23 May 2005

Saying Goodbye To An Uncle...And Remembering A Sister

"Transitions are almost always signs of growth, but they can bring feelings of loss. To get somewhere new, we may have to leave somewhere else behind..." ~ Fred Rogers

I just found out a few minutes ago that my Uncle passed away. This wasn't entirely a surprise. Of the three brothers, my father being the youngest and my Uncle Otis being the oldest, the one that wound up with the diagnosis of lung cancer, happened to be the only one who never smoked. How ironic.

Otis lived a very sensible, orderly, predictable life. My uncle owned a car dealership, Cook Motor Sales, in Oceana, West Virginia, and along with selling cars, something he was very successful at, he spent the rest of his time attending Toneda Baptist Church on Clear Fork. He enjoyed good health for most of his 84 years, and even when something health related would pop up from time to time, he wasn't one to go on about it.

When I was a little girl, I remember the many times he and his wife Lucille would drive from their home in Oceana to our home in a suburb of Charleston, WV, on Sunday Afternoons for a visit. They would leave following church, usually arrive around 2:00, drink coffee, whatever dessert my mother would have ready "just in case" company might pop in, and even though I never stuck around in the same room for the entire length of their visit, I remember how comfortably familiar it felt.

I knew my parents enjoyed having them over, and I would hear laughter wafting from the living room, the smell of perked coffee and always bits and pieces of stories from when my father and uncle were small children and adolescent boys. There was the time my Uncle Dick and Uncle Otis had been charged with leading the family cow from one pasture to the next, when the family moved. I think they got lost on the way and everyone was very worried when they didn't show up as expected. I guess things can get a bit disorienting when leading a cow through the fields of Southern West Virginia.

There is a photo of my father and his two brothers,
strapping young trio that they were, looking appropriately serious, as people were wont to do in photographs taken in the 1930's. My Uncle Otis was holding a chicken that had been an FFA (Future Farmers of America) Project. I remember how strange it seemed to see my Dad as a young man of around 13, staring very seriously at a white chicken. I used to laugh at that photograph and wonder, "How could they not be smiling or, at the very least, feeling a little goofy having their picture snapped while thoughtfully regarding a live chicken? Did it drop a mess on one of their shirts and, if it did, wouldn't that alone be enough to elicit at least the hint of a smile?", but no, they looked like that chicken was serious business, and maybe it was. That chicken probably wound up on their table for Sunday Dinner. If anything should have been looking unusually serious and unsettled, I'd say it was the chicken.

I always thought of my uncle as a combination of one part serious and one part silly. He'd tell the same simple jokes, every single time he'd see me, and it would always make me laugh - the first 50 times because I thought any joke with the word "pee" (Why did the Indian who drank thirty cups of tea drown? He died in his own tepee.) in it was nearly illicit and tediously on the verge of "low brow"; Years later, I'd laugh because it was so funny he'd still tell the same jokes. It was a good kind of predictability. The kind you subconsciously retain in your memory bank, and find yourself calling on when you become aware that the last time you heard that joke really was, as it turns out, the last time you will ever hear it.

Though my uncle could, and often did, tell silly jokes, he was a pretty formal guy. He was the tallest of his five siblings, standing around 6' and he was, like his two sisters, a red head. I rather doubt there were too many times the church doors of Toneda Baptist Church were open that my uncle wasn't in there, including Sunday Nights and Wednesdays. He was a very dedicated Christian and from what I can remember of my visits to his home and his car dealership, he was pretty well-liked. I know he loved to drink coffee and work crossword puzzles, two things that I obviously inherited because I am pretty serious about both pursuits.

Otis did very well in the car business, at least from what I could tell, but one thing I remember is that nothing ever changed in his house. In fact, I can only remember visiting him in the same house which was a nice, albeit modest, split-level brick home on a hill over looking a very busy road in Wyoming County, not more than 3 miles from his car dealership and his church and that's significant in that he seldom roamed much further away than that 3 mile radius, save for car auctions in Charlotte, visiting sick family and church members at one of the three hospitals in Beckley, and of course, visiting my family in Madison, Welch, DuPont City, Belle, Point Pleasant, and DuPont City again, which is where I lived until I was married in 1980. If we accomplished anything, it was showcasing other cities in West Virginia to the family. We were famous for it. I'm pretty sure they thought we were not quite right, all that moving around, but every time we marked about 18 months in the same location, usually just after my Mom or Dad would say, "You know, I bet we wind up staying here a good long time.", it was as if a silent invitation was whispered for the telephone to ring and another job offer was extended to my Dad, who was an accountant for various coal mining companies around the state. No sooner would I begin the second year in the same school, would I come home one day to discover that a moving company would be arriving in a few days to take us to some new town. I must have loved the adventure of it, because I have followed the same pattern most of my adult life. I've always loved moving around and it's been fun collecting friends and memories in so many parts of the country.

Later on, when my family's gypsy leanings took us beyond the borders of West Virginia, 1600 miles West to Amarillo, Texas, Sunday Afternoon visits with my Uncle Otis and Aunt Lucille became a thing of the past, even with a standing invitation. I guess he never heard the same call of the wild that kept luring us West to Texas, North to Cleveland (a call we should have hung up on!) and South to Miami, and I suppose it was a little inconvenient to drive so far for a couple of hours and a piece of cake, even if my Mom is an outstanding cook.

