Finding Beauty In Life and Death

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Photo by Cindy Gustafson on Pexels.com

I’ve seen more than my share of death. As the calendar moves relentlessly forward I have had to watch the passing of my elders, the people who loved and guided me when I was a child. Of late I have seen far too many of my peers leaving this earth as well. Death is inevitable and yet still such a frightening and unwanted state for most of us. We cling tenaciously to life even as we understand that not one of us is immortal.

A friend posted an article that defined the ways in which one might experience a “good” death. It was filled with all sorts of ideas that might work if one has the luxury of knowing that the end is near because of an illness that points in that direction. For many death is more sudden and unexpected, making it impossible to take charge of the event as described in the article.

My mother always spoke of being ready to die at any moment. She did not broach this topic in a morose manner, but rather from the standpoint of living life in such a way that no matter what might happen she would be ready whenever her time on earth was over. She did this with several routines from which she rarely diverged and from open discussions about her preferences long before there were any signs that her death was drawing near. As a result her passing was beautiful, and done on her terms just as she had always wished.

Mama never let a single day end in anger or hurtfulness. She asked for forgiveness for her transgressions which were always of the very minor variety anyway. She communicated her love for the people that she knew daily. There was no need at the end of her life for her to make an act of contrition to either God or family members. We already knew as I’m sure God did as well that she was sorry for anything that she had done that hurt anybody.

My mother expressed her desires to refuse all artificial means of prolonging her life on many occasions. She only hoped to be as free of pain as possible, but beyond that she insisted that we not take any extraordinary measures. We therefore felt comfortable conveying her wishes to her doctors who all smiled in agreement with her wisdom.

Mama lived a faith filled life that never wavered. She believed with all of her heart that our earthly home is only temporary and imperfect. She looked forward to an eternity of peace and happiness with God. On her last day of life she had an angelic glow and a beatific smile as she motioned toward heaven whenever we asked how she was feeling. She believed that her reward for a life well lived was coming soon. She had no anxiety and her peacefulness spread to each of us who visited with her in those final hours.

One by one the people who had meant the most to her came to pay their last respects. She made each visitor feel her love as she held hands and did her best to help them to accept the inevitable. She orchestrated final moments that none of us would ever forget, and gave us a gift of peacefulness that is unimaginable. In fact, even the nurses who cared for her in the ICU felt the joyousness that she projected. One of them cried as she left her shift, telling me and my brothers that she had never witnessed such a blessed ending to a life. She understood as we did that my mother had chosen this way of spending her final hours by living her entire life in preparation for the end.

My mother was always a caretaker who sacrificed for the needs of others. She asked for very little for herself and she certainly had moments when she was filled with all of the human frailties that we have. Somehow she always found her way back to a kind of inner peace and a total dependence on God to comfort her. She never asked Him for things or even to take away her sorrows or pain. All she wanted from Him was a bit of help in managing her attitude toward whatever was happening. Sometimes it took awhile, but always she found the serenity that she sought.

Mama’s life was difficult from beginning to end and yet she was one of the happiest people that I have ever known. From the time that I was a child she explained her joy by reasoning that she was able to tackle any challenge because she always knew that God was not going to leave her to act alone. Even, and perhaps most especially, in death she had a certainty that He was with her and that the best was coming. She was never angry with Him for the difficulties that mounted at her door. She accepted her travails as being a part of life.

I understand that it is difficult for many of us to curtail our anger, resentments, suffering and sorrow. Life can appear to be very cruel and death is often prolonged and painful. Keeping the faith and finding a way to smile even under the worst of circumstances can seem impossible, and yet I saw firsthand the power and beauty of my mother’s unwavering determination to be in charge of her life and her death by choosing an attitude of trust, faith, hope, and joy. She showed me and those who knew her how to have a beautiful death. I only hope that I will be able to follow her lead whenever that day comes for me.

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Oh Honey!

