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old clock

This Alzheimer's caregiver is grateful for the gift of time.

Some of the most quality thoughts and essays seem to be on a continuing ‘round-the-world track through cyberspace.  Year after year they reappear in my email inbox.  There is a lot of junk I could do without, but I am grateful for the good items that show up even though I’ve read them before.

This particular essay is titled “Thank You For Your Time.  No matter how often I read it I not only ponder, but count my blessings – again and again.  Time is something everyone has in equal abundance or want: minutes, seconds and hours.  It can be used wisely, wasted, frittered away, given away, killed, coveted, lost or found.  We can experience good times, bad times, melancholy times, glorious time and children are sent to their room for a time out.  But it’s the gift of time which is actually one of the most precious gifts, and the subject of this day’s thoughts.

The email tells the story of a young boy who had lost his father.  Next door to where Jack and his mother lived was an older man who became the boy’s mentor and friend.  Mr. Belser taught Jack carpentry and tried to fill in some of the blank spots providing the needed male influence in the youngster’s life.

In turn Jack often lingered long after their building project, rejoicing in the camaraderie of the old man who was without children. The ancient house was like a slice of yesteryear and the boy was fascinated with all that was within, especially the gold box on Mr. Belser’s desk.

“What’s in the gold box,” the boy would ask.

“It’s what I value most,” answered Mr. Belser.  Curious though Jack was, he never pressed.

The years drifted by, Jack grew up, went to school, moved away, got married, and established himself as a highly reputable building contractor in great demand.  One afternoon his phone rang.  It was his mother telling him that Mr. Belser had passed on and the funeral would be the following Wednesday.  Jack had to admit he thought the old man had passed long ago, but as they talked a flood of fond memories washed over him.  Suddenly he realized that had it not been for Mr. Belser and all of those hours spent together he probably wouldn’t have entered into the contracting business.  “I’ll be there,” he promised his mother.

Following a small funeral, mother and son wandered for the last time through the old house.  It hadn’t changed one iota since Jack was a boy except the gold box on the desk was gone.  Noticing and believing a relative had taken it, Jack lamented, “Now I’ll never know what the old man valued most.”

Back at work Jack was soon engrossed in his self-driven work schedule.  Arriving home one evening he found a notice for a missed delivery which needed his signature.  The next day on the way to his work, he dropped by the post office and found his package with the return address of Harold Belser.  Quickly he ripped open the carton.  Inside he found an envelope with instructions for delivery to Jack, a small key and the gold box.  His heart fluttered as he inserted the key and opened the secret box where he found a gold watch and a note which read, “Jack, Thanks for your time.”  Bushing a tear from his eye he called the office, “Janet,” he said, “Clear my schedule for a few days or so.  I’m going to spend some time with my son.”

The boy and the man had given one another, without a thought, that which was most valuable:  their time.

I know my life has been blessed, and I am grateful to so many for their kindnesses and time especially during this difficult period of Ken’s illness.  Offers of help are like gift cards to be used now or when needed, and I know there is no expiration date.  I have one friend who even gets a little annoyed with me because I haven’t called on him to use his gift of time.  Don’t worry, Dennis, I will.

Dennis is a wonderful example of what was once referred to as America’s melting pot:  his father was Irish, his mother Jewish, and when he mentions his home state you can hear the “o i” instead of the “e” in Jersey. He is an ordinary man with an extraordinary heart measuring bigger than the state of Montana.  Dennis has seen life in its rawness, and tasted also of its goodness.  I know him because we all go to the same church where his main concern is people.

Going the second mile with his church callings is normal for Dennis and his wife Carol, so it isn’t surprising to find his heart open to the community at large.  I was touched by his willingness to go just about anywhere he is needed.

Driving from the East Bay to San Francisco’s Children’s’ Hospital was becoming routine as Dennis and his wife Carol paid their third visit to a young friend who had been born with a hole in her heart the size of a quarter.  Consequently, the child was in and out for constant checkups and stays, and had asked if Dennis could give her a blessing of comfort and healing, to which he was more than happy to comply.