My family had a cabin on eight acres that bordered Carnifax Ferry State Park near Summersville Lake in Nicholas County. We spent quite a few weekends up there during my junior high and high school years. My Dad enjoyed clearing out the area around the cabin and my Mom just enjoyed being in the mountains. Me? I was on high alert for anything remotely resembling a slithery copperhead snake. I was terrified that one would have invaded our cabin during the periods we were away and that it would somehow find it's way into my bed at some point during a visit. This absolutely used to keep me awake at night!

Some weekends, particularly in the Summer and Fall, my father's siblings and their families would join us and drive up to spend a Saturday Night. My Dad loved to go on hikes around the property and, given that there were about 32 acres of which we owned 8, there were lots of places to explore, even hiking down the mountain to the shore of the twisty Gauley River, close to what is a now a huge white water rafting mecca, as is the nearby New River Gorge and Bridge. Of course, my Dad would usually wear some worn out shirt and shorts that wouldn't cause my Mother any angst should they get snagged or torn by branches and trees that seemed to spring up just about everywhere. I rarely ventured out on these pre- or post-dinner "hikes" because I was sure that since there wasn't a copperhead lurking in my bed, it must be hiding in some innocent looking bush ready to strike me as I walked along some weed obscured path. No thank you. But my Daddy really seemed to enjoy his walks in the woods, much as I enjoy walks on the beach.

One Sunday, after I had gotten my license, I was driving along a path and saw my Dad and my Uncle Otis walking along, hoe in my Dad's hand just in case a snake made the mistake of crossing his path, and the only thing truly remarkable about that scene is that my Uncle Otis would be wearing dress pants, a dress shirt, dress shoes and a tie. A TIE! It wasn't even a tie with a wilderness scene on it. It was a dress tie. I have tried and tried and I can't for the life of me ever remember my uncle without a tie. Even on a hike! I always found that, well, kind of different, but also endearing. He looked as if he could walk right out of the woods and onto his car lot without missing a beat. To this day, I have never seen anyone hiking in a tie. I am told by reliable family sources that he also wore a tie on one of his few trips to the beach. Come to think of it, I'd be surprised if he didn't. I don't think my Uncle Otis owned any "kick back" clothes. I guess his tie was the equivalent to Mister Rogers and his sweater. They just seemed to go together.

Of course, this man, this uncle of mine was the oldest brother in a family of five kids and one half sister and, given that lofty position, I have heard a few stories of where he stepped into the "older brother" role and behaved as older brothers usually do - a bit on the bossy side. However, he couldn't have been too difficult to grow up with, because I never heard my parents ever utter the first negative word against him or, for that matter, any of our relatives. You have to remember though, I live with a couple of people who I am certain must be up for sainthood, even if they are Protestant. I say that in jest, but it's actually true. My parents have never been given to gossip or unkind words, either in front of or behind anyone's back. Probably just another reason a lot of people question my DNA and wonder if I truly am their biological child. Oh well...sometimes the apple DOES fall far from the tree. Sometimes, if the wind is right, that apple can blow that apple to a whole other orchard, even across several state lines - which probably explains me. :-)

Even if you know someone you love is terminally ill and death is imminent, the pain, the actual shock when the news is announced, is never easy to handle. There's no real way to prepare yourself for the loss. The mind may grasp and even process the information, but the heart simply refuses to get on board. And that is why it stings and aches, as if the realization that the person you love has passed away was completely out of the blue. Even when you've been warned, it still rocks your world, and let's face it, when someone we know quite well is suddenly gone, it's a keen reminder of our own mortality.

It is a very hard thing to lose a close relative and, unfortunately, I have some firsthand experience in this area because my own sister died at the age of 23, when I was 13. In a few days, on May 25, my sister will have been dead 32 years and I was thinking about that the other night and just couldn't believe it could possibly be that long ago, but it is. I did the math twice.

Since ten years separated us, I was raised mostly as an only child because of the vast difference in our ages, but after she passed away, my "only child" status became official. I always envy people who have brothers and sisters and I often wonder what it would have been like if I still had my sister. What would our relationship would be like? Would we visit often? Would she have turned into a gypsy like me or would she have had a more conventional life? How often would we have talked on the phone and what would we have talked about? Whenever I'm in the greeting card section of a store, usually in the "belated" area, when my eyes run across the cards wishing a sister happy birthday, happy anniversary, happy whatever...I am reminded that I do have a sister. I just can't buy a card for her.

My sister was very much a girly girl. She played with dolls, willingly, even excitedly wore dresses with lace and I've never seen a photograph of her with the first hint of dirt or mud. Me? I grew up playing with dolls too, it's just that I enjoyed taking them apart, particularly if they did something fancy like take in water, let out water, have movable parts such as mouths, arms and legs and I would become especially excited if they contained a voice mechanism that allowed them to talk. I dissected more than a few pretty expensive dolls. I was much more interested in how they worked, rather than the fact that they did. I knew it wasn't magic - it was more the mechanics that fascinated me.

My sister would ask for sensible, predictable things for Christmas like typewriters, clothes (yuck) and matching luggage ensembles. When I was four years old, my mother took me to see Santa. Of course, when he asked the big question, "And what do you want for Christmas?", I was happy to inform him that I wanted a hammer, nails and some wood to build... something. Or maybe a dog. And for the love of everything holy, PLEASE don't bring me any clothes. What a waste of a present! Besides, I don't think the GAP was around then. If it doesn't come from the GAP, I have very little interest in it.

It's interesting to imagine how life might have been different with the addition or subtraction of various components, people, places and things, but other than recreational pondering, there's not much you can do but simply imagine. You can never really know. The tiniest incremental inclusion or exclusion can change a whole life and the direction it takes, which is a good argument for giving most actions a lot of thought. Which is an even better reason to remember that when you tell someone that you love them or toss out a casual goodbye, even if they're just leaving to take care of an errand, it's a good idea to give that some thought as well. You just never really know when the last time may turn out to be - the last time.

