Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"No Easy Way Out"

The Ray & Elizabeth Spear Clan circa mid 1930s
Nelson, Keith, Donna, Eugene, Dale

I was fortunate to be able to spend a significant amount of quality time with my mom after my father’s passing. One of the last things my mother and I did together before I left Michigan was to visit my dad’s older brother, my Uncle Keith, at his home. He was the last living member of the original clan of five siblings—all born in the 20s with the youngest, Dale, in the early 30s.

I felt bad for my Uncle Keith. At 83, almost by accident, he managed to outlive not only his parents, his sister and four brothers, but he also survived his wife and youngest child to boot. Based on observing his sad experience, I can definitely say that outliving nearly everyone in your immediate family is not like winning some kind of contest. On the contrary, the poor guy was miserable with a capital M.

Eugene & Keith in the late 1940s

During our visit, he’d intermittently stop in mid-conversation and weep bitterly at the thought of his recently departed “baby girl,” Dawn, having left us much too young in her mid 40s. Openly weeping, head bowed nearly to chest, he continuously sobbed how he missed her. Her recent passing obviously had broken his fragile spirit, what there was left of it, not to mention breaking his old heart, already weakened from decades of atherosclerosis and more than 60 years of some serious chain smoking. I noted an ash tray full of butts on the table next to him. Obviously his health was the last thing on his mind.
Over the years, I became very fond of my Uncle Keith and Aunt Marilyn; I think, because they had demonstrated so much fondness for me. From the time I left for the marines at 18, over the next 27 years thereafter, whenever I made it home on leave they always made it a point to come see me. No matter what they had going on, no matter how busy, they made time to come visit, without exception. They dropped everything and came, every time. It was probably Aunt Marilyn who had the most to do with this wonderful aspect of their affection for me, but as a team, I think they were both pretty special. Even after Aunt Marilyn died of cancer a few years ago, Uncle Keith never failed to ask my parents how I was doing whenever they spoke.

In a special homage to the Aunt Marilyn side of “the team,” over the years, she spent hundreds of hours knitting Afghan coverlets, one for each of my kids, starting with Marie in 1979 all the way through Sarah in 2003. Only my mom showed more interest and got more involved in welcoming my children into the world. Indeed, I was determined to name my child (the one that turned out to be Sarah) either Marilyn or Keith, depending on the gender. My wife at the time wouldn’t go with Marilyn, so, she compromised and agreed to Sarah Marilyn. Post Mortem: Strange how things rarely go as imagined. When I learned that Uncle Keith had passed away last week I pictured him as leaving us by way of a simple heart attack or stroke, where he simply left us and moved on to be with the rest of his departed family and friends, but no, unfortunately I was disavowed of this notion when my mom sent the following email:

“…There is some controversy over Keith's death. When they were taking him to the hospital the original responders were just transporters. When they tried to move Keith from their gurney to the medical ambulance gurney they dropped him and he landed on the right side of his head. He died shortly after that. They tried to resuscitate but could not save him...”

I answered:

“What a Keystone Cops episode that was for Uncle Keith's last moments. Geez. Seems like all the Spear boys just had bad luck on the end side of their lives, didn’t they? I mean, didn't any of them get a break? Now this... and what does that mean...transporters? What the heck? He had a heart attack at home or something and they didn't send a medical ambulance? I never heard of such a thing as "transporters." Explain please?”

My mom:

“He was at St. Francis Nursing Home, as the doctor said he could no longer live alone at home. They called the ambulance to take him to the hospital, as he was having some bad chest pain. Instead of the ambulance coming, it was people who are equipped to only take the patient to the hospital (transporters); there must have been a problem at the EMT Center. Well, then the medically equipped EMT ambulance finally did arrive, but only after they had already gotten Keith on the transporter gurney outside the nursing home. So, they elected to transfer him. Why they couldn't use the same gurney is beyond me.

You are right though; all four of the brothers died the hard way—no easy way out for any of them.”

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Death and Sadness

I'm pretty sure that the last time I felt deep racking sadness over a death was when I was about eight. We were staying for an extended time at my grandma’s house in Saginaw, probably on our way to my dad’s next assignment. I can’t remember exactly how I came to have it, but I had brought home a small snapping turtle, perhaps from the lake where my grandpa Spear had his cabin.

(I have to give my parents some credit, for I would never allow any of my kids to have such a potentially harmful critter as a pet. It was neat how much leeway I had as a child, to explore and delve into the world around me. Things were different back then; that’s for sure.)

