The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Cecil Departs October 7, 2014

Saratoga Springs’ beloved banjo man, Cecil Myrie, died this morning. While I haven’t heard directly from his family yet, what I gather is that he was likely asleep when he passed, as for the past few days he’d been heavily medicated to relieve the terrible pain he was experiencing. Earlier this past summer, Cecil was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a type of bone cancer, and the pain he felt at times was excruciating, as his very ribs themselves were fracturing from the cancer. He was one tough cookie though, because even while uncomfortable he still wanted to play music – still had it in him to pull out not one but two banjos at our last visit – plus the bass box too. I’m not a string player by any means, but he coached me as I stumbled my way through the three all-important chords. Bless him for giving us that last precious hang. I wish we’d heard him one last time on the street, but I’m grateful we were able to hear him one last time at all.

Over the past week we visited him a handful of times; sometimes he could barely open his eyes, other times his face would light up and he would try to talk to us. But recently, with the morphine, plus the dryness of mouth that the drugs were giving him, it was even more difficult to understand him. And hey – it was hard enough to understand him to begin with on account of that thick Jamaican accent of his! On one visit I had a moment alone with him, and I leaned in and stroked his head. I told him he was loved by so many, and that all of his friends and family were thinking of him. I told him that I was sure he would soon be in a much better place, that soon he would enjoy that perfect freedom… I’m not as scared as I once was about talking about death with the dying, so I pressed on, hoping for some insight into the thoughts of one who is so very close… “Cecil, are you afraid of dying?” I asked him. “No, no, not really” he said, in a thoughtful way. Then he went on to say more, but try as I did, I couldn’t make it out. He was obviously elaborating on his answer, but I would have to be satisfied with what I got. No, he wasn’t afraid. Good. Cuz I can imagine a lot of people are. I wondered what he was lingering for then, were there any family members yet to see again? I heard he was caught up with everyone. Maybe it’s just hard to let go of your loved ones, maybe one lingers so as not to break the hearts of those left behind. Who knows. As wonderful as the next world may be, there are still a lot of wonderful things about this world that might be hard to break away from.

Yesterday I’d had a flash of inspiration. I looked into my music closet and found my grandmother’s ukelele, now almost a hundred years old. I figured out three chords and quickly jotted down the lyrics to a couple songs, played through them through a couple of times, then with Elihu and his djembe, headed to the hospital to play for Cecil. How happy he would be to hear someone sing for him, I thought. When we arrived, he was in a peaceful sleep, with a CD of his from the old days in Jamaica playing softly, and the article from the weekend’s paper had been taped up on the wall for him to see. We lingered a moment, and looked at him. What to do? We both knew it made no sense to wake him. Elihu cautioned me not to kiss him lest I wake him from his rest. So we just stood for a moment, and watched him sleep, the soft calypso music gently filling the room. The song playing was the last on the CD; fittingly, it was Jamaica Farewell.

Today we returned to the hospital, again ready to play for Cecil, but my heart sank to my knees when I saw the cleaning cart in front of his room. I knew what that meant. We entered the room and were surprised to find our own next door neighbor there. She worked in the housekeeping staff, and was just finishing up with his room. She’d known Cecil too; she always knew the patients. A week or so ago we’d told her about having a friend in the hospital – and she now learned who it was we’d meant. Wherever Cecil went, he was known and loved. He possessed an understated congeniality; pleasant, low-key and friendly to all.

I want to thank you Cecil, because you’ve got me excited to learn a stringed instrument now! More than that, you’ve hipped me to a whole new world of songs, and you’ve opened up a new way in which my son and I can play music together. I’d never thought that I could learn anything new at my age, and with my arthritis, no less. But you’ve got Elihu and me looking eagerly to a new musical future. There’s not a soul who can take your place, but we hope it makes you happy to know that a piece of you will continue to live on in us and all the music we’ve yet to play.

