Sunday, August 28, 2011

Requiescat In Pace. . .

My dad died Saturday evening.

I drove down Friday and went to the hospital to visit him.  He was asleep; I never saw him conscious.  We met with a lady from hospice, and made arrangements for his final care.  No-one could give us a very firm prognosis; it could be a few days, it could be 2-3 weeks, or even a month.

When I arrived on Friday, I was met by all my siblings but two - one brother who is local, but didn't have transportation, and my youngest brother, who lives in Arizona.  He called and told us he was flying in on Saturday, and we made arrangements to pick up the other brother, so we could all be together Saturday afternoon.  I had originally planned to return home Saturday morning, after all the hospice issues were decided, but when I heard he was coming, I decided to stay longer so I could see him.

Saturday morning, I had nothing in particular to do, so I went to the hospital and just sat at Dad's bedside by myself for a few hours.  I alternated between reading, and occasionally speaking to Dad, telling him that the other two sons were on their way, and would be there soon, telling him how grateful I was for his fatherhood, and that I loved him (all of the medical people assured us that, even though he looked to all the world as if he was unconscious, he could hear everything we said).  It was a surprisingly good and rich time, for just sitting there for a few hours, and occasionally taking a walk around the ward.

It was mid-afternoon when my brother arrived from Arizona.  It really was good to see him; because he lives so far away, we don't get to see him very often.  Shortly after that, the other brother arrived, and all of us were together at Dad's bedside (for some background on our family, you can go here).  We spent an hour-and-a-half, maybe two hours, just talking, reminiscing and joking with each other (although tears were not absent from the proceedings).  Then we went to another brother's house for dinner.

I had planned to head home in the early evening, so I could at least be home by midnight (I had some things to cover back home Sunday morning and afternoon).  We were sitting out on my brother's deck, enjoying a beautiful late summer evening, and each other's company, and continuing with the reminiscences.  The dinner dishes were cleared, and we were just getting ready to break into dessert, when the phone rang.  It was the hospital, informing us of Dad's passing.

We went back to the hospital to spend a little more time with what was left of Dad.  At first, none of us said a word, for a long time.  Then one of my sisters asked if we could join hands and pray together.  I led us in a short prayer, and then we prayed the Lord's Prayer together.  It seemed fitting, like we were on some kind of Holy Ground, on the narrow margin between this world and the next one.  Just a short time before, Dad had been there, and now he had taken his leave.

There are mysteries here too deep for words.  It comes to seem as though Dad was just waiting for the last of his children to arrive, and once we were all present and accounted for, he could bid us farewell.  It's a little bit awesome, honestly. . .


Peter Kreeft is one of my favorite authors; probably my favorite living one.  Many years ago he wrote a book titled Love Is Stronger than Death, which is probably my favorite of all his books, and I've read quite a few of them.

Kreeft is wonderfully perceptive, and draws some really sharp insights. For instance, he notes the double meaning in saying that death is the 'end' of life - both its termination, but also its consummation (or even its 'goal'). "If death is not meaningful, then life, in the final analysis, is not meaning-full. For death is the final analysis...Life cannot be meaningful in the short run and meaningless in the long run, because the long run is the meaning of the short run."

He draws an analogy between death and birth that is acutely perceptive. A child in the womb is warm and secure, and outside the womb is - he knows not what (although he might have some inklings of the 'world beyond' - muffled voices and such). Birth is a painful thing, and yet he is born into a world infinitely wider and richer than the womb; he is infinitely freer in the 'outside world' than he was in the womb, and he spends his entire life 'growing into' this larger, richer world. Even so, we are comfortable in this world, and at any rate, this world is all we know (although we might have inklings of a 'world beyond'). Death, like birth, involves pain. Is it possible that death, like birth, brings us into a wider, richer, freer existence than we have here?

And, as the child in the womb draws his life from his mother, he can't SEE his mother, much less KNOW her AS A PERSON until he is born. Is it possible that, just as, in this world, we can't see God, death brings us into a new relationship with Him ("then we shall see face-to-face")?

Of course, we can't know for certain.  But the analogies are at least intensely provocative, don't you think? . . .

