Idle Thoughts

Rants, Raves, and Revelations . . . oh my!

Cherry Pajamas June 21, 2011

Filed under: Writings — idlethoughtsblog @ 11:30 pm
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This has been a long day for many reasons.  Part of it is the heat and humidity (that I’m hoping leaves very soon) which I was out in for around an hour getting comments for a story about and watching the funeral procession for fallen firefighter, Scott Davis, who died fighting a church fire last Wednesday (see The Star Press article for more info. There are several, but this is one more about him.  I will be blogging about this soon.)  Part of it is the fact that Grace Baptist’s VBS has started and I’m starting to get worn down with the bus ministry as some of these kids have never been taught how to obey or anything about respect whatsoever.  Another part that I didn’t really mention today and probably wouldn’t have to anyone unfamiliar with the situation if it weren’t for this blog is the one most on my heart right now.

________

You see, ten years ago today, the world lost one of the greatest men you’ve probably never heard of.  My grandfather, Don Daugherty.  He led a simple, hard-working life — as simple as being the father of six could be.  It’s because of him that I tell stories, both fictional and real.  This was a guy who could tell a story that would capture my attention and imagination as a child (no easy feat, by the way) and could do so on command.  I’ll write more about this one day and perhaps fix the problems with this essay when my brain isn’t so dead.  Tonight, I’ll post an essay I wrote for an English class last summer about that night ten years ago when I was forced to look at and accept the fact that life isn’t fair and the ones you rely on might not always be there.

            It will probably go down as the worst night of my life.  He was my grandfather – my mother’s dad – and he had been fighting this growing monster inside him for the three years it spent eating him alive from the inside out.  He couldn’t fight any longer.  There was nothing the doctors could do, and personally, I think he grew tired of battling with the tumors in his body.  He was exhausted, both in body and spirit, and the only thing we could do was let him go.

_______

The day I hoped would never come, came and went without a whisper.  There was no thunder and lightning or heavy rain like in the movies.  The sun set just like it always did and rose again.  We woke up the next morning, and the world still turned.  Men and women went on with their lives and, in time, we would, too.  But a part of me is still in that back room of my grandparents’ house where I watched him lying in that rented hospital bed in a coma, still and silent.

_________

~*~

________

            Somehow all of my aunts and uncles and their spouses, my mother, grandmother, and I managed to squeeze into that little room, despite the fact that an enormous argument had erupted between them only days before which resulted in certain siblings more or less not speaking to each other.  We all felt we needed to be there and gathered almost all at the same time, as if we all knew what was going to happen.  My mother and I had been in Columbus, Ohio, for the past three weeks, waiting – hoping for a miracle but knowing better than to hold our breath.  She was the only married daughter whose husband was not present that night due to work conflicts.  I was all she had and I knew it.  As much as I didn’t want to enter a room where death was so near, I had to stay, even if I was told otherwise.  I was the only grandchild present when my grandmother, tears in her eyes, finally removed the oxygen tubes from her husband’s nose, whispering, “Tell Jeffy I love him.  I’ll see you soon.”

___________

Jeffrey Daugherty, or Jeffy, as my grandmother called him, was an uncle I had never met.  He had died of a brain tumor before I was born.  He would be my immediate family’s first experience with premature death.  Another uncle would face the same threat, but survived a brain tumor, losing only the hearing in his left ear.   We believe that, before his death, my grandfather’s cancer also spread to his brain.  This was both good and heartbreaking at the same time – good because we had some time to get used to the fact that he was, more or less, gone before he actually left this world, but heartbreaking to watch him become more and more confused before finally lapsing into a coma in his bed in that tiny back room, painted an obnoxious shade of teal with white curtains that hung and billowed gently with the slightest breeze, like ghosts that stood, watching for another spirit to leave its body.  And from the looks of it, his spirit was anxious to do so.  His face was pale, kind of a yellowish gray from the disease attacking his liver.  He looked like he was just asleep, but it was easy to tell he was sick.  His hair, which he never lost through the chemotherapy treatments, was white and thinner than it used to be, but still wavy, just like always.  He lay there motionless, like he was sleeping, and sometimes it was easier to believe he was simply sleeping.  That he would wake up any time and everything would be fine and we could go on with our lives as if this cancer never happened.  But the facts would invariably bring me back to reality.  He was drifting silently away and there was nothing I could do to keep him here.