My love and wishes for peace and healing go out to all of Cecil’s family and friends in this deeply sad time.

IMG_4951My last picture with Cecil, just day before yesterday. I hope it didn’t hurt when I made him laugh.

IMG_5048A beautiful fall day on which to leave us.

IMG_5437We thought of you as we dusted off our old, almost-forgotten banjo.

IMG_5486Elihu can even make some good sounds on it already.

IMG_5482It’s a sad day, yes, but we think Cecil would want us to enjoy ourselves…

IMG_5530Lying on our backs in the leaf pile, we look up to the heavens and think of our friend.

This is the song Elihu sang for Cecil on one of our visits.

 

The Other Shoe August 8, 2013

Thursday morning

We’re going to take dad to the hospital today as he’s been complaining of stomach pains for a few days now. While mom and I think it might be good old-fashioned constipation, and he’s been drinking more fluids to help things along, the pain hasn’t really gone away. Mom suspects all he needs is some hydration by way of an IV. That, and the overall stimulation that another atmosphere and new people might provide. I’m not so sure this will have a happy ending. Martha, the other matriarchal figure in our lives, is also in the hospital today. She awoke around four this morning because she was having difficulty breathing. Martha knows the drill well. She pushes the button on the pendant around her neck, calls her friends Doreen and Mike, and shortly an ambulance arrives. She’s been in the hospital – admitted through ER – many times over the past couple of years. Sometimes things appear dire, yet she always ends up returning to her large, historic farmhouse in Greenfield. And every time she enters the place, I pray she makes it home again. Above all things, Martha is a woman who must die in her house. And no matter how infirmed her state, it seems she always has the resolve to make sure that one day she will.

My father, on the other hand, might have a different story. If admitted, he might be considerably disoriented by an extended stay in the hospital. Mom’s hope is that he ends up staying for a few days. She’s even posited his going then to a rehab facility in town (Martha’s done that herself several times). But if he can be made well by a simple round of hydration, then why would he need to stay there? My suspicion is that mom isn’t even aware of her own secret wish to be relived of her care-taking duties, if only for a couple of days. I’ve been lobbying hard for a weekly visit from an private nurse, but mom continues to say ‘we’re not there yet’. ! A few days ago she began to acquiesce, and told me her intention was to call the office of the aging and schedule an in-home interview, yet every manner of obstacle has prevented her from doing so. She doesn’t work, dad doesn’t get up til way past noon. What on earth could be preventing her from calling, save her own, deeply-embedded fear of entering this next phase? This is all a sad new territory for sure, and it’s made even harder to navigate by virtue of my parents’ values and upbringing. They are not a generation that discusses their feelings. And my mother is definitely not one to accept help. This creates a challenging environment when it comes time to deal with these issues of aging. Man, if there’s one thing I’ve made good and clear to my own son, it’s that he should do what he needs to do when the time comes. If I don’t know who he is and I can’t wipe my own butt – then  by all means ship me off. And honestly – you may think me morbid, I do not care – I am all in favor of assisted suicide (however loathe that term) if a person should face an irreversible, debilitating disease. It’s even my hope to be able to sock away enough money to have that be a viable option one day (one possible place is in Zurich, Switzerland. It’s legal there). After all, looking to my father and paternal grandmother, the genetic possibility for growing old with dementia is a potential reality for me. I cannot pretend it isn’t.

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Thursday, early evening

I’ve been at the hospital for much of the afternoon with mom and dad. The staff at Saratoga Hospital continues to impress me, and I’m so very grateful for their service today. Turns out dad just had a hernia. Not a big surprise, he had one on the other side years ago which he had fixed surgically. The doc massaged it back into place, and dad felt relief right away. He had a CT scan which showed some ‘white matter’ around his brain; the ER doc surmised that it may have been many ‘tiny strokes’, but mom and I wonder if it might not simply be evidence of his memory loss and the related diminishing brain volume. Either way, my feeling is that it doesn’t so much matter. In my eyes, it’s my father’s quality of life and comfort that is most important now. Little prevention can be done to stop the progress of what’s probably inevitable. Guarding against falls is another concern of mine now too (mom and dad have a tile floor, argh. Knock on wood). In the end, dad’s cheerful, as well as he can be, and most importantly, feeling better. And I for one am relieved that he didn’t need an overnight stay in the hospital. (Although mom might feel differently.)