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Getting Answers

Okay, things are getting clearer as to what, exactly, happened to me on my bike ride this past Sunday.  As you recall, I was feeling great, and riding well, for the first 15 miles of my ride.  Then I stopped for a short break, and a bottle of sugar-free Gatorade, and all hell broke loose with my body.

I have suspected that the Gatorade was the culprit, since the symptoms appeared immediately after I drank it.  And, in discussing my situation with our nurse friend, while we were trying to decide whether or not to go to the ER, she mentioned that an electrolyte imbalance can cause arhythmia, which also seemed to point to the Gatorade.  But the blood work I had done showed nothing unusual regarding my electrolytes, so that seemed like a dead end.

Then, after I got back home, I was telling another friend about what had happened, and he perked up his ears when I mentioned the Gatorade.  He asked me specifically whether it was regular Gatorade, or sugar-free, and I told him it was sugar-free, since, with my diet, I'm off sugar.  (Just to get the full irony of the situation, I would normally have a bottle of unsweetened iced tea, but it was late in the afternoon, and I didn't want the caffeine.)  Then he pointed me to this web site, which describes the link between aspartame and something called Sudden Cardiac Death.  The article cites numerous cases of otherwise very-healthy individuals dying suddenly while engaged in strenuous athletic activity, during which they consume aspartame.  And the description fits virtually exactly what happened to me.  To quote the article:  "the shock from strenuous athletics in combination with aspartame consumption. . . leads to activation of shock mechanisms. . . the cardiac conduction system that generates the impulses regulating the heart suddenly sends rapid [and/or] chaotic impulses."  Which is pretty much exactly what I experienced. Aspartame poisoning; who knew?  The fact that the article references something called 'Sudden Cardiac Death' is sobering in the extreme (I experienced a milder form called 'Sudden Cardiac Feeling Like Shit')

Of course, the FDA has approved aspartame, but one could reasonably wonder why.  You all are adults, and I trust you are competent to make your own decisions as to what foods you purchase and consume.  But aspartame (and virtually all 'sugar-free' foods/drinks contain aspartame) damn near did me in; and thousands of folks every year are less fortunate than I was.  If this is news to you, I'd encourage you to give serious consideration to deleting aspartame from your diet.  Or at least, don't engage in strenuous athletic activity while you consume it.  That shit is deadly. . .


Alas, the news concerning my dad is not so happy.  The stroke he had was a massive one, involving two-thirds of one side of his brain, and we are now basically waiting for him to die.  It may be soon, or it may be not-so-soon, but Dad as we've known him is gone.  I will miss him terribly.  I've said elsewhere that Dad is one of the very best things that ever happened to me, and I will always be grateful that, of all the families I might have been adopted into, I was adopted into his. . .

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Not Just Yet. . .

I know that I had another post up here, and at least one of you left a comment on it.  I promise I will re-post it later, but recent events have come to pass that I thought you all might be more interested in, than a five-year-old re-post about my youthful parenting skills (or lack thereof). . .


I usually ride my bike on Saturdays.  But this past Saturday was rainy, and besides, we had a family reunion to go to, so I put my ride off until Sunday.  Which worked out just fine, actually, since Jen had to go to a baby shower for one of our neices, and a ride would keep me suitably out of trouble in her absence.  Sunday was a delightfully sunny day, and I planned a 42-mile ride on one of my favorite routes.

As I began my ride, around 4PM, I felt absolutely great.  Sometimes, at the start of a ride, I feel a little sluggish, and it might take 4 or 5 miles to get into my groove; but on Sunday, I just felt great, right from the start of my ride.

After 10 miles or so, I noticed that my mouth was feeling a bit dry, and I was going through my water a little quicker than normal.  It occurred to me that I hadn't had much to eat since just after church, and that I'd forgotten to have glass of water before I left, like I usually do.  No problem, though - there's a little party store at about the 15-mile mark, and I just figured that I could grab a bottle of Gatorade, and maybe a bag of trail mix, to tide me over through the rest of the ride, and easily stretch my water supply through the end of the ride.  So I stopped at the party store, and bought a bottle of Gatorade, and drank it down over a 10-minute break.