________

~*~

___________

            I blamed the doctors at first.  In 1997, my grandfather had had surgery on his intestines and in the process of the operation, the doctors had seen something of concern in his colon, but declined to do a biopsy of any kind.  They barely mentioned the fact that they had seen anything.  Trusting the medical professionals, my grandparents went home.  In 1998, he noticed a suspicious-looking spot on his face and, knowing the history of skin cancer, specifically melanoma, in our family, he went to have it checked out.  It was then they found the cancer and, in the ensuing days, realized where it had originated.  The mystery mass the doctors felt was, apparently, nothing to worry about had been cancer.  It was to be the beginning of his fight with what had become stage four colon cancer.

___________

I remember clearly the hours spent in the hospital with him and my grandmother while he received chemotherapy drip by drip through an IV in his hand.  The hours spent on his bed with him because the therapy made him too sick to be up and about.  The obvious weakness every time I came back to Columbus after months back home in Indiana.  I watched as the cancer took hold in his liver and lungs, despite the offerings of modern medicine.  All I could do was stand by as doctors told us that the chemo was no longer working and as he was put on supportive care in an effort to make him as comfortable as possible.  There’s no more powerful way of realizing that you are completely helpless in a situation.

_____________

__

            After his lapse into a coma, I rarely entered the room.  He wasn’t really there.  He had left weeks before.  And, as an eleven-year-old, I could barely keep myself together when I was anywhere else in the house, much less his room.  I had already spent years in depression and just as I was coming out of the worst of that, we got the call – the hospice nurses said it was the end and we needed to come soon if we wanted a chance to say goodbye while he was still slightly able to comprehend the fact we were there.

__________

I was the oldest cousin on that side of the family.  I felt responsible to my fellow grandchildren to provide answers to the questions their parents didn’t want to answer.  This gave me a good excuse to hide behind corners and listen to what the adults were saying – things they probably didn’t want us kids to know.  Much of it was medical jargon, but even then, I knew the more technical the speech, the worse the situation.  While there was life, there was hope, but that hope had dwindled almost completely until it was gone.  No miracle was swooping in to save him, no doctor called saying there was one other thing they could try.  There was nothing I could do.  There aren’t really words to describe the feeling of utter helplessness when someone you love is slipping away from you and you can’t hold onto them to save their life – literally.  Especially as an eleven-year-old, who comes harshly to the realization that she has no control over anything whatsoever, from something as traumatizing as the death of her grandfather to something as trivial as what would be served at dinner that night.  No control at all.

______

~*~

___________

            There’s something about a patriarch’s imminent death that brings out the crazy in people.  My fully-grown adult aunts and uncles bickered for hours over something incredibly stupid, as far as I’m concerned, doing what they could to keep their children away from the argument to the extent that we weren’t allowed to come inside, even to use the restroom.  The sad-but-funny part was the fact that they were ganging up on my mother over the decisions she had made regarding the way I was raised, saying she wasn’t letting me have any fun and that she was hurting me somehow.  Honestly, I was more hurt that I couldn’t come in and use the restroom (a decision made by the aunts and uncles who claimed to have my best interests at heart) than the fact that my mother didn’t want me to go to see a particular movie with them.

_________

It was as though they didn’t want to believe we kids knew what was going on or what they were all fighting about.  We weren’t stupid and we were tired of being dragged into the adult situation of this death then being treated like little children who couldn’t understand sibling squabblery.  It was pathetically funny, the kind of thing you have to laugh at to keep from crying – adults acting like children, children having to act like grown-ups, the older cousins taking care of the younger cousins during these long bickering sessions, and my poor grandmother, trying to maintain at least a little peace with all of us.

____________

I’m sure it must have been difficult having all of us – five remaining children (three of whom had spouses present) and nine grandchildren – spending so much time at her house at such a time as that.  What she did for peace and quiet, I’ll never know.  I’m assuming, of course, she actually had time for peace and quiet.  She was having to care for a dying husband – her fifth grade sweetheart who she thought she’d spend the rest of her life with, or at least another twenty years or so – and keeping a house full of guests fed and cleaned-up after.  The woman was a superhero then, and remains so to this day.

_________

            It’s taken a long time, but I think I’ve finally come to forgive the doctors who neglected to do anything about the tumor in my grandfather’s colon when they first saw it.  If they had done something then, his cancer would have been discovered sooner, rather than it having to progress to stage four before anyone did anything.  But doctors make mistakes, just like I do.  Granted, I don’t usually make mistakes that kill people, but they didn’t know that was what they had done.  For all I know, they never knew.  As much as I think something should have been done to prevent doctors from making such a mistake, I don’t want my grandfather’s death, or anything else about him, to be something I remember with anger.