My Uncle, the one who passed away this morning, had a son and daughter. It was his daughter, Peggy, who called to inform my parents this morning. She has always been close, as so many people are, to my parents. Her call to them was one of the first she made to deliver the sad news. It's a very reciprocal feeling because Peggy, along with her older brother Donnie, swooped in and took charge when my sister died all those many years ago. They pulled up in our driveway in an RV and they took care of so many details, many we will never know about, and they took care of me. What a horrendously confusing five day period that was.

My sister passed away on a Friday, May 25th, 1973 and, being Memorial Day Weekend, you weren't permitted to bury anyone during a holiday, so that meant that my sister's wake went on for two days at the funeral home and she was buried the Tuesday, May 29th, after Memorial Day. It may not sound like much, one extra day, but believe me, even with my fuzzy memory of those events, it seemed to go on forever. Our house was overflowing during most of that time with relatives, old friends, new friends, church members, friends of my parents, friends of my sister, parents of my friends...I remember feeling like I was lost in a sea of people for most of that weekend and nothing made any sense at all.

I'd experienced the death of dogs, fish, even tadpoles, but never had I seriously understood the concept, the finality, that comes attached with death. Processing that information didn't end with the funeral, not by a long shot. Even today, 32 years later, though there's so much I don't really remember about my sister, I still find myself going back to that time in my life. It wasn't simply the loss of my sister that proved so impossibly confounding, which wasn't simple at all, but the whole change in the dynamics of our family. It also kicked off a robust case of panic disorder in me which, way back in 1973, didn't even have a name yet, but until I finally found treatment nineteen years later, was a most unwelcome fallout from that tumultuous period of my life.

It's funny the small details that your mind seems to cling to for years, decades really, following a huge event in your life and I do remember a few things that stand out so vividly. I remember my cousin Peggy making me laugh when she could sense things getting overwhelmingly serious and shaky for me, in the days following my sister's death. I remember her brushing my long hair and taking care that my clothes matched and I looked presentable. I remember her soft, soothing voice as she talked to me about heaven and all of the cool things that Becky must be seeing, hearing and feeling and how, even if she could, even though she loved all of us so much, she wouldn't want to come back because heaven was just that amazing. And I remember taking comfort in knowing she wouldn't want to come back home, because to not want to return home meant that you must absolutely love where you were. It also made me feel better to know, extrapolating from what Peggy told me, that Becky couldn't possibly see all of the sadness and grieving going on at our house and in the funeral home, because if heaven was all that it was purported to be, seeing that mess wouldn't be a very happy thing at all, and from the way she patiently explained it to me, heaven was only about the good stuff. Therefore, it seemed to make sense that the painful parts must be censored out and I liked believing she wasn't looking down on all of our sad faces and wishing she could come back and make everything OK, even if we wished that she could.

My cousin Peggy has a very irreverent, intelligent and sardonic wit and she can cut through channels of staid decorum and easily point her finger at the absurd, a trait I genuinely admire in anyone. She slices through the BS and has no problem tossing aside the fluff. I come from a very genteel family in many respects, but there was always something just a little edgy, in a very good way, about Peggy and the way she approached life. I guess you could call it "pluck". Whatever it is, it will stand her in very good stead in these difficult days to come.

She has been a very hands-on, conscientious, loving, ever-present daughter to her father during his illness, taking on a lot of hard, mind and break-backing tasks for a woman that can't weigh more than 100 lbs. soaking wet. She's not had an easy time of it in her own right, but later on as she looks back at this whole period leading up to her Dad's death, I hope that she realizes that there's no way she could have handled it any more perfectly than she did. At some point, long after the wake, the funeral and as the attention wanes, I hope those memories of her performance and attentiveness to his every need, will bring her comfort and a lot of peace. She most certainly merits both.

Peggy asked my Dad to read a real life tale of getting his first car and what transpired, and her father's unique involvement in it. I love this story, all the more because it really happened. When I spoke to my Dad earlier this morning, after he had just learned that his brother had passed away, he told me that Peggy had requested he read what he wrote of his memory of this "first new car experience", but he declined, saying he would never be able to get through it. He did tell her that if she wanted anyone else to read it, that would be just fine with him.

I'm going to include this story. I love it that Peggy wanted it as part of her father's service because I love humor and what better time to have a dose of it than at a funeral? Laughing is an essential part of life, and I think it's brilliant to grab any chance you can to insert it into a something that doesn't lend itself easily to anything funny. To smile or even laugh out loud at the memory of something that the deceased did doesn't in any way disrespect or disregard the pain of the loss, if anything, I think it's a wonderful way to acknowledge the positive and delightful manner with which they lived their life. As far as I'm concerned, you should never pass up any chance to laugh, maybe most of all at a time when you think it impossible.

I believe that quote at the beginning of this entry, the one by the very wise Fred Roger,s fits so perfectly to the transition from life to death. If you happen to be a Christian, as my uncle most certainly was, then his death is a transition, but one that does bring feelings of loss and, from every thing I've read, you have to leave here to get to heaven.

Godspeed Uncle Otis. Thank you for all of the smiles. Maybe my sister Becky will be assigned to show you the ropes and get you all settled. I hope, though you will most certainly be missed, that even if you were given the choice, it's so amazing and wonderful up there that you wouldn't want to return here either.

Here is the story of my Daddy's first new car, but before I share that - here's a 1998 photograph of those same three boys - minus the chicken.

