I watched in the window beyond his bed as his vitals silently flatlined. 

It was beautiful because we were here all together in this time of profound grief. It was horrible because Don, who was so good at grief counseling, was not.

It was horrible because we loved him so much. It was beautiful for this reason, too.

So now, it's been a year since that day, which seems impossible. It's stayed with me, and probably always will. Luckily, so far, so have my many wonderful memories of my uncle and all he brought into my life. Today I looked out the window and saw a flurry of white again. For a split second I thought it was snow. Then I realized it was blossoms from a pear tree dancing past in a warm Spring breeze. Somehow, that feels appropriate.

Tonight, in his honor, I'll light a candle. And then I'm going to find a knee-slapper of a joke, and some poor victim on which to inflict it. 

I love and miss you, Don. Hope you're having a blast on this next journey and keeping some angels in giggles.