_________

~*~

___________

            There’s a saying that goes something like “When he dies, even the undertaker will cry.”  There were a lot more people than just the undertaker crying at my grandfather’s funeral, though whether the undertaker did indeed cry is something I doubt.  The undertaker had no idea of the person he was preparing for burial.

_________

He was such a vibrant person with a life story someone should write a book about.  A boy from rural Kentucky who, through hard work and perseverance, lived to become the owner of his own software company.  He was a son, a husband, a father, a storyteller, a fisher, a grandpa to, at the time, nine grandchildren, and to many others whose lives were touched by this man, he was more than I’ll ever know.  I want to remember the times we spent at a lake fishing (whether we caught anything or not) or the hours he spent making up stories for me.  He is my original inspiration – for both life and storytelling.  He’s the reason I tell stories.  Partly in memoriam, and partly because he instilled a magical passion for telling stories that I wanted to keep alive somehow in myself and, maybe, in others through writing them down and telling them aloud when I could summon the courage to do so.

___________

There were many who saw him as an ordinary man, but not me.  There was nothing ordinary about him.

            I can still hear the oxygen machine whirring on the left side of his bed.  I can see the shapes all our shadows made on the weird-colored walls.  I can still remember where everyone in the room was – for some, even what they were wearing.  I, myself, was in my cherry pajamas, with the drawstring pants and the button-down shirt.  They weren’t particularly comfortable, matching the mood of the long visit we spent there, basically waiting for him to pass on.  There was an almost tangible tension I tried to ignore so people wouldn’t worry about me, but I can’t honestly say I didn’t want someone to ask.  I was so lost without him.  Like a piece of who I was – who I am – has been missing since the night of June 21, 2001.

____________

And I can’t get it back.

 

Always Kiss Me Goodnight July 19, 2010

Filed under: Writings — idlethoughtsblog @ 11:44 am
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He sits in his old recliner after dinner.  I don’t think he intends to go to sleep, but inevitably, he is snoring peacefully soon after Jeopardy, or these days, sometimes even before.  When I say snoring, I don’t mean merely loud breathing while asleep.  Accompanying the usual sounds you might expect are hums and sighs and, if he’s dreaming, mutters.  He will go on this way until the nightly news comes on, which he will awaken just long enough to hear before going to bed.  To his right, with a be-lamped table between them, sits his wife.  She is sitting in a reclining loveseat, her feet up, heating pad pressed to her back, usually sleeping right alongside him.

These two are my grandparents and they have been married for fifty-five years.

My grandfather is tall and thin with skin tan from spending long days outside running his miniature trains around train parks across the country.  His hands are calloused from working all his life in bakeries and in basement workshops and with his trains.  My grandmother is petite, her hair set in short, light blonde curls, her skin fair, her fingernails immaculate, her eyes a beautiful bright blue.  She’s worked alongside him, raising two children, and in their later years, traveled around with him and his trains for as long as I can remember, including their annual trip down to Florida every winter until recently, when her health became a concern.  Their RV sits dormant now, its years of service rewarded with a suitable retirement next to the garage.  And now, I think my grandparents are settling completely into their retirement as well.

Their journey together began in 1948.  Lee Wehlann was hired to work as a baker at Heinrich’s Bakery in Detroit, Michigan as a junior in high school.  While he was working back in the kitchen, Theresa, the daughter of the owner, Godfrey Heinrich, worked in the front.

 

Isn't she gorgeous?

 

After work one day, he and five other people crammed into his little car and went for ice cream.  Theresa, among them, squeezed into the front seat between him and another young man who worked with Lee in the kitchen.  After that, one thing led to another and Lee wound up asking Theresa out to dinner to a Swedish smorgasbord he liked and she accepted.  They dated steadily until he joined the service in 1952.  By then, Lee knew Theresa was the only woman for him.  He would have proposed before joining the army, but did not want to leave Theresa engaged to a man who did not have all confidence in his return if he were deployed.  Instead, they stayed close until he was discharged in November 1954, very soon after which he asked Theresa to be his wife.  They were married August 13, 1955.  The employee marries the boss’s daughter.