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My Aunt Polly was a hoot, a fireball, an original, my godmother. She was the most energetic person I have ever known until she wasn’t anymore. Age caught up with her and she began to slow down around the time she was in her nineties. Before then few would have been able to guess her age. She appeared to be a good ten or twenty years younger than she actually was, but life events caught up with her, leaving her with a more careworn look on her face. Soon after her ninetieth birthday her house burned down with along with all of the photos and home movies and other small treasures that meant so much to her. She and her husband had been setting out Christmas decorations when the flames began. They were both safe but the stress of losing their home took its toll.

Aunt Polly settled into a new life style in independent living quarters where she hosted domino and card games on a regular basis. Her children and grandchildren often joined her in those pursuits and her laughter and gregarious spirit returned once again. Then she endured a series of deaths of people near and dear to her. She sat at my mother’s side only hours before my mom, her little sister, died. Not long after that her son Jack also passed and she showed up to his funeral bent and using a cane. She was subdued and even though she tried to be her old self I knew that she was suffering greatly from the loss. When I next saw her at her husband’s funeral I hardly recognized her. She sat quietly in a wheelchair looking frail and vulnerable. This was certainly not the tough courageous woman that I had always known.

Last week my Aunt Polly died quietly, but even as she slipped away most of us who knew her thought that she would recover and soon enough be her old feisty self, because more than anything she was a fighter. She never backed down from asserting herself or taking care of weaker souls like myself. Many a time she became my hero as I watched her in action. She was a true feminist before there was such a thing or such a word for it. My mother used to say that her sister Polly wasn’t afraid of the devil himself.

When my parents decided to hurriedly enroll me in the first grade when I was still five years old I was terrified and miserable. The fact that my mother made me some new dresses to wear and bought me a lunch box did not ameliorate my fears or discomfort. I felt abandoned and alone as I tried to adjust to a new environment. It was my Aunt Polly who came to the rescue.

One day I was at school eating lunch and flicking away the ants that always seemed to invade the inner sanctum of my tin lunch container when Aunt Polly suddenly appeared like a super hero. She had come to see how I was doing and when she saw the state of my food with all of those critters swarming on it her immediate response was to hug me and declare, “Oh honey! I’m going to take care of this” and she did. She marched straight to the principal’s office and raised a ruckus. Not only did the surprised administrator get me something without insect infestation to eat, but also ordered a thorough cleaning and extermination for the building. Never again did I have a problem.

My Aunt Polly was one of the first women that I knew who held a full time job and raised a family. She worked a number of different places before finally settling down at the Post Office. For a time she added to her coffers by serving as a cashier at the Trail Drive Inn and her extra perk for that job was to get free admission to the movies for family. I loved feeling like a celebrity as she waved our car into the vast parking lot without paying a fee. We saw so many movies there and she often joined us for the second feature once the box office closed. It was so much fun to hear her and my mom talking about the stories and the characters as though they were a couple of teenage girls rather than adults with children. I learned that Aunt Polly had a crush on Jeff Chandler which didn’t much surprise me because a had an uncanny resemblance to her husband Jack.

We spent lots of time at Aunt Polly’s house and she at ours. No invitations or even announcements were needed. We simply got together anytime anyone felt like it. Thus it was that on the night of my senior prom Aunt Polly showed up at our house. I was moping in the dark while pretending to watch television because I did not get to go to the big event. My mother had tried to cheer me up earlier by insisting that those kind of venues are always overrated and I was missing nothing of importance. Somehow her encouragement had fallen flat on my bad mood. It was Aunt Polly who once again saved the day when she came in and asked me what was wrong. When I told her what was going on and how I felt she took me in her arms and said “Oh honey!” while I cried. In that simple phrase there was so much truth and compassion. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

Aunt Polly gave me a beautiful bridal shower before I married. She came to visit me when I had my babies. Somehow she was always there when I needed her most and she did so without fanfare and few words even though her normal personality was akin to Rosalind Russell’s in Auntie Mame. I was in awe of her because she was the counterpoint to my own quiet nature.

