Sunday, June 25, 2017

The family killer

Mom’s death this past week was the fifth death in the family in 21 months. And four of the five were because of cancer.

Dad died of cancer of the white blood cells. Time from first symptoms was about 8 months.

Brother Tim died of a blood clot that hit his heart.

Sister-in-law Karen died of brain cancer. Time from first symptoms was about 4½ months. Karen had an earlier bout of brain cancer, though that instance was as a tumor that could be removed. The killer round was more diffuse, defeating treatment.

Dad’s cousin Sara also died of brain cancer. Time from first symptoms was about a month.

Mom’s cancer wasn’t exactly diagnosed, though perhaps a variation of a skin cancer in her mouth. Time from first symptoms was about 3 months. Mom also had two earlier bouts of skin cancer, 38 and 32 years ago. She also had breast cancer, though I don’t know how long ago.

In Mom’s case I’ll ask, which is worse – cancer or Alzheimer’s?

Cancer may be cruel – it took Karen far too young – but it is quick. Mom had been dealing with Alzheimer’s for 14 years and, before cancer intervened, it looked like it could go for a few more. During the last couple years professional care was expensive. In addition, it was stealing Mom a bit at a time. It was heartbreaking to hear her say, I don’t know where I am, I don’t know these people, I don’t know where my husband is, please don’t lose me.

I admire brother Tom for putting up with that for a year and visiting her nearly every day.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Bye, Mom

I last posted on Tuesday. One thing that has happened since then I that I caught a cold – an extra deep voice on Thursday, adding a drippy nose on Friday. You know the story. The other thing that happened…

Mom died.

I had spent Wednesday evening at the Ruth Ellis Center and, once home, saw an email from brother Tom. The subject was “Mom” and the contents, “Call me.” It was easy to guess what the phone call would be about.

When I saw Mom a week ago I could see she wouldn’t last long. Tom proceeded to prepare a place for her in his house for her final days. On Wednesday a hospital bed was delivered and set up. As the workmen finished their work Tom got the call saying Mom had passed. He told them to take it away.

Mom had worsening Alzheimer’s since 2003, eventually requiring professional care at a residence near Tom. But it was cancer that took her life. The most obvious sign was the tumor in her mouth, but it also grew in lymph nodes and probably invaded other parts of her body. She wasn’t eating much and likely the food she did eat fed the cancer.

So while I sniffle from the cold I’ve also been working on the consequences of death – beginning to notify investment companies, emailing with relatives to choose a date for the memorial service, writing an obituary (which always seem so sparse), sending forms to the funeral home near Tom, and notifying the church (the one Mom and Dad attended for more than a half century). And my big project is to assemble photos of Mom to display during visitation.

As I’ve been cleaning out Mom and Dad’s house over the last two years I’ve found lots of photos, in particular an estimated 3000 slides. I’ve digitized perhaps half of them and know the treasures. Now I shifted to simply looking through the rest of the slides for images on Mom. Between the slides and digitized photos I have a folder of more than 70 images. I’ll get the slides professionally printed to display during visitation. Alas, my collection doesn’t include images from 1992 to 2015, after Dad got a digital camera. Dad certainly didn’t stop taking pictures. But I don’t have them.

An obituary seems sparse. A full life condensed to one short newspaper column. So this post is an attempt to be a bit less sparse. Even so, one can’t summarize a long life in a blog post.

Mom was born in July of 1929 in St. Louis. She missed her 88th birthday by less than a month. She and her sisters were preacher’s kids. At her birth her father was already working as a preacher at a new church in New Orleans. Her birth was in St. Louis so her mother could be with family.

At five years old and with two younger sisters the family moved back to St. Louis where her father took over a large church in south St. Louis. He served there for 25 years and this is where Mom grew up.

This photo is of the three girls in 1937. Mom is on the right. They are about to be flower girls for their aunt’s wedding.


During the Depression and the War the family did pretty well. Because he was a pastor her father got extra gasoline ration cards to make sure he could visit his congregation in their homes. If he managed to save up a few the family visited relatives in farms outside the city.