“She has this attitude that she has no limits on her activity,” recalled Dennis, “which sort of drives the doctors nuts.  Children are pretty special to me and Carol, especially when they are sick.  I want to bear their illnesses instead of them having it, and being in a hospital is pretty depressing so we try to bring in a bit of sunshine.”  Recalling a small gift shop in the lobby, Dennis decided to see what they might have to cheer the little patient.                       

“While I was there, three or four children came in with their medications attached.  They all had cancer and not one of them wore a smile on that sweet face, nor did any of them have a single hair on their heads due to the medications they were taking.  When they came in, the shop got very quiet with an air of discomfort.  People tend to forget that children have this natural sense when people feel uncomfortable around them.

“I could see their beautiful faces and those beautiful eyes taking on a look of rejecton and hurt.  To me it appeared they were ready to cry.

“I had to do something to make them smile,” Dennis explained. “I shave my head every day, so I walked over to them and asked if they went to the same barber as I did.  Smiles flashed across their faces and it was agreed, ‘Yes, they did.’  I told them I thought their hair cuts were pretty cool, and that I had been wearing the style for going on eight years.”

Dennis leaned over so the children could run their soft hands over the slick and shiny head of my friend. “There cannot be a price for the smiles on those faces at that moment,” Dennis continued.  “Holding back tears, I got a hug from each of them, and then we all got what we came for and went back to the floor.”

There were tears on the way home – all the way home.  Recalling scripture, Dennis reminded Carol that the Lord, Jesus Christ, loved the little children.  To his apostles, He said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me for such is the kingdom of Heaven.”

“We know that all children who have cancer won’t make it, but still we pray for them, hoping for a miracle.  Looking at their innocent faces they seemed like angels, especially in their hospital gowns and slippers.  The hugs and smiles — I will never forget because I was blessed by them.” 

Like the young boy and the older man, Dennis, Carol, the children, and even the uncomfortable customers in the gift shop were blessed by the experience: the gift exchange of time.  As for me, I am bursting with Thanksgiving gratitude for family and friends — many  like Dennis — who share with Ken and me their most valuable possession:  time.

 

 

 

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Ann Romick as matron of honor for her best friend, Julie

Ann Romick as matron of honor for her best friend, Julie

Last week my friend Bob came for a visit.  We hadn’t seen him and his wife, Julie, since they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary the summer of 2006.  She died on Thanksgiving Day last year.  For me, it still seems unreal and difficult to grasp.  After all, it was only yesterday – or so it seems — that she and I chatted on the phone just like old times, the gaps in time and distance vanishing as soon as we began talking.

Julie and I met while working in the 22-story office building on the corner of Bush and Sansome Streets in San Francisco which was better known long before the 1950s and early 60s as The Standard Oil Building of California (now Chevron).  The two of us were employed by the mega oil company and assigned to Central Steno, located in a gigantic room taking up most of the 2nd floor.  It was filled with copy machines, typists, stenographers, Dictaphone operators, Varatypists and all sorts of other specialists in the clerical department.

Despite Central Steno’s enormity and scattered personal, Julie and I bumped into one another at the morning coffee wagon and became instant friends.  She, newly arrived from Santa Barbara, and I, a local, could have been sisters. We looked alike, we thought alike and often dressed in similar outfits, except her waist was at least three inches smaller than mine requiring alterations on all of her clothes. However, we did have one other major difference: Julie was single and I was married to Ken with an adorable little girl, Deborah, and number two peeking up over the horizon in the not-too-distant future.

We lunched together, shopped together, and talked about her latest date or current beau — none of whom seemed to be Mr. Right.  If her weekend was uneventful I invited her to spend it with me and Ken at our new home across the bay from the city.  When number two baby arrived we named the little girl Julie after my new best friend.

The following summer Julie met Bob.  It was July 1st and they were married September 8th.  A whirlwind courtship and two months after meeting they tied the proverbial knot. I was her matron of honor.  And the skeptics said it wouldn’t last – only 54 years.  Bob was career Air Force and they traveled all over the world adding a girl and then a boy to their family tree. Meanwhile, she was the officer’s good wife, but still found time to study and develop her natural artistic talents — all in addition to being the best mom in the world to their growing children.