Aunt Polly was born Pauline Ulrich in 1923, along with her twin sister Wilma whom we variously called Speedy or Claudia. She grew to be tall and beautiful with slender frame, blonde hair and blue eyes. My mother always said that Aunt Polly had to learn how to be tough in a family of eight kids or be pushed around by her siblings or the kids from the neighborhood who ridiculed the members of the immigrant family. Aunt Polly learned quickly how to fend for herself and she rarely backed down from a challenge of any kind.

My aunt married one of the sweetest men I have ever known named Jack Ferguson and the two of them had two sons, Jack Jr. and Andrew. My Uncle Jack died rather young and Aunt Polly eventually married another Jack when she was in her sixties and still looking as pretty as a thirty year old. The mantra of her life was to have as much fun as possible and she was known for the big parties that she held in her backyard with mountains of food and musical entertainment. She traveled all over the world once her children were grown and she regularly stopped by for visits with my mother, bringing her little gifts and checking on her well being.

A bright light has gone out with her passing. She was truly one of a kind and totally irreplaceable. I doubt that I will ever forget the moment when she came to see my mother who was dying in the hospital. She sat beside my mother’s bed along with her twin sister and she reassured my mom with words that only she knew how to deliver, “We’re here now honey. Everything is going to be okay.” The look on my mother’s face told us all that it was just what she needed to hear.

I am certain that my Aunt Polly has joined her siblings, her husbands, and her son in heaven. She was a good woman, my aunt, and my godmother. She taught me much about how to live.

Whodunnit?

Jack the Ripper

It’s rather ironic and appropriate that it is a dark and rainy day as I write about the Jack the Ripper Tour that we took while we were in London. It was a Friday evening at the end of a week in which the sun had shone gloriously on us every single day. We had seen so many of the treasures that make the city so remarkable and had enjoyed good food in spite of rumors that the cuisine often leaves something to be desired. Everything about our visit had been picture perfect, so it was only right to have a threat of rain as we boarded a double decker tour bus in search of the infamous places where five women were brutally murdered by a killer who was never found, but came to be known as Jack the Ripper.

We used our age and the fact that we were the first to arrive at the bus station to be the first in line to enter the bus. This advantage gave us a seat at the top of the bus that had a cover so that our enthusiasm was not the least bit dampened by the chilly precipitation that was moving over the city. A gifted movie director could not have created a better backdrop for the tale that our guide was about to unfold. His thick Scottish accent only made the experience seem somehow a bit more sinister.

I suppose that I had thought that a visit to London’s east end and the Whitechapel area would have taken me back in time to a place where the clock stood still. I did not expect to instead see modern buildings and signs of great progress that cloaked the poverty and want that had once defined the area. The story that we were hearing was of people whose existences were so dreary that they had often lost hope. In particular the women whose lives were so brutally taken were victims not just of a murderous rage, but of a society that had thrown them into the trash heap long before they were killed.

As I listened to the circumstances of each woman who met such a merciless ending I felt that the real tragedy lay in the way that they were perceived by a society. They were attempting to survive in a world so cruel that they had little hope of finding a semblance of peace. These ladies were sometimes abused by men, spurned as being somehow indecent, and left to their own limited resources to get from one cruel day to the next. As our journey through their nights of horror progressed I found myself pondering the sadness of their fates, and seeing them as vivid examples of the societal problems that have challenged women throughout history.

There was one victim who had come from Sweden to learn the housekeeping trade. At some point she became pregnant without benefit of marriage and was thus spurned forevermore. Left alone in a city that was foreign to her with no support systems of family or friends she had to turn to any means possible just to have food and a place to stay at night. She was at the mercy of people who viewed her as a fallen woman and her opportunities for a decent life were forever gone.