Boys to Men! A mere 60 years later and those Cook boys were still looking good. April 1998.


It was on a Tuesday morning, June 24, 1958, our family left our home in Madison, West Virginia to drive to Crab Orchard, WV (near Beckley) to attend the funeral services of my wife’s Uncle Gus F. Bane. We had a 1953 model FORD Ranch Wagon, modern day terminology would call it a station wagon. Back then to get from Madison to Beckley one had to drive to Logan, then to Man, WV and up Huff Creek, across Huff Mountain to Oceana, then to Glen Rogers, across Bolt Mountain to Glen Daniel and then Route 3 to Beckley – then Route 16 to Crab Orchard. The present road from Madison up Pond Fork and across Kopperston Mountain to Oceana was still just a politician’s “dream” talk – a project which politicians espoused just before each election….But lets get back to the subject.

This 1953 FORD Ranch Wagon was a little six cylinder, two door wagon with simulated wood grain panels on each side and across the back lift gate – it was a nice one, good gasoline mileage but that wasn’t a great concern back then, when gasoline was only 24 cents per gallon. We did not buy it NEW, couldn’t afford a new car, but we had it long enough that all the payments had been made and it was OURS. The year before, July 1957, we had driven to Florida in it – plenty of room for our family of three. Storing luggage and bags of purchased Florida oranges to bring back to West Virginia was no problem. No, it wasn’t air conditioned as at that time only a very few, very expensive cars, or motels, had AIR CONDITIONERS. Sure we almost burned up but everyone else on the highway was in the same boat. It was a Good Car and it was OURS.

Since my OLDEST brother OTIS had a Ford Agency in Oceana, I decided to leave OUR 1953 FORD RANCH WAGON there for some minor brake repairs. He commented on how nice OUR RANCH WAGON looked (I’d just had it washed and shined up – no one wants to drive a dirty, dusty car to a funeral). His comments were a “WARNING SIGNAL” I failed to notice. He readily agreed to do the repair work and loaned us a car so we could proceed on to Crab Orchard to attend the 2 PM funeral of my wife’s uncle – no problem. So we proceeded on our way – (this “loaner” didn’t have air conditioning either).

That evening about 6 o’clock when we returned to COOK FORD SALES in Oceana, I noticed several garage employees standing around with grins on their faces – (and I didn’t say what kind of grins either), so we unloaded – started looking for OTIS so we could get OUR RANCH WAGON and head for Madison, 75 miles away. Finally located OTIS and inquired as to whether they had fixed my vehicle – “YES they had.” Was it a serious problem? “Nope, very minor brake problem”. Ok, where are my keys? That’s when he said “He had a problem and needed my help”. Well, I figured anybody in the “CAR BUSINESS” always had problems. “How in the heck could I help him?” That's when he laid it on me – HE HAD SOLD MY 1953 FORD RANCH WAGON. I thought he was kidding – that accounted for the people standing around with grins on their faces. He wasn’t kidding! Some guy had come in that afternoon – saw my RANCH WAGON (all cleaned up) and thought it was for sale – just what he was looking for. This brought “Dollar Signs” to my brother’s eyeballs and soon our RANCH WAGON was being driven away by some guy I’d never heard of, and to this day I have no idea who he was. How about the paper work? - No problem, just as soon as he got the TITLE from his brother (ME) he would take care of all the paper work – just drive on these temporary tags for a few days.

MY BROTHER had SOLD my car – you can’t do that, it is illegal, but he did!! He had sold our little 1953 FORD RANCH WAGON. Now what were we going to do? I was “half-mad” and “half glad”. I had traded cars with him many times – but always on his terms. NOW it was going to be on MY TERMS, which had never happened before, or since (and I have traded cars with him many times since then). Now the “SALES PITCH” – He had a NEW 1958 Green Ford, 6 cylinders, straight drive (not too many automatic transmissions then) and he would let me have it for just $200 over his cost. BIG DEAL! First he had sold our RANCH WAGON (Without our approval); and second, I couldn’t afford a NEW CAR, I’d never had a brand spanking NEW Car before. NO WAY!! He began to squirm – the employees were really grinning now. (I was too, but he didn’t know it). How about $100 over his cost? He would show me the INVOICE. I walked around the NEW GREEN FORD, opened and shut the doors, could smell that “new car smell”. Sorry OTIS, I just can’t afford a NEW CAR, my five year old RANCH WAGON was paid for, no more car payments for me. Do you think you could talk that fellow into returning my RANCH WAGON? He went back to the “drawing board” (the office) to do some more figuring – this had never happened to him before (me either). Finally, he came back where I was waiting and with a pained expression on his face asked would I be satisfied if he would let me have this NEW CAR at “his cost”? With a “long face” (in his presence), I reluctantly agreed to this deal. Now leaving Brother OTIS with a “long face” we loaded up in this BRAND NEW 1958 GREEN FORD CAR and headed for Madison, W. Va., seventy-five miles away. As we pulled out of the lot, I couldn’t help but notice the grins on the garage employees had turned into outright LAUGHTER. As we drove up Huff Mountain on our way to Madison we wondered why OTIS didn’t invite us up to his house upon Kopperston Road to eat supper with him and Lucille. Surely they would have had something they could have fixed in a hurry for supper. They had always invited us to stop and eat with them when we drove over from Madison.

That is how we acquired our FIRST NEW CAR – but it taught me a “LESSON” – the next time I took my car to the garage, owned by Brother OTIS, I would stay with it and watch, and keep the keys in my pocket until repairs were made. I kept that 1958 Green Ford Car until it too was paid for and traded it for a new 1963 Chevrolet Impala, with air conditioning, in November 1962. This is a TRUE STORY, if you don’t believe it I can prove it by my Brother OTIS.