Martha was just down the hall, and on the way out, we wheeled dad into her room for a visit. It only just occurred to me right now – that it might have been the last time that dad and Martha will ever see each other in person. On Martha’s 87th birthday, just a few weeks ago, it took dad nearly fifteen minutes just to get inside her house. It was a huge production. I think we all knew as we watched his incredibly slow progress to the car afterward, that this was probably his final visit to the farm. This whole chapter is bizarre and bittersweet. I realize I’m lucky to have both of my parents alive and doing relatively well. So many of my friends are in that stage of life when they’re losing theirs. I watch, I wait, I worry. Nothing to do but try to savor the time remaining.  It’s tough for me, yes, but I think of my folks. My dad is actually blessed by his dementia; he can’t truly appreciate that his life is reaching its end. And my mother, while she herself is actually doing ok (in spite of bad arthritis and chronic back pain), I can’t help but I wonder if there’s not a low-grade worry present in her thoughts about how her own end will come. An occasional passive-aggressive aside will come out every now and then which betrays a darker side to her concerns. On the face of it however, she jokes, she makes light… There is a mildly haunting sense to this time in all of our lives, although none of us ever says as much. But even if we were to talk, what would we say? I’d like to think that Elihu and I will face these tough conversations with absolute honesty when the time comes, but I can’t know that for certain. I cannot begin to assume that I will behave any differently, or approach the last years of my life with any more candor than my folks. I just don’t know how it will feel to be in that situation. I’d like to think that I’ll be able to face it, but it’s been a bigger challenge than I’d thought just turning fifty!

For now, I cherish the little things that have been so familiar to me all of my life. That certain, charming way my father has of laughing. The way my mother always shows concern, the way she always takes care of things, and makes me feel in the end like everything will always be alright. I can’t grasp in this moment, today, that one day they will be gone. And as frustrated as they can make me, they are my only parents, and I love them so. Every remaining moment is important, because you never truly know when the other shoe will finally fall to the ground.

ER 2013 126I am a fan of Saratoga Hospital. The staff there have all been so kind and gracious.

ER 2013 063Dad was in good spirits all afternoon.

ER 2013 053There’s his gallbladder. All looks just fine.

ER 2013 078Now we’re in Martha’s room for a visit. Note how she raises her hand for emphasis as she speaks. She is still in control! And she remembers the name of every last person who comes into her room – not only that, but she remembers where they live! Martha always inquires where people are from. That’s signature Martha Carver. !

ER 2013 091That profile I know so well.

ER 2013 097You can see what a production it is to move dad.

ER 2013 101Aaron was so kind and patient.

ER 2013 105Mom needs a cane these days – she can’t walk far without it. Even so, she’s the rock in the duo so far.

ER 2013 113So fragile looking.

ER 2013 122What a relief. I asked mom if she needed help on the other end – getting him back inside the house – but she insisted she didn’t; she said it simply took a long time. I can’t help but wonder each time he leaves the house if this will be the last time he does. You just can’t ever know for sure.