Anyway, someone had left the wooden gate open to the back yard. My juvenile 7 inch snapper proceeded to make a break for it. I knew this only after spotting the aftermath of this “jail break” from the upstairs dormer window overlooking the street. There below me I saw that my turtle was now mashed into the pavement—the shell flattened and cracked, head and four limbs sprawled, forming a five-pointed dead turtle star, and worse, massive amounts of spurted blood and gore.

I have never been more devastated. The sense of loss was crushing. I sobbed and sobbed as if this turtle had been the most important thing in my life, ever, which funny enough, it wasn’t. I had only had it for a couple of days, yet I was overcome by its demise.

Flash forward to more deaths. My Great Aunt Helen died when I was about 12 or 13. I was more uneasy with having to see her dead in her casket than I was sad. Not long after that my wonderful Grandpa Spear died. I was sad, but never cried. I really loved that man, but not even a single tear did I shed. I remember feeling confused about myself at seeing my other cousins crying and freely shedding tears.

Over the years I lost other friends and relatives and it was always the same, although I missed them I did not feel profound melancholy. This was true even when my beloved Grandma Haley died in 1987, and I was closer to her than even to either of my parents. We were great pals, having literally spent thousands of hours together, conversing and learning about each other; yet, when I learned that she was gone at 85 I felt next to nothing.

My brother warned me many years before my father finally passed that his kidney condition would likely end in his death. Sure enough, about 18 years later, that’s pretty much what happened. I had always figured that when he died that I would be as distraught as when my turtle was killed, but again, nothing.

I’m still trying to figure this out. I’m the kind that hates going to poignant movies because I tend to cry at the parts meant to elicit that response. I actually sobbed out loud during Schindler’s List, you know, the part where Oscar Schindler loses it at the end and laments that he could have saved more. Even now, thinking of that damn scene I feel pressure in my chest and tears welling. Cripes! So why do I feel no sadness when people I love die?

I spent a lot of time talking with my mom about Dad’s passing, how we felt about him and how we feel about him. Every so often she would cry, not uncontrollably, but for a minute or so, and I would ask her afterwards what brought on that particular episode of emotion. There were two primary reasons: one, she felt so bad that she could not do more to save him, to make him eat, to make the doctors want to do more to make him well; and two, the memory of his suffering, his yearlong crumbling into death, during which he lost his appetite, lost weight, lost interest, and finally lost his ability to keep breathing. It was a slow process that very nearly took her along with him.

One thing that both my mother and I have in common concerning the after effects of all this: We both feel some level of guilt over not feeling “bad enough” over his demise. She feels awful that in spite of herself she feels a level of relief. When he finally left this world her life instantly became easier. Intellectually, she knows that he is in a “better place,” yet, she feels guilt, thinking that maybe she could have done more, and now that he's gone, that she SHOULD feel worse.

I made an argument for her, trying to put into words against her continuing irrational self-reproach over “not feeling bad enough” over his passing.

“Mom, literally thanks to you, Dad LIVED 80 years. No other woman would have put up with him over the entire course of that 50 year marriage. YOU were God’s gift to him, from start to finish, because I can’t think of any other woman that would NOT have divorced him. He needed a kidney and YOU gave him one. Then, you made sure he took his dozens of pills per day, that he ate what he needed to eat, that he did what he needed to do. It was all YOU! No one could have done more for another human being, especially someone so difficult at times, NO one. Because of YOU, he lived LONGER than most. YOU did that.”

I went on, as I CAN do:

“Besides, how long should anyone live? For instance, do you want to live long enough to have to see your own children die? I think that alone would kill me, to see one of my kids go. There is a natural order of things. We live, hopefully into old age, and then we die. 80 seems to be just about right. Besides, we all end up where Dad is now. I think that’s why I haven’t cried or felt any deep sadness since that snapping turtle died in the street in front of Grandma Haley’s house. None of us are here for all that long. We all end up dead, and hopefully, together again with God on the other side. That’s the hope, right?”

Thursday, December 25, 2008

My Treehouse Tower, Completed

The tower has been done for months now. In fact, it only took Eddy and his boys just over three weeks to finish it from start to completion back in May of this year.

Even after all this time I still love to look at it, my tower, to admire its simple soaring elegance. From every aspect I do this. I stare at it from directly below, from the side where it passes up through mango branches thick with leaves, from down the street where its cone-topped perch floats just above the treetops, from within it while climbing up its five flights, and finally, while standing on the top platform and looking directly down at the top of the banana tree planted directly in the middle of the tower’s concrete foundation. For me, this towering structure, painted dark green to blend in with its cover of fruit tree leaves, is a wonderful work of art, something to behold.