W. Barbe Cook,

January 24th, 1992 – (My 67th Birthday)

12 May 2005

"Out Wit, Out Play, Out Last - Out-Smarted By An Owl Finch"

Right now, I don't have time to remember or search for some quote that will elegantly illustrate my current situation. I don't think there is one. I was cleaning the aviary a few minutes ago and an Owl Finch staged an escape. I can't say for sure if this was just spur of the moment on his/her part (Owl Finches are beguiling), or something s/he had been plotting for some time in a sneaky, pre-meditated sort of way, but I am presently in my office with the door closed, the ceiling fan off and the window shut and an Owl Finch "cawing" and flitting past me. I think it's taunting me, laughing under it's chirp, probably saying, "Catch me if you can...sucker.".

I haven't even had my coffee for gosh sakes!

I first chased this ornery Owl Finch into my bedroom, but Princess, my big fluffy gray cat was also hot on it's trail, so that was no good. At one point, it landed on the floor and I just cringed, knowing I couldn't get to where it was and just waiting for the inevitable flurry of feathers and fur. Blessedly, it shot up to the window sill and I managed to chase it across the loft to my office. The cats were on high alert. Cassie was salivating. My office isn't that large - probably only 10' x 12", but with a Bowflex, bookshelves, a closet and bamboo shades, there are several perches and, at 5'5", I'm not all that tall, so we played "cat and mouse", pardon the pun, for about 15 minutes and then finally, I said...you win...for a few moments anyway. I was becoming more exasperated and forming a huge resentment toward a creature that probably weighs in at 6 ounces, dripping wet.

Most of the older, smarter, seasoned birds in our aviary, when they make the mistake of flying out of bounds, make a huge U-turn and fly right back in or at least have the good sense to land on top of the aviary. But not our Owl Finches. I always thought Owls were supposed to be so wise and smart. I guess that maybe that doesn't apply to Owls of the Finch variety. However, glimpsing toward my left, this tiny teaser is now in a fern, chewing on something in the dirt and peeking at me - daring me to get up and play Stumble-Upon - and I don't mean the website - as it flits back and forth.

I really hope when I finally catch this thing, and I will, that the other birds give it the cold shoulder, or whatever birds do when they are displeased with the behavior of one of their own, because when this coup was enacted, I was in the middle of replacing the seed, millet and yes, those tasty, slimy meal worms that they all love so much. But no, I had to drop my dish and put the lid on the worms in order to play tag with this Owl Finch.

I walked outside a few minutes ago to see the meticulous masterpiece that is my backyard, thanks to my Dad's weedeating and lawn care techniques. The lush green grass framing the crystal blue water in the pool, not to mention the 86 degree temperature it currently is outside, made coming back inside to outwit, outplay, outsmart an Owl Finch, not too inviting of a proposition, but I have a responsibility to save this bird...from itself, four cats, a big dog, quite a few ceiling fans and a few open windows. I'd rather be out by the pool. I'd rather be IN the pool. I'd rather be doing just about anything, save for a root canal, than cooped up in this room with a whining tiny bird that has runaway from home. Geez...

My break is over. I better grab my bamboo stick and see if I can entice this thing to get onboard and get back in the fold....err, flock. I am growing tired of this game and I'm hoping this Owl finch is getting bored and hungry.

Hopefully I'll have a good outcome to report, or a tale of a cat who enjoyed an exotic, albeit expensive, appetizer.

Wish me luck.

11 May 2005

"Single...With Children" - Publication Date: 11 May 2005

Single With Children: Babies become young adults in blink of Mom's eye

Susie Parker
Publication Date: 05/11/05

Mothers Day 2005 has come and gone.

The degree of sentimentality attached to Mother's Day seems in direct proportion to the number of years you can count as a mom. It's obscene just how fast they accumulate.

Motherhood begins innocently enough with a series of unending, diaper-filled, colicky days. Sometimes I remember times when I didn't think my first born and I would ever advance to the next phase of development. On lucky days, I would find myself in the luxurious exhilaration of a 10-minute shower. Unlucky days would find me pacing the waiting room of our pediatrician's office with a screaming child suffering the pain of another ear infection.

Soon, her brother followed and long, lonely days were punctuated by juggling the activities of an infant and a 3-year-old. The track started moving with more speed.

The transition from being a new mom with a new baby to a more experienced mom with a new baby and a preschooler, can best be illustrated in pacifier sterilization techniques: When Katie dropped her pacifier, no matter what I was doing, I would either pop a brand new binky in her mouth or carefully boil the fallen one in a pan of hot water for at least five minutes. By the time Justin was 6 months old, I would pick up the binky, make an inspection and, depending on my access to running water, either give it a quick rinse or simply stick the thing in my mouth to remove the dog hair and pop it right back in his. He was usually on the verge of a major meltdown by this point. Justin wasn't interested in my sterilizing method. He was learning a very important lesson of advanced personhood - it's all about instant gratification, baby.

I'm not exactly clear when or where we crossed the space-time continuum, but somewhere along the way, we wound up on the high-speed, broadband track, long before the term "Internet" was in our lexicon. There were times the mere act of "blinking" was a risky proposition.

There are moments when I look back at the beginning of this motherhood journey and wish I had spent less time wondering if I were in suspended animation and more time knowing it for the precious commodity that it is. I listened when people told me repeatedly that "they grow up so fast!" and I wondered what species of baby these people were raising because the ones I had were taking their sweet time about forwarding their development.