 

Ended for Now February 19, 2013

Feb Colon 2013 001

Well if my morning at Saratoga Hospital wasn’t just the most pleasant day excursion I’d had in months and months… it was right up there with having a crown put onto one of my molars not too long ago. And I, dear readers, am FAR from being sarcastic. Yes, I do love medical care. As I said probably one time too many to the very kind and caring staff today – in my opinion, hospitals, doctors’ and dentists’ offices seem to offer an experience something akin to what I might guess a spa provides. After all, it’s about everyone being in service to you, your needs, your comfort.  Everyone is all so very kind, everyone’s ready to assist in any way, ready to make sure you’re as comfortable as possible … they all have the patient’s best interests at heart and they’d do just about any little thing I might ask of them. Bless em all – down to the gal I heard coming in as patients left, so that she could re-make and re-fresh the bed for the next patient to arrive. Not a crabby word was heard as I lay there…. and lay there…. and lay there… But that, is another story, and one entirely of my own fault.

As I was moving my stuff into my little corner of the room, beginning to take off shoes and assess the gown situation, I pulled out my bottle of Saratoga water and took a swig. The nurse stopped me and asked, very concerned, just how much of that had I already drunk today? Now, in just about any other situation I mighta just shaved a bit off the truth, but I was trying to play clean here, and truly I did not take the “NO FLUIDS OF ANY KIND” warning on the prep info sheet to heart as I should – so I copped to some 12 ounces of water over the past 2 hours. This was, apparently a game changer. But I wasn’t ready yet to surrender this long-awaited appointment (made nearly 9 months ago) and so continued to prepare as if nothing had happened. I undressed, got comfy, had my IV put in, enjoyed another gorgeously warm layer of blankets laid gently over my body before the doc came in to tell me the news: I’d screwed up. They just can’t take the chance that I’ll spit it up – something to do with aspirating and messing up my breathing while under. Ok. Kinda get it. Get it enough to realize I’m glad I brought a book. Cuz he kindly offered to try and get me in after a couple of hours – the time it would take for the dangerous twelve ounces of water to work their way out of my system I guess. He cautioned that he was busy – and that I might not make it in today. I fairly begged him. I cited my calendar, single momhood – and my readers. !! Readers whom I “simply had to keep informed…” Right. Any way, I apologized for being such a dufus, and kept my hopes high that I’d make it in. All I could do was wait.

Glad I brought a book, and while I enjoyed a good bit of reading, I had other entertainments as well. During the 2 hours of laying there (very comfortably) in my curtained off ‘room’, I was privy to the conversations of many patients. It was interesting. Lots of folks do live with Afib, it seems (my mom’s new heart issue), and lots of folks have bad reflux. And hiatal hernias. (My ex mother in law spent the better part of 22 years telling us all about it, but doing next to nothing about it.) I began to feel pretty lucky. I can eat a horse (you heard right – eat a horse, not ‘like’ a horse) and drink a barrel of whiskey with little fall out. Ok, maybe half a horse and just half a barrel, but you get the point. (At least I could as things stood pre-procedure.) I’ve always been pretty cocky about my intestinal fortitude.

After two hours I was surprised that I really had to pee. Could twelve little ounces make me feel like this? That was weird. Then I realized: I was being hydrated! No wonder my nasty dry mouth disappeared and I had to pee… Holding my blanket about me and carrying my iv bag, I shuffled off to the common bathroom. It wasn’t too terribly much longer after I returned than a kind woman named Cheryl came and wheeled me into a small room just across the hall where the colonoscopy was to take place. I was interested to see the gear involved. They’ve gotta blow you up again now that your colon’s been emptied and it’s collapsed… I marveled over the detailed images the camera was able to see… the whole thing seems almost like magic to me. While I’d asked the doc earlier if I might leave here with an image of my colon – you know, for ‘the readers’ (hee hee), he wasn’t terribly committal about helping me out. Thankfully, the gals getting me prepped seemed on board, and sure enough, afterward I was handed a color copy of three little images. Ok. So it’s not the entire landscape in profile – hell, I could probably have cut and pasted any old image of an intestine here and you’d be none the wiser, but fear not. I’ve got the real stuff.