When I got back on the bike, though, I instantly felt like utter crap.  It was the damnedest thing.  Minutes before, I'd felt absolutely great, and then after taking a 10-minute break and a pint of fluids (and replenishing my electrolytes in the process), I felt utterly terrible.  I had no energy anymore, and I was laboring twice as hard as normal to go half as fast.

At first, I thought that I'd guzzled the Gatorade too quickly, and was feeling the effects of an overfull stomach.  But if that were the case, the bloated, lethargic feeling would go away in a few miles, and this wasn't going away.  I was starting to get concerned.

There is a gas-station/party-store at about the 25-mile mark, and I stopped there for another break, and the trail mix that I didn't get at the previous stop.  While I rested, I thought maybe I should check my pulse, so I put my two right fingers against my left wrist.  I didn't have a stopwatch, but I was instantly alarmed that, even resting, my pulse was extremely rapid and irregular.  A quick self-inventory revealed no pain or tightness in my chest, but something was obviously not right.

I was still 17 miles from home, though, and Jen was out town at the baby shower, so she wasn't available to come get me, so I thought I could just cut the power, and limp home at a reduced speed.  As I recommenced my ride, my cell phone rang.  Jen was stuck in traffic an hour from home, and wanted me to give her an alternate route home.  So I stopped for five minutes, and worked out an alternate plan for her, and then I continued riding.  Ten minutes later, she called again, having gotten confused with some of the directions I'd given her, so I had to help her undo her mistake, and get her re-oriented in the right direction.  And when we hung up, I got back on the bike and rode some more.

And I still felt like crap.  In fact, I had started the ride going around the loop in the opposite direction from what I usually do, because the hills are more challenging that way, and I was feeling good.  But now that I felt lousy, it was a really unfortunate choice.  Every time I climbed a hill, I had to slow to a virtual snail's pace just to get up it at all, and then it took three times as long just to recover back to the level of 'feeling like shit'.

And Jen continued to call every ten minutes or so - seven times in all - asking for directional assistance (we often joke between us that I'm her own personal GPS).  And I was getting increasingly frustrated - that Jen was interrupting my ride every ten minutes, yes, but even moreso because of my own all-too-obvious health problems.  And the fact that, between my own reduced physical capacity, and all the time I spent on the side of the road talking to my wife, I was starting to move into the realms of 'will I get home before sunset?'

I continued taking periodic stock of my physical status.  On the flat-and-level parts, I wasn't doing too badly, if I didn't push myself too hard.  And I wasn't having any chest pain, or anything like that.  But, somewhere around the 31-mile mark, in moment of lucidity, I thought to myself that a heart attack isn't required to send up a warning flare, and there were plenty of stories of guys who had heart attacks with virtually no warning whatsoever.  So I stopped, and called 1F to come and pick me up.  She didn't answer.  I called 4M, and he didn't answer, either.  3M was at work.  So I called my friend Richard (who just made an appearance in my last post), and he said he would come out and pick me up.

I continued limping along in the mode I had been, until, at the 35-mile mark of my ride, Richard pulled up, and I gratefully got off my bike and threw it into the back of his van.  As we rode home, I told him what was happening.  By the time we got home, Jen had just arrived, and I filled her in on the situation.  I had Richard check my pulse, and he gave me a concerned look - it wasn't rapid, now that I'd had a chance to rest, but it was still wildly irregular.  We all went into the house, and tried to sort through a reasonable plan of action.  With rest, I no longer felt so bad, so I was wondering if a trip to the hospital was warranted or not (and besides, on Sunday night, none of the 'urgent-care' places are open, and ER visits are not treated happily by my health-care insurance; so if I could avoid a trip to the ER, I viewed that as a good thing).  Jen called our family doc, and he thought it would be good just to get an EKG, so why don't we just go on in.  Then Jen called a friend of hers who is a nurse, and the nurse-friend urged us even more strongly to go to the ER; and besides, she said, if we told the triage-nurse at the ER that 'my doctor wants me to have an EKG', that was pretty much a ticket to the front of the line.  So I said, OK, let's go.

