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. 
 
 










7 comments:

Yvonne Armstrong said...

Oh, Jen. Thank you for the eloquent tribute to Don. I miss him so very much, as if one of my limbs or organs was missing.

I remember the Joke which he inflicted, er, shared with everyone. I should remember it. I heard it many times. It goes like this:

Two cows are standing in a field. One cow says, "Did you hear about that new disease, Mad Cow? I sure am worried about it. Are you?"

The other cow replies, " Why should I care; I'm a helicopter."

At this point he would laugh with glee at the disgusted looks people gave him. Anne brought a helicopter we hung above his bed in ICU. One nurse asked if he was a pilot so of course, we told her the joke. See, even now, we are sharing his awful joke, and enjoying his glee. He would be so proud.

I know he loved his nieces and nephews as if you were his own, because to him, you all were.

He left a big hole in our our lives one year ago but I can't wish him back to continue his suffering. All we can do is remember, and you have done that so very well.

Love,
Yvonne

Heather said...

What a beautiful post. I'm sorry for your loss of what seemed like such a great man.

Laura said...

Really great post. I linked you in mine. I think you said everything perfectly.

hannah fulks said...

hi there. i don't even know you...and i unfortunately never met don...but i know your sister laura. and i read her post about her uncle, and felt that i needed to come here and read what you said.

what a wonderful story. and how wonderful that he lives on in you..and laura...and everyone else that knew him.

thank you for this. thank you so much. it's what i needed.

Lauren McKnight said...

Hi, I'm a friend of Laura's. I read about Don on her blog and wanted to come read yours as well. I recently had a great uncle pass away and I wish that I could describe him the way you described your uncle. He sounds a-mazing. The type of person we need more of. I justed wanted to let you know that I will be thinking of you and Laura during this time of rememberance for your Uncle Don. Thank you so much for sharing.

Robert Armstrong said...

Thank you, Jen, for saying so well what so many of us felt and are feeling. It was good to be reminded of Don's good life and even of its beautiful/horrible end. We were fortunate to have him, and he was fortunate, as I am,to be a part of this family.

jennybee said...

Thanks, everyone, for the many kind comments posted here and shared privately. I didn't have the gumption or poise or whatever to get up and share anything about him at his memorial service, which is probably for the best since I was pretty emotional and I write better than I talk, anyway. But it felt good to write all that about him, like I'd said my piece finally.

Y, oh, yes. Mad Cow. Helicopter. I remember it all now. Kinda feel the need to share that one with someone else soon.

We all love you, Yvonne. Have a huge hug from me and all these other folks. Don chose well when he chose you.