That's Eddy, the architect, the overseer, the builder, wearing the bandana over his mouth as he arc welds one of the hundreds of individual components into place. Notice the mangoes dangling in the foreground.

That's Eddy's youngest standing next to the platform framework. I asked him to stand by it to provide some perspective as to its size. As you can see, its not exactly tiny.

From beneath, this is the same platform frame already welded onto the very top awaiting for the myriad grill work pieces to be welded in place.

Half the flooring is installed in this shot, but, once I stood on it I knew it wouldn't do. There was almost a full inch between each round bar, way too much space for comfort. I told Eddy to have the lads add another bar between each existing one. After that, it was perfect.

Here, Eddy shows with a piece of paper how the roof would be shaped from prepainted aluminum sheeting. The idea being to form it into the shape of a traditional Filipino Bahay Kubo roof, which is usually made from thatched palm.

Shaped round bar is used here to stiffen the cone roof and to provide rigid attach points to the vertical supports. Aluminum tabs, attached with plenty of rivets every foot or so, secure the stiffening bar to the roof.

The riveted tabs are visible here. "Welding Man," crouching in the center of the roof, is attaching the stiffening bar with his trusty arc welder.

The finished roof being man-handled to the top of the tower using rope and muscle. It was not an easy procedure due to its extreme weight, the wind, and interfering tree branches.

In by inch, the roof was pulled upwards. Eddy was very much in charge while this took place because of the dangers involved. That roof, if it fell, would have come down like a killer knife-like sail because of its aerodynamic shape and sharp edges. Not only that, a drop would have meant buying all the materials all over again since it would have likely been crushed and made unusable.

Success. I thought the hard part was going to be over once we had it up there, but no, it took another 30 minutes of sweaty all-hands work getting the heavy ungainly piece into place on the verticals.

Eddy holds the roof in place while his son welds it on. I never heard him raise his voice in anger or impatience while instructing his workers in what to do, no matter how hairy it got. He is the epitome of a leader.

Three of my girls enjoying the view and each other's company at the top shortly after the tower was completed.

A neat thing about being on the platform is the feeling of being suspended in air. This is just before the final coat of green paint went on. As I've been saying, its a handcrafted work of lovely art.

One thing I really love about my tower is that it does not intrude visually. I have met other denizens of my subdivision living just down the street who have never even noticed the existence of my towering treehouse.
To see more photos of the tower build, from start to finish, check out my Flickr site here. Play the slideshow for the best look and also check out the details version for all the commentary and titles. Comments are encourage. (Ok Ed, enjoy...)

Christmas Explosion

We just came in from watching Angeles City bring in Christmas with a bang, or more like a series of them, plus a bunch of mighty booms and a lot of pipsqueak pops.

From way up on the tower platform in my backyard, Janine, my 12 year old step daughter, asked me if we did it like this back in the States. Of course I told her no.

“Where I come from, Christmas is all about “Silent Night, Holy Night”, not “Boom Bang Pow Night.”

I suppose though that I can sort of see the rationale behind all the fireworks here on Christmas Eve—celebrating the birth of Jesus is as good a reason as any to pull out the stops and shoot off scads of heavyweight bottlerockets and Roman candles. Regardless, it’s pretty cool being above the trees and roof tops and getting a 360 degree bird’s eye view of all the celebratory action.

In fact, we didn’t know which way to look for the best displays. From that height there’s a lot of area to try to cover visually; so, Divine, Janine, Jenalyn and I scanned our own sectors and called out whenever a particularly good series of rocket propelled pyrotechnics were being set off. It’s a good system and will serve us well next week when the REAL show happens on New Year’s Eve.

Last year, I sat and stewed in my room trying to watch TV, and mostly just cursed the intrusive explosions going off all around the house for most of an hour leading up to midnight and for a good half hour and more afterwards. I admit that it’s much better being outside and feeling a part of it all. Some might say, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” but I’m not exactly joining in, just observing it from 50 feet up.

It was nice, almost comes close to being a thrill, especially when some of the big boomer bottlerockets explode just a few feet away from our perch. Deliciously scary, and FUN!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Death and the VA

I was in Las Vegas when I received word by way of an email that my dad was dead. Actually, it was two emails. The first one was from my oldest daughter, the one married to Barry, a US Army Blackhawk pilot currently stationed in Iraq. She simply wrote, “Daddy, call grandma right away!” I knew then that my father was either gone or very close to it. Before calling my mom I opened the other email from my brother: “Dad breathed his last this morning at …”

Even now, many weeks later, I still feel nothing. One of my buddies is a psychiatrist and I mentioned to him that I have no sadness. In fact, that I feel nothing at all—neutral. His style of analysis is partially to use his own life experiences in helping his patient’s to cope and understand. When his dad died he also felt little, or so he says. In other words, if it happened to him that way, well then, it must be normal, whatever “normal” means. And just between friends, I think both he and I are both “football bats”—we be screwed up, ebonically speaking.