And I just got home this afternoon, to tell you all about it.  Without going into stultifying detail, we still don't completely know what happened to me out on the bike Sunday afternoon.  As of now, we're just calling it a 'Cardiac Event'.  Of the various indicators of a heart-attack, all of them were negative, except one, which was, in the ER cardiologist's words, "slightly elevated, not at all what we'd see if you'd had a heart attack."  And I generated several odd-looking EKGs, "but that might just be you, and the way your heart works."

I had an Echocardiogram done, and that showed my heart working pretty doggone well, for what it's worth,  Then I had a Heart Catheterization (which is just more fun than a human being ought to be allowed to have), which showed one of my coronary arteries less-than-40% blocked; they don't even think about putting in a stent until the blockage is more than 70%.  So the diagnostics, while not quite sunshine and light, just don't seem to correspond to what I was feeling on the bike.

But now, at any rate, I have a cardiologist, with whom I will be becoming friends over the next few weeks.  So at least I'll be in touch with people who know how to figure out what's happening.

If any of you are moved to pray for me/us, I would be grateful. . .


And just because the Universe is a bastard. . .

While we were sitting in the hospital room, waiting for the final discharge papers, my sister-in-law called, informing us that my dad had had a stroke.  They'd just found him in his room just this morning, an hour before her call, conscious, but unable to talk or move his right side.  As I write this, that's all I know.

And he can certainly use your prayers even more than I can. . .

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Another Midsummer's Miscellany

As I posted previously, the week before last Jen and I, and four of our kids (8M was a camper; 4M, 5M and 6F were all on staff in one capacity or another), were gone off to summer camp.  We had a wonderful time, full of sunshine, water, trees, good friends, and even God.

On Friday of the camp week (the last full day at camp; Saturday is 'Going Home' day, full of songs like 'Country Roads' and 'Sloop John B'), I was playing softball in the afternoon with a typical mix of campers and staff (and seriously - there are few things in life much happier than jumping into a chilly-ish lake after getting baked under the hot sun on the softball field for an hour or so).  Thankfully, we didn't have any softball 'incidents' this year that were remotely on the order of last year's line-drive-off-the-face.

Anyway, I came up to bat at one point in the game (actually two or three times; but this story is just about one of them).  I have maintained a reputation among summer-camp softballers as a pretty fearsome power hitter, but truth be told, I can't quite jack the ball to the far reaches of the camp anymore, quite like I could when I was still spelling my age with a '3', or even a '4'.  Especially since the advent of the mush-balls.  But I can still stroke a nice line drive most of the time, even if I no longer have the legs to turn most of those line drives into home runs, or even triples.  Aging is such a pain. . .

So, on the at-bat in question, I stroked a screaming line drive to the deepest corner of center field, and as I watched it bounce, I saw it heading for a gap in the trees which, if the ball made it through, would give even a lumbering old man like me a decent chance at circling the bases.  So I turned on the jets (such as they are) as I rounded second base.

And - *ping!* - my hamstring stretched and recoiled back on itself.  I yelled out in pain, and I had all I could do to make my way safely to third base, in the fashion of a deranged, wounded walrus.  I stood on third for a few minutes, trying to ascertain the extent of my injury.  It seemed not to be too bad - I could still stand and walk, albeit a tad gingerly, so I stayed in the game.  Fortunately, the next batter stroked another line drive to the outfield, so I could limp home without further issue, and I got through the last day of camp with nothing more dire than some stiffness and soreness in the back of my leg.

But, you know. . . I was MAD!  A pulled hamstring is the classic 'old man injury' (those of you who remember such things, think Joe Montana with the KC Chiefs); the classic sign of a brain that is willing to try anything that the body has ever done before, except that the body can't pull it off the same way anymore.  By rights, I should've sped around those bases as lithely as I ever did (which, let's be honest, never exactly rose to the level of 'gazelle-like', even in my prime).  I hit the ball hard, and I knew what I had to do, but my stupid body (which, I am thinking, Saint Francis of Assisi was all-too-apt in calling 'Brother Ass') rebelled.  I was angry and frustrated.