So, on to the procedure itself. To me, it’s always a very vulnerable feeling to know you’ve got this port into which someone can put just about anything… not that it’ll ever happen – this is a super-routine procedure – but there’s still a strange sci-fi element to this moment when she tells you you’re going to begin to feel something. My heart always races in the beginning – nerves, I think. Then, there’s that warmth. OOOOOHHHHhhhhhh. Yeeeeeaaahhhhh. II Reemmemmmber tthtiiisss feeeelliingg… Yes, this girl loves her some pharmaceuticals. It was so short – the time in which I was aware enough to enjoy the sensation… but the falling off was divine. I enhanced it by repeating a happy mantra, all is so well, everyone is being so kind……… and then OWWW! What the hell?? I’d thought I’d be UNDER under! I mean I know I told y’all to scrape away if you found something, but woah! I awoke in some nasty pain – sharp, sharp pains that had me doubling into myself… even in the midst of the pain, I was aware that I really didn’t want to mess up doc’s work, so I begged the gals to hit me please with some more of that stuff! Versed me out of here, please! I heard them tell me to calm down, and after a few minutes I disappeared again. Thankfully. Yeah, “You won’t remember a thing” they all say. Right.

What I do remember was how kind everyone was, not just to me, but to all the folks who came and went as I sat and waited. And something I’ll have to make a note to remember in the future is that I usually need a bit more meds to stay under. Hadn’t thought that was a point worth mentioning, but my mother thought so. Hm. I do know that my son took three times the usual amount of anesthesia as a toddler when he had his MRI; the apple doesn’t seem to have fallen far from the tree. And I myself have woken up during a couple of surgeries before. But I thought this was common. ? Doctor friends, sound in on this if you would. Don’t really matter in the long run, I guess if ya make enough noise they dial up the drip…

So, the upshot? The found a couple of little thingees – they liken them to skin tags. I can live with that. I know about skin tags. And of course, they’ll take the biopsies and have em looked at properly. (I too know this side well; I was a medical courier for years in Chicago and carried many a polyp in a cooler riding shotgun in my car on its way to the lab…)

Feb Colon 2013 003

Not to worry. I’m not. I’ll hear back sometime next week. I do not expect bad news. And if it is – well, we go from there. Til then I won’t fret.

But hey – this is a rare chance to learn a little bit about what things look like on the inside of a body! For those of us non-medical folks, this is an opportunity that we will seldom get in a lifetime. So, here goes…

Feb Colon 2013 008

So there are three locations marked on my large intestine here. Following are those same three points and their names – only now you’ll see actual photos of these locations inside my body. Wow! Kinda cool and gross at the same time. And interesting, of course.

Feb Colon 2013 009

Apparently, “this” (whatever that means) was a polyp that was removed. ?

Feb Colon 2013 010

And apparently, this is my appendix. Or at least it’s somewhere close by, dangling off the intestine. The appendix is what it’s name implies; it’s just this tiny afterthought of a little fleshy thingee that sorta sticks out. ? Still don’t know what part of this pic is the appendix, if it actually is visible here. ?

Feb Colon 2013 011

Well, now, we all know what this is about, huh? Still, no up, no down, I have no idea the frame of reference other than it’s somewhere inside and near the exit. !

Feb Colon 2013 013

The slimy pictures are kinda hard for me to look at, but THIS is just weird, right? No text precedes this strange sentence fragment… yeeps. ‘With a jumbo cold forceps’. They’ve been so kind up til now – why must the forceps be specified cold? Bad enough they’re jumbo….

Maybe that’s why the thank-you card as you leave. So you’ll forget all about waking up with a sharp pain during your procedure and having seen the words ‘jumbo cold forceps’ on your report…

Feb Colon 2013 014

Like I said, everyone I dealt with today was very kind and accommodating. Not a one of them made me feel rushed or unimportant – nor did they treat anyone else any differently. All in all, I was quite happy with my day at the spa. Er, I mean, at the hospital.

Feb Colon 2013 016