Another of the victims had been thrown out of her home by her husband, a situation that was quite common at the time. She ended up in a poor house lodged in a building that is still standing to this very day. There she had a bed and food, but few prospects for a better future. Eventually she left to be on her own, only to somehow encounter the man who murdered her.

There have been hundreds of theories about who Jack the Ripper might have been. Some believed that he got away with his crimes because he was a man of influence, perhaps a royal personage or someone who worked in law enforcement. Others considered that he might have been a doctor, a barber or a butcher because of his seeming skill in ripping the bodies of his victims apart. The saddest aspect of his crime spree is that he was almost operating in plain sight, but because his victims were at the bottom of the societal pecking order his actions seemed to have gone unnoticed. He was simply one of many men who preyed on the hopelessness of women caught in untenable situations.

Our group became rather quiet by the end of our journey. Somehow we were all thinking less on the idea of whodunnit and more on the sadness of the five women’s lives. In an ironic twist they are now remembered and even mourned. We fidgeted as we thought of their how awful they were treated not just by the killer but by all who saw themselves as more decent. They lived in the darkest shadows of a city where status was parceled out with a punishing stinginess. Simply by dent of birth they were relegated to unimaginable hardship. The true crime was the way in which they were shunned so cruelly by people who never took the time to know them.

At the end of the tour we were left at the Sherlock Holmes Pub where I suppose we were supposed to enjoy some merriment and a few laughs after our evening’s entertainment. Somehow instead we felt the need to just go quietly back to our hotel where we said little about what we had seen. Each of us were left with our own thoughts, and mine we steeped in great sadness with a touch of anger that anyone would ever have to live as the five women did. How many more like them were there? How many more like them live in fear even now? What must we do to ultimately end the cruelty that reduces the status of little girls and leads them into lives of domination and hurt? What will it take for us to make keeping them safe a priority no matter where they may live? That is a more important question than solving an old crime.

The Tower

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In the heart of London along the River Thames lies one of the most extraordinarily historical places in London. Known as the Tower, it is a complex of buildings dominated by a white castle built by William the Conqueror shortly after the battle of Hastings in 1066. It is an impressive fortification with its moat, narrow winding staircases, and vast rooms. It was originally designed both as a home for the king and a defensive keep. Over time it became better known for the prisoners that were held on the premises and the executions that took place on the green. It is an imposing and improbable complex whose elevations seem both in and out of place in the modern world.

Some time ago I learned that my lineage can be traced back to William the Conqueror and from there to Vikings. I suppose that such is a somewhat dubious honor given that the Norman king was so often resented by the people of England who saw him as a bloodthirsty outsider. Nonetheless his legacy in creating the famous white tower remains as a reminder of the often violent and dangerous history of Britain.

What was once designed as living quarters for the first Norman king has evolved over time in its use, and now stands as a museum and respository of many stories. Visiting the Tower of London is perhaps the most fascinating tour in all of the city, complete with legends about the ravens who have lived on the premises for most of its existence. It is said that as long as they remain Britain will not fall and great efforts are made to keep them happy and willing to stay as permanent residents of the compound.

Countless mysteries and tragedies unfolded in the Tower. Richard II, the protector of his child king nephew, took both the little monarch and his brother there for safe keeping, but they subsequently disappeared thereby leaving the throne to him. Years later when the bones of two children were found buried under a set of stairs it was conjectured that they must have belonged to the long missing brothers. 

It was in that Tower that Anne Boleyn awaited her tragic fate once Henry VIII had decided that she was no longer of use to him. Later she would be publicly executed for treason on the grounds. Lady Jane Grey would serve as Queen for nine days after Henry’s son James died without an heir, and then lose her life when Mary I laid claim to the throne by right of being Henry’s eldest daughter. Elizabeth I would also spend time imprisoned in the Tower but was luckily spared a death penalty and eventually given the throne. Other famous prisoners like Sir Walter Raleigh spent years behind the walls as condemned persons before being put to death.