We kept in touch.  Then we didn’t, then we did, and then we didn’t, but we did manage to hold on to that thin golden thread which tied our busy lives together with short notes and cards sent every once in a while. That’s how good friendships are, and that’s where we were when my phone rang nearly five years ago.  It was Julie and she asked once again if I would stand up for her as she and Bob renewed their wedding vows in celebration of a half century of marriage.  Bob’s best man and his wife would be in attendance as well as lots of friends and family.  I reminded Julie of Ken’s Alzheimer’s, but told her I would make every effort, keeping her updated through email.

In spite of Washington state’s reputation for rain, the weather that summer’s day was fabulous:  blue skies and balmy breezes.  Ken’s proclivity to be social was at its best as he made friendly conversations with the other guests minus the stumbling blocks often associated with AD.

Bob and Julie wrote their own vows for the occasion, and this time she said she wasn’t going to repeat that “obey” thing.  They pledged, we clapped and smiled in approval, and they kissed – sealing another 50 years– the fates willing. No longer the whirlwind courtship love, it was now a comfortable love, the warm old-slippers kind of love, devoted love — the very best kind of love.  And now Bob was here with me and Ken – remembering — and Julie was gone.

I don’t believe Bob really expected to find Ken as deep into the depths of AD as he is.  “Ken’s gone,” he said after attempting to reintroduce himself and reminisce about some of our early times together.  I agreed, adding that Ken had pretty much forgotten everyone who was near and dear to him.  Occasionally, he will ask if I am his wife, wondering where his mother and father have gone – and his sister Loretta.  His persona seems to be “Buddy,” his mother’s young boy, the name I often use instead of Ken.  I believe it’s in that time zone where he feels most comfortable – if AD victims can ever feel truly comfortable in their confused and frightening world.

“I write about my AD journey with Ken in my blog,” I said to Bob.  “It keeps me sane – writing is therapy for me.”  “That’s why I do this,” he replied.  “I take the celebration of Julie’s life to those people who knew her and have shared in a part of our life together.  This is my therapy.  There are so many people who couldn’t come to the service — so I’m bringing it to them.  Following the funeral there is hardly time to really talk with anyone for any length of time, and then it’s over and they’re gone.  So much is left unspoken.  When I bring the celebration to others, we get to spend time just talking.  It’s been a wonderful experience.”

As Bob and I talked I realized that while we two can empathize with each other and share our grief, the therapy part is a day-to-day process, and healing will be yet another process for both of us to achieve as individuals.  Furthermore, we can’t be forceful or anxious.  It all takes time.

And we talked about the increasing presence of Alzheimer’s everywhere.  Bob’s father was also a victim.  As the oldest son, he was elected to take his father to a care facility when he could no longer be cared for at home.  Life gives us all difficult experiences with which to cope.  I suppose in coping we become stronger. Perhaps adversity is preparing us for what might be heaped upon us at some future date.  Meanwhile, we just keep doing what we’re doing.

Julie had continued with her art and developed a rather impressive following.  Once Bob retired from the Air Force he realized she was serious about her work and told her how he had appreciated her supporting him all through the military.  He would now give her that same support with her chosen career.

Remembering their 15 years on Maui, he said that once, while gazing at a 20’ wall filled with her paintings, he stood in awe of what she was capable of creating.  In his travels he carries CDs of their life and her work.  In addition are four folding panel boards to display either photographs of the work, or small original samplings to share with those he visits.  And he tells of her early life, their serendipity meeting and San Francisco wedding as part of his informal presentation.

Before he left on his journey to Ventura, I told him his continuing celebration of Julie’s life was one of the loveliest gestures I have ever encountered.  Seeing so much of her beautiful art, and hearing stories of their years which Ken and I had missed, I felt privileged our family had been included.  I was also able to tell him a few stories of my own about his wife that he had never heard.

For a few days my focus was taken away from Alzheimer’s (for which I was grateful) and riveted on a long-time friendship and the grieving of a good man who had lost his soul mate.  Seldom do life-long partners depart the planet together which leaves the one remaining alone to mourn the separation. 

With my belief in eternal progression I am always comforted that we will meet again and be reunited with loved ones.  It’s like Samuel Butler wrote a very long time ago when people traveled to the “Continent” by way of the old luxury steamer ships, “Death is only a larger kind of going abroad.”  If you consider that, dying really isn’t goodbye – merely “Bon Voyage.”

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