Though you could never have convinced me in the middle of it, my mind now often goes back to the very days I wasn't sure I would survive. Days of walking the floor, wiping down feverish foreheads, playing activity director through two bouts of chickenpox and long stints of entertaining croupy kids in a steam-filled bathroom and trying to convince two skeptical kids to pretend we were in some exotic, imaginary fog.

Nursing my kids as ear tubes were put in and tonsils were taken out. Routine vaccinations, field trips, class parties, school projects assigned way in advance but started and completed in the early morning hours before they were due. Casually being told at bedtime that I had been volunteered to bake 4 dozen cupcakes (with confetti, please!), the night before they were expected, in the pre- Super Wal-Mart days, when the only thing still open was a convenience store.

If you are a mother of a child at least 10 years old, I would bet that, just like me, you could claim you have been there, done that and collected a couple of T-shirts, maybe even decorated with tiny handprints pressed in paint. If you are a mother, I bet those memories elicit two overwhelming thoughts: "How did I manage to get through it all?" followed by, "I'd give anything to do it all over again."

I hope your Mother's Day was filled with the kind of memories that made your heart feel warm, even if those same memories made your eyes leak, just a little.

Readers can e-mail Susie Parker at susiewrites@ec.rr.com, visit her blogspot at: www.susiewrites.blogspot.com or write to her c/o Amarillo Globe-News, Features Dept., P.O. Box 2091, Amarillo, TX 79166.

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04 May 2005

Boomerang Bronchitis And A Saturday Celebration

I am finding more and more that good things can come from potentially unpleasant situations. Last week, I had the unhappy prospect of visiting the doctor. I am never happy to go to the doctor and it's not because I don't like the guy. He's seems like a wonderful person. It's just that the last place you feel like going when you're sick is, well, to the doctor! Who wants to be around a lot of sick people when you're a sick person? Oh wait, that sounded a little tinged with hypocrisy, didn't it? :-)

I am one of those people that by simply being lead to an examination room, my pulse and BP can leap at least 20 - 30 points. It's nearly reflex. I always preface any attempt to record my vitals with the fact that I have serious "White Coat Syndrome", but being the paranoid person I can be in what I perceive to be threatening situations, I'm sure that whoever is getting ready to slap a blood pressure cuff on my arm has already decided that I should be in a psychiatrists office, rather than taking up the valuable time of an internist dedicated to treating ill people who can actually be fixed, cured, whatever.

Last week, however, was a totally different ballgame. When my number came up...err, my name was called and I was lead back through the medical maze of exam rooms, offices, labs and a few rooms I don't even want to think about what might be going on in there, I was the charge of such a kind and wonderful nurse. I had never seen her at my doctor's office before. She exuded calm, understanding and emitted this foreign feeling that everything really WAS going to be just fine and that maybe, just maybe, I wasn't sporting the early signs of some deadly form of a rare and impossible to treat pneumonia, the likes of which has never been seen by anyone working at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. For as much as I dread any contact with medical types, I had to admit that I already liked this woman, even if she was about to stick a thermometer in my mouth and that darn BP cuff on my arm.

She engaged me in conversation and not the benign kind where the person feigns interest, but couldn't care less about the response. This lady really seemed to listen and she even went so far as to actually make eye contact with me as I was talking. She asked me questions, not exclusively of the medical variety, and seemed to listen to my responses. Listening can be a very powerful act, particularly when it's exercised with care and concern.

As she checked to see if I was febrile and evaluated my pulse to see if it was charging off the charts, I made my perfunctory disclaimer that, though it was nothing against her, I would probably be elevated more than a few points. Pulse included. She smiled and invited me to relax. What was this new approach to healthcare I was in the presence of and where had this woman been all my life as I had historically been handled by careless interrogators, asking a litany of questions, nearly making me feel guilty for succumbing to whatever bug brought me to the doctor in the first place? Exactly what planet was I on???

I really became suspicious when she didn't scowl upon loosening the cuff and gently releasing my wrist, rather than shaking her head, as so many have done before, and annoyingly informing me we would need to try this again, because the reading ascertained couldn't possibly be right. Because of her gentle manner and kind countenance, it would seem that my BP was well within normal limits and my pulse was under 90. I got so excited I bet my BP shot up and my pulse quickened at the mere pronouncement of being in the strange range of normal! Thank God it was after she had penned in her findings on my chart.

What you are about to read, could be labeled "Confessions of a dangerous mind", but I don't think my mind is so much dangerous as it is just plain tinged with a bit too much misplaced imagination and looking for signs that simply don't exist. I used to do the same thing when I was flying and would hear something like the wing flaps being repositioned. A perfectly normal occurance, but back when I used to be terrifed of flying, I was pretty sure we were about to crash and burn. Now don't get me wrong, I think it's a fine thing to have an active imagination and I really wouldn't trade mine in, even if it does fire off a few miscues now and again, but here's a tiny peek into where my mind can go when I am sick and feel a little more vulnerable than usual. They say confession is good for the soul, so my soul will surely feel even better after publishing the following few paragraphs.

Along with some of that gray matter I am purported to have, I think there must be some silly putty mixed in.