One of the most interesting areas of the Tower complex is a building in which prisoners left graffiti on the walls. Over time they meticulously carved intricate signs that they had been there. These were no ordinary scrawlings, but rather beautifully carved inscriptions left in the stone for all time. They told of the long days of isolation that the captives had to endure and their determination to leave their mark on history in spite of their wretched conditions.

The Tower complex also features a sampling of the crown jewels including the largest known diamond in the world. It displays goblets and plates of gold, as well as jeweled crowns and scepters. It is a remarkable showcase that points to the wealth of the monarchy and the traditions that have both evolved and continued over time.

A tour of the Tower grounds includes a rather jolly session with a Beefeater who reveals the history, the stories and the secrets of the complex. The Beefeaters live and work inside the Tower walls and provide visitors with an in depth detail of information. Our particular guide had a rather wicked sense of humor that added to the interest of his tales. He provided a voice to the people who had lived and worked and even died in that fascinating place.

The history of the world is one of violence and tragedy as people fought to gain and retain power. Their’s was not so much a fairytale as a story of intrigue, jealousies, and betrayals. Perceived treason brought imprisonment and death. Choosing sides carried dangers for both noble men and women as well as the common folk. The walls of the Tower of London indeed seem to talk of the fears and horrors of real people who either fought to maintain a hold on their power or suffered because they appeared to be threats. The chronicles of lives celebrated and lost are written in the very stone of this place. There is something majestic, awe inspiring, frightening and evil about what happened within at the Tower making the ravens that act as sentinels seem an appropriate symbol of both the ingenuity and the flaws of humankind.

I left the Tower of London in a rather pensive state of mind. It is a glorious edifice that is a remarkable reminder of the steadfastness and resilience of our humanity, but it is also a respository of our imperfect natures. It is a place where we should surely learn the lessons that history attempts to teach us. Our time on this earth is short in the grand scheme of the universe. The possessions that we accumulate are unworthy of our focus. We will all soon enough become ashes but our actions while still on this earth will have far reaching consequences. Let us hope that we have made good choices and demonstrated honor and integrity rather than greed. The history of mankind is littered with far too much hatred. It is our duty to work toward the good insofar as possible. Power comes and goes and too often corrupts, as we humans continue to work toward a more perfect union of our differences. 

Flying High and Rocking with the Angels

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I did not really know him. I mostly knew of him. He was my neighbor Betty’s son-in-law and his name was Mike Wade. Over the years he and his wife Vickie would come visit Betty at Christmastime and other occasions. I’d see them and then later Betty would tell me all about them just as loving mothers so often do. She was proud of her daughter and the man who was more like a son than an in-law.

After years of having Betty right next door to be a kind of mentor and confidante, Mike and I moved away. Not long after that Betty’s husband, Dave, died. We were worried about how she would do living all alone in the neighborhood that was rapidly changing, but we needn’t have been so concerned because her children all made generous offers to move her closer to one of them. Betty chose to go to Pittsburg, Texas where Mike and Vickie lived. They built a wonderful new house for her on land that lay right next door to their own place. I was so happy that Betty would  be loved and safe. I had heard all of the stories of her children and felt that all would be well for her.

Mike and I traveled to Pittsburg a couple of times to visit Betty, staying in our trailer in Bob Sandlin State Park. We learned that the little east Texas town was a lovely and inviting place where Betty was living a quiet and comfortable life. It warmed our hearts to know that she was doing so well and we vowed to continue our little journeys to the area so that we might see her now and again. We felt so renewed spending moments with her and reminiscing about the old days. She’d ply us with homemade cookies and stories of what she had been doing in the times since we had parted ways. 