Together, they started their own bakery, The Nook, in 1971 on the east side of Detroit and continued running Heinrich’s Bakery until selling the business.  Together with their children, Judy and Don, and a handful of other employees, Lee operated the bakery and Theresa taught cake decorating and candy-making for nearly ten years before opening another Nook in the fall of 1981 in Centerline.  They sold the first Nook on Gratiot Street in December of 1983 and focused their attention on the Centerline Nook until Lee’s retirement in 1995.

The Wehlanns were a typical, hard-working, blue-collar Detroit family, Lee rising early, often at two or three in the morning, to start getting ready for the breakfast crowd at his bakery, Theresa teaching cake decorating and candy-making to her students later in the day, their children joining them after school.  Though they spent their lives working long and hard, often with little together time in the evenings, as many families had, Lee and Theresa always made family a priority, even if it meant that family time was spent working.  Their son, Don, my father, recalls that the greatest life lessons he learned were taught by his parents’ example in their bakeries – the value of hard work and the fair treatment of employees and customers as it applied both to business and their personal lives.

Judy remembers watching her mother teach cake decorating and candy making at the Nook alongside Theresa’s mother, Anna.  She remembers her mother working hard to keep the house together, especially the laundry.  My grandmother would spend hours in the basement doing laundry and ironing.  She had an upright iron, the likes of which you might see in a tailor’s shop or a drycleaner’s, and used it to iron everything from bed and table linens to her husband’s handkerchiefs.  Theresa and her mother-in-law took sewing classes together, learning a skill Theresa used well into my lifetime, and would often bring Judy with her.

Their love was shown by the quality of the time spent with their children, rather than the quantity.  In the summers, Sunday was family day.  Every Sunday after church, they took their children sailing in Upper Pettibone Lake, about an hour’s drive northwest of Detroit.  In the winter of 1967and 1968, Lee and Don built a sixteen-foot Sunfish sailboat in the basement to sail on the lake, an experience both children remember.  My father still remembers hauling that boat on its side up the stairs and out through the back door.  The boat is still in existence and is currently hanging in the rafters of Judy’s garage.  They traveled with Don and Judy in campers, first in an eight-foot pop-up and later in, what Judy refers to as a “twelve-foot box,” all over the country and even into parts of Canada with Lee’s parents.  This not only built memories for themselves and their children, but also demonstrated their love for them in ways my father and aunt might not have fully understood at the time.  In order to take these vacations, my grandparents had to shut down the Nook for up to two weeks, sacrificing the needed-income they would have received in order show their children the wonders of their available world and experience those wonders with them.  In many ways, this shows a greater love than money-bought luxuries ever could.

My grandfather made time for his son, specifically, while working in their basement workshop, building model planes and teaching him how to fix and build things, something he has passed on, in his own way, to my brother and I.  That’s not to say Judy didn’t get some time in the workshop as well.  As a little girl, perhaps four or five years old, she can remember bringing broken toys to him while he stood at his workbench and saying, “Daddy, fix.”  A little while later, her toys would be returned to her, fully-functioning.  It was the little things they did that really meant the most.

They did not have much money to spend on their children, but the gifts they have given them in the form of life lessons and practical experience can carry no price tag.  My father, now a pastry chef himself, received years of experience in the kitchen long before going to culinary school.  My aunt, now an accountant, got her first real business experience working in the second Nook and, during her senior year of high school, by more or less managing the bakery while her mother was ill.  My father and aunt both learned the value of a dollar and the satisfaction of a hard day’s work, something they have been able to pass onto their own children.

In a society where families break into pieces with a couple of signatures on a document and marriage is taken lightly, it is rare to see a relationship last as long as theirs has.  This is due, at least in part, to another gift my grandparents have given both their children, and now their grandchildren as we start to get married.  It is an often-overlooked piece of wise counsel passed down from his own mother, who lived the vow ‘till death do us part’ just as they have:

“Always kiss each other goodnight.”

No matter what spat or argument you might have with your husband or wife, make up before you go to bed.  Because in the light of day, the realization of the big picture will dawn on you – this is the person, the gift, I’ve been given to share my life with and they, and the life we share together, are more important that whatever we might argue about.

And it’s worked.  Through fifty-five years of marriage, good times and bad, financial success and setbacks, sickness and health, joy and sorrow, they have remained partners in business and in life.  Best friends.  Even their arguments, such as they are, are cute.  Their life together has been long and happy and they wouldn’t change a thing.

My grandfather chuckles, and through the phone, I can hear him nod and smile.  “It’s been great.”