So there I am, finally alone with my thoughts in the examination room. Not a safe place for me to be - alone with my thoughts! And I start thinking, "oh wait, I "get it". They could probably tell instantly, as I walked in the waiting room, that I was about to be diagnosed with some horrible tropical illness found only in the African Congo* and that I wasn't long for this world. That had to be it. That was the reason for the "special treatment" and why they left Nurse Ratchet with the folks who had a prayer of recovering. I was obviously paired with the nurse that gently buffered the speech delivered by my kindly doctor that begins with, "Well, I have bad news and I have bad news. Which do you want first?". That would be the cue for my newfound Florence Nightingale, who would squeeze my clammy hand as I learned that I had, at most, another six hours to live and that I had better get my affairs in order and update the will that I have never made. I've always meant to have a will made, it's just hard to decide which debts to assign to which kid.

But back to the point: My 18 year old son and 21 year old daughter were about to become, ORPHANS! OH NO!!!!!! I would never live to see them finally straighten out their lives, graduate from Ivy League Universities (of course, complete with full academic scholarships!) with several advanced degrees, invent several mind-boggling creations and acquire a plethora of patents, marry highly successful, independently wealthy, old money, social registry recognized heirs to some kind of American Dynasty, moving into a homes complete with mother-in-law quarters where I would be taken care of for the rest of my very long life, reaching at least until I was in my mid-100's. Of course I'd have all my faculties when my time finally came, that's not to say that I have them now at the tender age of 45.

The handwriting was on the wall of the place where they give you that special plastic cup and request that you "go" when you've already "gone", never mind that you've had ten supersize iced teas (with lemon) and about a half gallon of very caffeinated coffee and maybe a couple of double expressos tossed in for good measure. I could see it all so clearly. The doctor was about to tell me that my lab results from 2 years ago had just been rechecked and when the person they had mistakenly informed outlived the two months s/he was told s/he had left, they got busy and rechecked the charts, only to find out that it was ME that should have been given the "we've got some bad news" speech. The fact that I just happened to make an appointment that morning because I had a cold that seemed to be evolving into a light, hardly worth mentioning, tiny case of bronchitis, was mere coincidence because they were, at the very moment I called in requesting an appointment, poised to dial my number and invite me in for "the talk".

It only took a nice nurse and about five minutes of sitting alone in an exam room to figure all of this out. I'm clever, I tell you, even though I never saw any of this coming...

True to form, I'm always the last to know.

My doctor finally walked in after a few minutes, well practiced in looking cheerful and promising even though the news was not good. He went through the motions of writing down my symptoms, asking me to sit on the examination table and pointlessly checking my ears, throat and listening to my soon-to-be stilled heart, just for old times sake. He even made it all look so routine by asking me to lay back so he could palpate my tummy and tossed in a few reflex checks, probably to keep his skills sharp for the people left out in the waiting room who still had a life to resume after they wrote a check for the co-payment demanded by their particular insurance company.

Sweet man that he was, he told me that I had "a little bronchitis" going on, nothing a nice antibiotic and maybe a few full nights of rest wouldn't take care of. How sweet he was. He even went to the trouble of renewing the prescriptions I take, for a whole year, probably to help me keep my chin up and let me pretend I was going to be just fine.

He disappeared for a few minutes, probably to collect himself and dab the inevitable tears that must have threatened to take over as he treated me like a "normal" person with a pedestrian case of garden-variety bronchitis, no doubt spawned by the thick pollen so prevalent in Eastern North Carolina this time of year. But wait! He returned with a brown paper sac which, at first, I thought might be to control the hyperventilation I was probably going to suffer in just a few minutes, but it turned out to be filled with samples of stuff like Omnicef and Allegra-D.

"Here you go, Susie. Take these, try and get some rest and I bet you'll be feeling better in just a few days.", he cheerfully offered.

Huh? That's it? Was he actually telling me I was going to live to see another day, brimming with more chances to annoy and disappoint friends and family, and that I would be coming back? Those really WERE antibiotics and antihistimines in that little paper bag of his, which was now mine? It WAS just bronchitis? I was, not about to buy the proverbial farm?

GET OUT OF TOWN! OH MY GOSH! All that coughing and hacking and congestion was merely allergy induced and not some harbinger of really bad things to come? Home Health wasn't about to deliver an O2 tank? Am I to understand that I wasn't DYING? Because I gotta tell you, when I lost sleep the previous few nights from coughing every time I tried to lay down, rather than my normal losing sleep over way too much caffeine, I started to think I just might have something seriously horrific and quite possibly fatal.

I trudged into that waiting room at 3:00, but I was skipping out with a brown sac of magic pills just 45 minutes later. So that nice nurse really was, well, just plain nice for no other reason than she's obviously a very special person who makes the people she takes care of feel very wonderful long before any prescriptions are written. Even the ones who are a bit on the melodramatic and highly imaginative hypochondriacal types.

I left there loving life. Had the sky always been that particular shade of "Carolina Blue" (a UNC-Reference for all of you strange and misguided "Duke" or "NC State" fans. Ok, so I have a special fondness for Chapel Hill and yes, the fact that James Taylor's father, Isaac Taylor, used to be Dean of the Med School at the prestigious University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, has EVERYTHING to do with it. That, and the fact that Chapel Hill is one of the best places to sit on any given afternoon and people watch. It's a great show and you can see just about every facet of humanity represented in one form or another. Sometimes several forms combined in the body of one person. Those CH folks are a bit "out there".

But back to my health update and really, it's all about me, isn't it? I came home and immediately went to Google and looked up the meds my doctor had so graciously given me samples of because I needed to find out what side effects I could pick and choose from by researching every piece of information available. This is where the Internet becomes a particularly dangerous tool. Oh sure, when I wandered into my favorite CVS and casually asked the pharmacist to tell me everything she knew about Omnicef, she couldn't possibly think I'd buy that spiel about it being a fairly side-effect free drug, could she? Stomach upset? Not usually. Seizures? Nope. Possible coma? Unheard of. Obviously she didn't understand the finer points of Google and my proclivity for creating symptoms out of thin air. Sure, I know, if just ONE person reports an out of the ordinary side-effect, it has to be documented, but let's face it, I AM terminally unique. Right?