On our last visit to Pittsburg we finally had the opportunity to spend some time with not just Betty, but also her daughter Vickie and son-in-law Mike. It would be an understatement to say that all of us hit it off immediately. The two Mikes, my husband and Mike Wade, were particularly taken with each other. They were essentially the same age and shared a love of music and history. It felt as though they had been friends forever as they chatted about this and that for literally hours.

Mike Wade was born and raised in Pittsburg, Texas. He had even played saxophone in his high school band and was known for being quite talented. After his graduation the war in Vietnam was in full swing and he was a patriotic soul who believed that he was being called to serve. Eventually he enlisted in the Air Force and proudly gave several year in service to the country.

It was at a swimming pool on an Air Force base that he first saw Vickie, a cute blond girl who was the daughter of an Air Force mechanic, our friend Dave. Vickie and Mike hit it off almost immediately and eventually fell in love and married. For a time they lived in Houston, but the piney woods of east Texas were calling Mike, and so they ultimately moved to Pittsburg where his heart seemed destined to always be.

Mike was an electrician, a truly bright man who loved his wife, his work and his hometown. He had a big smile and a sense of humor that led to lots of laughs. Like many children of the sixties he was taken by the music of the times, and he not only possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the songs and the lyrics, but he was able to discuss the complexities of the instrumentation. On the day that we visited with him, he and my Mike were soon in a conversation of their own, talking of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and talented guitarists from both the past and the present day.

We also learned of Mike Wade’s health issues and how on the very day that Betty was life flighted to a hospital in Tyler for emergency heart surgery, Mike too ended up undergoing his own surgery for issues with his heart. They recovered together under the watchful eye of Vickie who is a nurse. Betty and Mike joked about the scooters that they rode to get around and how neither of them were letting any grass grow under their feet in spite of their health problems. In fact, on the day that we visited Betty, Mike had just finished riding over his property on his lawn mower in order to keep both his lawn and Betty’s looking well groomed.

We talked and laughed and dined and enjoyed Mike and Vickie’s generosity for literally more than nine hours. We might have stayed even longer but for the worry that the state park where we were staying might close the gate and lock us out of access to our trailer. We left vowing to return soon. We had felt so welcome and the old feeling of being loved that always enveloped us whenever we had been in Betty’s presence now seemed to be expanded to include Vickie and Mike as well.

We’ve had a busy year, but we often spoke of going back to Pittsburg to see Betty, and hopefully Mike and Vickie as well. Thus it was with great sadness that we learned that Mike Wade had died in April. Of course we worried about Vickie and Betty, but we also found ourselves grieving for this man whom we had really only known for those few hours. It is a tribute to his openness and magnanimity to realize what an impact he had had on us so quickly. We have spoken often of just how much he impressed us, and now we know that we will never see him again. Somehow, nonetheless, we will always remember this man whose smile and love of life touched our hearts.

Mike Wade lived without bounds. He was a devoted husband, father, and son-in-law. He enjoyed his work as an electrician and found joy in the quiet and simple life of Pittsburg, Texas. He loved his country, his family and his hometown. He embraced the people around him, giving whatever he might have to those who needed help. I know he will be missed by those who knew him best, but he will also me missed by me and Mike.

I have learned that Vickie is planning to move into the house that she and Mike built for her mother Betty, and that Vickie’s son Aaron will live in the home next door that she and Mike shared for so many years. It will be a good arrangement for everyone, family members taking care of one another in an old fashioned but quite lovely kind of way. I suspect that it would please Mike to know that they will be alright because that is the sort of thing that seemed to matter most to him.

I feel privileged to have shared that special day with Mike. It was a visit with Betty made even more special for us because of his presence. It has always warmed my heart to witness the unconditional love that Betty and her husband Dave always offered to everyone. Now I know that their warmth and beneficence took root in their children and, in the case of Mike Wade, in their children-in law as well.

Rest in peace Mike Wade. You were a righteous man who strove to give your very best to everyone that you encountered. I hope that you are flying high and rocking to the songs of the angels. I believe that you truly earned your wings.