Mom went to Heidelberg College in northern Ohio. The reason for a school so far from home is it was associated with her father’s denomination, Evangelica Reformed. This is where she met Dad. He attended (for two years before switching to Ohio State) because it was less than 25 miles from the farm. This is them in 1949.


Dad told the story: On a cold Sunday morning Mom took the bus from college to a tiny village a couple miles from the farm. Something delayed milking that morning so Dad was late picking her up. In addition, he still wore his stinky barn clothes. When they got to the house they could tell a skunk had done its thing under the back porch. All those odors did not kill the budding romance. Dad says Mom passed the smell test.

Mom majored in Christian Education, something suitable for a woman of the era. Mom may have worked at a church for a while after marriage, but that ended when kids started arriving. Though Mom didn’t earn a paycheck she did put her education to work in the church’s Sunday School and Vacation Bible School programs.

Mom graduated on Saturday, June 2, 1951 (I just found her diploma, which is dated Monday, June 4). Dad graduated on Saturday, June 9. They were married Saturday, June 16 in St. Louis. Mom’s father walked her down the aisle, then turned around and officiated for the ceremony. The couple spent their honeymoon in St. Louis. Amazingly, her father allowed them the use of his car for the weekend. From photos I’ve seen it looks like the following weekend, back in Ohio, Mom and Dad had a weekend at Lake Erie – with Dad’s brother and sister tagging along.

The couple moved to Champaign, Illinois where Dad got his Master of Dairy Science at the University of Illinois. This is where my twin brothers were born. On graduating Dad applied to work at bull farms from Oregon to Connecticut. The only one with an opening was in Springfield, Missouri. This is where my third brother was born.

But the boss was one of these characters who knew everything. After 18 months, Dad had enough and quit. Mom was not pleased – she was caring for 3 active boys and I was on the way. The family moved to the farm, where Mom became the primary caretaker of the farmhouse – quite a change for the city girl. This is where I and my first sister were born.

She did this for 2½ years, until Dad got a job at IBM (at the dawn of the computer age and quite a switch from Dairy Science) and could save enough money to buy a house in Cleveland. This is where the second sister was born. We lived there until Dad was transferred to Flint in 1963 to work on the General Motors accounts. We moved in January of 1964. What sold the house was Mom standing in the living room and looking at the snow-covered pine trees in the back yard.

From 1966 to 1972 there were annual road trips. The first one was a four week journey to Los Angeles, where Dad’s sister was living. For the first one we has a station wagon towing a pop-up camper. We also added a cousin, so there were 9 of us in that little car before air conditioning was standard. And around Palm Springs it got up to 118F.

In 1967 we went to New York City (where Dad had to work for two weeks and we camped outside the city) then on to Montreal for the World’s Fair. There was a memorable (for Mom) day near Kingston, NY where Dad again had to work and Mom was stuck in the camper trying to keep six kids entertained while it rained all day.

In 1968 we had a van, which made travel more comfortable, so we could add two cousins for a trip to Yellowstone. The last big trip was to Boston in 1972. The twins did not want to go because they were already in college and had girlfriends. But they did.

And, yes, Mom did most of the same household chores, though at a propane stove in the woods. She got as much help as she did at home – my brothers, who were in Explorer Scouts, could make a bonfire and cook over it. At home we all learned to cook.

Here is a picture of the camper, the front of the van, and the twins during that trip to Boston.


Both Mom and Dad were active in the local church. Mom served on practically every committee. She was active in the women’s group, also serving as president. Four sons played in the bell choir, so after I graduated from high school Mom joined and played for 28 years. There were many Christmas Eves where I played bells at my church, then jumped in the car to hear Mom’s group play at the late service.

Once all of us were out of the house Mom joined the Flint chapter of Church Women United. She served as president of that group too. Mom grew up Evangelical Reformed. She married a Methodist with an Episcopal mother-in-law. One son became Catholic. Naturally, she became a part of a group that reached across denominations and advocated for women.