The anger and frustration eventually gave way to something more like disappointment and resignation to the simple fact that I am getting older, and now I have to work out the implications of that 'aging-ness' in terms of my behavior.  Which can stir up the resentment that I should even have to worry about stuff like that, if I let it.  But, you know, life is what it is, and it behooves me to conform my life to the actual Universe, rather than demand that the Universe conform itself to my wishes (the Universe is notoriously stubborn on stuff like that).

The funny thing is, even while I was still at camp, I found that climbing stairs didn't bother my leg at all.  And on Sunday, the day after we got back home, I went out to test my leg on my bike, and ended up going 32 miles.  Even though it hurt to lift my leg to put my socks on.  Very weird.

But, you know, I'm not complaining. . .


While six of our family members were at camp, 7M was on a week-long hike with a group of jr-hi boys from our community, on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.  He had a great time, taxing himself physically, strengthening his friendships with the other boys, and enjoying God's creation in the process.

One day, toward the end of the hike, 7M, as jr-hi boys will be from time-to-time, was feeling a bit down; perhaps his will had run afoul of one of the adults-in-charge (as will also happen to jr-hi boys, from time-to-time), but he was moping about, and wandered off a short distance from the campsite.  He found a log to sit on, and began picking up stones from the ground and randomly tossing them in no particular direction.

One stone in particular caught his attention - flat and maybe three inches across or so, it was sufficiently buried as to require a bit of effort on 7M's part to coax it out of the ground.  When he finally did, he found that the stone had been inscribed in purple-Sharpie with the message, "Smile, God loves you".

Which, you know, isn't necessarily the most profound of all possible messages, but right at that moment, it met my son where he was living. . .


This past weekend, the town where I live (OK, actually the college town right next door) hosted the annual Great Lakes Folk Festival, a weekend event in which various flavors of 'folk' groups from all over the midwest (and actually, much farther afield than that) come to perform.  The festival has been going on for something like ten years, but Jen and I have only gone for the last three years (and now wonder why we weren't more strongly motivated before that).  It's a really great time to hear some really fine, really fun music performed by some really talented musicians that you might never hear on your radio.

It turns out that our town is something of a regional hotbed of folk music, especially bluegrass and blues.  There's a music store in town to which people come from multiple states away, just to shop their selection of 'folk' instruments - mostly stringed instruments like guitars, bass guitars (an acoustic bass guitar is a pretty impressive-looking instrument), mandolins, ukuleles, dobros, dulcimers, etc., etc.  I've even seen a few harps on the sales floor, over the years.  A friend of mine went to Germany a few years back, and one of the Germans he met asked where he was from.  When my friend told him, he said, "Ah!" and named the music store. . .

Jen and I went to the festival this past Friday evening, and saw a Hawaiian guitarist, a Michigan-based bluegrass band, a klezmer band ('Jewish soul music'), and an Irish Celtic group (with every bit of the rollicking good humor that you might associate with such a label).  Each of them played about a 45-minute set, and each was wonderful in its own way.  Part of the charm of such a festival is being able to sample so many disparate musical styles in one venue, over the course of a weekend.

And part of the charm of living in Our Town. . .


Jen and I went to the festival on Friday night with our very good friends Richard and Stef (Richard and I were each other's Best Men, and Stef was my once-upon-a-time date to see Paul McCartney).  As we relaxed during one of the breaks between sets, I noticed an elderly gentleman (well, he was at least fairly obviously older than me) (at least, it seemed fairly obvious to me), who was seated directly in front of us, carrying on a conversation with two men seated on either side of him.  I was sort-of idly people-watching, when the thought arose in my head that this gentleman looked familiar, somehow, although I couldn't quite place him (at this point, I hope I wasn't crossing into 'creepy' territory as I intently checked out his face for clues as to where I might have known him, once upon a time).

Then the penny dropped.  The man reminded me A LOT of a Catholic preist who had been at the student parish back in my college days.  I wasn't sure it was really him - it's been more than 30 years since I'd have last seen him, and this gentleman was thinner and frailer than the priest I remembered; to say nothing of white-haired, and sporting a white beard, whereas the priest I remembered had a thick black mustache (Italian as he'd been).  I turned to Richard and whispered in his ear, "is that Fr. Jake sitting in front of us?"  He turned and replied that he'd been thinking the same thing.