I started writing this not long after I returned from across the Pacific, but I stopped after finishing just the two paragraphs above. Other than the arthritis in my fingers and the tendonitis in my wrists, the real reason is something else—the current bane (and purpose) of my life.

I feel like two people: the person I show to others, the guy who seems to have it fairly together—that’s the fellow that speaks pleasantries and nods hello when he’s forced to leave the sanctuary of home to meet with and help local fellow veterans down at the office. But truthfully, that doesn’t feel like the real me; that’s a fake, an imposter. The real “hidden me” lurks in a dark place, lost in a sea of stormy nothingness. Actually it is a sea of something, and that roiling sea consists of anger, no, gusts of outright visceral rage, and all of it mostly directed at the local VA.

My voluntary (unpaid) involvement with service officering, which entails my assisting fellow veterans and dependents in trying to deal with a very difficult to deal with Veterans Administration, is in fact killing me, exactly in the way that cigarettes leisurely kill smokers, or the way high blood pressure silently kills the sufferers of that deadly condition. In fact, just writing that word, “VA,” causes my blood to boil, my teeth to grind, and my thoughts to seethe.

I’ve noticed too that my failed marriage, the resultant separation from my girls, and the death of my father and others, that all of it seems to make the continuous problems I encounter with the VA, and the schmucks in there intent on screwing over my people, all the more worse.

I was trying to explain the depth and cause of my VA-induced fury to someone the other day. You see, it occurs to me that, unlike most, I never get to get to achieve closure. The irony is that most of the people I’ve assisted to an endpoint rarely continue to harbor any ill will towards the very institution that gave them so much trouble over the months, and even years, of their quest for the benefits due them. Not so with me, since there’s always a fresh line of vets in the midst of getting their dose of “VA hard time” before hopefully eventually getting their claims awarded to them, albeit at times many years after filing the initial claim.

My predecessor, and the guy who originally asked me to help him do this stuff, used to growl at me as he listened to me complain loudly and continuously against the barrage of boneheaded decisions coming out of Manila, “Spear, calm down. You can only do what you can do. When you leave the office, don’t take it home with you.” If only I was put together that way, but I’m not. Most nights I hardly sleep at all, as my mind squirms with the latest bit of obtuse VA meanness.

So, my father died, and instead of pondering his passing, all I can think of is my vitriol for this merciless government bureaucracy. Is that healthy? One of the other ironies of this very real detestation is that my own personal dealings with the VA have been fairly good. I was eventually awarded compensation for all the conditions I claimed (after about 18 months of challenging and fighting) and I now receive all the meds I need to keep my body in one piece, although, I seem to be losing the battle to keep my mind together (perhaps because of my volunteer work with vets—my cross to bear, as my mom calls such things). So, I’m not angry for me, I’m mad because of what I see being done to others. I want it to stop, but I’m mostly powerless against this non-empathetic heartless machine. After all, nothing breeds despair more than helplessness

On the other hand, perhaps it’s good. While my heart and mind are filled with spite and hostility, and yes Mr. S, with disdain, maybe it’s keeping me from falling into a pit of isolated gloomy sadness, where I think I might otherwise be, for I’m pretty certain that once I stop doing this stuff that I will rarely find cause to leave the confines of my compound. Even now, I hate leaving it and can’t wait to pass back through the gate.

PS: Whenever I post about the VA, as soon as I do so I feel uneasy about it, as if I should keep these unhappy thoughts just between me and the veterans to whom I normally vent my spleen. Notice though that I don’t include specifics on active cases. I’m not supposed to do that while still doing my service officering. Anyway, my counterpart is the one who speaks nicey-nicey. I don’t like what they are doing down there and I obviously don’t care if they know it. As for my counterpart, he’s not any happier with the way many of the things are done at VARO Manila, but he keeps his really foul thoughts between the two of us. Poor guy—he still believes he can make them change their ways. I just don’t see it ever happening. Institutionalized unresponsiveness, I believe purposeful, predicated on advancing careers based on building reputations purely on budgetary mindfulness. I don’t know how else to explain it—it’s all about the money. If I was in charge of it all, if the shoe was on the other foot, I certainly wouldn’t allow the things I see from my perspective. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.

More thoughts and observations on the death of my dad in the works… I’ll try to stay away from venting on the VA for a while, or try to. I mean, what good does it do?