Outside the church Mom was a Cub Scout Den Mother and helped when my sisters were in the early stages of Girl Scouts. She also was pretty good with a sewing machine, making clothes for herself and us (though mostly daughters). She supported us in all we did, attending concerts and shows that we were a part of.

Of course, there were grandchildren, eventually 14, some living nearby, some requiring travel to visit, which Mom and Dad did frequently. The current count of great-grandchildren is 32. They visited family in St. Louis and Ohio and helped organize family reunions. They came to stay with me for five weeks when I lived in Cologne, Germany. They visited a brother when he lived in London and they all went to Russia for a week on a river boat. There were also trips to China, Israel, Hawaii, and Alaska.

Mom had bouts of skin cancer at age 50 and 55. Spots were removed from her cheek. There was also breast cancer in there somewhere, though I don’t remember when. Even so, Mom and Dad remained vital and active parts of the church and community. For Mom that faded as the Alzheimer’s increased beginning at age 74. For Dad that continued until his final illness at age 86.

Goodbye, Mom. And thank you.


At her 87th birthday

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

They want women weakened

This afternoon I saw the movie The Zookeeper’s Wife. Antonina Zabinski, and her husband Jan run the zoo in Warsaw in the 1930s. It is obvious that Antonina loves animals and will do whatever is necessary to care for them.

Then the Nazis invade. Mr. Heck, the head of the Berlin Zoo (who seems to stick around Warsaw a lot) tells her the best animals in the zoo will be well cared for in Berlin. After those are hauled away the rest of the animals are shot.

Antonina tells Heck, I’ve got all these pens and workers, why don’t we raise pigs for the Nazi soldiers to eat? We can feed the pigs with the garbage from the Warsaw Ghetto. When Jan collects the garbage he also smuggles out Jews hiding beneath the garbage. They are hidden in the basement of the house. Antonina is a sweet and tender lady in the way she treats her traumatized guests. She also has an inner core of steel in facing down Heck.

The movie is a cat-and-mouse game of keeping their refugees safe from the nosy Heck. The movie is very much about resisting authoritarian regimes.

Of course, I thought a lot of the current American authoritarian regime. Would life in America get as bad as the Warsaw ghetto?

Sarah Kendzior has an academic background studying authoritarian regimes. So when she calls out the nasty guy and the entire GOP she knows what she is talking about. A lot of what she is saying lately is the nasty guy and the GOP really are that bad. They really are displaying a lot of the signs of authoritarianism. Take it seriously! The hidden Senate healthcare bill is one of those signs.

A tweet comments that the GOP being so cold hearted that they would pass a healthcare bill that takes away insurance from 23 million people doesn’t make sense. Kendzior replies in a tweet:
1) Profit 2) Weakened, sick population can’t fight back 3) Plan hurts women most; women lead opposition 4) Helps Russia + other adversaries
In another tweet she links to an article she wrote back in early May for the site Marie Claire that explains in more detail.
The healthcare law is not only a sadistic assault on the sick and vulnerable, but a gendered attack meant to render his most forceful opponents, American women, helpless. Autocracy and patriarchy often go hand in hand; the countries with the highest levels of political freedom in general tend to prioritize women's healthcare, education, and other basic rights.

And American women know it. Since Trump took power, protests against his administration have consisted overwhelmingly of women.

Women, in other words, are a huge problem for the Trump administration. Unable to silence our voices, they've turned to controlling our bodies—and repressing women, whether through biology or social structures, is a characteristic aspect of authoritarian rule. It's meant to frighten us into disillusionment and compliance. When survival becomes our primary objective—when anger about willful denial of climate change is overshadowed by the more urgent need to pay for a critical doctor's appointment—it's harder to organize, protest, run for office, or generally fight back. Instead, we have to live.

Republicans behave as if they do not expect the 2018 elections to be free and fair … When representatives flaunt their disregard for public will this blatantly, they insinuate that public will is irrelevant. It's a classic authoritarian tell: They see their political dominance as a lock.

Targeting women's health is part of this administration's broader autocratic strategy to shut the opposition down. They want women weakened, desperate, and politically irrelevant as public frustration grows.