So I read the pharmacology-speak and I even understood a few of the really long words, after consulting 3 or 4 medical reference dictionaries. Finally, it was time. I held that first capsule of Omnicef and I rolled it around in my hand as if it were a dose of pure cyanide. What if it makes me sick? Wait! I AM sick! Dr. B gave me 14 of them so I must need them, right? But just a darn minute. What if my bronchitis is viral in origin? This stuff won't touch it and I'd be risking, well, according to my pharmacist and the stuff I read on Google, very little. I mean, the drug had a pretty clean rap sheet. But gosh darn it, what if I have a reaction that mimics anaphylactic shock and I can't get my hands on the benadryl in time? Huh? What then, Mister Doctor?

I screwed on my courage and somehow, after holding the capsule for about 15 minutes and realizing it was starting to melt in my sweaty hands, I managed to swallow it. And then I waited, constantly assessing my respiration, my heart rate, checking my skin for signs of hives or worse! Eventually I got bored with the whole thing and forgot about waiting to see if it would kill me. It's not always a bad thing to have a short attention span. I like to think of it as one of the many perks of being blond.

After taking about 3 of those Omnicef capsules, I started to feel like a new woman. Cured I was! Besides, wouldn't it be better to save the rest for when I'm REALLY sick, you know, too too sick to go to the doctor, rather than waste them on something silly like this little bronchitis episode that seemed to respond almost instantly to my brilliant physician's choice of drug? If anyone else told me they were going to stop taking the prescribed course of medication, I would tell them they were nuts. Crazy. I mean, why bother going to the doctor if you're not going to follow their orders? How impossibly stupid is that? Besides, everyone knows that if you stop taking the meds, and if the infection isn't truly arrested, the relapse is always worse than the initial infection. Of course I KNEW that. I'm a Mom for goodness sakes!

Just because I've delivered the "take all of your medicine" speech many times, doesn't mean I listened to myself. I stopped taking the pills. Yes, I am THAT blond. Plus, I had my roots redone a few days ago so it's only made things that much more dumb, and it may well have nothing to do with the fact that I'm originally from West Virginia. (My mother is going to hate that remark...because she still sticks to the story that she and my father aren't truly cousins...WhatEVER!)

But about stopping that medicine - I felt so GREAT...for a few more days and then, well, I started to feel not so great. I had a small soiree in honor of a very special person's very special tenth anniversary - celebrating something that a few people said could never be done. But did it he did and he's stayed the course, so this unexpected accomplishment demanded a party!

Saturday Afternoon, my good friend and personal caterer Mitch, came over with his knife kit, his special utensil set, cooler full of ice and turned right around and went back home for his wooden cutting board, after he discovered that mine was too small and too plastic. He worked culinary magic and the house was soon brimming with warm, spicy aromas that I would love to have taken credit for, but since I'm supposed to be working a program of rigorous honesty, I just couldn't do it. Besides, too many people would have choked on all that great food laughing at the idea that I could make anything look and taste as scrumptious as Mitch could without even trying.

The guests arrived, the guest of honor was shining and looking his usual handsome self, and one friend even brought his 12 string guitar while two other friends used my two acoustic six-strings and we had instant, melodic entertainment as we sat out by the pool, enjoyed the music and prayed for no rain, because it wasn't invited. The chicken was cooking on the grill, the conversation was nice and I surveyed the scene and felt myself lucky to know every single person in attendance. No, not lucky. Incredibly blessed. That's what I felt.

After the party was over, the guests had gone home and the left-overs had been put away, I chatted with my buddy Mitch while the guest of honor snoozed in the living room, one of my cats curled up in his lap - I guess neither one of them are party animals any more. Mitch truly out did himself and without his contribution, we might have celebrated and had plenty of coffee and iced tea, but our stomachs would have been either empty or unsettled, should I have been forced to fill them. Thank you Mitch, on behalf of the honoree, our company and the staff of New Hanover Regional Medical Center. :-)

Unfortunately, the next day I started feeling a lot like I did when I went to see my doctor a few days previously. My chest started feeling tight and my cough was back with a vengeance. Hmmmm...I wonder why? Could it be due to the fact I stupidly stopped taking my antibiotics? I got back on track the next day and today I am happy to report that my head no longer feels as if it's in the grip of a vice and it would seem that I can breathe again! I wonder what made me think I knew more than my doctor? I have a lot of things framed and hanging on the walls of my office, but a medical degree is not one of them. I need to remember that.

I promised new photos of the Waxbills and I intend to follow through on it. We're going to take some new pics tonight because the waxbills are getting much more acclimated to their new digs and I do believe they are becoming a little more fond of each other. Check back tomorrow for up-to-the minute photos of Julianna Banana and Nicholas Picklus. I would even venture to say they might have sprouted a few new feathers. Can eggs be far behind?

One more thing...Congratulations on ten whole, darn years. I'm very proud of you and yes, you KNOW who you are.

*The reference to African Congo should not be confused with Congo African Grey Parrots. While I would not welcome some viral disease that originated from the Congo, I have owned two African Grey Parrots. Sadly, I moved and had to leave them behind. Someday, I want another African Grey Parrot and if you know where I can find one at a fairly reasonable price, by all means let me know! Feel free to E-mail me at SusieWrites@ec.rr.com. I'll even name it after you! :-)