We debated for a few seconds as to how we might best determine the answer to our curiosity, when one of the men he was speaking with called him 'Jake' by name, and we knew we'd been right.  Before we could interrupt and (re-)introduce ourselves, he turned toward us with a broad grin and said, "You look familiar to me; do I know you from somewhere?"  When we told him our names, he remembered us.  Mostly, it seems, from a class that he'd taught at the university, that Richard and I had both taken, more than from anything associated with the student parish (although, after we'd talked for a while, he suddenly turned to me and said, "You used to play the guitar, didn't you?"; so the data points were slowly falling into place for him, too).  We had a pleasant conversation for a few minutes, before he left to see another group play at one of the other festival venues.

The thing is, Fr. Jake is one of the utterly unique people I have ever known.  He is just instinctively kind and gracious, and everyone who has ever met him has felt utterly loved and cared-for.  In the course of our conversation, I thanked him for his part in bringing me into the Catholic Church, and Jen thanked him for helping keep her in the Church in her college years, when she'd been seriously considering changing her Christian affiliation.

As I grew deeper in my faith, Fr. Jake came to frustrate me greatly, as well.  In his kindness, he often resisted speaking the 'hard truth', and I feared (and still do, although in maturer ways than I used to; I hope) that in his very great kindness, he was misleading some folks as to what the actual truth of the gospel was, or what God might require of us as response to His mercy.  And I would guess that a fair bit of that frustration was mutual.  But Fr. Jake never treated me with anything other than open, gracious love and kindness, and even for all the frustration, I have always remembered him fondly.  He taught me a valuable lesson, that it is possible to disagree with someone, even deeply and passionately, and still love and value them at the same time.

He is 82 years old now, still active and fit (he was complaining that he'd screwed up something in his knee, playing tennis the day before), still teaching the class at the university.  He's no longer associated with the student parish, but he is still a faithful Catholic priest.

And it was good to see him again, after 30+ years. . .



HATE it when I screw stuff up. . .

Alas, I have hurt one of my very good friends, through my own culpable carelessness.  I am hopeful that our friendship will survive my stupidity, but it will necessarily be different than it was before.  My friend didn't do anything wrong; all my friend did was be in the wrong place when the consequences of my, um, stuff came down, and got splashed with the fallout.

If my friend should happen to be reading this, please understand that hurting you was the very last thing I ever intended.  I hope you can forgive me. . .

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Wonderful-ness; or, Happy Anniversary to My Beloved

Another re-post, this one from five years ago, in honor of Jen's-and-my 31st wedding anniversary. . .


There are times when I’m simply overwhelmed by the wonderful-ness of my wife. Times when I just look at her and ask myself, “How is it that the most amazing woman in the universe threw her life in with me?” And I’m just in awe of my good fortune.

There might be a few women in the world (stress on ‘might’ and ‘few’) who are physically more beautiful than Jen, but when I consider the strength of her character, the beauty of her soul and spirit, she blows them all away. I’ll say it again – she is the most amazing woman in the universe. I almost feel bad for the rest of you guys that she’s my wife. Almost.

And the thing is, I’m well aware that I did nothing in particular to deserve her. I’m still not real sure why, all those years ago, she brought that rubber ball to me, when it seems like there must have been lots of more desirable guys than me available to her. But I’m glad she did. I’ve often described how we knew each other pretty well before we ever got to the point of courtship. And that’s what’s most amazing of all to me – she’s told me many times how God told her, before I even proposed to her, “What you see is what you get with him.” She had a pretty good, sober assessment of my character. AND SHE STILL MARRIED ME! That blows me away, and I’m grateful for it every single day I’m married to her.

And even now, after 31 years, I’m still blown away. She knows me way better now than she did back then, and she still throws her life in with mine. For all the clear-eyed, sober appraisal of my character she had when we were courting, there are lots of things, not all of them good, that she’s only learned from living with me for 31 years. And she still stays married to me. Amazing!

“Somewhere in my wicked, miserable past, I must have done something good.”

Simply flat-out amazing. . .


Happy Anniversary, Sweetheart.  You have made my life immeasurably richer. . .